World March for Peace and Nonviolence

Wellington, October 2, 2009 - Punta de Vacas, January 2010

Comments on Economic Violence - October 2, 2008 International Day of Non-Violence - Union Square, New York

Chris gave the following talk on Economic Violence at the Celebration/Teach-in marking the International Day of Non-violence, as declared by the UN. The event was held in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Union Square, with the welcome participation of the Federation of Indian Associations NY/NJ/CT, among other friends.

I’ve been asked to talk about Economic Violence. I should apologize in advance if this talk is a bit heavy. But this is a subject that is intimately tied to the monstrous and unnecessary suffering and injustice we see today and yet it’s an idea we don’t hear very much about. We hear a lot about “the Economy”, economic growth, and free markets (a complete fiction, by the way) – but we don’t hear very much about Economic Violence so I want to approach it in reverse. Let’s imagine a world without it.

Imagine a world in which every child born on the planet had good health care, housing and food; in other words where children and adults didn’t die of poverty – a perfectly preventable cause of death. Imagine a world in which every child had the same access to education.

Imagine a world in which people made a good living doing things that are satisfying and meaningful, with a real say in decision-making and a real share of the profits; imagine a work-place that wasn’t a dictatorship. Imagine equal pay for women, no sweat shops, no child labor. Imagine a world in which you weren’t afraid of going bankrupt or losing your home if you get sick.

What if taxes were used to improve people’s lives, to develop clean energy sources and improve the infrastructure rather than to bomb and kill innocent people overseas? What if everybody paid their fair share?

Let’s go even further. Imagine free time to spend with your family and friends, to participate in your community and take part in local decision-making. Imagine being able to study your whole life long – to continue to learn and develop new interests and skills. Imagine having time and energy to be creative. Imagine an economy based on cooperation, creativity, worker control, where technical innovation benefits workers rather than putting them out of a job. Imagine having fun at work. I could go on but I think you get the picture.

These could be some of the characteristics of a world without economic violence. So what is it really?

Economic violence is essentially exploitation of other people; stealing from people, using others – like objects – for your own gain. This can happen on an individual level but it also can and does happen on a massive scale at the level of societies, regions and the whole world.

Humanists place a lot of emphasis on overcoming the aggressive features of contemporary social life and building harmony, non-violence, tolerance, and solidarity - and of course this applies to economic relationships. The world today is plagued by economic violence, a situation in which a very small minority uses the whole of society for their own gain – using every form of PR, coercion, legal maneuvering, political manipulation and violence, including wars and invasions. This situation blocks human progress and prevents the use of technology and resources to end poverty and suffering, which the world has the capacity to do.

So what do we do? These are structural problems, embedded in the institutions, beliefs and values systems of society and I think they demand that we question the thinking about these things, clarify our understanding of what’s going on and where we want to go (what kind of economy do we want?). We should think globally while acting locally as the saying goes. For example, what should be the relationship between labor and capital? And what about Wall Street and financial speculation, which has exploded in the last few decades?

For humanists, labor and productive capital (as opposed to speculative capital) are the main factors in economic production and should share in the profits and the decision-making. Speculation and charging exorbitant interest are unnecessary. Productive capital has a role to play. It creates jobs, adds value to raw materials and improves living conditions and whole communities.

Speculation does the opposite. It’s basically gambling. You buy things like factories, businesses or investments, betting the price will go up and you will make a profit when you sell. For a long time, the argument was that speculation is good for everybody – remember the movie Wall Street? “Greed is good” – because it greases the wheels of the economy, distributes capital efficiently, and generally leads to economic growth that is eventually supposed to benefit everybody. Eventually being the operative word. Because what actually happened is that a few people got obscenely rich while the rest of us got a whole lot poorer. The middle class became increasingly impoverished and the poor increasingly desperate.

In the last eight years this has gone hog wild. Since Bush has been President, 6 million Americans have slipped out of the middle class into poverty, more than seven million have lost their health insurance; over four million have lost their pensions. Meanwhile during the first seven years of Bush's tenure, the wealthiest 400 individuals in our country saw a $670 billion increase in their wealth, and at the end of 2007 owned over $1.5 trillion in wealth. In our country today, we have the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on earth. That is economic violence.

Which brings us to the current meltdown on Wall Street. The first thing to remember is that this comes after record profits in the last two years. The whole thing seems pretty bizarre – with true believers in the free market like Bush and Paulson begging Congress to pass a government bailout that takes Socialism for the rich to new heights. But actually it’s business as usual. As Noam Chomsky puts it: “A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialized, while profit is privatized.” The arguments, the application of economic theories to policymaking, all of that changes with the circumstances in order to maintain that basic principle. If I’m making money – I keep the profits – but if I start losing money, then you have to pay for it to protect “the economy.”

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no problem but there are much better and fairer ways to deal with it. Like the one proposed by the Institute for Policy Studies that focuses on aid to the real economy to counteract recession, making the Wall Street Speculators Pay for the Bailout (the ones who made tens of billions in bonuses in the last two years); regulating Wall Street and other sensible measures. We should fight for these approaches and our friends in the growing progressive movement in this country are doing just that, working to put these ideas on the agenda, because Congress routinely keeps the debate on such things within very narrow limits of acceptable ideas. So it’s “bailout Wall Street or nothing.”

And this is where we see that Economic Violence is also closely related with the erosion of real democracy because a truly democratic society would never tolerate such an absurdly unfair situation. So we need a deep structural change, including both economic and political components. We need a growing movement that aims to transform the root of these relationships; a union of forces capable of changing the direction of these processes that are generating recession and growing desperation. We need a clear commitment to overcoming violence and discrimination (which always goes along with violence) in all their forms, using the methodology of active non-violence. In this struggle to overcome economic violence, Humanists give the highest priority to transforming the relationship between labor and capital, giving workers a share in the profits – not just a wage - and a real say in how profits are reinvested – so we guarantee that productivity creates new and better sources of employment and the profits aren’t skimmed off and diverted into speculation.

So to sum up, I would like to quote from the Document of the Humanist Movement. “Humanists feel the need to act not only on employment issues, but also politically to prevent the State from being solely an instrument of international capital, to ensure a just relationship among the factors of production, and to restore to society its stolen autonomy.”

Thank you for being here today and for being part of building this movement that is so just, and so needed and which has great meaning in shaping our common future and that of our children and generations to come.

Chris Wells