Two Words that Shed Light on Occupy Wall Street

NEW YORK (Frameshop) – One of the most common reactions to the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has been for media and politicians to ask “What is it about?”  Former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson is the latest visitor to Zuccotti Park to take this approach.  Curiously, though, there is another version of this “What is it about?” meme emerging in the form of questions that ask “What is the difference between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street?”

As it happens, what is going on in OWS and how to distinguish the Tea Party from OWS are both possible with a fair degree of certainty.  The key is to introduce two basic terms to set the stage for discussion.

The two terms that provide indispensable context for OWS are “anarchism” and “libertarianism.”

In an interview last month on Democracy Now (Sep 19, 2011), David Graeber made a very clear link between frustration with corporate influence in politics, widespread and crippling personal debt,  and the sudden turn to the occupation of public space as a form of direct action.  Graeber went on to explain to Goodman that OWS right from the start was marked by a total rejection of the political system in favor of an egalitarian, participatory movement conscious of itself as the nucleus of a new kind of society.

A month after Graeber had been clarifying with remarkable precision exactly what was happening in OWS–all while most people in media and government where walking around claiming they had no idea what was going on–a short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education finally put a name to the ideas:

Occupy Wall Street’s most defining characteristics—its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making—are rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism…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.”

Pick up a copy of Peter Marshall’s landmark history of anarchism Demanding the Impossible and the connection to OWS becomes even clearer.  Marshall’s book examines the long history of movements and “direct action” (a shibboleth of  anarchist writing), all of which read like precursors to OWS.

If we begin with the premise that OWS is an anarchist movement–stated without any of the value judgements or alarmist residue of anti-anarchist propaganda of the past–we are suddenly on very firm ground.

OWS is a movement, in other words, that took shape as a rejection of financial and government institutions in response to a sense that these entities had become destructive towards people forces to live under them.  OWS is a movement characterized by a fervent belief in the of value of occupying public space as a direct action capable of bringing about broad social change. OWS sees that social change as a from-the-ground-up social and economic creation of an alternative to the current failed system.  Finally, as a way of avoiding simply reproducing the failed system, OWS has used self-conscious techniques of absolute egalitarian participatory democracy, with a goal of retaining those techniques as long as possible while defining the foundations of the new system.

None of the above description was dictated to me by OWS representatives–the definition is mine. But the description fits.  And it helps to put to rest the unhelpful question “What is this all about.”

But what about the Tea Party? Is it the same as Occupy Wall Street, albeit from a different starting point?

Some journalists have argued that there is a common origin for both movements: “frustration” (here is one example of this argument).  Maybe. But, realistically, little actually gets explained by saying both groups began out of “frustration.”   Many unrelated things can all begin with “frustration.”  What matters is what the movements have said and done.

When we think about  egalitarian, participatory emphasis and rejection of governmental and financial institutions as a starting point for OWS, we see an initial divide with the Tea Party.

From its inception, the Tea Party focused on influencing a very specific policy within existing government by using conventional tactics, albeit with unconventional theatrics.

Moreover, the emphasis of the Tea Party–eliminating government spending in order to lower outstanding government debt–was not a departure or rejection of existing politics or financial institutions. Instead, it was an amplification of a long-held call by an active minority of the Republican Party.

The Tea Party did embrace a limited idea of direct action and egalitarian leadership, but early on in the movements various leaders also accepted funding from well-known, high-profile representatives of the Republican Party. They also joined directly in the existing political system by campaigning in elections.

But what about the supporters of Ron Paul and their claim that their critiques of “corporatism” and calls to eliminate the Federal Reserve banking system means they are part of the same broad movement as OWS?

This claim, also, does not make much sense once we understand what it means for OWS to be an anarchist movement.

As if anticipating this very question, Peter Marshall, offered the following distinction between an anarchist and libertarian:

I define an anarchist as one who rejects all forms of external government and the State and believes that society and individuals would function well without them. A libertarian on the other hand is one who takes liberty to be a supreme value and would like to limit the powers of government to a minimum compatible with security.

Indeed, the major difference between the Tea Party-Ron Paul movement and OWS is the emphasis on liberty versus the rejection of current government.

Moreover, if we think about the point of departure and the overall goal driving the two movements, we see another huge difference.

Many OWS participants have been driven to direct action by personal experiences with high debt, but the larger vision for the future they share is  marked by a concern for the restoration of social justice.  Debt is not just a personal form of suffering, but a social injustice caused by massive imbalances of power held in place by collusion between government, large corporations, and the financial sector, variously called “Wall Street” or “the banks.” Overall, OWS names the force driving injustice as individual “greed,” and seeks to build a just system founded on principles of mutual interdependence.

Many followers of Ron Paul and the Tea Party have not so much been driven to join the movement by personal experiences with  high debt so much as a frustration that their purchasing power is not what they believe it should be. The enemy of individual wealth is defined as “government,” which intervenes between individuals and the free markets, both in the form of debt and corrupt activities with large corporations. Ron Paul and the Tea Party seek the restoration of free markets by modifying current government so that it no longer intervenes with the capitalist system, leaving an ideal condition for the accumulation of individual wealth–a condition they call “liberty.”

Apples, meet oranges.

What is interesting about OWS is how long the anarchist form has already endured, despite many attempts to undercut it.

OWS members are wise to suspect “Greeks bearing gifts”–in this case, politicians showing interest.  The Tea Party has already lost most of its original power through the simple act of accepting money and publicity from outside the movement.

The power of OWS, it seems, is their initial emphasis on what at first seemed like a very awkward set of egalitarian participatory routines that defined their actions.  Today, however, those routines have given members a clear sense of how their movement operates–and a clear identity.

Looking forward, OWS seems capable of resisting calls to merge with existing government institutions, choosing instead to establish their own convention, their own system of delegates, and their own sets of goals–all of which are new for our current moment of history, but are well-worn paths by anarchist movements of the past.

Ultimately, anarchist movements tend to migrate, eventually, towards more formal institutions.  Anarchist phases give way to establishing new pathways that can endure and be reproduced.  This is because anarchism is both a political phase and a political philosophy.

The anarchist movements of the 1960s ultimately took root in government, universities, development work, and cultural institutions.  Direct action gave way to careers.  A movement faded into history.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves! OWS is a long, long way from running out of energy.  Their current forms of direct action are as interesting and inspiring as they are distinct.  And the kinds of social and political change they will catalyze is still in the first stages.

Now that we have a basic vocabulary for discussing what is happening, understanding and appreciating OWS–as they set out to build a better world–can begin apace.


5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Just a quick note to say how much I’ve been enjoying and learning from your #OWS writing. This piece is especially insightful and exciting.

    I am the editor for an online journal that advocates for Vermont Independence and this is exactly the kind of paradigm shift we work towards. We champion a model of directly democratic, decentralized governance uncontaminated by the influence of non-persons, promoting energy sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, monetary systems that are not dependent on debt creation, steady state economics and shrugging off the burden of military adventurism in the service of the Military Industrial Complex.

    It is so refreshing to hear someone discuss anarchism in a respectful, thoughtful way. So glad your voice is out there : )



  2. motherlawyer,

    Marvelous analysis.

  3. Paula Smith,

    Great article Jeffrey. Thank you. I am on the ground at Occupy Fort Worth..about to go into week 3..Fort Worth is in Tarrant County, one of the most republican counties in America. We are holding strong..moving forward. The police have been supportive. Many people are waking up to the cause..still trying to get the word out about the issues. We are in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and all of our brothers and sisters across the world. I have met so many wonderful people. I am proud to be involved in this movement for humanity.

  4. I am just so grateful right now that someone has identified the anarchist nature of Occupy, and for once it isn’t an anarchist.

    “For example, instead of petitioning the government to build a well, members of a community might simply build it themselves…” It couldn’t be put better. Great read.


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