HEAVEN AND EARTH VERSUS THE PLUTOCRATS, Part Two: The Precedents for Occupy Wall Street In Traditional Social Organization


Despite the repeated criticisms that Occupy Wall Street has not made specific “demands,” there has been one very distinct “demand” characteristic of “Occupy…” gatherings: that is, the form of those gatherings themselves, the general assembly.  The general assembly—like the traditional American town meeting—and the formal consensus process by which it operates represent the demand by OWS activists that decision-making in the United States—whether it concerns public policy or workplace policy—actually reflect what most believe to be the spiritual foundation of the U.S. Constitution: popular sovereignty, the will of the people, the consent of the governed.

In its highest evolutionary form, traditional government—the apparent “default” form of social organization prior to the rise of the state in the sixteenth century —is local and directly democratic: no “electoral college,” “checks and balances,” “separation of powers,” or “representative” government-at-a-distance protecting a privileged minority and, thereby, standing in the way of majority rule. [1]  Critics of Occupy Wall Street fail to understand that a major reason for the phenomenal growth of OWS is that it has adopted this “default” form: a confederation of local groups linked by common purpose, but also by modern information technology in OWS’s case.  Lewis Henry Morgan, the father of American anthropology, makes the distinction between society (societas), based on people and social relations, and the state (civitas), based on territory and property. [2]  That distinction holds clues for understanding why the “Occupy…” movement is meeting such an urgent need within today’s society.

Thomas Paine’s assertion that “government even in its best state is but a necessary evil” was echoed in later statements attributed to Thomas Jefferson and to Henry David Thoreau.  Although there is disagreement concerning the popular belief that Jefferson said, “The government governs best that governs least,” and that Thoreau claimed, “The government that governs best governs not at all,” suspicion of government is an idea that endures.  Representative government within a Republic has been portrayed as an improvement over being ruled by a feudal lord or a tyrant king.  The truth is that representative government became an effective tool for a new form of feudalism in suppressing the interests of working people, the traditional goal—beginning with the not-so-coincidental sixteenth-century rise of both mercantilism and the state—of financial and business elites who favor centralized government-at-a distance in order to dominate states and localities for the purposes of empire: expansion of markets and the forced acquisition of raw materials from weaker countries through tax revenue-funded national armies. [3]  In other words, it’s much easier for ruling elites to buy off one representative than to co-opt hundreds or thousands of the citizens represented.

Skepticism about government by the state is not surprising when we consider that its representation-by-proxy nature is vulnerable to the breaking open of a gap between citizens and policy-makers, a gap which is less prominent or absent within the direct democracy process which characterized earlier societies.  In the United States in early 2012, this gap is seen to be huge by people across much of the spectrum of political ideology, but no agreement about how to bridge it can be reached due to the pervasiveness of propaganda generated by Big Finance and Big Business. [4]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century French Renaissance man and political philosopher, [5] was a major influence on the “Dissenters,” the English writers whose advocacy of revolution encouraged the American colonists to fight for independence from British rule. [6]  Rousseau also believed (as did even the apologist for inequality, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes) that feelings of compassion or empathy were innate and that they produced an innate sense of morality in man, provable by people’s aversion to seeing others suffer. [7] Rousseau likely would approve of Occupy Wall Street if he were alive today, because he would see the form of public decision-making he considered most in harmony with man’s instinctive morality—direct democracy—at work in the OWS general assemblies on an increasingly widespread scale.  Writing in 1762 in his book, The Social Contract, Rousseau indicates that his ideal government is the Greek city-state, and he has little good to say about representative government.  Rousseau’s ideal government is one in which popular sovereignty is put into actual practice, is not just an idea, and cannot be delegated to “representatives:” “Sovereignty…lies essentially in the general will, and will does not admit of representation… The deputies of the people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can carry through no definitive acts.” [8]  In other words, for Rousseau, elected officials could perform administrative duties, but legislation was the direct duty of the people.  The consequence of delegating legislative functions was disaster and led to conditions that are all too familiar to U.S. citizens today: “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost.  The lukewarmness of patriotism, the activity of private interest, the vastness of States, conquest and the abuse of government suggested the method of having deputies or representatives of the people in the national assemblies.” [9]  In other words, the overriding of direct democracy by the interposing of “representatives”—and the conditions that accompany them—signal that greedy dreams of empire have pervaded and stained the social fabric and that people’s natural compassion has been overcome by justifications for selfishness being intentionally spread throughout society.

Linguistics pioneer, author, and activist Noam Chomsky comments on the anti-democratic nature of representative government based on the tradition of anarcho-syndicalist thought, a tradition underlying the organization of Occupy Wall Street [10]: “Representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds.  First of all because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the State, and secondly—and critically—because representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere…That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.” [11]

In fact, contrary to common assumptions among most U.S. citizens, a close analysis of our own U.S. constitution strongly suggests that the design of our system of “representative” government was intended to be anti-democratic, to produce government controlled by a self-interested, wealthy minority.  In the words of one of the most influential among the framers of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many.  The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people.  Give…to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.  They will check the unsteadiness of the Second…Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? …It is admitted that you cannot have a good executive upon a democratic plan.” [12]  Even James Madison, the other most influential Framer, most commonly considered to have been a champion of popular sovereignty, participated in designing a system which, through the Framers’ limited definition of “the people,” would “end the opportunity of the bulk of small property owners to meet at the grassroots level, engage in prolonged discussions, and exercise considerable political influence.”  In Madison’s own words, the creation of a system of representation would protect the “opulent” minority from the majority by “isolated compartments,” (e.g., separation of powers) “refinement,” (e.g., government by lawyer “experts”) “enlarged spheres,” (national and international—not local—decision-making) and “filtration” (e.g., representatives confer with each other and lobbyists instead of with constituents). [13]  It should be remembered that the Constitution of the United States was created in secret, [14] was rushed through the Congress, [15] and finally was approved by less than five percent of the U.S. population. [16]

The fact is that the majority of the people opposed the Constitution. [17]  The majority supported an arrangement more like the Articles of Confederation, which called for power to remain decentralized within each state, not centralized in a powerful national government which would protect a privileged minority’s ability to direct American resources more toward building an American empire than toward protecting the interests of ordinary people.  Even future U.S. president John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that the Constitution was “calculated to increase the influence, power and wealth of those who have any already.” [18]  The opposition of many was due to the fact that the content of the Constitution subverted the principle of popular sovereignty but deceptively claimed to advance that principle, as trumpeted in the attention-getting introduction to the Preamble: “We, the people…”  A more recent example of deception by a privileged minority is the financial industry’s lobbying efforts prior to the 2008 financial crisis toward legislation relaxing eligibility requirements for home mortgage applicants, such relaxation having been sought for the purpose of enticing greater numbers of workers onto the debt treadmill and creating larger numbers of monthly house payments to predatory lenders. [19]   It is this sort of deceit which Occupy Wall Street is attempting to reveal to the larger public in its efforts to uphold U.S. citizens’ expectations concerning popular sovereignty.

The anti-democratic selection of “delegates” (legislative appointment, not popular vote) to the Constitutional Convention and the Convention’s creation of a powerful central government—instead of simple amendment of the Articles of Confederation [20]—were circumstances about which most U.S. citizens of the time only learned after the Constitution was signed, often many years later. [21]  Despite the facts that most of the “delegates” to the Convention were property-owners of substantial wealth and that most citizens didn’t know what was in the newly-signed Constitution, there still was difficulty in getting the Constitution ratified within the states. [22]  Opposition to the Constitution was strong among Pennsylvania delegates, [23] understandable considering Pennsylvania’s decidedly democratic state constitution, praised by Thomas Paine. [24]  The Pennsylvania state document had been greatly influenced by a Native American democratic tradition of governance.  Carl and Julian Van Doren, authors of one of the most enduringly popular biographies of Benjamin Franklin, edited Franklin’s book, Indian Treaties, which describes the historical context of the Lancaster Treaty (1744) during which the Onondaga Canassatego, Tadadaho (Speaker) of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, urged the English colonists to unite on an Iroquois model. “Though the colonists were slow in learning union from the Indians,” writes Van Doren, “Pennsylvania’s steady alliance with the Six Nations had a large effect in preserving the friendship of the Iroquois for the English.” [25]  The Iroquois encouraged the colonists to adopt the Iroquois model, including its emphasis on “strong local units” (reminiscent of the organization of OWS) as opposed to representative, “government-at-a-distance.” [26]  Winnebago elder Reuben Snake has suggested a feedback loop was created emphasizing the value of Iroquois ideas of social organization: “These concepts became known to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose writings are cited in identifying the sources of the U.S. Constitution.” [27]

The most familiar part of the U.S. Constitution is the preamble, beginning with the phrase: “We, the people…,” which represents popular sovereignty, expected by most U.S. citizens to be the highest governing principle of our system of government, and which the “Occupy…” movement is fighting to preserve.  The phrase, “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order…,” was taken from the language of the Iroquois Confederacy Treaty of 1520.  The phrase was exploited mainly for its deceptive vagueness and specifically for two purposes: one, to send a subtle signal that the more localized Articles of Confederation had been replaced with a national system—otherwise, the phrase might have been worded “We, the people of the states…”; and, two, to create the illusion that “the people” was a term that included more than a privileged elite committed to private property and imperial conquest for the purpose of expanded commerce. [28]  For the Framers, the poor, women, slaves, and Indians weren’t included among “the people.”

By way of contrasting values, Iroquois law and custom prescribed relatively equitable distribution of wealth, universal suffrage, and a confederation of tribes similar to that of the states under the Articles of Confederation.  The Iroquois allowed “no kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish(ed) all Servitude from their Territories.”  Iroquois leaders were regarded as servants of their people and were generally “poorer than the common people, for they affect to give away and distribute all the presents or Plunder they get in their Treaties or War, so as to leave nothing for themselves.” [29]  There are reminders of such values in the inclusion of homeless people with whom resources are shared in many of the encampments of Occupy Wall Street.

In the United States following the American Revolution, according to pioneering professor of information technology, researcher and author Norman Livergood, “…the vast majority of American people lived in a community-oriented culture, on farms or in cities working as artisans and laborers. Their concept of independence was associated with interdependence and cooperation—all for the common good. Women worked with men, families traded labor and animals. In this culture of mutual concern and mutual obligation, working class people took care of one another. They shared common values and interests, completely different from the values of a market-driven approach to life. According to this common welfare approach to life, merchants and financiers would be restricted to what the community decided about how resources are used. The working class had put its democratic, interdependent ideals into their state constitutions and in town and city charters when possible.

The wealthy class—shopkeepers, lawyers, bankers, speculators, commercial farmers—had adopted a completely opposite way of life: every person for himself. The capitalist world view of the wealthy class saw the community as a system of exchange between producers and consumers, ‘the moneyed’ and workers. The holy of holies for the merchant class was the ‘free market’ ideology, according to which each man pursues only his own self-interest. Society is held together, not on the basis of common welfare, but by the ‘invisible hand of the market’ implemented through impersonal contracts.” [30]

In those early days of the young American nation, despite the tension between the common good and the interests of the wealthy, most citizens’ experience of government occurred locally, where each individual had an opportunity to participate directly in decisions that affected the community.  This experience, of course, excluded slaves, Indians, women, and males who were not landowners.

Enfranchised (land-owning) citizens, however, generally experienced the consensus decision-making process and direct-democracy or community council forms of government which were characteristic of traditional American town meetings, of some Native American societies, and of other earlier societies and are now characteristic of Occupy Wall Street’s general assemblies. [31]  Government of this sort can be criticized for sometimes being oppressive toward minority views, but this criticism is most often invoked by the powerful elite minorities in whose interests the U.S. system is biased. [32]  The traditional, localized, direct-democracy form of government using consensus decision-making did reflect community standards, was concerned with meeting human needs instead of indulging in dreams of empire, and consequently contributed to social stability.  Such a decision-making process—often occurring in societies in which women either had prominent or dominant roles of authority [33]—is currently being reflected, extended, and refined in the global justice movement, of which Occupy Wall Street is now such a prominent part. [34]  In fact, there has been an evolution of the consensus decision-making process within  the global justice movement—primarily the result of the women’s movement’s rejection of macho leadership styles [35]—reflecting the conscious effort to make the process more inclusive and responsive to women, including individuals across the range of gender orientation, the elderly, the young, and the physically challenged. [36]

These developments—a striving for greater representativeness and fairness—within the global justice movement reflect the qualities of liberty, equality and fraternity which anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan saw in the ancient societies he studied in the 1800s. [37]

These qualities—liberty, equality, and fraternity—that Morgan saw in ancient tribes came out of his studies, among others, of the Iroquois tribe and its geographically-widespread confederacy. [38]  Another student of Native American life, Charles Eastman, reported similar qualities: “…(T)he Sioux prided themselves on the training and development of their sons and daughters, and not a step in that development was overlooked as an excuse to bring the child before the public by giving a feast in its honor. At such times the parents often gave so generously to the needy that they almost impoverished themselves, thus setting an example to the child of self-denial for the general good.” [39]   “Big-heartedness, generosity, courage, and self-denial are the qualifications of a public servant, and the average Indian was keen to follow this ideal. As every one knows, these characteristic traits become a weakness when he enters a life founded upon commerce and gain.” [40]

For those who retain a negative view of Native Americans and can’t accept that a “primitive” form of social organization might contain lessons for citizens of the twenty-first century United States, some points are in order: (1) the conflicts between Native Americans and European-Americans that occurred as part of European colonization produced incidents of atrocities on both sides, and (2) a different perspective may be gained through imagining how it feels to see one’s territory being encroached upon and one’s way of life being destroyed in order to fulfill an invading group’s sense of entitlement and feverish dreams of empire.

In responding to the present-day injustices created by the Financial Crisis of 2008—the losses of thousands of homes and jobs, the originators of Occupy Wall Street developed a unique strategy.  From the movement’s beginning, OWS activists shrewdly and intentionally have steered away from being associated with any particular ideology and with the recognition of illegitimate authority, such recognition being inherent in the making of demands. [41]  Instead the message of OWS has come through its modeling of democratic action and practice.  In doing so, it draws on currents in American radicalism taken from feminism, Quaker and Native American spiritual traditions, and from anarchism.  Its most characteristic actions have involved the exercise of constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly through refusing to remain silent about financial and corporate abuses and through occupation of public spaces.   The prominent role of the general assembly, particularly the decision-making  process, reflects the influence of the historic but maligned school of thought called anarchism within OWS practice. [42]  Anarchist thought—popularly (and conveniently, for anti-democracy propagandists) portrayed as the product of bearded, fanatical, bomb-throwing advocates of chaos—has a distinct set of traditions which have evolved over time. [43]  A detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this discussion, but Graeber’s capsule description of anarchism captures its essential qualities: “Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy; anarchism an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.  The basic principles of anarchism—self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the opposition to all forms of coercive authority—are essentially moral and organizational.” [44]  Graeber further emphasizes that foundation concepts within anarchist thought include the convictions that state authority and hierarchical organization are always destructive. [45]

Among other signs that society in general is evolving toward implementation, or at least assimilation, of anarchist thought is one establishment “futurist” intellectual’s prediction that the democratic, decentralized, distributed, networked, horizontal, and collaborative characteristics of current information technology (internet, smartphones, etc.) are those that also increasingly will describe a new system of renewable energy technology.  This analysis has implications for governmental organization, in that those characteristics, currently being modeled in the processes of the Occupy Wall Street general assemblies, represent societal pressures for government, too, to begin to reorganize along the same lines. [46]

Another likely reason for Occupy Wall Street’s resonance with the public and rapid growth is the movement’s roots in those anarchist philosophical principles of opposition both to hierarchy and to government-at-a-distance.  The local, immediate, and inclusive nature of the OWS general assemblies and the horizontal, agreements-between-equals nature of the consensus process within those assemblies represent an attractive alternative to our society’s pervasive hierarchical, top-down forms of authoritarian decision-making, which are increasingly associated with qualities of coldness, distance, unresponsiveness, and elitism, and generally with inhumane practices of systems in which power and profit count for more than the needs of human beings.  The OWS general assembly process might be described as a forum in which people are encouraged to behave as though they actually do have the freedoms embedded in our U.S. founding documents [47] and as though the historical developments that have destroyed those freedoms are regrettable but temporary anomalies of history.

It’s an open question as to whether the long-term accomplishments of the “Occupy…” movement will include the replacement of “representative” government here in the U.S. with a more directly-democratic, electronically-connected network of associated local groups.   What we can and should learn from our current circumstances, however, is that hierarchical (top-down), “representative,” “government-at-a-distance” is vulnerable to the problems I’ve noted in this discussion and that a major reason for the rise of OWS is the appeal of its emphasis on horizontal, consensus-based, directly democratic practices within its general assemblies.  These practices are serving as a model for how a non-hierarchical government might realize the ideal of popular sovereignty, a principle which our system invokes but which it has failed to uphold in practice.  OWS’s practices also provoke thought about current feelings of entitlement among the economically privileged, whether the U.S. is an imperialist power, and how democratic our Constitution really is, considering the periodic episodes of blatant overriding of popular sovereignty by moneyed interests throughout U.S. history. [48]

Whatever its long-term accomplishments may prove to be, it is certain that the Occupy Wall Street movement is providing hope to many who understand the unfairness and blatant cruelty being encouraged within our current political, economic, and social circumstances.  In its insistence on fundamental fairness and its service as a means for communicating that insistence, OWS appears to be part of a process within a global justice movement working toward validating the prediction made by Lewis Henry Morgan, in 1877, concerning the interests of society versus individual private property rights: “The time will come, nevertheless, when human intelligence will rise to the mastery over property…The interests of society are paramount to individual interests, and the two must be brought into just and harmonious relations…Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending.  It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes (gentes: clan, tribe).” [49]

  1. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/state/state_6.html; Fresia, Jerry, Toward an American Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and Other Illusions, Boston: South End Press, 1988, p. 57
  2. Morgan, Lewis Henry, “Ancient Society,” in Grob, Gerald N., and Beck, Robert N., eds.,  American Ideas: Dilemmas of Maturity (1865-1962), New York: The Free Press, 1963, p. 14
  3. Fresia, p. 44; Ibid., p. 69
  4. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/powellmemo.htm
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau
  6. Lynd, p. 32
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau
  8. http://www.ucc.ie/social_policy/Rousseau_contrat-social.pdf; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, 1762, translated by G.D.H. Cole, Stillwell, Kansas: Digi-reads.com Publishing, p. 74
  9. Ibid.
  10.  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/20111128728359      04508.html
  11.  Pateman, Barry, ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005, p. 134
  12.  Farrand, Max, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, in Fresia, p. 16
  13.  Wolin, Sheldon S., “The People’s Two Bodies,” in Fresia, p. 57; Pateman, Barry, ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005, p. 182
  14.  Williams, William Appleman, Empire As A Way of Life, in Fresia, p. 47
  15.  Mee, Charles L. Jr., The Genius of the People, in Fresia, p. 63
  16.  Beard, Charles A., An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in Fresia, p. 66
  17.  Mee, in Fresia, p. 62
  18.  Main, Jackson Turner, The Antifederalists, in Fresia, p. 61
  19.  http://www.nber.org/public_html/confer/2011/Macro11/http://www.imf.org/external/np/res/seminars/2009/arc/pdf/igan.pdf
  20.  Main, in Fresia, p. 50
  21.  Mee, in Fresia, p. 47
  22.  Beard, in Fresia, p. 66
  23.  Ketcham, Ralph, The Anti-Federalist Papers, New York: Putnam, 1986, p. 242
  24.  Lynd, Staughton, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1969, p. 37
  25.  http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/grassroots.html
  26.  Ibid.
  27.  Ibid.
  28.  Fresia, p. 75; Ibid., p. 25
  29.  Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders, in Fresia, p. 76
  30.  http://www.hermes-press.com/completing.htm
  31.  http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/state/state_1.  html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_communism;      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_Americans_in_the_United_States
  32.  Beard, Charles, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, New York: The Free Press, 1965, p. 325; Fresia, p. 60
  33.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_Americans_in_the_United_States
  34.  http://jeffreyfeldman1.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/innovative-direct-action-key-to-occupy-wall-street/;      http://jeffreyfeldman1.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/horizontalism/
  35.  Graeber, David, Direct Action: An Ethnography, Oakland, California: AK Press, 2009,  p. 233
  36.  Ibid., p. 234
  37.  Morgan, Lewis Henry, “Ancient Society,” in Grob and Beck, p. 19
  38.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_Americans_in_the_United_States
  39.  Charles A. Eastman, Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1918, p. 38
  40.  Ibid., p. 39
  41.  http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-david-graeber/
  42.  Graeber, p. 220; Ibid., p. 229; Lynd, p. 105; http://occupywallst.org/article/enacting-the-impossible
  43.  http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/index.html
  44.  Graeber, p. 212
  45.  Ibid., p. 214
  46.  http://blog.sfgate.com/tmiller/2011/10/24/the-third-industrial-revolution-%E2%80%93-an-interview-with-jeremy-rifkin/
  47.  Graeber, p. 527
  48.  Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Collins, New York, 2010, pp. 284-285; Green, James, Grass-Roots Socialism, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1978, p. 1; Ibid., p. xvi
  49.  Morgan, Lewis Henry, “Ancient Society,” in Grob and Beck, p. 19

HEAVEN AND EARTH VERSUS THE PLUTOCRATS, Part One: The Precedents for Occupy Wall Street in the Natural Rights Tradition

Despite the ongoing police violence against Occupy Wall Street activists resulting from the rush among some city governments to get rid of OWS encampments, the “Occupy…” movement continues to raise awareness about a predatory 1% and to inspire U.S. citizens who are dismayed at our current political, economic, and social circumstances.  OWS activists, practicing their formal consensus process within their general assemblies, stand in stark contrast to U.S. Senators and Representatives, whose process, as of these early days of presidential election year 2012, is associated with the overwhelming influence of lobbyists for transnational banks and businesses (such influence also creates problems specific to the executive and judicial branches), a resulting pervasive corruption, complete disengagement from a reasonably broad-based definition of the national interest, and citizens of all political ideologies having lost confidence in national institutions and in the possibility that the system can be repaired.

Critics of Occupy Wall Street have been quick to belittle a movement in which no “policy reforms” are published, no “candidates” for elective office are promoted, and generally little interest is shown in pursuing change through establishment channels.  The quick response to these criticisms is that “reform” of the current illegitimate system within the U.S., “elections,” and “candidates” are concepts which lack great significance within the non-hierarchical, consensus-based, networked, direct-democracy form of governance being advocated and modeled within the OWS general assemblies. [1]  The OWS model of governance is discussed here in Part One and in Part Two of “Heaven and Earth Versus the Plutocrats.”

A shallowness and intent to distract begin to suggest themselves within the criticisms of Occupy Wall Street, however, when we consider that  (1) the “Occupy…” movement embodies a revolutionary tradition which has roots not only in American history but also in the thought of the European Enlightenment and that (2) there is a moral struggle underlying OWS’s efforts to restore the public’s voice in a national conversation dominated by the noise of private interests.

“WRIT IN THE HEARTS OF MANKIND”/”GOD IN EVERY MAN”

Occupy Wall Street shares this revolutionary tradition with the Americans advocating abolition of slavery in the mid-1800s.  In demanding freedom for others, the abolitionists were not only reaffirming “a collective right to revolution” first demanded in the American colonists’ war for independence from England, according to professor of history, activist, and writer Staughton Lynd.  The abolitionists were also insisting on the right “to revolutionize their lives from day to day.” [2]   This same spirit is evident in today’s “Occupy…” activists’ focusing attention on how money and corporate power in politics created the Financial Crisis of 2008 and continues to destroy the freedom of millions of U.S. citizens.  Further, the OWS activists, like the nineteenth century American abolitionists, are living revolutionary lives of sacrifice in exercising extended occupations of public space for the purpose of directing the larger public’s attention to Wall Street, the engine of Big Finance and Big Business, which together are destroying the freedom of many as a means of profit for a few.

Critics of OWS ignore history in failing to acknowledge that the rights being asserted by the activists of the Occupy Wall Street movement are basic human rights rooted in ideas having precedents extending even further into the past than the mid-1800s.  The language of the Declaration of Independence—specifically, that people have God-given rights, the removal of which justifies revolution—is the language of John Locke, the English philosopher who was one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. [3]

Universal moral principles were the foundation of the ideas of John Locke, and, through literary inheritance, also those of Thomas Paine and the other pamphleteers of the American revolutionary period.  Despite his emphasis on natural rights of economic self-interest and property over the natural rights derived from conscience, Locke in fact used a conscience-based natural rights argument in his Second Treatise of Government (1689) when he referred to a law of nature “writ in the hearts of mankind,” and to natural rights which “cease not” in society. [4]

By including in his subsequent Essay Concerning Human Understanding the statement that “God has not…stamped upon the minds of all men certain intuitively perceived intellectual and moral ideas,” Locke created a conflict for his readers about whether God-given intuition of natural law was available to all or only to a select few. [5]  The eighteenth century group of English writers, whom professor of history, activist, and writer Staughton Lynd called “Dissenters,” were influenced by Locke but took him at his earlier, “Second Treatise…” word and “emphasized the intuitions of the heart against the paralyzing analyses of the head.” [6]  The Dissenters were associated with non-Anglican, or dissenting, Protestant groups. [7]  They produced a steady stream of writing focused on advocacy of political revolution from 1750 through the American Revolution, [8] and they included Thomas Paine. [9]

Thomas Paine was the author of the pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which had the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history in proportion to the population of the Colonies at the time of its publication (January 10, 1776).  [10]  “Common Sense” was not only a list of grievances but also a call to action (echoed in Occupy Wall Street’s calls to action) [11] in Paine’s admonition to the American colonists to oppose the English tyrant king: “O ye that love mankind!  Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!”  “Common Sense,” therefore, likely was the single document most influential in emboldening the Americans to fight for independence against England, then the world’s most formidable military power.

Paine was born in England but emigrated to the English colonies in America in 1774 at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, whom he met in London after losing his job because of absenteeism (probably due to his increasing involvement in political pamphleteering) and facing the possibility of being sent to debtors’ prison. [12]

Paine’s first example of activist writing, “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” published from 1772-1773, was an argument for a living wage.  In this pamphlet he put forth philosophical and economic reasons for a wage increase but also articulated spiritual concerns underlying fair pay.  Paine contended that the laws of men must accommodate the higher law of nature and that the natural law arguments that produced the American Revolution are the instinctive inheritance of every person.  In using this argument to advocate for wages that would allow a decent living, Paine quoted an ancient Hebrew wise man, Agur, who opposed class division between rich and poor.  Proverbs 30:8-9 describes the danger inherent both in having too much or too little: “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?  Or lest I be poor, and steal and take the name of my God in vain?”  The temptation for the wealthy person is to become too proud to feel gratitude or humility.  For the poor person, the temptation is to steal and to give in to bitterness and resentment.  Both wealth and poverty, therefore, may damage the spirit.  For Paine, then, “There is a great gulf fixed” between people when class divisions are allowed to exist.  Lazarus, the beggar, goes to heaven in the Hebrew story, and Dives, the rich man, is condemned to an eternity in hell, although their positions of poverty and privilege had been reversed when they were on earth. [13]  Paine, in his activist impulse to attempt to correct an injustice in writing “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” has spiritual descendants in the Occupy Wall Street media group, which serves to raise awareness of the economic injustices imposed on U.S. citizens by a financial and business elite and of the need to take action in the interest of justice.

As he had done in writing “The Case of the Officers of Excise,” Paine again affirmed his belief that human nature includes a built-in sense of political justice and injustice when he praised the revolutionary constitution of Pennsylvania by saying that it considered men “as they came from the hands of their Maker.” [14]  Paine’s praise of Pennsylvania’s constitution likely was influenced by the following facts: (1) that “laborers, artisans, and small tradesmen…were in clear command in Philadelphia,” (2) that these working people in charge urged voters choosing delegates for the state’s constitutional convention to “shun great and overgrown rich men (who) will be improper to be trusted,” and (3) that the Pennsylvania constitution included the assertion that “an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness, of mankind; and therefore every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.” [15]  In other words, Paine saw Pennsylvania’s constitution as embodying the concerns of society as a whole, not only those of a wealthy and powerful minority.

Paine articulated the specific concept underlying natural rights, the existence of an innate sense—in every person—of justice as moral truth, when he stated in his pamphlet, “The Rights of Man,” that “there is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave…The construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.” [16]

A thorough discussion of an American natural rights tradition and confrontation of established power must include the Society of Friends, or Quakers, since they “were undoubtedly the most persistent Anglo-American lawbreakers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.” [17]  The idea of the duty of civil disobedience originated in the U.S. with the Quakers, [18] and from the late 1700s through 1830 Quakers kept opposition to slavery alive. [19]  Members of the Society of Friends have figured prominently in U.S. anti-war movements through acting on beliefs grounded in the Quaker Peace Testimony (http://www.quaker.org/minnfm/peace/index.htm), the practices within Quaker meetings have become a more recent influence on the global justice movement, [20] but Quakers’ most important contribution to the natural rights tradition is their concept of the “inner light.”  This part of Quaker religious doctrine teaches the presence of “God in every man.” [21]  The famous opponent of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, was not a member of the Society of Friends but took one of his first jobs with a Quaker newspaper. [22]  Garrison “expressed his Quakerly confidence in the uneducated common man” when he asserted in 1835 that it is the “individual conscience” which must “judge whether human law and divine law are in conflict.” [23]

For the “Dissenters”—including Thomas Paine, the Quakers, and other inheritors of the natural rights legacy, people have an innate sense of justice and a capacity for discerning between satisfactory government—which is felt to be fair, equitable, and productive of justice—and government which works against the people’s interests and which therefore leads to a natural dissatisfaction and an impulse toward revolution.

Occupy Wall Street, while asserting the right to physically occupy public space and insisting on the right of the public to have a voice in the actions within the financial and economic systems that affect the public, is also occupying the revolutionary Enlightenment tradition of natural rights.  The basis of that long tradition is that “the proper foundation for government is a universal law of right and wrong self-evident to the intuitive common sense of every man; that freedom is a power of personal self-direction which no man can delegate to another; that the purpose of society is not the protection of property but fulfillment of the needs of living human beings; that good citizens have the right and duty, not only to overthrow incurably oppressive governments, but before that point is reached to break particular oppressive laws; and that we owe our ultimate allegiance, not to this or that nation, but to the whole family of man.” [24]

A HIGHER MORALITY

While the “Occupy…” movement certainly is focused on private privilege versus public power in government, there is also a debate about morality bubbling below the surface of OWS’s confrontations with established authority.

Occupy Wall Street spread like wildfire after its appearance last September. [25]  The movement has attracted a huge number of activist participants and non-participant supporters, all coming together to advance the moral issue upon which it’s founded—that U.S. political, economic, and social systems’ protection of a privileged minority is wrong.  The movement has become necessary due to the current dominance of a morality which places property rights at the center of importance while pushing human rights and human suffering aside and to the margins of importance.  David Graeber, anthropologist and activist, was one of the originators of the “Occupy…” movement and has been a long-time participant in the global justice movement.  Graeber identifies the larger movement—of which OWS is a part—as essentially rooted in the moral principles of mutual aid and egalitarianism as opposed to hierarchy and privilege. [26]  These moral principles, however, have become overshadowed over the last several decades by the prevalence of “free” market economic principles, which use complicated mathematical computer models to support a false interpretation of the idea that “the invisible guiding hand” of the market will provide for all and make public intervention in private economic activity unnecessary.  The irony of a morality based on property and on “the invisible guiding hand” principle is that the originator of this principle, Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations, warned against leaving unregulated “the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers who neither are, nor ought to be, the rulers of mankind,” [27] but his ideas now are used to justify that permissiveness which has come to characterize the relationship between governments and commercial interests, a relationship in which those interests become free to use government as a tool for profit and avoidance of public accountability.

In an interview last November, discussing his book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, David Graeber told about what he witnessed as an anthropologist working in Madagascar.  He said that the government of Madagascar had taken out loans for economic development from the International Monetary Fund, an institution which maintains the illusion of “aiding development” of smaller, weaker nations while practicing a “control-through-debt” strategy protecting the dominance of the largest transnational banks and corporations. [28]  When Madagascar was subsequently unable to keep up its loan payments, the IMF followed its customary practice: requiring that the government take all necessary measures to find the money necessary to bring its payments up to date.  Included in those measures was elimination of Madagascar’s mosquito eradication program, and the result was the return of malaria, in Graeber’s words, “to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had babies being buried and mothers weeping.  I was there.  I saw this sort of thing.  You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts…So, what is that strange, moral power that debt has over us that seems to trump any other form of morality?  That’s one of the questions that I was trying to answer in the book.” [29]  Graeber goes on in the interview to discuss the concept of jubilee, or debt forgiveness, a concept that is never mentioned by modern creditors.  It’s this view—that a higher morality is involved in the question of debt payment than in the question of people’s lives or deaths—against which Occupy Wall Street is fighting.

It’s unlikely that the idea of debt forgiveness ever entered the minds of those who caused the financial crisis of 2008, minds that were singularly dedicated to the pursuit of profit, regardless of the human cost.  The crisis resulted from the issuance of home mortgages based on fraud perpetrated by a private commercial elite, at first defrauding prospective homeowners and later defrauding the public through the massive bailouts of private banks using public tax revenues.  The fraud on the public has been extended through the insistence of public officials, in collusion with this same private commercial elite, that critical public services paid for with public money must now be cut back or eliminated due to the loss of revenue during the bailouts.

The fraud was both indirect and direct.  The fraud was indirect in the legal but tragically self-defeating relaxation of eligibility requirements for mortgage applicants.  According to research of both the National Bureau of Economic Research and the International Monetary Fund, these relaxed requirements came as the result of lobbying by the financial industry, [30] and they cleared the way for crooked lenders to perpetrate direct fraud on a specific group of borrowers.  Those borrowers were not notified of, nor given any reason to believe defending themselves would involve, the need to understand the psychology of deception at work in a lender, a lender who was superficially helpful, but also entirely willing to temporarily make money off a borrower who, he knew, would ultimately have to default on a loan which was impossible for the borrower to repay.  Reading and understanding the fine print in those mortgage contracts proved to be an elusive task for working people who were naïve, distracted by the excitement of realizing a dream of home ownership, or simply too rushed and harassed by a hustler/lender and by the economic demands of a society in which leaders had arranged for wages to remain stagnant for thirty years [31] while simultaneously arranging for the bank accounts of the already wealthy to become grotesquely and unfairly engorged. [32]  In the final analysis, it was the actions of the business and financial elite—based on a distorted, social Darwinist morality characterized by commodification of labor, rigged “competition,” extremist individualism, and a willed ignorance of and indifference to (and when necessary a feigned surprise at) negative results—which destroyed the freedom of millions of working people and which mandated the rise of Occupy Wall Street.

An earlier consensus in the United States consisted of the belief that fairness was a component of morality.  For those whose primary faith has been diverted to the “free” market, that earlier belief has been replaced by one which requires little thought or feeling beyond a childish selfishness: “I’ve got mine, I didn’t break any laws to get it, so I deserve it, and anybody who doesn’t have theirs is either lazy or hasn’t been working as long or as hard as I have.”  Such a belief, however, fails to take into account the components of the social Darwinist morality previously noted, factors which have been manipulated into existence by a privileged elite and which have transformed that earlier consensus belief that public policy should be fair into a faith in the rigid dictum that if you don’t have the power to make public policy work for you, you must accept your place and that of your “betters” in the larger scheme.

Although Occupy Wall Street is a movement reflecting a desire for a morality of fairness to replace a morality of predation, OWS also reflects the maxim that “God helps those who help themselves” and the necessity of understanding that the power of the 99% is the power of large numbers of people.  Despite the corporate media distortions of the “Occupy…” movement’s intent and despite the violence perpetrated on activists by city governments acting in concert, [33]  OWS remains the best hope for a mass moral awakening in generations.  Such an awakening would have nothing to do with the superficial “family values” issues raised by corporate media propagandists for the purpose of distracting the public from the predatory economic practices sanctioned within current public policy.  The awakening being encouraged by the “Occupy…” movement involves the vast majority of U.S. citizens being brought to the awareness that our country has been and is being led by tricksters who have every intention of continuing the immoral practice of hijacking public resources to enrich those whose needs have been met many times over while ignoring those whose needs are the greatest.  It is this immorality—a rich and powerful few using their positions of dominance and money to steal from the public majority through policies obtained by their hiring of multitudes of shock-and-awe lobbyists and their massive, extortionist spending on campaign contributions for the election of subservient public officials—against which Occupy Wall Street is directing its activism and which it has the chance to replace through attracting activists committed to a morality of fairness and authentic equality of opportunity.  Through their activism, the participants in the “Occupy…” movement are extending the centuries-old natural rights tradition of acting to remove leaders who have betrayed the people’s trust and to revise laws that led to such betrayal.  As John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government in about 1680, “…(T)he Legislative being only a Fiduciary Power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the People a Supream Power to remove or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them. For all Power given with trust for the attaining an end, being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected, or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the Power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security.” [34]

If he were alive today, Thomas Paine undoubtedly would consider the influence of money in government in the twenty-first century United States as the embodiment of the same kind of “aristocratical tyranny” acted out by the English government toward the American colonists in 1776 [35] and as justification for “the People” to exercise their “Supream Power to remove or alter” their arrangement of government now that abundantly adequate proof has been presented that the people’s designated leaders “act contrary to the trust reposed in them” and that “that end” for which “Power” was given—the establishment of justice, the promotion of the general welfare, and the securing of the blessings of liberty for us, the people—has been “manifestly neglected” and “opposed.”

It’s also likely that Thomas Paine today would be found participating in the general assemblies of Occupy Wall Street, writing pamphlets urging Americans to stand up against the control of government by the 1%, and reminding us that “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…” [36]  Paine undoubtedly also would be issuing calls to action—as OWS is doing—toward making our U.S. institutions live up to the words about popular sovereignty in our founding documents.  He’d dismiss the idea that the dominant voice in government ought to be that of a few self-proclaimed “job creators,” and instead he would insist that the interests of the actual “producers”—the working people in common—are those with which the Founding Fathers claimed to have been most concerned.  Just as Paine stirred the souls and consciences of our forefathers and Founders, his words still have meaning for twenty-first century U.S. citizens who understand that a political system corrupted by the influence of money, causing suffering of many for the benefit of a few, is wrong: “A government of our own is our natural right.” [37]  “The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes.” [38]

  1. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/2011112872835904508.htmlhttp://www.minyanville.com/businessmarkets/articles/occupy-wall-street-demands-how-occupy/11/3/2011/id/37707?page=full
  2. Lynd, Staughton, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1969, p. 13
  3. Lynd, 1969, p. 18; Becker, Carl Lotus. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922, p. 27; http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html
  4. Lynd, p. 20
  5. Ibid.
  6. Lynd, p.  24
  7. Lynd, p. 19
  8. Lynd, p.  25
  9. Lynd, p. 24
  10.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet)
  11.  http://occupywallst.org/article/September_Revolution/
  12.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine
  13.  Linebaugh, Peter, Peter Linebaugh presents Thomas Paine, New York: Verso, 2009, p.xviii
  14.  Lynd, p. 37
  15.  Gary B. Nash, “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism,” in Alfred F. Young, ed., The American Revolution, DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976, p. 31
  16.  Lynd, p. 36
  17.  Lynd, p. 102
  18.  Ibid.; http://dickinsonproject.rch.uky.edu/biography.php
  19.  Lynd, p. 103
  20.  Graeber, David, Direct ActionAn Ethnography, Oakland, California: AK Press, 2009, p. 43
  21.  Lynd, p. 102
  22.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lloyd_Garrison
  23.  Lynd, p. 111
  24.  Lynd, p. vi
  25.  http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/216374/20110919/occupy-wall-street-protest-sept-17-day-three-five-arrested.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/us/anti-wall-street-protests-spread-to-other-cities.html
  26.  Graeber, p. 211
  27.  Smith, Adam, Wealth of Nations, p. 460, in Pack, Spencer J., Capitalism as a Moral System: Adam Smith’s Critique of the Free Market Economy, Brookfield, Vermont: Elgar, 1991, p. 151
  28.  Chossudovsky, Michel, The Globalization of Poverty and the New World Order, Montreal: Global Research, 2003, p. 19
  29.  http://www.minyanville.com/businessmarkets/articles/occupy-wall-street-demands-how-occupy/11/3/2011/id/37707?page=full
  30.  http://www.nber.org/public_html/confer/2011/Macro11/;      http://www.imf.org/external/np/res/seminars/2009/arc/pdf/igan.pdf
  31.  Wolff, Richard D., Capitalism Hits the Fan, Olive Branch Press, Northampton, Massachusetts, 2010, p. 132
  32.  Ibid., p. 40
  33.  http://4closurefraud.org/2011/11/15/busted-oakland-mayor-jean-quan-admits-cities-coordinated-crackdown-on-occupy-movement/;      http://www.thetakeaway.org/2011/nov/15/after-ouster-occupy-oakland-protesters-return/
  34.  http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch3s2.html
  35.  Linebaugh, p. 8
  36.  Ibid., p. 5
  37.  Ibid., p. 31
  38.  Ibid., p. 32

An Equal and Opposite Reaction: The Role of the U.S. Two-party System in the Rise of Occupy Wall Street

“The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.” —Thomas Paine, First Principles of Government, 1795. [1]

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” —Newton’s Third Law of Motion [2]

Soon after the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street action, critics were quick to whine about its participants as ungrateful for their “freedom,” which enabled OWS to exist in the first place. As those in the OWS movement understand, however, our system of representative government has been hijacked through an out-of-control system of campaign finance. [3] They further understand—now that only corporate presidential candidates show up on the ballot—that the only political choice remaining to the public is mass direct action in the streets.

The brand of “freedom” spoken of by the critics is a fraud. It encompasses the “freedom” of a few to enjoy lives of transcendent luxury while—in another part of town—an increasingly angry and desperate multitude are “free” to suffer unemployment, denial of medical care, homelessness, and a slow and lonely death within a system which has become indifferent to life or death outside the highest tax brackets.

OWS activists can be temporarily harassed by police officers intimidated by illegal orders from superiors who are accomplices to the Wall Street criminals, but a basic reading of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a clear understanding of the firm legal foundation on which the OWS action is based: “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” [4]

There is an increasing understanding, inside and outside of the OWS, that not only do U.S. citizens seek a less oppressive “freedom,” but they also have run out of patience with a system of “free” elections that—as Bill Moyers has noted—has “priced (them) out of any meaningful participation in democracy” through the dominance of the big-money campaign contributors. [5]

Our national history reveals that the problem Moyers describes is not unique to our current circumstances. A review of events following the Civil War up to the present illustrates the fact that our present situation is actually more representative of the norm than not. Most apparent during times of crisis but increasingly visible as our history is more closely examined, that norm is, as follows: a system of electoral “representation” which appears to provide a voice for working people when they are organized en masse, but which first and foremost represents—and is always vulnerable to manipulation by—the wealthiest and most powerful in our society. In other words, we’ve always had a political system in which there are two major parties: a “business” party and a “people’s” party, both dominated by members of the financial and business elite. The elite has worked tenaciously (1) to marginalize any movement that challenged the two-party “duopoly”, (2) to maintain the illusion that the “struggle” to serve the public interest was being furthered by the “people’s” party, and (3) to ensure that analyses of the system itself and of the ruling elite’s thorough control of both major parties and the disproportionate benefits the elite received through that control were never allowed widespread dissemination.

Economics professor and author Richard D. Wolff provides a description of how our present conditions represent one recurrent phase of the norm as he asserts that the status quo within the United States is supported by three kinds of oscillations, or back-and-forth swings, between the dominance of our system by private or state forms: (1) economic, (2) political, and (3) cultural. “The economic events that precipitate swings (in both directions) have been various mixes of recession and widening inequality. Political oscillations have paralleled the economic. Often the party or faction losing power is the one most closely associated with the kind of capitalism being displaced, while the ascendant party or faction champions the other kind. Cultural oscillations complete the interconnected tableau. For example, in the economic theorizing of the politicians, professors, and journalists, celebrations of private capitalism (variously named liberalism, neoliberalism, neoclassical economics, microeconomics, and so on) oscillate with celebrations of state capitalism (variously named welfare statism, Keynesianism, central planning, macroeconomics, and so on).”

“Abundant evidence suggests that these three sorts of oscillations—economic, political, and cultural—function simultaneously as causes and effects of one another. Together they comprise a web that serves sometimes to contain the contradictions of the system as a whole. In that sense, capitalism survives because it can resolve the crises of one kind of capitalism by a transition to the other kind rather than a transition out of capitalism. Yet the web of interdependence among its economic, political, and cultural oscillations may alternatively magnify a crisis of one kind of capitalism into a social demand for transition out of capitalism.” [6]

Global communications technology has speeded up exchange of information, however, to the extent that analyses of our system and its shortcomings now are much more widely understood. Occupy Wall Street represents two historical streams coming together—people’s access to global communications technology and global capital’s historically most egregious episode of over-reaching—to produce what Wolff describes: a mass movement that has the potential to become the greatest social demand for transition out of capitalism in human history.

As we consider the possibilities in the meeting of these forces, let’s look back to see how a predominantly two-party electoral system contributed to our getting to this point.

Howard Zinn reminds us, in his A People’s History of the United States, that the financial and business elite of the mid-1800s were no different from their present-day counterparts in putting profits before people in the case of farmers struggling to feed their families and to continue working the land. Zinn quotes from Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Democratic Promise: “Could the squeezed and desperate farmer turn to the government for help? …(A)fter the Civil War both parties now were controlled by capitalists…The government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money—based on the gold supply—steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation. The farmer had to pay off his debts in dollars that were harder to get.” Zinn further explains that merchants could easily get a lien on a farmer’s land in return for extension of credit because most farmers had little money to pay for necessities until the crop was harvested and sold. Threatened by depreciated currency, the ever-looming possibility of losing their land, and the indifference of the federal government, post-Civil War farmers in Texas organized the first “Farmer’s Alliance” for the same reason that today’s Occupy Wall Street arose: the failure of elected representatives—the same kind of failure that occurred during the Great Depression and that is occurring now—to provide legal means for working people to defend themselves against their own country’s economic system. [7]

James Green—in his Grass-Roots Socialism, an analysis of radical movements in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—demonstrates that the U.S. government pitted farmers seeking homesteads against speculators as it made western land available during that period. “(I)n the 1870s agents of northern and British capital acquired huge domains of rich timberland and ranchland,” and “32 million acres of land from public domain” were granted to twelve railroad corporations, according to Green. [8] Like Zinn, Green quotes Goodwyn in asserting that the two major U.S. political parties of that period ultimately served as a two-headed prop for the status quo, and that the failure of political representation was a catalyst in the rise of the Farmer’s Alliance: “Democrats, like Republicans, served the likes of Jay Gould (the railroad magnate), not the Knights of Labor or the Farmer’s Alliance.” [9]

These pressures on the farmer help to account for the mass exodus from the country to the city from 1920 to 1929 when 19,436,000 members of farm families relocated. [10] Powerful bankers contributed to those pressures according to an entry in the Congressional Record of April 29, 1913, which contains an alleged memo from the American Bankers Association detailing an 1891 plan by the bankers to refuse to renew loans to farmers in order to “take two-thirds of the farms west of the Mississippi and thousands of them east of the Mississippi as well, at our own price…” [11] The point of reviewing the pressures on farmers during the late 1800s and early 1900s is to help explain the rise, in both rural and urban areas, of the U.S. Socialist Party from 1901 to 1912 as working people desperately sought political refuge during a time when both the Republican and Democratic parties were too busy boosting capital to represent the interests of labor. [12]

The U.S. Democratic Party was finally forced to represent working people in 1936 as business contributions to Roosevelt declined due to hostility toward his administration’s New Deal initiatives, primary benefits of which went to workers instead of employers. Unions—with membership rolls expanded in 1935 by the influx of unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the CIO—“contributed three quarters of a million dollars toward his reelection.” [13] It had taken several years—since the great displacement of U.S. farmers to cities and factory jobs which began, as previously noted, around 1920—for the conservative and self-sufficiency oriented farmers’ suspicions of union organization to be lessened. [14]

Labor organizations remained as powerful players within the Democratic Party through the 1970s. The AFL-CIO began pushing in 1963 for a national economic planning process that would have subjected corporations’ major decisions to a public democratic approval process. Michael Harrington asserts that such a planning process had much in common with the AFL’s defeated socialist proposals of 1894. [15] The United Auto Workers called for similar measures in 1970. [16] Harrington quotes from Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1968 in illustrating the power of the AFL-CIO in its support of Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The union showed its muscle as it “registered 4.6 million voters, printed 55 million leaflets and pamphlets in Washington and another 60 million in the localities. It supplied 72,225 canvassers, and on election day, 94,457 volunteers.” [17] Harrington goes on to explain that the unions acted as class-based organizations in their support for the Democratic Party, not as interest groups. With labor interests reflecting such a large part of the voting public and, consequently, being represented solidly and eagerly by the Democratic Party, there was little interest in third or independent political parties and little success to be had by those who wished to label Democratic policies as “socialist.” Workers as a group, however, were soon to be dealt a lethal blow by a firmly pro-business president.

When the striking air traffic controllers’ firings were upheld by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the clout of unions, both economic and political, was dramatically weakened. Reagan’s actions encouraged employers to threaten to fire any workers who went on strike and to act on those threats if labor refused to submit to management’s demands. The result was that in 2005, the number of work stoppages nationwide was ten times less than the average annual number of strikes that occurred from 1946 through 1981. [18]

With the unions in decline, the financial and business interests were prepared for the opening this provided to move the Democratic Party to the right. In fact, there is evidence that these interests had been working together behind the scenes since 1971, through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and through local networking, to establish a climate hospitable to business and hostile to public oversight of business. [19] The Democrat president Clinton contributed to the shrinking of the U.S. social safety net through his welfare reform initiative. He supported the North American Free Trade Agreement which hurt Mexican labor and started an influx of illegal immigration into the U.S. by Mexican workers. [20] He pushed a war on drugs which resulted in the U.S. prison population increasing from 1.4 million to 2 million. He supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act which caused the loss of millions of dollars in individuals’ pension funds due to the encouragement of speculative investing by commercial banks. Clinton also signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which legalized over-the-counter sale of derivative investment instruments, which in turn contributed to the creation of thousands of fraudulent home mortgages, leading finally to the financial crisis of 2008. [21]

The decline in the power of labor unions and Democratic leaders’ embrace of right-wing policies has meant the loss of a rallying point for the U.S. left/liberal/progressive movement. This trend has only worsened under President Obama, whose failure to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid against an austerity-obsessed Republican Congress this past summer follows his earlier failure to end the Bush-era tax cuts and his caving-in on the public option in the health care debate. [22] Obama’s choices of advisors has done nothing to reassure his progressive critics. The taxpayer-funded bank bailouts engineered in part by Obama’s Wall Street-friendly treasury secretary Timothy Geithner [23] and the major role played by another Obama advisor, Lawrence Summers, in the deregulation of over-the-counter derivatives investments which led to the financial crisis of 2008, [24] have led to the uncomplimentary-in-the-current-context labeling of the president by many as “just another corporatist Wall Street Democrat.” There’s no doubt that many of the participants in Occupy Wall Street think of the president in these terms, and it’s understandable that Obama’s performance in office likely led them to the conclusion that the only choice they had left was to take to the streets.

The election of Barack Obama as president didn’t begin a new progressive era. Obama’s election laid the groundwork—as just noted—for continued deterioration of the political environment for the poor and the middle class, and Obama’s subsequent governance from the center-right appears to confirm—as Bill Moyers has charged—that our electoral system is dominated by big-money campaign contributors. Long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader was doing his best to get this message across on February 21, 2000 when he announced his candidacy for president on the Green Party ticket. He outlined the reasons for Occupy Wall Street eleven years ago in this speech. Among other warnings he issued on that date, Nader reminded us that the Democratic and Republican parties (are) “two apparently distinct political entities that feed at the same corporate trough. They are, in fact, simply the two heads of one political duopoly: the DemRep Party. This duopoly does everything it can to obstruct the beginnings of new parties, including raising ballot access barriers, entrenching winner-take-all voting systems, and thwarting participation in debates at election times.” [25]

Nader’s assertion about “obstructing the beginnings of new parties” proved all too prophetic in regard to the Democratic Party’s actions against him four years later. In the 2004 elections, although Nader ran as an independent due to division within the Green party, “the Democrats and allied 527 organizations (spent) an estimated $10 million to $20 million to keep Nader off state ballots through intimidation of volunteers and endless lawsuits.” These financial strong-arm tactics by the Democrats were called “the most concerted effort by a major party to deny ballot access to an independent or third-party candidate in U.S. history, surpassed only by the Democrats’ campaign in some states to deny ballot access to Earl Browder, the Communist candidate, in 1940.” [26]

Despite the consistent signals that the Democratic Party now represents and for many years has primarily represented financial and corporate interests against public interests, there are still some die-hard progressives who call for taking over “the Democratic (Party’s) infrastructure from the precinct level in order to influence the nomination and platform.” These loyal but myopic Democrats point to the precinct organizing carried out by the Tea Party during the 2010 mid-term elections as a model for progressive organizing. Such precinct-level efforts will not affect the Democratic Party’s policy platform, however, according to Howie Hawkins, who won 60,000 votes as the Green Party’s candidate for governor of New York in 2010. Hawkins contends that it is the winning candidates in the presidential primaries who will write their party’s policies, not delegates to the convention. Hawkins further notes that the precinct infrastructure has served to mobilize votes in general elections in the past but that now it is the candidates’ campaign organizations in most cases which have taken over the mobilization of votes previously carried out through the precinct organizations. [27]

The members of the original general assembly of Occupy Wall Street sent a clear message in their Call to Action document from this September. The message is that they see through the empty rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats and that they will not be distracted from fundamental goals, such as workplace democracy, election of federal officials responsive to community and regional councils AKA people’s assemblies, and the widespread awareness that the two major U.S. parties, the state, and the media are all complicit with Big Finance and Big Business in their war on the public, domestically and internationally.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has arisen, not because the U.S. two-party system has fundamentally changed, but because the awareness of a segment of unknown size of the U.S. electorate has changed in its expanded understanding of the nature of our party system. The people in OWS know what they’re doing. They’re using their first amendment rights to fight for the interests of working people. Many of them are young, but they’re mature enough to understand that they are in a war, a class war, one they didn’t start, but one that requires their participation and the best of themselves if they and a humane vision of what the United States can be is to survive.

Apparently entirely harmonious with such a humane vision and with the OWS Call to Action is the suggestion which was made by Richard D. Wolff, a veteran Marxian economic analyst, in his 2010 book, Capitalism Hits the Fan: “To make the most of this historical period’s opportunity would require the left to formulate a new concept of and vision for socialism. For example, if socialism were defined to include the following basic reorganization inside enterprises, no one would confuse it with anything done by Bush or advocated by Obama. Suppose socialism were defined in the following terms: (1) the workers in every enterprise must function collectively as their own board of directors and as the private owners of their enterprise; (2) democratically elected local, regional, and national political bodies would share with each enterprise’s workers the power to determine production methods and the disposition of outputs and revenues; and (3) democratically elected representatives of the workers in each enterprise would share with residentially elected political bodies the power to determine political issues. Defined in this way, socialism would entail a specific kind of interconnected democratization of the economy and the society. The residential community and the workforce, as stake holders, would share the power of deciding basic social issues.” [28] The Occupy Wall Street movement contains the potential for such a new, revitalized democratic socialism that could fulfill the hopes of millions, here and abroad—because changes here could mean the end of global U.S. military and economic aggression—hopes that have been held by generations of Americans back to the Texas farmers who joined the Farmer’s Alliance to protect themselves from capitalist economic aggression.

——————————–

My father was born in 1916 and was raised by people born in the 1800s—my paternal grandparents—strong presences in the multi-generational family group within which my siblings and I grew up from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. As long as he was physically able to do so, until his last years, my father continued to work his garden with a horse-drawn plow. In my memories of my father, including these images of his plowing, it now seems as though I was being given the gift of a real-time view of what every growing-season day was like for the farmer of the 1800s. The farmer matched every step taken by the horse or mule, staggering so as not to disturb the furrowed rows left by the plow as it sliced through the soil. My father occasionally allowed me to relieve him, to take the reins and plow handles and to use the power of the harnessed animal in this physically-demanding task. I now believe part of the reason he involved me was that he wanted me to be able to step back figuratively into the 1800s and to come to an expanded physical understanding of the agricultural tradition within which our family developed.

In the understanding my father granted to me of the hard and constant physical labor required of the farmer of the 1800s, he gave the gift of physical experience which now couples with imagination to inspire empathy with the feelings of the farmers of the late 1800s—desperate for help from the Farmers’ Alliance—whom historian Lawrence Goodwyn describes in The Democratic Promise, cited by both Zinn and Green. There is no doubt in my mind about the determination of those farmers to fight to keep their way of life and about the frustration and outrage they must have felt toward the economic barriers erected in indifference to their struggles toward that goal. I have no doubt either about the feelings of working people of any historical period who did and still do struggle against such barriers and against those who construct and maintain them.

No one can predict with certainty what effect the Occupy Wall Street movement will have on the United States and our electoral system. What is clear, however, is that OWS is reflecting the feelings of millions that there is no choice left—if there is to be relief from current oppressive economic conditions—but to challenge the dominance of that system by Big Finance and Big Business. At the very least, this mass direct action appears likely to force the system into some form of accommodation. At best, the continued growth and influence of the OWS movement could mean that U.S. citizens will achieve an increasingly clear understanding of the economic, political, and cultural barriers that have been erected against our interests and that we citizens will begin to dismantle those barriers in favor of new, directly democratic structures throughout our public and private lives.

1. Nichols, John, The “S” Word, Verso, New York, 2011, p. 39;
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine .
2. http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/u2l4a.cfm
3. http://occupywallst.org/article/September_Revolution/#comments
4. Nichols, p.41.
5. Moyers, Bill, Moyers on Democracy, Doubleday, New York, 2008, p. 197.
6. Wolff, Richard D., Capitalism Hits the Fan, Olive Branch Press, Northampton,
Massachusetts, 2010, p. 60.
7. Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Collins, New
York, 2010, pp. 284-285.
8. Green, James, Grass-Roots Socialism, Louisiana State University Press, Baton
Rouge, 1978, p. 1.
9. Ibid., p. xvi.
10. Harrington, Michael, Socialism, Saturday Review Press, New York, 1970, p.
256.
11. http://www.archive.org/stream/TheMoneyMasters/Money_Masters_djvu.txt
(Chp. 19, p. 20); http://www.michaeljournal.org/bankphilo.htm
12. Green, p. xviii; Harrington, p. 252.
13. Harrington, p. 259.
14. Ibid., p. 256.
15. Ibid., p. 264.
16. Ibid., p. 265.
17. Ibid., p. 267.
18. http://www.workers.org/2006/us/patco-0817/
19. http://www.reclaimdemocracy.org/corporate_accountability/
powell_memo_lewis.html
20. http://www.cjd.org/paper/NAFTA.html
21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidency_of_Bill_Clinton
22. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/08/us/politics/08team.html?
pagewanted=all; http://www.npr.org/2011/07/30/138821160/obama-faces-
grumbling-on-the-left
23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Geithner;

http://sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Timothy_F._Geithner

24. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Summers;

http://sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Larry_Summers

25. Nader, Ralph, The Ralph Nader Reader, Seven Stories Press, New York,
2000, p. 11; http://www.4president.org/speeches/2000/ralphnader2000
announcement.htm
26. Hawkins, Howie, Ed., Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate,
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2006, p. 39.
27. Ibid., p.58.
28. Wolff, p. 212.


The Raincrow Report: Why?

In the relative innocence of my childhood and  adolescent school days—the United States of the 1950s and early 1960s—I learned  that my country was the greatest nation on earth, probably the greatest in history.  There was plenty of evidence to  back up that claim.  Everybody knew that we had very recently whipped the Germans and the Japanese.  Most kids’ parents had decent jobs.  Life for me, as a member of a well-established (since the 1850s) and hard-working land-owning and farming family in oil-rich east Texas, was exceptionally good.

It wasn’t until the late Sixties, when I went away to college in Austin, that I was exposed to a different sort of story  about the United States, one that used words like “colonialism,” “imperialism” and “exploitation.”  The more I learned, the more uneasy and wary I became about what I came to view as misguided American institutions which were causing appallingly great damage, both here and abroad.  The claims concerning my country’s greatness were revealed as—at least in part—cynical propaganda.  Those feelings stayed with me, but they didn’t stop me from pursuing an education, struggling through jobs in two separate public sector fields, and becoming a householder, husband, and father.

After decades of cautiously continuing to check out how my  country works—likewise, the world—those feelings are still with me today, continuing to motivate observation and thought about my surroundings for the  purpose of surviving in what has proven to be a hostile economic environment.

I’m still trying to observe the right things and to arrange  those observations strategically.  Now  retired, I have more time to look, think critically, and put those observations and thoughts into writing that attempts analysis of the broader world beyond the household and  family.  What I see today is cause for  great optimism but also intense anger at the greed, deception, and waste demonstrated daily in human activity.

As a lover of learning who enjoyed his last academic experience (as he neared, then cleared, the age fifty mark) but who never has been financially  dependent on academia, I have no problem mixing information from different disciplines into my rhetorical concoctions and letting the informed reader make judgments about validity.  After all, enjoyment might be foremost among the various reasons I answer the siren call of books and the computer keyboard!  This introductory essay will, therefore, use a little psychology to introduce quite a bit of history—as employed in the subsequent article—in the service of what I hope will be for you, dear reader, an enjoyable and thought-provoking commentary on the current  state of our world.  I invite you to make comments, supporting or objecting, about any ideas or views expressed in the articles published here, and to make suggestions about issues you want to see addressed.

—————-

My experience of the world has led me to the belief that people throughout history can generally be grouped into two categories: (1) those who believe that people are inherently bad and (2) those who believe that  people have the capacity for doing either evil acts or good deeds, the choice of which depending to a great extent on how well individuals’ needs are met.  If you believe that people are generally selfish and ready to harm others to save themselves, it’s easy to justify a private, competitive, individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest point of view by which government is seen as an enemy.  If  you believe that most people will do what is right and good if they’re treated with common decency and fairness, you probably want to see cooperation,  community, and mutual interests acknowledged in the area of public policy.

I’m using this obvious over-simplification to illustrate how I believe we’ve sunk into our currently highly-polarized national condition.  Through his Jungian analysis of our national psyche, Paul Levy asserts that seeing ourselves as separate from others, blaming others, and failing to accept one’s part in the responsibility for our common condition—as well as for the development of solutions to our common problems—is, at best, a recipe for remaining mired in denial, self-deception, despair, and failure, but risks, at worst, our being drawn into psychosis and the violent criminal behavior that characterizes extreme cases of this real personality disorder. [1]  Levy calls on us to accept the reality of our connection to other people and to the natural world, both of which only seem to be “out there,” are actually “in here” and part of each of us, and are being created moment by moment through the common participation of ourselves and our fellow life-forms. [2]

Seeing ourselves as separate from other people and the world may lead to further feelings of disconnection in every aspect of life, including public life.

If Levy’s analysis holds up, it may contain clues about too many among the most materially powerful people, who do seem to have been driven to become so through seeing themselves as separate—ultimately alone—in a world populated by a teeming mass of threatening, predatory animals, which others of us would call  our fellow human beings.

In the current economic environment, it’s not difficult to visualize powerful people, motivated by their feelings of disconnectedness, desire for upward class mobility, and consequent fear of lowered class identity, engaged in the intense and desperate pursuit of superficial refuge in their gated communities and high-rise offices, away from poverty and the crowds of common laborers.   Following Levy’s analysis lends credence to the idea of people seeking even greater separation from others by the accumulation of wealth—which buys them the ability to live and move “above” the mass of ordinary people—and political power—which, over centuries, has transformed the desires of the powerful for economic and social separateness into social institutions, in place for so long now and so thoroughly supported by many forms of propaganda that they are accepted as custom, beyond question or criticism.  “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” —Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” 1776 [3]

It’s unfortunate for the rest of us that these institutions, primarily, corporate finance and business, which—when grouped together with political and cultural institutions affected by our economy—are generally referred to as “capitalism,” are in the process of doing what any other parasite does when it grows beyond reasonable limits for symbiotic success: it begins to kill the host.  In this case, the host is the working people of the United States and most of the other industrialized nations.  This is the second such major incident of host-killing in the U.S., the first being the Great Depression.  Occupy Wall Street is the natural expression of people who have reached the limit of their collective ability to suspend judgment about the threat posed by unfettered capitalism.

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement represents the strategy having the greatest likelihood for success thus far for the host’s mobilizing itself against the parasite.  OWS represents the host’s recognition that previous parasite-approved strategies (election of a president from the money-corrupted Democratic party, working through money-corrupted congressional representatives, and all the other actions associated with the party politics system), while appearing to cause movement in the body of the parasite, have left the parasite’s connection to the host’s body firmly in place.

Several questions remain: Can the working people of the U.S. finally develop a full awareness of the parasitic nature of our current system?  Can this awareness generate enough force to enable the host to break the parasite’s grip?  If awareness allows the parasitism to be corrected, can the memory of
the parasite’s destructiveness and some form of permanent control of the parasite by the host be institutionalized?

Certainly, these are the major obstacles to achieving long-term relief from the death-grip which finance capital and corporations have maintained on our government and our economy, but each question must be addressed in order for us to begin repairing our country while simultaneously developing a healthy replacement for capitalism, one which first provides adequately for our human needs as a nation and for our physical infrastructure, which interferes with worker-owned and –operated small and medium-size businesses as little as possible, but which ensures that public planning of our national economy and
public coordination of democratically reorganized corporate workplaces prevent any financial institution or corporate business enterprise from growing so large that it becomes a threat to the rest of us.

The sooner that U.S. citizens develop an awareness of the false values and distorted narrative that have allowed our current problems to develop, the sooner the political will can develop for taking the necessary corrective actions.  The Raincrow Report represents an effort, through discussion of alternatives to our current economic, political, and cultural institutions, toward countering those values and that narrative and toward assisting in encouraging the restoration of the values of cooperation, balance, harmony, and fairness as essential to and pre-eminent in public life in the U.S. .

The first topic to be addressed concerns one of the pillars most critical to keeping the financial and corporate parasite firmly lodged  within our body politic: the U.S. two-party system.  In the following article, this system will be examined through a summary of its history and its role in creating conditions so intolerable that the rise of Occupy Wall Street or its equivalent became as certain as the physical laws of the universe.

1. Levy, Paul, The Madness of George  W. Bush: A Reflection of Our Collective Psychosis, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2006, p. 68.

2. Ibid., p. 181.

3. Nichols, John, TheSWord, Verso, New York, 2011, p. 37.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.