Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe
Movement’s principles arise from scholarship on anarchy
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.”