Democratic activist Don Smith recently published a column in Op-Ed News entitled, "Why are so many Occupiers attracted to anarchism?" Don't they appreciate the wonders government has wrought, such as the internet, Social Security, and seatbelts in cars? he asked. Don't they value the role of government in checking the power of corporations through regulation? "We need hierarchy," he concludes, "and we need Big Government that serves the People."
At first I thought he couldn't possibly be serious. The words "Occupy" and "big government" conjure images of escalating state violence against activists as the movement gained in numbers, recognition, and public approval. From the earliest weeks of OWS, police physically assaulted peaceful protesters, legal observers, and journalists alike, by shoving them against walls, slamming them down on the pavement, striking and jabbing them with billy clubs, kettling and pepper spraying them at close range. Later, police donned riot gear and added firing bean bag projectiles and tear gas canisters to their arsenal of repressive tactics. They even fired on protesters rushing to the aid of Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, after he received a severe head injury from a tear gas canister. Ultimately, with advice and support from the Department of Homeland Security (which continues to surveil Occupy activists), police brutally evicted Occupiers in a number of cities, tearing down tents and shelters and destroying what few personal possessions some Occupiers owned. What's not to love about the big government-enabled security and surveillance state?
But Smith insisted that he would really love to hear from folks; that he desired dialogue. Perhaps he is sincere, I thought, just woefully ill-informed. However, as the day wore on, Smith added a subtitle to his post, to ask, "Are Anarchists in Occupy Aiding Grover Norquist?" By the end of the day, he dropped the original title that asked why some Occupiers are attracted to anarchism, leaving just the question about Norquist.
Smith's first question appeared to be an honest attempt at dialogue; the second a passive-aggressive attack on people who refuse to get on board the Democratic party bandwagon for another go round. The rambling stream-of-consciousness essay included a number of assertions and generalizations unsupported by discussion or analysis. Thoughtfully responding to, for example, his assertion that we "need" hierarchy; his lumping together of Tea Partiers, libertarians, and anarchists; and his assumption that inventions like the internet are an unqualified benefit, would take an entire essay each. Nevertheless, as a long-time Democratic voter, now anarchist sympathizer, I want to respond to what appear to be the central issues raised by Smith: the relationship between anarchism and Occupy; and big government as a check on corporate power.
Smith's original question about why so many in Occupy are attracted to anarchism suggests he is unfamiliar with the origins of the movement and the core values that inform its organization and economic critique. Many founders of OWS are anarchists or influenced by a related political philosophy, horizontalism. Consequently, the values and ideals of those political philosophies shaped the Occupy movement. Both advocate direct democracy and mutual aid and both challenge prevailing notions of hierarchy and power. The word "anarchy" comes from the Greek word anarkos, meaning "without a ruler." Anarchism rejects "power over" while horizontalism, (or horizontalidad -- it emerged in South America), envisions power as "something we create together" [It's] not about asking, or demanding of a government or an institutional power."
Those political values are reflected in the concept of a leaderless movement and the General Assembly, an institution intended to allow all voices within the community a chance to be heard and to establish consensus within the group. As Marina Sitrin explains, "Horizontalism means we have to dialogue and come to consensus among ourselves." The values of anarchism and horizontalism also inform the Occupy movement's critique of corporate power over our economy, culture, and government. In their written declaration, published on September 29th of last year, the New York City General Assembly summarized the problem and the reason for the occupation:
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.
The movement ideals immediately resonated with me as they did with many Americans, even if, like me, they had not yet heard of horizontalism or knew little about anarchism. The critique of corporate power and the opportunity to come together and discuss, learn, and agitate about these issues are profoundly liberating for a disenfranchised citizenry in a country where corporations have been declared people by the highest court in the land and whoever has the most money directs the governmental levers of power. It should not be surprising that many Occupy activists will have little interest in returning to "representative democracy" where the politicians we elect are controlled by the corporate interests that fund their campaigns.
In an essay full of jaw-dropping assertions and assumptions, it's hard to pick the most egregious statement, but the following would be at the top of the list. Smith argues that we need "Big Government to act as a counterweight and check on corporations, which would otherwise dominant society " [emphasis added]. One has to wonder, what society is he living in?? The examples of corporate dominance of our society are so numerous and so blatant that even the politically apathetic are aware of at least a few. Since Smith is a Democrat, I'll cite two major cases that involve the most recent Democratic administrations.
1) The repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall regulations under the Clinton administration (working with Republican Senator Phil Gramm) is widely believed to be a major factor 2008 financial meltdown -- a fiasco that resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the 99% to the1% through "Big Government" bailouts of "too big to fail" banks. Accomplished with the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the repeal ended regulations requiring the financial industry to separate investment from consumer deposit or commercial banking and retroactively legalized the merger of Citicorp & Travelers to create Citigroup, the largest financial services company in the world. (For that reason, it was referred to by some as the Citigroup Relief Act.) "[I]t just defies common sense," Matt Tiabbi later wrote of the repeal, "to have professional gamblers in charge of stewarding commercial bank accounts " [emphasis in the original]. Investment bankers are a different breed, he says, than consumer deposit bankers who have to manage money conservatively. Tiabbi continues:
[I]nvestment bankers by nature have huge appetites for risk, and most of them take pride in being able to sleep at night even when their bets are going the wrong way"
The influx of i-banking types into the once-boring worlds of commercial bank accounts, home mortgages, and consumer credit has helped turn every part of the financial universe into a casino.
2) Currently, the Obama administration is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a "free trade" deal with 11 other countries that will expand corporate power to "over-ride domestic laws on the environment, workplace safety, and investment." According to Dean Baker:
The TPP is an effort to use the holy grail of free trade to impose conditions and override domestic laws in a way that would be almost impossible if the proposed measures had to go through the normal legislative process. The expectation is that by lining up powerful corporate interests, the governments will be able to ram this new "free trade" pact through legislatures on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Baker reports that specific details of the proposed agreement have not been made available to relevant Congressional committees, let alone the general public.