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Anarchism Now: Occupy Wall Street Revives an Ideology

From Zuccotti Park to the streets of Oakland, the Occupiers have been careful to define their ideology as broadly and vaguely as possible. That has been a wise decision. If you claim to represent the “99 percent,” it would be contradictory, as well as self-defeating, to assert there is just one correct explanation for what caused the economic crisis and just one true way to achieve economic justice for the heterogeneous majority. The very size and breadth of the protests have also defied any honest attempt to paste a single label on them.

Yet, at the risk of handing a juicy talking point to the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, one can detect an ideological preference among a vocal and articulate minority of the young activists behind this remarkable, if still embryonic, movement. And that preference goes by the name of anarchism.

Now, this is definitely not the kind of anarchism that inspired terrorists a century ago to murder presidents and princes, and which was depicted in editorial cartoons as the faith of red-eyed men with heavy beards and bombs hidden inside their shabby coats. Instead, the anarchism that motivates some Occupiers today is ultra-egalitarian, radically environmentalist, effortlessly multicultural, and scrupulously non-violent. They are the cyber-clever progeny of Henry David Thoreau and Emma Goldman, streaming video and organizing flash mobs instead of writing essays about the wilderness or traveling around the country touting feminism and free love. The “horizontal” nature of a movement brought to life and sustained by social media fits snugly inside their anarchist vision of a future in which autonomous, self-governing communities would link up with one another, quite voluntarily of course.

The “principles of solidarity” adopted on October 25 by the General Assembly at Zuccotti Park usefully summarize the updated utopian creed. They include beliefs in “direct, participatory, and transparent democracy,” “a consensus-based decision-making process,” “valuing people before profits and eliminating the exploitation of labor,” “full rights for all people, regardless of document and citizenship status, sexual preference, or gender identity,” “a sustainable economy in harmony with nature.” Red Emma would endorse all these principles, although the one about “practicing and supporting wide application of open-source technologies” would surely puzzle her.

Such romantic notions are easy for pragmatic liberals to deflate: How would “direct democracy” preserve Medicare? Wouldn’t an open border between Mexico and the U.S. lead to an increase in “the exploitation of labor”?

Yet there is something both bracing and even rational about the anarchist revival. When the political and economic heights are occupied, on both shores of the Atlantic, by men (and a few women) who seem at the mercy of finance capital and are unable (or unwilling) to do much to help ordinary people in trouble, it should not be surprising that a kind of non-doctrinaire anarchism has become popular. Anti-authoritarianism can be a useful corrective to authorities who have lost the confidence of the citizenry, if not their legitimacy to rule. It also keeps the Occupiers on guard against Leninist sects and other keepers of extinguished flames and encourages individuals new to activism to speak their minds, create their own slogans, and imagine how to build a better world whose structure is not and cannot yet be known.

However, past anarchists like Emma Goldman were never able to make the leap from visionary protest to sensible politics, and the new breed may fail at the task as well. For all their sensitivity to “process,” the Occupiers run the risk that their passion for mass democracy will devolve into a tactical mess.

Take last Wednesday’s “General Strike” in Oakland. On the one hand, this event showed the daring and creativity of a movement aware of the history of economic protest. In the mid-1930s, general strikes played a critical role in persuading Congress to enact the National Labor Relations Act and helped galvanize the surge in union organizing which followed. This time, although only a few thousand workers walked off their jobs, many businesses closed for the day, and the idea of a mass strike evoked the days when workers were the spearhead of a large and powerful left. The local labor council and several unions were happy to endorse the protest, and scores of their members came to serve barbeque and join the throng that, at one point, approached ten thousand.

On the other hand, “strike” organizers never made clear why closing the Port of Oakland was the central aim of the day. It led to several angry stand-offs between protestors and union truckers who wanted to go home for the night and then make it back to work the next morning. Only the intervention of officials from the ILWU, the longshore union which has been a bastion of the left since its creation by veterans of the real general strike that took place in San Francisco in 1934, may have prevented a fracas similar to the Manhattan “Hard Hat Riot” during the Vietnam war, in which dozens were injured. In Oakland, later at night, a small group of protestors broke into a downtown building, set a fire in a trashcan, and scrawled graffiti before the cops arrested them. Inevitably, the media coverage—in The New Republic and elsewhere—focused on acts by a violent few who seem to think that running amuck is a political strategy.

So one can admire the democratic impulse of anarchism while rejecting its temptation to “go where the spirit say go and do what the spirit say do,” in the words of one freedom song from the early days of the civil rights struggle. If the movement of the 99 percent hopes to endure and prosper, its organizers will have to learn, as did their radical predecessors, to hold onto their big dreams and anger at the “system” while empathizing with the immediate needs and grievances of the quite unradical American majority.

This week, a teacher from Oakland named Eric Robertson told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle why he had left his first-grade class to join the protest. "I'd like to see responsible capitalism," explained Robertson, "I think it is a good model but you have to have restrictions on it.” It is time, he said, that Americans started “paying government for what they expect of government … I am tired of smelling piss on the street … We want responsibility.’" The Occupiers have done the fine and necessary work of putting economic inequality up for national debate again. Now, a responsible radical left—tinctured with anarchism or not—would be a wonderful thing to see. 

Michael Kazin is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent