Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe

Movement's principles arise from scholarship on anarchy

Yunghi Kim for The Chronicle

Occupy Wall Street protesters have been demonstrating in Zuccotti Park since mid-September. The movement has an academic heritage that spans political science, economics, and literature, but its organizing principles owe a debt to an ethnography of Madagascar.
October 16, 2011

Academics have become frequent visitors to Zuccotti Park, the 33,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza in the heart of New York City's financial district that is now the site of a nearly monthlong protest, Occupy Wall Street.

Famous scholars like Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, and Frances Fox Piven have spoken to the crowd, with their remarks dispersed, word-for-word, from one cluster of people to the next through a "human megaphone." Many others, such as Lawrence Lessig, have lent their support from farther away, as the demonstrations have spread to cities and college campuses nationwide.

The movement has repeatedly been described as too diffuse and decentralized to accomplish real change, and some observers have seen the appearances by academic luminaries as an attempt to lend the protest intellectual heft and direction. Certainly, its intellectual underpinnings and signature method of operating are easier to identify than its goals.

Economists whose recent works have decried income inequality have informed the movement's critiques of capitalism. Critical theorists like Michael Hardt, professor of literature at Duke University, and Antonio Negri, former professor of political science at the University of Padua, have anticipated some of the central issues raised by the protests. Most recently, they linked the actions in New York and other American cities to previous demonstrations in Spain, Cairo's Tahrir Square, and in Athens, among other places.

But Occupy Wall Street's most defining characteristics—its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making—are rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar.

It was on this island nation off the coast of Africa that David Graeber, one of the movement's early organizers, who has been called one of its main intellectual sources, spent 20 months between 1989 and 1991. He studied the people of Betafo, a community of descendants of nobles and of slaves, for his 2007 book, Lost People.

Betafo was "a place where the state picked up stakes and left," says Mr. Graeber, an ethnographer, anarchist, and reader in anthropology at the University of London's Goldsmiths campus.

In Betafo he observed what he called "consensus decision-making," where residents made choices in a direct, decentralized way, not through the apparatus of the state. "Basically, people were managing their own affairs autonomously," he says.

The process is what scholars of anarchism call "direct action." For example, instead of petitioning the government to build a well, members of a community might simply build it themselves. It is an example of anarchism's philosophy, or what Mr. Graeber describes as "democracy without a government."

He transplanted the lessons he learned in Madagascar to the globalism protests in the late 1990s in which he participated, and which some scholars say are the clearest antecedent, in spirit, to Occupy Wall Street.

Soon after the magazine Adbusters published an appeal to set up a "peaceful barricade" on Wall Street, Mr. Graeber spent six weeks in New York helping to plan the demonstrations before an initial march by protesters on September 17, which culminated in the occupation.

It is far from clear, of course, how attuned the protesters are to the scholarship of Mr. Graeber, other critical theorists, or academics who study anarchism. A growing collection of fiction and nonfiction books, however, has a post-office box to which supporters are invited to send books. "The People's Library" in New York City, which has been copied at other Occupy protest sites, houses nearly 1,200 books in cardboard boxes that are protected against the elements by clear plastic sheeting.

"I really am amazed for the respect they have for the word," Eric Seligson, the librarian at the protest site on Wall Street, told Esquire. "There's a real reverence for what has been written that has surprised me, since they eschew whatever came before, all the thought that came before."

The defining aspect of Occupy Wall Street, its emphasis on direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, is most clearly embodied by its General Assembly, in which participants in the protest make group decisions both large and small, like adopting principles of solidarity and deciding how best to stay warm at night.

This intensive and egalitarian process is important both procedurally and substantively, Mr. Graeber says. "One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic," he says. "You can't create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can't establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same."

When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy, Mr. Graeber says. "It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected." Or, as an editorial in the protest's house publication, Occupied Wall Street Journal, put it, "This occupation is first about participation."

Three days after the protests began, Mr. Graeber left. Since then, he has kept a low profile because he wants to avoid what he calls an "intellectual vanguard model" of leadership. "We don't want to create a leadership structure," he says. "The fact I was being promoted as a celebrity is a danger. It's the kids who made this happen."

Animated by Anger

Those kids include college students, who have been animated by anger over mounting student-loan debt and declining job prospects, and have become visible participants in the protests. Several Occupy Colleges demonstrations took place last week.

The concerns of the protesters are primarily economic, and scholars of that discipline have had much to say about economic fairness that has resonated with the demonstrations.

In a Vanity Fair article in May, Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate and professor at Columbia University framed income inequality as a matter of a wealthy 1 percent versus the remaining 99 percent—a trope that the movement has championed.

Critics of the movement, including David Brooks, have faulted this line of thinking because "almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way."

Mr. Stiglitz visited the protests this month, where he said the financial markets, which are supposed to allocate capital and manage risks, have instead misallocated capital and created risk. "We are bearing the cost of their misdeeds," he told the demonstrators.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, also visited the demonstrations and spoke to them this month. He says his primary goal in attending was to show his support for the demonstrators' efforts. He also wanted to share ideas, many of which he stakes out in a recent book, The Price of Civilization, which one commentator has urged the protesters to read, though it is not yet in the collection of the People's Library.

As a macroeconomist and fiscal expert, Mr. Sachs says he sees the nation's priorities most clearly expressed in the budget of the federal government, and he has come to believe that the market and government must both play a large role in assuring fairness, productivity, and environmental sustainability. "I was trying to explain that we arrived at a fiscal crisis in the country," he says of his remarks to the demonstrators. "Either our government is going to become completely shrunken and dysfunctional, or we're going to start paying for civilization again."

Other scholars have embraced the movement, either in person or from afar. The American Association of University Professors issued a position statement this month, and more than 200 faculty members at Columbia signed a petition pledging support. The presumption that academics favor the aims of the occupation has become so widespread that Paul Krugman recently felt compelled to explain that the ethical guidelines of The New York Times forbade him from visiting Zuccotti Park.

But visits like these are little more than a celebrity academic "walk by," says Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, who has written about the protests for The Chronicle. And other observers have pointed out that the student-loan burden imparted by universities makes these institutions an ambiguous force, at best, in the demonstrations.

Of greater influence than any particular thinker or group of thinkers are the recent demonstrations in other countries, and the knowledge that protesters have been gaining there, says Evan Calder Williams, a doctoral candidate in literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Fulbright fellow at the University of Naples-L'Orientale. Protesters in Egypt, Greece, and Spain, among other sites, have been creating a growing record of their experiences, through blogs and social media, which other protesters are reading and commenting upon.

"This isn't anti-intellectualism: It is simply to say that the relevant theory is that which will be developed from struggling to grasp the obscure shape of the past few years," Mr. Williams said in an e-mail. "It's safe to say that Syntagma Square, the many-month occupation of a Chilean girls' school by its students, and Occupy the Hood are—and deserve to be—of far greater intellectual import than any contemporary theorist will be."

The idea that intellectual ferment is coming from the streets rather than academe is evidence that anarchism is witnessing something of a resurgence of interest among both activists and academics, says Nathan J. Jun, assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern State University, in Texas, and author of the forthcoming Anarchism and Political Modernity.

While some students in the movement might be passingly familiar with anarchist studies, Mr. Jun says, they have probably not read much of the scholarship. It is much more likely that anarchism itself has had the greater influence on Occupy Wall Street because, he says, many activists there "regard anarchy as an ideal to be realized."

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Scholars Visit Occupy Wall Street

David Graeber, of the U. of London's Goldsmiths campus: "You can't create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can't establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same."

Michael Hardt, of Duke U. (writing with Antonio Negri): "Indignation against corporate greed and economic inequality is real and deep. But at least equally important is the protest against the lack, or failure, of political representation."

Jeffrey D. Sachs, of Columbia U.: "Either our government is going to become completely shrunken and dysfunctional, or we're going to start paying for civilization again."

Slavoj Zizek, of the European Graduate School: "Don't fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here. Carnivals come cheap—the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed."

Cornel West, of Prince­ton U.: "It's impossible to translate the issue of the greed of Wall Street into one demand or two demands. We're talking about a democratic awakening."

Joseph E. Stiglitz, of Columbia U.: "We are bearing the cost of their misdeeds. There's a system where we've socialized losses and privatized gains. That's not capitalism; that's not a market economy. That's a distorted economy."

Lawrence Lessig, of Harvard U.: "The arrest of hundreds of tired and unwashed kids, denied the freedom of a bullhorn and the right to protest on public streets, may well be the first real green-shoots of this, the American spring. And if nurtured right, it could well begin real change."