Thursday evening I went to an exhibit of inspiring photos of the Seattle Occupy movement and chatted with several people there. One woman and I discussed Occupy and the path forward. She said she distrusts the Democratic Party.
I said that I understand why people reject working through the Democratic Party — it would take a huge fight to kick out the corporatists — but I also said that both progressive Dems and Occupiers want the same things: economic justice, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental stewardship, a strong social safety net (including Medicare for all), progressive taxation, an end to militarism, an end to the police state, and an end to corruption. We’re just taking different paths to the same goal. Progressive Dems want to reform the Democratic Party so it serves the 99%. Occupiers think the Democratic Party is hopelessly corrupt.
Perhaps trying to reform the Democratic Party is a fool’s errand. But most grassroots Democrats that I know are quite progressive, and I note that angry conservatives tend to take over the GOP, while angry progressives/occupiers flee the Democratic Party, leaving it to the corporatists. As a result of the division on the left, there are neither enough progressives to reform the Democratic Party nor enough occupiers and leftists to form a viable third party or alternative system.
Anyway, this woman proceeded to disagree with my claim that progressive Dems and Occupiers have the same aim. She said that she’s a “anarcho-socialist” and a pacifist, and she doesn’t want government to be powerful. She disagrees with liberalism. I responded, “But don’t you want government to provide Social Security and Medicare and libraries? Well, that’s big government.” She nodded yes but had no response to this, or no time for a response anyway. Our discussion ended by her saying that she’s OK with discussing things but her life is busy and she doesn’t waste time arguing with people who see things substantially differently.
I had a bad feeling after that conversation.
Many people in the Occupy movement are more or less anarchist. I’m not talking mainly about the violence-loving Black Block anarchists that Chris Hedges criticized in The Cancer in Occupy. I’m talking mostly about peaceful anarchists: people who favor a non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal, small-government society with local control and local ownership.
I don’t understand the attraction of anarchism, and I’m writing this article to solicit dialog about why people are attracted to it and to draw attention to a troubling fact: anarchist Occupiers, even the peaceful ones, may be aiding the anti-government forces on the right.
Thanks to government we have seat belts, childhood immunization, civil rights laws, the Internet, gas mileage standards, pollution controls, Medicare, Social Security, laws, constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and press (under threat, for sure), public transportation, public schools, disaster relief, medical research (most life-saving drugs produced by government researchers), safety standards on toys, foods, and medicines,…..
See the article We’re the government, and we built all these
Especially worth emphasizing is the need for Big Government to act as a counterweight and check on corporations, which would otherwise dominate society. Corporations aren’t going away, because it is efficient for people to organize themselves into groups, both economically and politically. Typically, such groups are hierarchical, and members of the group cooperate to reach shared goals. For corporations, of course, the goal is to earn money; employees benefit when their company prospers.
Of course, too often government just serves the 1% and the corporations. But we need to fix government, not minimize it. Without government we’d be hunter gatherers. I don’t believe that a modern society can function without a centralized government. Nor can most organizations function without hierarchy. Give me an example where anarchism, or something based on it, worked in a modern nation. The most successful model seems to be northern European-style Big Government nations: capitalism tempered by high taxes and a strong safety net.
Anarchist Occupiers are similar to Tea Party conservatives: both yearn for some sort of utopian, post-government society where people self-organize into cooperating communities. I fear that such libertarian fantasies will end up helping the 1%. We need government to regulate industry and to serve the people!
I worry that anarchists may feed into the right wing Tea Party mentality and the libertarianism of Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers.
Oddly, despite right wingers’ professed preference for individualism, they seem more capable than leftists at cooperating and working as a community. People on the Left are always fighting among themselves. Occupy Movements fall apart due to infighting. So much for cooperation.
I suppose that for many of the Occupiers, when they think of the government they think of the police, the US military, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. They probably think that the system is thoroughly corrupt and we need to replace it with a new system — one based on what? Love and cooperation? I think that’s the same libertarian idealism (or fantasy) that some of the Tea Partiers engage in. Or, I suppose, the Tea Partiers believe that unregulated, bottom-up market competition will magically result in fair distribution of power and resources, tempered perhaps by Christian love.
Or maybe the Tea Party is mostly a astro-turf group and most of the supporters don’t give a crap about the poor and the middle class.
Later, I talked for a half hour, by facebook chat, with another occupier, a man who had worked with Occupy Seattle’s media committee, until he left because of the infighting. He spoke of wanting to rebuild the Occupy Movement (“I want to build it with a different model, one where we work on community with each other . Hey if you have any ideas how to get everyone to get along, let me know. I know i can draw them together, but i don’t have any clues how to get them to communicate with each other.”) For many of the Occupiers, the movement is their community — a substitute for the church that serves the same role for many right wingers, I suppose. (I note, again, that churches are typically hierarchical.)
There’s a good article about Occupy in the Sept 24th edition of The Nation, by Nathan Schneider from wagingnonviolence.org. He says, “In a society still ruled by capitalism and hierarchy, anarchist utopia [the first few months of Occupy] isn’t easy to keep up for long. Working groups have splintered into project groups and affinity groups that have gone on strike against one another.”
The Occupy Movement has been effective at raising awareness of gross injustices in our society. See Anniversary of Occupy Wall St.: A CAUSE For Celebration! But the way forward should not involve anarchism, in my opinion. We need hierarchy, and we need Big Government that serves the People.
Maybe I am just too cynical about human nature and the possibility of cooperation.
Perhaps if the economy goes far south and Grover Norquist succeeds in drowning government in a bathtub, we’ll be forced to fend for ourselves and I’ll eat my shoe.
I’d love to hear from anarchists their response to the above. Please comment here or email me at ThinkerFeeler — (at) — yahoo.
There’s a lively discussion about this topic on the facebook page for Occupy Seattle Peacefully. Someone recommended that I read books by Emma Goldman and Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Someone said that government doesn’t provide the things I listed, people do. That reminds me of the claim that guns don’t kill, people do. I think the distinction is bogus. It’s a historical fact that government did provide all those things (Social Security, seat belt laws, the Internet, etc).
The claim that government didn’t provide those things is also reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s words: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” (source)
Someone suggested that we need to build localized, non-governmental and non-corporate cooperatives to serve our needs. We need to stop being dependent on unaccountable organizations. We need to learn to cooperate and take care of ourselves.
I said that such cooperative local groups remind me of Hamas and of factions/warlords in Afghanistan, because they represent the failure of a central government. They also remind me of churches, such as the Catholic Church and evangelical churches. I continued:
I see where you’re getting at. Reduce our reliance on corporations and governments by building localized cooperative groups. I’m just not sure it’s workable. People are reluctant to cooperate or join groups. People both yearn for and resist community. (I see it in myself.) There’s a battle between individualism and communitarianism in the minds and hearts of most of us. It’s easier to pay taxes and let professionals in government handle social services. People specialize and don’t have time to do other things
In this age of cell phones and cars and jets and computers, some things can only be created by large corporations, which aren’t going away any time soon. So we need government as a counterweight. Occupiers have given up on government.
Anyway, I learned something. I used to think that progressive Dems and Occupiers are aiming towards the same goal, but perhaps not. Many Occupiers are anarchists who want to dismantle government. Progressive Dems typically want a strong government to provide services and defend the People against corporations and private interests. Apparently, there are real, serious disagreements about strategy on the Left.
An alternative title for this article might be: Are Occupiers natural allies of progressives? Or even: The Other Cancer in Occupy (but that title is way too harsh).
On OpEdNews, I was accused of opposing the Occupy movement. Not so. Let me be clear that I applaud Occupiers’ criticisms of our current government. What I disagree with is the anarchism/libertarianism of many Occupiers. They fail to see all the good that government can do and has done. We can’t turn back the clock. We need Big Government – GOOD Big Government — to regulate the corporations and to provide services, such as Medicare for all (single-payer healthcare), Social Security, and education. Those are core progressive desiderata and they can’t be provided bottom-up.