I had a theory about where the Occupy Wall Street movement was headed, had it remained in its home-base at Zuccotti Park—at that, a particularly fitting one as we approach Thanksgiving. But first, let me say this column isn’t intended to discuss the merits of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) message (or lack thereof), its motivations or really pass any judgment at all. But rather, as someone who’s studied a bit of history, political philosophy and economics and watched from afar the OWS movement’s growth and development, it’s intended as an observation of that metamorphosis and where they may have ended up before their recent eviction.
It seems to me many Occupiers saw themselves as something of modern-day French revolutionaries in the Rousseauan tradition. Or perhaps modern-day incarnations of Marius and Valjean, standing firm at the barricade and facing the French government. Only trouble is, those who’ve read French history know neither comparison is particularly favorable. Remember Robespierre? The Reign of Terror? And the uprising Hugo famously wrote of? It was a two-day, nineteenth century student uprising that was quickly quashed by the government—again, certainly no American Revolution and not really much of a French one, either.
But I think what was going on in Zuccotti Park was potentially more meaningful and tied more to great thinkers like Locke, Adam Smith, Ricardo and JS Mill than Rousseau: I think the OWS protesters were rediscovering free-market capitalism. Yep. I think they were inching their way toward a capitalist, likely democratic (perhaps more of a direct democracy than a republic) society. Granted, perhaps a redundant exercise, considering that’s what we largely already have in the US and other countries witnessing Occupy movements. But still, in that sense, it’s too bad the core movement was cut short, because their evolution might have been valuable for those primarily involved.
So how were they rediscovering capitalism? First, by trying out what more closely resembled socialism. Or at least collectivism. Consider: The Occupiers gathered rather spontaneously, drawn by what they perceived to be common frustrations with financial institutions and to a certain extent politicians (though, of course, no official set of grievances was ever published). But once they were there and decided they were staying awhile, clearly some systems needed organization. For example, protesters pretty quickly reinvented their own version of Robert’s Rules of Order (I believe finger-wiggling was edited out of Robert’s first edition)—a necessity among a group their size if orderly discussions were to be had.
And there were myriad other important decisions—like how to maintain sanitation, provide food, safety, order, justice (or at least some means of adjudicating disagreements). In other words, they needed government of some sort. In fact, OWS (in its manifestation in downtown Manhattan) pretty quickly settled on specialization of labor as the most efficient means of organizing people’s efforts. Some were responsible for sanitation, others media relations, and still others were in charge of the finances. And those lacking in otherwise marketable skills? They seemingly made their way into drum circles—alas, rhythmic capacity aside. Ricardo would’ve been proud (of the specialization, probably less so the drum circles). But still, those efforts were for the collective good, not individual good—a snag later to rear its head.
How so? Ultimately, protesters seemingly learned producing for the common good creates other problems—in OWS’s case, it ultimately struggled with its very own wealth gap. What of the homeless folks, for example, who were keen to capitalize on the delicious meals prepared by the OWS kitchen staff? A classic case of the haves versus the have-nots—and seemingly a perfect opportunity for OWS to strut its collective stuff (pun intended). But the kitchen staff was upset the fruits of its labor were basically being confiscated by those who’d done nothing to earn them—and understandably so, in my view. What had the OWSers missed? The fact a society founded on “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” overlooks the problem of free-riders.
And OWS seemingly learned other early lessons the hard way, too. It took several incidences of theft and other crimes for them to discover some form of law enforcement may be necessary. Seems like they possibly also needed somewhere to deposit their valuables. Something like a bank, maybe? Or maybe they would’ve devised insurance policies—for a nominal fee, some would insure folks’ property from theft or vandalizing. All of which seemingly points to an organized society based on the rule of law and the assumption folks are entitled to the pursuit and safe-keeping of their own property.
And all lessons learned—long before Zuccotti Park was even a twinkle in its private owners’ eyes—by the pilgrims. Those who landed at Plymouth in 1620 discovered quickly an essentially socialist organization wasn’t the way to go if they wanted to survive the winter. As Governor William Bradford recounted, settlers were more motivated to steal crops than to work harvesting them individually since all efforts were made communally. So in 1622, the pilgrims essentially privatized their economy, Governor Bradford parceling out land to individual families to work as much or as little as they chose. The colonists at Jamestown had experienced something similar. In fact, in 1614, Colony Secretary Ralph Hamor wrote once the economy was privatized, there was “plenty of food, which every man by his own industry may easily and doth procure.”
The Occupiers were seemingly learning similar lessons—that some form of economic organization wherein each is entitled to produce and earn as much as he can ultimately results in an overall more productive and wealthier society. The problem wasn’t so much how many folks wanted to eat the kitchen staff’s meals—it was the fact nothing was required of those who partook in exchange. But if they had harnessed that potential workforce and basically traded services as in a capitalist society, who knows how much more they could have accomplished?
No doubt there would’ve been growing pains as more joined the movement. And I similarly have no doubt as they continued to search for solutions, while they may have tried a collectivist or socialist solution first, they ultimately would’ve discovered a free market, capitalist and largely democratic society fits the bill much better.
So in that sense, I think it’s unfortunate the Occupiers were evicted before they had a chance to see their social experiment all the way through. I feel pretty confident they would have arrived at a conclusion similar to that reached by history’s most productive and successful societies: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Churchill could easily have said the same of capitalism. And this Thanksgiving, I’ll be grateful to the pilgrims past and present who tried collectivism first—and failed—because it means we can live in the best alternative society’s found so far: capitalism.