Since 2009, the relationship between a sustainable economy, the rights of workers, and the purpose of democracy has been highlighted on the international stage. Throughout Germany, Greece, Austria, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, France, and England, there have been protests—and riots—that draw attention to the current economic downtown that is affecting Western nations.
While there have been economic protests throughout Europe, the most prominent clashes have occurred, so far, in Greece where the population is responding to the role the International Monetary Fund and other international entities are attempting to play in restructuring the Greek state. Mark Wesibrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has described the Greek protestors as “better economists than European authorities.”
The protests have been overwhelmingly populist in tone. In fact, one can even recognize a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos in the responses. While this ethos is associated more with music and other art forms, DIY is fundamentally a cultural activity in which ordinary people take it upon themselves to learn and do more for themselves and their communities with less reliance on experts and ready-made expertise. DIY serves the individual, while being grounded in the community. A few threads of the DIY economic response are beginning to show in the United States, as seen with the recent unveiling of Kiva’s New Orleans project.
DIY is a logical response for a democratic society grappling with an economy that is threatening to become unsustainable.
Last month, economist Robert Reich argued that the Western nations are in the cusp of a global economic recession. One can’t help but note that this means the Western Nations are facing economic conditions that are similar to what the majority of Indian Country has been living with for well over a hundred years. If you are unfamiliar with the economy and unemployment in Indian Country, columnist Mark Trahant wrote that a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Population and Labor Force Report “pegs it at near 50 percent nationally,” with higher rates occurring in numerous Tribal communities.
The United States has not been without its own rallies and protests to the recession. Earlier this year in Wisconsin, at least 10,000 people were involved in a movement that was critical of the so-called austerity measures proposed by Governor Scott Walker. By doing so, they drew attention to the “follow the money” system of political and economic influence including that of Walker campaign contributors, David and Charles Koch. According to published media reports in both the U.S. and the U.K., Walker prioritized the interests of the Koch brothers ahead of the interests of the Wisconsin citizens.
Certainly, as our economic downturn continues, the appearances of other “follow the money” connections—both in playing a role in creating the recession as well as attempts to manipulate other austerity efforts—will reveal themselves to us.
The media is not using the term “DIY” to describe the ongoing protests, yet this philosophy is clearly informing what is occurring in the case of the ordinary folks who, as reported in such diverse outlets as The Economist, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde Diplomatique, and MSNBC, are practicing it when they accurately educate themselves and each other on the international economic system and possible root causes for the current recession. In addition, they are using DIY to foster self- and community-advocacy by drawing attention to their economic situation and in attempting to subvert corporate interests who place dwindling—and not so dwindling—profits ahead of the well-being of their respective countries. They also are asking important questions such as whether general austerity efforts, the initial response from many of the European (and U.S. state) governments, truly address the recession.
Western Nations are in a system of modernity that dates back to the last half of the 19th century. After the U.S.’s Civil War, modern global capitalism began to take a stronger hold. And for all practical purposes, this type of economic system is in tension to the ideals of democracy, which itself began to truly spread throughout the Western Nations during the same time period. It was a time of great challenges. The economic collapses in the late 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th were accompanied by social unrest, massive public protests and riots, criticisms of the new corporate ruling class, and governmental oppression. These collapses were accompanied by two significant wars and lesser-known conflicts, along with colonization and decolonization movements that restructured entire regions of the world.
If Reich is correct, and we are in the cusp of global recession, then the protests and DIY advocacy in Europe are an attempt to halt an economic-system that has derailed, yet is continuing to push its corporate interests along despite the societal damage it is accruing. What we really need to know, however, is that underlying these rallies and protest movements are basic questions we must all ask of ourselves about what type of economy a democracy—our communities—can afford to have and to keep.
Julia Good Fox is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation (from the Kitkahahki band) and a direct descendant of Curly Chief who was born and raised in Oklahoma. She now resides in the Midwest and teaches in an Indigenous and American Indian Studies Program at a Tribal college. She is also a researcher, traveler, and writer.