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.
…The defining aspect of Occupy Wall Street, its emphasis on direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making, is most clearly embodied by its General Assembly, in which participants in the protest make group decisions both large and small, like adopting principles of solidarity and deciding how best to stay warm at night.
This intensive and egalitarian process is important both procedurally and substantively, Mr. Graeber says. “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic,” he says. “You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can’t establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.”
When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy, Mr. Graeber says. “It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected.” Or, as an editorial in the protest’s house publication, Occupied Wall Street Journal, put it, “This occupation is first about participation.”
…The idea that intellectual ferment is coming from the streets rather than academe is evidence that anarchism is witnessing something of a resurgence of interest among both activists and academics, says Nathan J. Jun, assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern State University, in Texas, and author of the forthcoming Anarchism and Political Modernity.
While some students in the movement might be passingly familiar with anarchist studies, Mr. Jun says, they have probably not read much of the scholarship. It is much more likely that anarchism itself has had the greater influence on Occupy Wall Street because, he says, many activists there “regard anarchy as an ideal to be realized.”
Oh, dear. An ideal to be realized? Okay, there are those who would smile and shrug at the collapse of the nation-state, and at least they’re a little more intellectually consistent and clear on the concept. But if you think a modern industrial state is going to be run along the same lines as a hippie commune or an Amish community, or that life in a decentralized, consensus-based community of a few hundred, maybe a few thousand people is necessarily going to be any less oppressive to individualist sensibilities, well…
More than anything else, I think about Isaiah Berlin’s concept of value pluralism in cases like this: maybe, just maybe, some of the values you consider “good” are inherently in conflict with one another and cannot all converge on the same point in time. Maybe you can’t have equality, peace, contentment, justice, individualism, consumer goods, etc. all at the same time. Maybe, despite the fact that a bomb in Haymarket Square, Nestor Makhno leading the Anarchist Black Army during the Russian Civil War, Leon Czolgosz assassinating William McKinley, Alexander Berkman shooting Henry Clay Frick (add your own favorite example here) have all failed to light the way to utopia, and have often even been counterproductive to the revolutionary cause, maybe the 1% aren’t going to loosen their deathgrip on their purse strings until they get some genuine fear struck into them. Maybe the idea that all problems can be resolved rationally by sitting down peacefully and talking them out is an ideological delusion. I’m just saying.