With the Occupy movement taking over more of the American dialogue, many onlookers are beginning to ask the question: what political thought drives these protests?
The OWS protesters themselves say the movement is “not political.” However, it must be derived from some governing thought paradigm. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 states, “there is nothing new under the sun,” so to find the political thought underpinnings of the current OWS movement, we must look to the past.
There has been a lot of discussion by political pundits describing the movement as either Marxist or libertarian. In reality, OWS is still in the beginning phase of a grassroots social movement. It shares broad goals with many thought paradigms but does not have one single philosophy supporting it.
The Marxist Element of OWS
Charles Gasparino, author and journalist, seems to think OWS is clearly derivative of Marxist thought and there seems to be ample evidence to support this claim. In the New York Daily Post he wrote of his experience at the movement’s headquarters in New York City:
“It’s not an overstatement to describe Zuccotti Park as New York’s Marxist epicenter. Flags with the iconic face of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara are everywhere; the only American flag I saw was hanging upside down. The “occupiers” openly refer to each other as “comrade,” and just about every piece of literature on offer (free or for sale) advocated socialism in the Marxist tradition as a cure-all for the inequalities of the American economic system.”
In order to compare OWS to a Marxist movement, it’s important to have a clear definition of what Marxism is. Webster’s defines Marxism as:
A system of economic and political thought developed by Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, especially the doctrine that the state throughout history has been a device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, that the class struggle has been the main agency of historical change, and that the capitalist system, containing from the first seeds of its own decay will inevitably, after the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, be superseded by a socialist order and a class society.
In other words: in order for the upper class to maximize profits in a system where competition is key, they will cut costs and wages and use political power to achieve profit. Eventually, the masses will no longer be able to afford the purchase of goods produced and eventually will revolt. Therefore, capitalism itself will be a means to its own end.
With this simple definition, OWS would definitely be a Marxist movement as it seems to be a blueprint for the frustrations and some of the goals of OWS around the country.
The first rule of Marxism is to destroy private property; this was listed as one of the 10 elements in the Communist Manifesto that can undermine free enterprise. By the looks of the OWS’ unofficial, yet highly agreed upon, demands on their website, the movement does not readily support private ownership of land, money, or belongings. Here’s a few:
- Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act. Unionize ALL workers immediately
- Institute a moratorium on all foreclosures and layoffs immediately
- Open the borders to all immigrants, legal or illegal
- Tax the very rich at rates up to 90 percent
- Ban the private ownership of land
- Immediate debt forgiveness for all
These demands seek the limitation of private authorship, the very crux of the Marx movement. However, the movement fails to be a complete Marxist movement in light of what will replace the structural system of society once private property is abolished.
For Marx, the answer was that every citizen would live communally, share resources, and abolish the state. In this aspect, the Marxist theory advocates for less government than Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Marx wanted a communist society in that no citizen would be exploited. Of course, in practice Marxism has led to the complete opposite: an oppressive authoritarian state. By today’s definition, a communist state goes hand-in-hand with authoritative leaders. So, in Marxist practice, the proletariat is exploited by the state and not the bourgeoisie.
However, the protesters on Wall Street and around the country, have skipped Marx’s desire for less state and have instead initiated a call for more government involvement and regulations in the economy.
Therefore, despite all the pamphlets and booklets handed out at Zuccotti Park, the only Marxist theory element of the OWS is the realization of the first and less radical part of the manifesto: people do not like wealth inequality. This is not a new or earth shattering idea; in fact, Adam Smith brought it up in his famous book, titled The Wealth of Nations long before Karl Marx was even born.
The Libertarian Element of OWS
As Jack Kerwick of American Thinker points out, “There is no small measure of self-identified libertarians who populate the ranks of the Wall Street occupiers.” He’s right. Ardent Ron Paul supporters are among the crowd. Famed libertarian Jesse Ventura made an appearance at one of the protests. A libertarian and occupier by the name of “Captain Midnight” has written articles and videos that have been well circulated in the cyber world calling for the abolishment of the Federal Reserve.
Both libertarians and occupiers are fed up with big government bailouts to corporations. Both libertarians and occupiers want to end the Federal Reserve. Both want to let young people opt out of entitlement programs like social security. Both want to restore the Freedom of Association in Labor Relations.
While some of their goals are very similar, one could argue that the source of their frustrations differs and that, perhaps, the libertarians involved with the OWS are looking at the movement as merely a means to get their policy goals heard and not as an ally of political thought.
The occupiers in general find fault with capitalism. For libertarians, however, the villain is not capitalism but rather crony capitalism. As Kerwick succinctly explains:
“It isn't the lack of regulation and the allegedly laissez-faire manner in which Wall Street bankers pursue their ‘obscene’ profits that arouse [Libertarian] anger, but rather, the fact that these bankers are in cahoots with a corrupt government that has continued propping them up with taxpayers' dollars long after they should have folded.”
So perhaps, if this was a purely libertarian movement the protesters would be occupying the street in front of the White House or Capitol instead of Wall Street. It is the government, not Wall Street, that makes crony capitalism possible.
Another difference is how the two groups go about solving the shared diagnosed problem of corruption in the economic sector. Libertarians by definition believe in a free market, meaning less government regulation is needed in order for the economy to thrive. They also believe in the individual’s pursuit of self-interests as the ultimate freedom.
The occupiers are calling for more government regulation and appear, from their rhetoric, to be not in favor of the pursuit of self-interest as a definition to freedom. In this case, they embody more of the Marxist ideology of freedom as a collective pursuit of communal needs rather than an individual’s.
As OWS continues to grow and mature, it is likely that it will sharpen its definition and perhaps pick a school of thought that most closely aligns with its goals. Until then, OWS continues to be a grassroots movement shaped by both Marxism and Libertarianism.