Many have observed that the Occupy Wall Street movement contains various strains, united perhaps only by a certain anger at those who are said to be profiting at “our” expense in these hard times. Nonetheless, a number of obvious themes emerge from observing the Occupiers in action and listening to what they say, both to one another and to anyone within actual or virtual earshot. I think I can identify at least for broad themes or concepts: anarchy , democracy , equality , and disdain for the rule of law .
Consider this statement:
Occupy Wall Street’s most defining characteristicsits decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-makingare rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar.
It was on this island nation off the coast of Africa that David Graeber, one of the movement’s early organizers, who has been called one of its main intellectual sources, spent 20 months between 1989 and 1991. He studied the people of Betafo, a community of descendants of nobles and of slaves, for his 2007 book, Lost People . . . .
In Betafo he observed what he called “consensus decision-making,” where residents made choices in a direct, decentralized way, not through the apparatus of the state. “Basically, people were managing their own affairs autonomously,” he says.
The process is what scholars of anarchism call “direct action.” For example, instead of petitioning the government to build a well, members of a community might simply build it themselves. It is an example of anarchism’s philosophy, or what Mr. Graeber describes as “democracy without a government.”
If you want to be nice, you can describe the decisionmaking of the Occupiers as endearingly and clunkily consensual. It could work in small groups (though how many times have you been in a small group that has a hard time deciding where to go to dinner?), but it is impossible to imagine as a template for governing a country as large as Liechtenstein, let alone the United States.
What’s more, to the extent that we can talk about community in these circumstances, the kind of community created in the occupied public squares almost by definition excludes all those to whose status and behavior the Occupiers are objecting. They aren’t part of and wouldn’t be permitted to be part of the community or the consensus.
After all, if I were part of the 1%—as I’m most emphatically not—I don’t think I’d consent to the redistribution of a substantial portion of my property to others. Indeed, I’d go further: since the logic of the Occupiers’ redistributionism would eventually put me in the 1%, my devotion to liberty and to my family leads me to withhold my consent to what they’re proposing. And since I am currently part of the 99%, my refusal to accede to their proposals ought— in theory —to be sufficient to scuttle them. If they stick with their procedural democracy, their proposals would founder on the objections of people like me. Or they might declare that I’m a victim of false consciousness and so dismiss my objections. The substantive goals would trump the proceduralism, something (by the way) that doesn’t necessarily distinguish the Occupiers from the mainstream political parties.
To state my point again: those who object to these redistributive goals aren’t and can’t be part of the Occupiers’ community and can’t participate in their democracy. As a community, they are in principle at war with those who don’t share their vision. They have no way of conceiving a procedure that accommodates such divergent views.
Of course, there’s no way they could accomplish their goals on their own. It’s one thing to build a well in Madagascar, another thing altogether to soak the rich occupants of Wall Street. Their illusions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Occupiers need a strong state to take on the 1%. Such a state can’t and won’t be governed consensually. I shudder to think of the possibilities generally associated with a program like that of the Occupiers. The most benign names associated with it are Juan Peron and Huey Long. Stated another way, to accomplish their goals, the Occupiers would likely have to travel a long way from anarchy toward dictatorship.
Let me give them the benefit of a doubt, however. While some might contemplate violence against the wealthy, in most cases their antipathy isn’t that energetic. But if the anger (let’s generously call it righteous indignation) is to be channelled in a constructive fashion, then it has to be expressed in and limited by laws. This is where the disdain for the rule of law becomes problematical. Now, the Occupiers might say that the laws for which they have contempt are laws made for and by the 1%. Before we indulge ourselves in the concept of class enemies, however, let’s think through the consequences of lawlessness. If it exists on one side, it will license it on the other side. If you want to object to police brutality (and there may be good reason to object to it, in some instances), then you have to comport yourself with dignity and civility. The Civil Rights protestors knew this. This is not just the strategy of the weak—self-restraint to elicit the reciprocal restraint of the powerful (who are thereby assumed either to be civilized themselves or subject to the constraints of “global opinion”)—but rather a sine qua non of a political order that operates by some principle other than violence.
For the moment, I assume that’s what the Occupiers want.