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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.

In the speech, Owen shared his dream of cooperative villages where workers would see their poverty alleviated and their spirits transformed. Inspired by the success of his New Lanark community in Scotland, where employees lived in hospitable conditions and the children of laborers received early childhood and primary education, Owen hoped to bring to America exquisitely planned spaces where a new, improved mankind would come into being. Owen thought his scientifically organized village would “lead to that state of virtue, intelligence, enjoyment, and happiness, in practice, which has been foretold by the sages of past times, and would at some distant period become the lot of the human race!” Utopia, according to Owen, was not confined to the printed page. Utopia could be realized.

The site of his American utopia would be New Harmony, on the Wabash River in southwest Indiana. Owen welcomed residents to his colony that April. “I am come to this country,” he told them, “to introduce an entire new state of society, to change it from the ignorant, selfish system, to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all cause for contests between individuals.” There would be no 1 percent versus the 99 percent in New Harmony. 

Things did not work as planned, however. Structuring a community along rational lines was extremely difficult. There weren’t enough skilled laborers. Many of the residents were lazy. Shortages were commonplace. Central planning hampered the efficient allocation of meals. Factions split off from the main group. The community closely monitored the activities and beliefs of every member. Alcohol was banned. Children were separated from their parents; one later said she saw her “father and mother twice in two years.” Owen expelled malcontents. Only his generous subsidies held New Harmony together. 

And not for long. Owen’s “new empire of peace and good will to man” fell apart within four years. But the socialist utopian impulse lives on to this day. America
in particular has a long and storied tradition of individuals coming together to create perfect societies. In these earthly utopias, competition is to be replaced by cooperation, private property is to dissolve into communal ownership, traditional family structures are to be transformed into the family of mankind, and religion is to be displaced by the spirit of scientific humanism. The names of these communities are familiar to any student of American history: Brook Farm, Oneida, the North American Phalanx. None of them lasted. None of them realized the ecstasy their founders desired.

Historian J.P. Talmon wrote in Political Messianism (1960) that the American and European utopians “all shared the totalitarian-democratic expectation of some pre-ordained, all-embracing, and exclusive scheme of things, which was presumed to represent the better selves, the true interests, the genuine will and the real freedom of men.” The men and women behind the utopian movements drew inspiration from the French Revolution, which proclaimed the liberty, equality, and fraternity of all, and from the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who taught that individuals born free and equal were made subservient and estranged through the institutions of society and private property. Lost freedom could be recovered by dismantling the obstacles that prevent man from being true to himself. The reconstruction of society along rational lines would allow us to reclaim the state of natural bliss that had been lost.

Utopianism attracts goofballs as light attracts moths. The postrevolutionary thinker Charles Fourier was a classic example. “He was an odd old bachelor,” Talmon writes, “a denizen of boarding houses, with the ways of an incurable pedant, loving cats and parrots, tending flowers; rather frightening with his uncanny fixed habits and air of mystery; brooding in immobile silence, but flying into a temper when anyone interfered in the slightest with his routine.” Fourier’s vision was mindboggling. If his plans were put into effect, Fourier believed, “anti-lions” and “anti-crocodiles” would one day transport people across the globe. Hens would lay so many eggs that the British national debt would be paid off in months. The possibility existed, in Fourier’s mind, that the oceans would turn into lemonade.

The basic unit of social organization in Fourier’s dream world was the phalanx. Six million of them would be enough to encompass all of humanity. Fourier planned each aspect of his fantastic environment in intricate detail. Every structure​—​from dormitories to stables to restaurants​—​was precisely designed. Once men lived in the phalanx, there would be no need for property or law or God or family or restraint. Every person would live in accord with his fellow man and nature. This self-regulating community would unleash the creative potential in every human heart.

Children were the clay from which Fourier would sculpt new men. “The phalanx containing an exceedingly great variety of occupations,” he wrote, “it is impossible that the child in passing from one to the other should not find opportunities of satisfying several of his dominant instincts.” There would be no resentment in Fourier’s ideal community, no envy of others. The passions would flow freely. Every want would be fulfilled. It would be, indeed, paradise.

When he looks at the world, the utopian is repelled by two things in particular. One is private property. “The civilized order,” Fourier wrote, “is incapable of making a just distribution except in the case of capital,” where your return on investment is a function of what you put in. Other than that, the market system is unjust. Economics is a zero-sum game. One man holds possessions at the expense of another. For another nineteenth-century French utopian, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, property was theft.

Private property embodies the chains of society that keep man down. As Talmon put it, for the utopian, property is “an instrument of irrational and selfish exploitation; instead of a vehicle for enlarging our personality, a tyrannical master to both the haves driven by insatiable cupidity, and the have-nots, whose lives were being stunted by want and alienated through bondage.” And because property is the source of inequality, only through the communal redistribution of goods can true equality be achieved.

The utopian’s other great hatred is for middle-class or “bourgeois” culture. Monogamy, monotheism, self-control, prudence, cleanliness, fortitude, self-interested labor​—​these are the utopian’s enemies. “Morality teaches man to be at war with himself,” Fourier wrote, “to resist his passions, to repress them, to believe that God was incapable of organizing our souls, our passions wisely.” What were called the bourgeois virtues had been designed to maintain unjust social relations and stop man from being true to himself. Thus, to recover one’s natural state, one “must undertake a vast operation of ‘desanctification,’ beginning with the so-called morality of the bourgeoisie,” wrote the twentieth-century utopian Daniel Guérin. “The moral prejudices inculcated by Christianity have an especially strong hold on the masses of the people.”  

It is therefore necessary to liberate individuals from their social and sexual mores. “The family will no longer be the exclusive unit, as it is in civilization,” wrote Talmon. At Brook Farm in Massachusetts, which lasted from 1841 to 1847, men and women were encouraged to interact as complete social, political, and sexual equals. Residents of the Oneida Community (1848-1880) in upstate New York engaged in “complex marriage,” in which older members of the commune “introduced” younger members to sex. The Oneidans engaged in selective breeding. These practices, radical at the time, have been characteristic of left-wing movements ever since. The free love associated with the New Left and student rebellion in the 1960s, for instance, is today so deeply embedded in American culture that only social conservatives pay it any mind.

The persistence of certain features of utopian socialism over 200 years is impressive. Only the dress codes and gadgets change. If Charles Fourier emerged from a wormhole at the Occupy Wall Street D.C. tent city in McPherson Square in Washington, he’d feel right at home. The very term “occupy” or “occupation” is an attack on private property. So are the theft and vandalism widely reported at Occupy Wall Street locations. The smells, the assaults, the rejection of the conventional in favor of the subversive, and the embrace of pantheistic spirituality flow logically from the utopian rejection of middle-class norms. The things that Mayor Bloomberg found objectionable about the encampment in Zuccotti Park​—​that it “was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters and to the surrounding community”​—​are not accidental. They are baked into the utopian cake.

Over the course of the nineteenth century the quest for the ideal society took many directions that can be clustered in two broad categories. There were the Marxian attempts at “scientific socialism,” in which the proletarian vanguard sought to overthrow the bourgeoisie to bring about the classless society as ordained by the laws of history. And there was the revolutionary anarchist project of achieving utopia by leveling hierarchies and abolishing authorities.

The two overlapped on certain points. But for the most part the Marxists looked at the anarchists as boobs and the anarchists looked at the Marxists as totalitarians​—​which of course they were. Scientific socialism is more famous than revolutionary anarchism, if only because in the twentieth century it succeeded in taking over much of the world. The incalculable human cost of communism has obscured the destructive activities of the anarchists, but they were considerable. 

Anarchism is often dismissed as merely the rationalization of hooligans. But that is a mistake. Anarchism has a theory and even a canon: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, and others. Anarchism’s purpose is to turn the whole world into one big Fourierist phalanx. “At every stage of history our concern must be to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to​—​rather than alleviate​—​material and cultural deficit,” writes Noam Chomsky in an introduction to Daniel Guérin’s classic, Anarchism. Dismantle “the system.” Then we’ll be free.

The anarchist sees no distinction between free enterprise and state socialism. He cannot be happy as long as anyone has more property or power than someone else. “Any consistent anarchist must oppose private ownership of the means of production and the wage-slavery which is a component of this system,” Chomsky writes, “as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” What Chomsky is saying is that you can justly grow your own tomato, but you can never hire anyone else to pick it.

An anarchist does not distinguish between types
of government. Democracy to him is just another form of control. Here is Chomsky again: “Democracy is largely a sham when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers and technocrats, a ‘vanguard’ party, or a state bureaucracy.” (Or bankers!) The ballot, wrote Guérin, is “a cunning swindle benefiting only the united barons of industry, trade, and property.” 

This permanent rebellion leads to some predictable outcomes. By denying the legitimacy of democratic politics, the anarchists undermine their ability to affect people’s lives. No living wage movement for them. No debate over the Bush tax rates. Anarchists don’t believe in wages, and they certainly don’t believe in taxes. David Graeber, an anthropologist and a leading figure in Occupy Wall Street, puts it this way: “By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.” The reason that Occupy Wall Street has
no agenda is that anarchism allows for no agenda. All the anarchist can do is set an example​—​or tear down the existing order through violence.

Just as hostility to property is inextricably linked to utopian socialism, violence is tightly bound to anarchism. “Anarchists reject states and all those systematic forms of inequality states make possible,” writes Graeber. “They do not seek to pressure the government to institute reforms. Neither do they seek to seize state power for themselves. Rather, they wish to destroy that power, using means that are​—​so far as possible​—​consistent with their ends, that embody them.” What seems aimless and chaotic is in fact purposeful. By means of “direct action”​—​marches, occupations, blockades, sit-ins​—​the anarchist “proceeds as if the state does not exist.” But one who behaves as if the government has no reality and the laws do not apply is an outlaw, not to say a criminal.

When you see occupiers clash with the NYPD on the Brooklyn Bridge, or masked teenagers destroying shop windows and lighting fires in downtown Oakland, you are seeing anarchism in action. Apologists for Occupy Wall Street may say that these “black bloc” tactics are deployed solely by fringe elements. But the apologists miss the point. The young men in black wearing keffiyehs and causing mayhem are simply following the logic of revolutionary anarchism to its violent conclusion. The fringe isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. The exception would be “direct action” that took care to respect the law.

The unstable nature of revolutionary anarchism has meant that movements based on these tactics quickly flame out. Consider the case of the International Working People’s Association, an anarchist group in 1880s Chicago. As Michael Kazin details in American Dreamers, his history of the U.S. left, the IWPA held an adversarial attitude toward government, markets, and elections. They didn’t run candidates for office. They blew things up. “Men and women could organize their affairs quite well, they believed, without the aid of any boss or master, even that of a workers’ state.” But rejecting democratic politics was a dead end. And violence was the natural consequence: In 1887, four IWPA leaders were executed for the murder of eight policemen in the Haymarket Square bombing. The organization collapsed soon after.

Attempts to establish a socialist utopia through revolutionary anarchism tend to be short-lived. The last great outbreak in America was in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the urban riots, terrorism, and street actions of the New Left and the Weathermen. The tide turned with the rise of conservatism in American politics and the end of the Soviet empire. The utopian ideal seemed discredited. The teachings of Fourier and Chomsky seemed confined to the academy. Little did we realize that the stage was being set for a new anarchism​—​the variety that confronts us today.

David Graeber identifies January 1, 1994, as the birth of the antiglobalization movement. That was the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and the Zapatistas launched their revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. The model for twenty-first century anarchism was established. “The Zapatistas,” Graeber writes, “with their rejection of the old-fashioned guerrilla strategy of seizing state control through armed struggle, with their call instead for the creation of autonomous, democratic, self-governing communities, in alliance with a global network of like-minded democratic revolutionaries, managed to crystallize, often in beautiful poetic language, all the strains of opposition that had been slowly coalescing in the years before.” In a “flat” world, where borders and national governments counted for less and less, the new anarchism would reject the idea of seizing state power by force. Anarchist forms of organization, Graeber wrote, “would involve an endless variety of communities, associations, networks, projects, on every conceivable scale, overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t.”

The engine powering the new anarchism was economic and political globalization. A worldwide movement devoted to undermining the institutions of “neoliberalism”​—​the IMF, World Bank, WTO, EU, NAFTA, G20, central banks​—​gathered force. Anarchists appeared at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, and in bankrupt Argentina in 2001, at the World Economic Forum meeting in New York City in 2002, and at the Republican conventions in New York City in 2004 and St. Paul 2008. For a time during the George W. Bush years, the “global justice” movement was intertwined with the antiwar movement. But, as President Obama has said, “the tide of war is receding” (or so it seems). With the Great Recession and financial panic of 2008, with the onset of austerity policies and the crisis in sovereign debt, economics has returned to the foreground of political life.

Long-term joblessness, especially among the college-educated, and subpar economic growth not only created a pool from which the new anarchists drew recruits, but also made it harder to distinguish the radicals from their anguished fellow travelers. The technological advances that allowed information and capital to travel between continents at the speed of light also provided the means by which the anarchists could disrupt markets and governments. The black bloc tactics of riot and destruction had their Internet equivalent in the denial of service attacks on government and industry computer servers by the hackers collective Anonymous and the unauthorized release of classified information by WikiLeaks. As we saw in the urban riots in England last summer and elsewhere, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow people to mobilize quickly and stay one step ahead of the police. The new anarchism finds no contradiction between its critique of property and capitalism and its embrace of technology created by capitalist corporations. How can there be contradiction, after all, when there are no rules of order or logic in the first place?

Unsurprisingly, the call to occupy Zuccotti Park went out over Twitter, and the masked spokesmen of Anonymous publicized the movement on YouTube. An intellectual, financial, technological, and social infrastructure to undermine global capitalism has been developing for more than two decades, and we are in the middle of its latest manifestation. Occupy Wall Street’s global encampments are exactly the sort of communities David Graeber had in mind when he wrote about the Zapatistas. The occupiers’ tent cities are self-governing, communal, egalitarian, and networked. They reject everyday politics. They foster bohemianism and confrontation with the civil authorities. They are the Phalanx and New Harmony, updated for postmodern times and plopped in the middle of our cities.

There may not be that many activists in the camps. They may appear silly, even grotesque. They may resist “agendas” and “policies.” They may not agree on what they want or when they want it. And they may disappear as winter arrives and the liberals whose parks they are occupying lose patience with them. But the utopians and anarchists will reappear​—​next year’s party conventions will no doubt be a flashpoint​—​and it is wrong to coddle, appropriate, or dismiss them. They must be confronted, not only by law but by ideas. The occupation will persist as long as individuals believe that inequalities of property are unjust and that the brotherhood of man can be established on the earth.

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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