The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are no longer merely residents of Zuccotti Park, they have converted themselves into roving bands restricting traffic on Broadway and Church Street and occupying nearby buildings. Yet the city authorities avert their gaze and well known scholars who share a hard left ideology such as Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek and Frances Fox Piven offer words of encouragement to the demonstrators.
Despite the lack of focus and an inattention to philosophical underpinnings, there is an ideological impetus to this movement based on fairness or, as the zealots see it, unfairness. Their critique of capitalism is based on income disparity.
The defining aspect of OWS is direct action and leaderless consensus, albeit this claim exists more in the breach than the reality. There is a General Assembly making decisions for the group, such as principles of solidarity and food distribution. In some respects this is like the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution, but if history repeats itself in this contemporary movement, it is more like farce rather than revolution. It appears as if each of these soi disant Robespierres has a cell phone and an I Pod, the very instruments of capitalism.
Some of these college kids do have a legitimate gripe over mounting student loan debt and declining job prospects, but they are in a minority. Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article which decries income inequality – pitting the wealthy one percent versus the rest of us – has become the trope for the movement, with the demonstrators arrogating to themselves the role of spokesman for the majority. Unfortunately little is said about mobility and even less is said about the fact the top one percent of income earners pay 47 percent of the personal income tax in the United States.
A discussion of fairness – seemingly the preoccupation of the demonstrators – is ambiguous at best if incentives for economic success are part of the equation. In a free market some people will do better than others. That is a condition of freedom. When Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, spoke to those in Zuccotti Park he emphasized his belief that the market and government must play a large role in assuring fairness. But how is that to be done?
The market, if free, is inherently unfair. And government, using its power of coercion, could apply arbitrary standards of fairness, and in the process would assuredly restrain liberty. However, these ideas are irrelevant for those who contend theory itself is useless; these are the children of experience. From the streets emerges spontaneous action. There isn’t any way to discern meaning from chaos, but as the OWS spokesmen contend ideas will develop from the struggle.
The notion that intellectual ferment is percolating on the streets rather than in the Academy suggests that anarchism is being resuscitated. As the cacophony of voices in Zuccotti seem to be saying, anarchy is an ideal to be realized. Who would have guessed that anarchy would be anyone’s ideal and who would have assumed that the authorities would allow this threat to public decorum to go on without interruption? Alas, these are strange times, led by even stranger people.