I suppose I'm a bit curious about young protesters who are often incoherent in speech and rather confused in thought, who regularly resort to shouting and tantrums whenever confronted by authorities or non-enabling adults, who dislike bathing, who sometimes refuse to use toilets, and who generally act like they are the center of the universe.
However, my wife and I have already endured the toddler years of our three kids, so what's the point? Been there, done that.
Still, the protests are interesting because of what they suggest about not only the protesters, but about those who are, to varying degrees, pulling strings behind the scenes. Is anyone surprised that many of them are Ivory Tower radicals? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long essay about the "intellectual roots" of the protests. There is much discussion of anarchy and non-centralized blissfulness, in large part because David Graeber, a key organizer of the protests, is an academic and anarchist:
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.
I've now read a few articles by Graeber, and I find that I agree with several of his observations and concerns. He rightly recognizes that the modern welfare state is ultimately tyrannical and totalitarian in nature; he correctly notes that Sola Capitalism (my term, not his) is a bad way to go. In a September 25th piece in The Guardian, he wrote:
It seemed the time had come to rethink everything: the very nature of markets, money, debt; to ask what an "economy" is actually for. This lasted perhaps two weeks. Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they'd been before.
Perhaps, it's not surprising. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the real priority of those running the world for the last few decades has not been creating a viable form of capitalism, but rather, convincing us all that the current form of capitalism is the only conceivable economic system, so its flaws are irrelevant. As a result, we're all sitting around dumbfounded as the whole apparatus falls apart.
I agree. And the Chronicle article reiterates this point when stating: "The concerns of the protesters are primarily economic, and scholars of that discipline have had much to say about economic fairness that has resonated with the demonstrations." Or, in the famous words that sprung from the Clinton years: "It's the economy, stupid!" Ironically, there are some high profile supporters of the protests who admit to the economic problems, but then ignore Graeber's well-founded suspicions of a vast, centralized government that controls every jot, title, transaction, or any action at all:
Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, also visited the demonstrations and spoke to them this month. He says his primary goal in attending was to show his support for the demonstrators' efforts. He also wanted to share ideas, many of which he stakes out in a recent book, The Price of Civilization, which one commentator has urged the protesters to read, though it is not yet in the collection of the People's Library.
As a macroeconomist and fiscal expert, Mr. Sachs says he sees the nation's priorities most clearly expressed in the budget of the federal government, and he has come to believe that the market and government must both play a large role in assuring fairness, productivity, and environmental sustainability. "I was trying to explain that we arrived at a fiscal crisis in the country," he says of his remarks to the demonstrators. "Either our government is going to become completely shrunken and dysfunctional, or we're going to start paying for civilization again."
Sachs, as I noted in an earlier essay, also states, against all sound sense and logic, "Yes, the federal government is incompetent and corrupt—but we need more, not less, of it.” It's as if a man falls and breaks both legs, then insists on putting a splint on just one of the legs while hopping around painfully on the other. A heresy, to draw upon a helpful parallel, is not heretical because it gets everything wrong, but because it only gets part of everything right, and then insists the part is, in fact, the whole. It is, simply, the age-old problem of knowing there is something wrong, but not having a clue as to making things right.
A huge part of the problem is revealed in this telling bit from the Chronicle essay:
It is far from clear, of course, how attuned the protesters are to the scholarship of Mr. Graeber, other critical theorists, or academics who study anarchism. A growing collection of fiction and nonfiction books, however, has a post-office box to which supporters are invited to send books. "The People's Library" in New York City, which has been copied at other Occupy protest sites, houses nearly 1,200 books in cardboard boxes that are protected against the elements by clear plastic sheeting.
"I really am amazed for the respect they have for the word," Eric Seligson, the librarian at the protest site on Wall Street, told Esquire. "There's a real reverence for what has been written that has surprised me, since they eschew whatever came before, all the thought that came before."
I'll confess that when I read this, I experienced a small twinge of remorse; whether for the books or the protesters, I'm not certain. But if there is one statement about the protesters that should be food for thought, it is that "they eschew whatever came before, all the thought that came before." Even if we admit, to some degree, that the protesters and their intellectual, um, mentors have put their unwashed fingers on some real and significant problems, we must also admit that they have no real clue on how to address those problems. And a huge failing on their part is the myopic obsession with economics to the exclusion of the bigger, broader, deeper, and more substantial issues involved.
In Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost ... The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift. (39)
This openness to reciprocal giving can only be based in full and true understanding of what it means to be human: "Our nature, constituted not only by matter but also by spirit, and as such, endowed with transcendent meaning and aspirations, is also normative for culture" (48). And that can only come through openness to God and divine revelation:
Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is. ... Paul VI recalled in Populorum Progressio that man cannot bring about his own progress unaided, because by himself he cannot establish an authentic humanism. Only if we are aware of our calling, as individuals and as a community, to be part of God's family as his sons and daughters, will we be able to generate a new vision and muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism. The greatest service to development, then, is a Christian humanism that enkindles charity and takes its lead from truth, accepting both as a lasting gift from God. Openness to God makes us open towards our brothers and sisters and towards an understanding of life as a joyful task to be accomplished in a spirit of solidarity. On the other hand, ideological rejection of God and an atheism of indifference, oblivious to the Creator and at risk of becoming equally oblivious to human values, constitute some of the chief obstacles to development today. A humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism. Only a humanism open to the Absolute can guide us in the promotion and building of forms of social and civic life — structures, institutions, culture and ethos — without exposing us to the risk of becoming ensnared by the fashions of the moment.
Anarchism is one such fashion of the moment. The anarchism proposed by Graeber and Co. rightly rejects the notion that man is a cog in the economic machine and it rightly longs for justice and solidarity, but it simply doesn't have the metaphysical foundations, the moral core, the chronological humility, or the proper respect for authentic authority that is needed to combat and overcome the serious challenges of our day.
"Violent, sudden, and calamitous revolutions are the ones that accomplish the least", observes David Bentley Hart in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, "While they may succeed at radically reordering societies, they usually cannot transform cultures. They may excel at destroying the past, but they are generally impotent to create a future. The revolutions that genuinely alter human reality at the deepest levels—the only real revolutions, that is to say—are those that first convert minds and wills, that reshape the imagination and reorient desire, that overthrow tyranniees within the soul." What value is it, in other words, to gain the world—or to overthrow the economic powers that be—and lose one's own soul?