November 20, 2011

The Understand Occupy Wall Street, All You Need To Understand is All of Political Philosophy, Part 1

Carroll Andrew Morse

Looking towards Marxism to explain Occupy Wall Street, as a number of writers have recently done, doesn't go far enough to explain the sort-of-movement's set of agenda items, or its choice of means for achieving its agenda. To fully understand the Occupy Wall Street Protests, its Providence counterpart, and how they differ from the Tea Party organizations, a wider view of political philosophy is needed -- in fact, a view of all of it. Fortunately, understanding all of political philosophy is not quite as daunting a task as it may initially sound (especially when you have bloggers to guide you).

* * *

Alfred North Whitehead once said that "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato". If you believe Whitehead, all you need to do to understand all of philosophy, political philosophy included, is digest the entire works of Plato. Of course, Whitehead’s claim was ridiculously broad; obviously it was the combination of Plato and Aristotle who at one point or another said everything on the subject of philosophy there is to be said.

Slight hyperboles aside, it is safe to say that most if not all of the important concepts still used in philosophy today were developed by the ancient philosophers. The differences that separate modern from ancient philosophy are in the normative, i.e. in the widespread acceptance of basic set of rights possessed by everyone, commoners and aristocracy alike. In the words of 20th century philosopher Allan Bloom, rights are “new in modernity, not a part of the common sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy". In the ancient world, it was possible to think deeply and be concerned about concepts such as justice and virtue, yet still not be troubled by a practice such as slavery. This was not possible after the idea of universal equality had taken root. The political implication of this, also in Bloom's words, is that modernity is “constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed".

I don't believe that philosophers or historians have settled on any single explanation of how the idea of the political equality of all men (and eventually women) crept decisively into society's way of thinking over the millennia between Ancient Greece and the Enlightenment, but one theory worth pondering is that it was catalyzed by the spread of Christianity, with its core belief in all men being equal in the eyes of God. We do know that a connection between a Creator of all and equal rights for all was expressed at the beginning of the American Declaration of Independence, meaning that America’s founders either really believed in this idea, or if they didn’t, they were unable to identify a better alternative to base the existence of equal rights upon.

In tracing how ideas of liberty and equality made their way to the United States, historian Bernard Bailyn has noted they arrived in various forms: "Enlightenment abstractions", "common law precedents", "covenant theology", and "classical analogy", some more philosophical, some more practical. The Enlightenment abstractions -- the most purely philosophical part -- included the early and very successful theory of individual equality that had been posited by John Locke. Locke's idea was that all men possessed a natural freedom in a "state of nature", but that other men and unpleasant aspects of nature threatened that freedom. In response, individuals made a contract with another, agreeing to give up a small part of their natural freedom, to protect themselves from the threats that had the power to limit their freedom in a more severe way.

There were two great counterpoints to the ideas of Locke. One came from Edmund Burke. Burke rejected the idea that the goal of society was to restore man to life as it might have been in a state of nature. Burke doubted that such a state had existed in a meaningful way at any place or time. Man had always lived surrounded by other men and, in response, society had evolved habits and institutions that could protect an “ordered liberty” that would be something substantially less without them.

The other great reaction to Locke was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike Burke, Rousseau shared Locke's idea that the goal of political organization was to get man as close to an ideal state of nature has possible. However, unlike Locke, he didn't believe it would follow naturally from the pursuit of individual interests. Instead, Rousseau believed everyone had to subsume their individual wills into society's "general will" in order to experience true freedom in modern existence.

I would not go quite as far as Alfred North Whitehead did in tracing everything back to any single thinker or very small set of thinkers but, over the past 300 years, there hasn't been very much added to the combinations of underlying assumptions about the modes of political interaction explored by Locke, Burke and Rousseau. Their work has endured for centuries, because they each painted coherent pictures of how human instincts and intuitions about political interaction combine with conscious ideas of individual freedom and equality. There are some modes of human thinking that don't really change, and a good comprehensive description from seventeenth or eighteenth century still applies today -- so long as we are willing to stick with that normative idea that all men and women are created equal.

Social science taxonomists of various stripes would say that Locke, Burke and Rousseau gave expression to modes of thinking that are liberal (in the classical sense), conservative (which is a little different from "American" conservatism) and radical (which is a different thing from liberal), respectively. (But just in case, I've missed someone big, I will create an open thread immediately below this post, for anyone who wants to make a case for a fourth, orthogonal political philosopher).

What has been added to the work of the early modern political theorists is a whole lot of history, allowing for some assessment of whether the various theories are really all that logical, once the reality of human nature is added.

* * *

Looking across the breadth of political philosophy, the differences between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street become obvious. At the very fundamental level, the movements capture very different aspects of possible human reactions to political problems. The Tea Party movement, with its focus on Constitutional government, i.e. on preserving institutions and habits that have served many people very well for many years, are mounting a Burkean defense (of a day-to-day system, somewhat paradoxically, that is heavily justified in terms of the ideas of Locke.)

The Occupy Wall Streeters and Occupy Providencers, on the other hand, are tapping into the side of human nature explored by Rousseau -- the philosopher of the big three whose ideas by-far provide the worst guide for building a livable political program...

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Is it not possible that we are over intellectualizing Occupy Wall Street.

Is it not possible that it is simply a desire to "do something" by the disaffected? I am thinking of small towns that have "Human Rights Councils".

Could it be that participants have no core philosophy and have only been assigned one by those who wish to philosophize?

I was quite moved by the distress felt by OWS members when they found that homeless were dropping in for a free meal.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 21, 2011 7:25 AM

I agree with WF... in that I do believe we are assigning intent and even mission to the Occupy movement, when in fact it doesn't really have one to speak -- at least not one agreed upon, or one that isn't self-contradictory. They value disaggregation and the individual voice too much to actually put together something cogent.

Not having visited OWS, but visiting (mainly) Occupy Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, Salem, and Portland -- it does seem they just want to "do something".

That said, I think many of the kids and older Occupiers *I* met, seemed to welcome the homeless and indigent populations as part of what little core philosophy they did have. The issue being that some of these folks are mentally or physically unstable and need real medical care, not a tent in the park and a hot dog.

I continue to be less than impressed with the movement in that it accomplishes seemingly nothing other than some truly vivid imagery, and I continue to be more than concerned with the absolute brutality of the government response in many places.

There was a time when the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and the overuse of pepper spray on unarmed civilians would have caused more of an uproar. Instead, most of America now changes the channel to either the circus that is the "Supercommittee", thinking vainly that it will help, or they forget it entirely and go back to working the extreme extra hours without paid overtime they actually need to work to keep their jobs in a bad economy.

Say what you will about Occupy, but the political/police response, and then the lack of a response by the majority of Americans is pretty crazy in my eyes. Perhaps that will be their legacy.

Posted by: jparis at November 21, 2011 8:09 AM

Posted by jparis
"There was a time when the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and the overuse of pepper spray on unarmed civilians would have caused more of an uproar."

I am not sure when that would have been. The nearest analogy I can think of was the "Bonus Army". They had guns turned on them and were ridden down by calvary. Their shanty town was torn down and burned. To be fair, there was some concern and a few generals lost their jobs (atually transferred, notably MacArthur and Patton). The President admitted he gave the order, but claimed that the Generals went to excess. No one went to jail.
This confirms that Patton rode down the man who pulled him out of "no man's land". I was never sure if that was just rumor. I also understand that Patton supported him for the rest of his life.

There was also the "Draft Riots" in NYC. Probably not a good comparison; they were significantly more violent than the Bonus Army, or OWS. Nonetheless, they were put down by the Army and a number killed.

The killing at the Ohio State Riot caused a great deal more concern than any others I know of. But, that did not have the numbers, or organization, of the OWS or Bonus Army.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 21, 2011 3:58 PM

Make no mistake about these occupiers, they are merely discontent with the fact that they are not in charge. Notice all of the occupy movements have their own little governments that fail to fix, in their tiny little spheres, what they see and criticize in society at large. Is anyone shocked these degenerates don't have jobs. All they want is to be "the man" without any credentials.
Their specious cries for equality are always devoid of the requisite equality of input, a fact seen by all but them. Basically, they are a slothful bunch, looking for handouts. And that is why society is turning on them pretty quickly. They want their rights, and everyone else can be damned. Not exactly a winning message. Typical of left-win loonies.

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at November 21, 2011 6:23 PM

Warrington-it was Kent State in Ohio,not OSU.
jparis-In the 1930's the police used vomiting gas and live ammunition on strikers,so things are a lot easier today.
I've experienced vomiting gas(DM)and tear gas(CN)and pepper gas(CS) during military training.
DM SUCKS!!it can also kill you if you have serious medical prblems.
CN is a joke-CS is irritating as hell.
But it does het rid of any cold you might have-snot city all over your shiert.

Posted by: joe bernstein at November 21, 2011 6:31 PM

I've been thinking again. I suspect the reason OWS receives more philosophizing in the press than the Tea Party, which receives only derision, is how it is perceived. The OWS is "progressive" (I still prefer "Liberal") in the sense that it demands more government intervention in the society, debt forgiveness, student debt elimination, income redistribution, etc.

The Tea Party is counter Progressive, seeking smaller, more limited, government. That does not need a philosophy, it is simply condemned. Catch the Liberal/Progressive philosophizing about the Tea Party at the beginning of this video:

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 22, 2011 5:07 PM

While watching that video I wondered what if it was from Motown, rather than Nashville, would it be more "profound". If it was rap would it deserve "further cotemplation" to understand the sub text and inuendo?

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 22, 2011 5:20 PM
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