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

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

  1. PJ Summers says:

    Just flat out superb, weaving together so many threads.

  2. glnroz says:

    yes,, i agree (actually read ’em all,,the whole thang),,, except with a couple of clarifying tweeks.. lol

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