Anarchy as an Ideal?

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 are occupying nearby buildings. Yet the city authorities turn away their gaze — as well known scholars, such as Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek and Frances Fox Piven, who share a radical ideology, 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, based on income disparity.

The defining aspect of OWS is direct action and leaderless consensus. 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, with full irony, it appears as if each of these self-proclaimed 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 their mounting student loan debts and declining job prospects, but they are in a minority. Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article which decries income inequality – pitting the wealthy 1% against 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 the increasing difficulties of social mobility, and even less is said about the fact the top 1% of income earners pay 47% of the personal income tax in the United States.

If incentives for economic success are part of the equation, a discussion of fairness – seemingly the preoccupation of the demonstrators – would be inconclusive at best: 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 the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, and emphasized that the market and government must play a large role in assuring fairness, he neglected to mention how this is to be do

The market, if free, is inherently unfair. And government, using its power of coercion, applies arbitrary standards of fairness; in the process the government restrains liberty. However, these ideas are irrelevant for those who contend that theories are useless. These are the children of experience. From the streets emerges spontaneous action. The OWS spokesmen contend that 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 voices in Zuccotti Park 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, despite a reverence for free speech and freedom of assembly, the authorities would allow such an unwieldy threat to public decorum to go on without interruption?