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Anarchy in the U.S.A.

The roots of American disorder.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Ever since September, when activists heeded Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn’s call to Occupy Wall Street, it’s become a rite of passage for reporters, bloggers, and video trackers to go to the occupiers’ tent cities and comment on what they see. Last week, the day after New York mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the NYPD to dismantle the tent city in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, the New York Times carried no fewer than half a dozen articles on the subject. Never in living memory has such a small political movement received such disproportionate attention from the press. Never in living memory has a movement been so widely scrutinized and yet so deeply misunderstood.

Photo of police dragging away a protestor

AP / Seth Wenig

If income equality is the new political religion, occupied Zuccotti Park was its Mecca. Liberal journalists traveled there and spewed forth torrents of ink on the value of protest, the creativity and spontaneity of the occupiers, the urgency of redistribution, and the gospel of social justice. Occupy Wall Street was compared to the Arab Spring, the Tea Party, and the civil rights movement. Yet, as many a liberal journalist left the park, they lamented the fact that Occupy Wall Street wasn’t more tightly organized. They worried that the demonstration would dissipate without a proper list of demands or a specific policy agenda. They suspected that the thefts, sexual assaults, vandalism, and filth in the camps would limit the occupiers’ appeal.

The conservative reaction has been similar. A great many conservatives stress the conditions among the tents. They crow that Americans will never fall in line behind a bunch of scraggly hippies. They dismiss the movement as a fringe collection of left tendencies, along with assorted homeless, mental cases, and petty criminals. They argue that the Democrats made a huge mistake embracing Occupy Wall Street as an expression of economic and social frustration.

A smaller group of conservatives, however, believes the occupiers are onto something. The banks do have too much power. Wages have been stagnant. The problem, these conservatives say, is that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t really know what to do about any of the problems it laments. So this smaller group of conservatives, along with the majority of liberals, is more than happy to supply the occupiers with an economic agenda.

But they might as well be talking to rocks. Both left and right have made the error of thinking that the forces behind Occupy Wall Street are interested in democratic politics and problem solving. The left mistakenly believes that the tendency of these protests to end in violence, dissolute behavior, and the melting away of the activists is an aberration, while the right mistakenly brushes off the whole thing as a combination of Boomer nostalgia for the New Left and Millennial grousing at the lousy job market. The truth is that the violence is not an aberration and Occupy Wall Street should not be laughed away. What we are seeing here is the latest iteration of an old political program that has been given new strength by the failures of the global economy and the power of postmodern technology.

To be sure, there are plenty of people flocking to the tents who are everyday Democrats and independents concerned about joblessness and the gap between rich and poor. The unions backing the occupiers fall into this group. But the concerns of labor intersect only tangentially with those of Occupy Wall Street’s theorists and prime movers. The occupiers have a lot more in common with the now-decades-old antiglobalization movement. They are linked much more closely to the “hacktivist” agents of chaos at WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

When the police officers and sanitation workers reclaimed Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street’s supporters cried, “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” Whether the sympathizers or the critics really understand the idea and the method of the movement is a good question. The idea is utopian socialism. The method is revolutionary anarchism.

It was February 25, 1825, and the U.S. Capitol was under occupation​—​sort of. Robert Owen, a successful Welsh businessman and socialist, wasn’t standing in the Rotunda holding up a placard. He was addressing a joint session of Congress from the dais of the House of Representatives. President James Monroe and president-elect John Quincy Adams were present for at least a portion of the speech. As Joshua Muravchik explains in Heaven on Earth, a history of socialism, the elected officials were mesmerized by Owen’s plans.

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