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

  1. PJ Summers says:

    This is about the most well-reasoned, well-fortified and articulate piece of citizen consumer education (I’ll have to resort to calling it) as I have ever read. My single regret is that it isn’t in a form (yet) for libraries, book stores, political gatherings and other outlets, so that people can access it even more easily and share it even further. Mr. Raincrow Man, you have done an exceptional job.


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