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The Occupy Movement and the Communism of Everyday Life

Monday, May 7, 2012

As Occupy protesters turn violent, it’s worth reflecting on why the movement failed in the first place.

When the Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011, it took as its motto the bracing claim: “We are the 99 percent.” A year later, it is beginning to look more like the Occupy movement is simply another 1 percent, different of course from the 1 percent of the richest Americans that the movement set out to target, but no more representative of the average American than the likes of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. How did this happen?

Despite the fact that the Occupy Wall Street movement never came close to standing for the opinion of 99 percent of Americans, it originally struck a sympathetic chord among the many Americans who blamed our nation’s economic woes on the greed and selfishness of the rascals on Wall Street. Long before the financial crisis of 2008, many moderate and even quite conservative Americans were becoming increasingly alarmed at the growing rate of economic inequality in the United States, and were fearful that a shrinking middle class would endanger the socio-economic foundation of our democratic society. If you add these relatively mainstream Americans to the phalanx of passionate liberals for whom economic justice is an end in itself, you can easily come up with a percentage of Americans that, while falling short of 99 percent, is still a respectable chunk of our nation’s electorate.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement had been able to elicit the support of these groups, it would have been in a position to mount a formidable political challenge to the powers that be. At the very minimum, during the 2012 presidential campaign, the Occupy moment might have aspired to play the same role within the Democratic Party that the Tea Party has played within the GOP—as a force to be reckoned with, or at least pandered to. Yet, as things stand today, it is a safe bet that the Democratic Party will keep its distance from the parks and plazas that the Occupy movement will attempt to reoccupy now that spring is in the air. In fact, the Occupy movement has become so unpopular with the very people that it was supposed to unite that any politician who embraced its cause today would be signing his own political death warrant.

Did Wall Street financiers suddenly become wildly popular among the masses? No. And resentment remains strong against those who have made their billions by bending or even breaking the rules. What happened in the past year is that most Americans began to resent the Occupy Wall Street movement just as much as they resented the devious and unethical practices of those who had made a mint by behaving badly.

Violence and ‘the 99 Percent’

The communist maxim ‘from each according to his ability’ presupposes that those with ability will be willing to do something for the common good.

This transformation did not come about because the Occupy Wall Street movement lacked intelligent individuals in its ranks. Foremost among the early advocates of the movement was the brilliant economic anthropologist David Graeber, the man who is frequently credited with coming up with the slogan, “We are the 99 percent.” Dubbed the “Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street,” Graeber saw the movement as the dawn of a new age. In an interview, Graeber stated that he had three goals in 2011. The first was to learn how to drive a car. The second was to see his most recent book through the press. The third was to start a world revolution.

I don’t know if Graeber learned how to drive a car, but at this point the prospect of his starting a world revolution is looking quite dim. By March 2012, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which Graeber had earlier compared to the state-toppling uprisings of the Arab Spring, had been chased out of its original home in Zuccotti Park and had been reduced to 40 die-hard supporters holding down Union Square, one of whom announced that “we’re starting from scratch right now.”

This explains why so many in the Occupy movement looked forward to May Day, in the hope that they would be able to rekindle the original enthusiasm that had sparked the movement back in 2011. While it is true that most of the May Day protesters marched around peacefully, others took a different approach.

In the Mission District of San Francisco, a roving band of self-described anarchists got a jump on May Day festivities by smashing car windows, shattering shop fronts, and even attacking a police station. A handyman who was trying to fix the door at a local business was struck with a crow bar by a “protestor,” but was still able to shield the store window from damage. Fortunately, the handyman was relatively unharmed, but attacking a manual laborer is an odd way to celebrate the eve of international workers’ day. In past May Day celebrations around the world, workers were often attacked, but by police goons and not by their would-be liberators.

Things got even worse the next day in Seattle, when around 75 demonstrators employed the black bloc tactic. Dressed like modern day ninjas, they did the usual window smashing and tire slashing, after which they took off their ninja suits and melted back into the crowd.

As things stand today, it is a safe bet that the Democratic Party will keep its distance from the parks and plazas that the Occupy movement will attempt to reoccupy now that spring is in the air.

Violence and vandalism were not originally part of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s agenda. Some in the movement have already denounced the May Day vandalism, blaming it on outsiders. But this response is a bit disingenuous, for who in the movement has the authority to decide who constitutes an outsider? From its commencement, the Occupy Wall Street movement rejected the very idea of hierarchy. Authority—any and all authority—was the enemy, so that everyone was left free to define the purpose of the movement as he saw fit and to carry out whatever direct action he deemed appropriate. The Mission District vandals and the Seattle ninjas were simply doing their own thing. And they got what they were looking for—media attention.

Were these two episodes merely regrettable aberrations or do they point toward a new stage in the development of the Occupy movement—one in which violence becomes part of a deliberate strategy? Of course, only time will tell, but there are several reasons for fearing the worst.

First, it is the very nature of revolutionary movements to attract increasingly violent followers to their cause. Think of the Jacobins in the French revolution and the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution.

Second, the original strategy that guided the Occupy movement turned out to be a colossal failure. Designed for the purpose of garnering wide media attention, the mass occupation of parks and plazas boomeranged wildly, eventually eliciting hostility from all across the American political spectrum, from Newt Gingrich to Bill Maher.

To do all over again in 2012 what so signally failed to work in 2011 is a non-starter. Since the Occupy movement is not going to disappear in a puff of smoke, there is a good chance that the movement may be hijacked—and destroyed—by the advocates of violence and vandalism.

It is the very nature of revolutionary movements to attract increasingly violent followers to their cause.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. There is another course: namely, to reflect on what went wrong with the Occupy movement in the first place. And the best place to start would be with David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, the one thing we can be sure that Graeber succeeded in doing in 2011.

Are We All Communists Already?

One of the central ideas in Graeber’s book is his claim that communism should not be seen as an alternative system to capitalism, or feudalism, or state socialism, but rather as a mode of social life that has always been present and that is a fact of life even in the most advanced capitalist nations, such as the United States. Or, to put it as Graeber likes to: We are all communists already.

Graeber admits that this claim sounds provocative—but he is an anarchist, after all, and he can be expected to provoke. But Graeber really has a point here, and it is a good one. Before we can understand just how interesting his point is, however, we must take a glance back at the Marxist orthodoxy that reigned throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century.

According to Marx and Engels, human beings had originally dwelled in a peaceful state known as “primitive communism,” an idyllic world in which everyone had equal access to all resources; not a worker’s paradise, needless to say, but a paradise of happy hunter-gatherers.

To put it as David Graeber likes to: We are all communists already.

The myth of primitive communism was not merely a bit of idle pre-historical speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. It was essential to their whole socialist program. Because human beings had once inhabited a world in which everyone lived by the communist maxim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” they would surely be able to live the same way once the technological and organizational genius of capitalism had unleashed the full potential of intelligent human labor—although only after capitalism had been superseded by the coming socialist revolution.

Communism, in short, was natural to us. We were born that way, as Lady Gaga might say. What we had once been we could easily be again—only under much superior material conditions, thanks to the transitional state of capitalism.

As an anthropologist who has studied how so-called primitive societies really work, Graeber rejects the myth of the hunter-gatherer paradise. Indeed, one of the chief points that Graeber makes throughout his book is the universal and ubiquitous role that violence has played since the dawn of man, allowing the strong to dominate and prey on the weak.

This is an important corrective, since, from the time of Adam Smith, most economists have tended to see human beings as animals naturally disposed to truck and barter, as opposed to being animals naturally disposed to knock others in the head and steal their stuff. To leave predators and plunderers out of the saga of human history is to open the gateway to all sorts of sentimental nonsense about the perfectibility of mankind, and Graeber is to be applauded for emphasizing the eternal relevance of this melancholy truth.

The Communism of Everyday Life

Laws are not designed to deal with freeloaders, because they never actually break any laws. What they break is the spirit of communal life.

In addition to trucking, bartering, and knocking each other over the head, Graeber argues that human beings also engage in a wholly different kind of economic activity: We often share things we have with others. When Graeber says that we are already communists, he is referring to those quite familiar situations in which we really do operate by the maxim “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

People of all cultures, including our own, invariably practice the communism of everyday life when dealing with their family and close friends. A mother does not expect her child to pay her for her baby-sitting services. A brother does not rent out his baseball glove to his brother on an hourly basis. If a friend is sick and needs something from the store, we pick it up for her and would never think of asking for gas money in return.

As Graeber points out, this kind of behavior comes out most conspicuously during a crisis, such as a natural disaster. At such times, people will voluntarily, even cheerfully, extend a helping hand to those who are most in need of one. Less dramatically, the same principle is at work whenever we are at a store that has a box on the counter that says “Leave a penny, take a penny,” intended to help out those who don’t have the exact change. In all these cases we are witnessing the spontaneous application of the communist maxim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Graeber notes that in less developed societies, where there are no established markets, the communism of everyday life is the fundamental organizing principle of the whole community. Under these circumstances, the various members of the community will keep a running account of credits and debts among a large number of parties.

The Occupy movement has become so unpopular with the very people that it was supposed to unite that any politician who embraced its cause today would be signing his own political death warrant.

Furthermore, there will be an implicit conception of reciprocal proportionality, so that everyone will agree that if Bob has given Bill a healthy cow, Bill cannot expect to fulfill his obligation to Bob by giving him a skunk. This does not mean that Bill must repay the exact monetary value of the cow on a certain pre-determined date—which would obviously be a market exchange by our standards, namely, buying a cow on an installment plan—but it does mean that at some point in the future, as yet undecided, Bill must be willing to do something of more or less the same value in the eyes of the community (and Bob) as the gifting of a cow. This approximates our concept of needing to return a favor. We don’t have to know what the favor is, or when it needs to be returned—we only recognize our need to do it, some way, somehow, sometime.

Society and the Freeloader Problem

The same implicit sense of reciprocal proportionality is present in the communism of everyday American life, but it is a striking fact that we usually don’t notice that it is there until someone violates its ground rules. If we have happily loaned out our lawn-mower and leaf-blower to our neighbor Frank, free of charge, we are apt to be startled and repulsed if he refuses to let us use his tire gauge unless we pay him a rental fee.

Note that we would feel entirely different if Frank had never borrowed our stuff. In this case, we might not consider Frank very neighborly, but no one could accuse him of being that perennial target of resentment and contempt: namely, a freeloader.

The robber who knocks us in the head in order to steal from us is an obvious criminal and a danger to the community. That is why societies organize to protect themselves against those who use violence to prey on others. The freeloader, in contrast, poses no physical danger to anyone. Laws are not designed to deal with them, because they never actually break any laws. What they break is the spirit of communal life.

It swiftly became apparent that humoring the Occupy movement was costing millions of taxpayer dollars.

Indeed, anyone who has tried living in a genuine commune has probably come across at least one example of the phenomenon in question. While everyone else is giving to the commune to the best of his ability, the freeloader gives as little as possible, and almost invariably ends up taking a lot more than he needs.

But freeloaders also exist in ordinary society, and most of us have come across them. They game the communism of ordinary life so that they are invariably the beneficiaries of other people’s spontaneous acts of generosity, while they return none of their own. They refuse to observe the implicit rule of reciprocal proportionality in their actions. In short, the freeloader always takes a penny (or dime) from the box, but would never think of leaving a penny of his own.

Because freeloaders are unusually shameless, it is pointless to try to shame them into observing the principles underlying the communism of everyday life. Because, by definition, the communism of everyday life is an informal system, freeloaders cannot be sanctioned by law. (There is no law against only taking pennies and never leaving them.) In fact, there is very little any of us can do to stop freeloaders besides exiling them from our society. And this is precisely why we so bitterly resent them. We can’t stop them without shattering the very foundations of everyday communism.

While a thief simply steals a piece of property, the freeloader undermines a social arrangement from which we all benefit. He poisons the spirit that permits the wonderful spontaneity of give-and-take among friends and even strangers. The freeloader forces us all to ask, “Am I being taken advantage of?” Because the freeloader does not observe the ground rules, others lose faith in those rules, until the whole system collapses. The only way to keep freeloaders from taking all the pennies, after all, is not to leave any pennies in the first place.

By March 2012, the Occupy Wall Street movement had been chased out of its original home in Zuccotti Park and had been reduced to 40 die-hard supporters holding down Union Square.

Unfortunately, in his book David Graeber does not explore the concept of a freeloader, nor examine the damage that freeloaders can do to the vitality of the communism in daily life. If he had, he might have predicted the ultimate effect that the Occupy Wall Street movement would have on the overwhelming majority of Americans who would eventually come to see the protesters as… well, just a bunch of freeloaders—and freeloaders, by definition, are bad everyday communists.

The freeloader charge is hard to duck. Within the Occupy movement itself there were no doubt many examples of everyday communism, of sharing and loaning and borrowing from one another, without much worrying about whose was whose. But Occupiers had absolutely zero concern for the costs that other people had to bear in order to keep the movement from, well, moving.

As various cities across America became the sites of new anti-Wall Street protestors, who filled their parks with their tents and makeshift kitchens, it swiftly became apparent that humoring the Occupy movement was costing millions of taxpayer dollars. The hard-working, hard-taxed Americans for whom the movement was supposed to speak could not keep from noticing that no one in the occupied parks and plazas seemed to have a job. How could they, while refusing to budge month after month?

The communist maxim “from each according to his ability” presupposes that those with ability will be willing to do something for the common good, and not sit around all day merely occupying space that would otherwise make a fine picnic area or at least a pleasant vista.

Looked at in this way, the Occupy protesters were very bad everyday communists indeed, especially when we compared them to those everyday communists who, during the protests, continued to go to work, simply in order to take care of their families and to give a helping hand to those that needed it.

Violence, Communism, and Religion

To leave predators and plunderers out of the saga of human history is to open the gateway to all sorts of sentimental nonsense about the perfectibility of mankind.

There is, however, an even deeper internal contradiction in Graeber’s thinking. Most of us would welcome the ideal of promoting everyday communism. Even if we are put off by Graeber’s terminology, we recognize the value of a community in which people are willing to help each other out. This is certainly a refreshing change from the communism of Marxist orthodoxy, which was to be imposed from the top down through the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet the Marxists were at least consistent. Their praxis matched their theory. They knew that to achieve their goal, there had to be a revolution—violent revolution.

Unlike Marxist communism, however, the communism of everyday life cannot be imposed by force. People must spontaneously choose to practice it. They may do this automatically because of the religious or cultural traditions in which they were raised, but no political revolution can hope to instill the spirit of everyday communism where it does not already exist. On the contrary, revolutions, because they disrupt the traditional structures and fabric of ordinary life, are far more likely to poison this spirit. In short, if Graeber seriously wanted to promote the ideal of everyday communism, he would drop his romantic infatuation with world revolution.

There is a way out, both for Graeber and the Occupy movement. Graeber is virtually unique among radical thinkers for the favorable attitude he takes towards religion. Religions, after all, have managed to do what no political revolution ever has—they have encouraged and promoted the spirit of everyday communism, as Graeber himself notes in his book. How did religious movements succeed where merely political movements failed? For the most part, they relied on individuals who lived and embodied the spirit of everyday communism and who inspired others to do the same by their own shining example.

Of course, for some people this path is not as exciting as smashing windows and slashing tires, but it is far more likely to win converts.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Science and the Republican Brain,” “Why ObamaCare Has Proved a Hard Sell,” and “More than Just Broccoli: The Real Slippery Slope of ObamaCare’s ‘Must-Buy’ Provision.” Nick Schulz presents “Three Inconvenient Truths for Occupy Wall Street.” Arthur C. Brooks discusses “Fairness and the 'Occupy' Movement.” Jonah Goldberg says “OWS Needs a Republican President.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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