2011 December 18 Sunday
OWS: Leftists Returning To Anarchy?

In a profile of Tyler Cowen by Patrick Corcoran in the Washington Diplomat Tyler takes a rather dismissive position on Occupy Wall Street. (the article's main focus is his "Great Stagnation" argument)

But on the Occupy Wall Street movement, he's equally dismissive. "It seems pointless to me. They don't know what they are doing, they don't know what they want."

While I wouldn't call Tyler a capital "L" Libertarian he certainly continues to be heavily influenced by libertarian thinkers. Yet while he'd like to see a reduction of government regulations in some areas I think it would be fair to say he doesn't see a libertarian utopia as feasible. On OWS his views are similar to my own. If there's something fundamentally wrong with the structure of American governance then the OWS people don't know what it is or how to fix it.

By contrast, Ray Sawhill finds the OWS movement much more appealing (and has visited them in NYC and talked with them for hours). He thinks it is constructive to be against something even if one doesn't propose a workable replacement. He points me to a piece by David Graeber in Al Jazeera (really) about how Occupy Wall Street is animated by an anarchist viewpoint. Now that the big wars and Cold War of the 20th century have ended anarchy as a leftist political program might be making a comeback.

Anarchism was also a revolutionary ideology, and its emphasis on individual conscience and individual initiative meant that during the first heyday of revolutionary anarchism between roughly 1875 and 1914, many took the fight directly to heads of state and capitalists, with bombings and assassinations. Hence the popular image of the anarchist bomb-thrower. It's worthy of note that anarchists were perhaps the first political movement to realise that terrorism, even if not directed at innocents, doesn't work. For nearly a century now, in fact, anarchism has been one of the very few political philosophies whose exponents never blow anyone up (indeed, the 20th-century political leader who drew most from the anarchist tradition was Mohandas K Gandhi.)

Yet for the period of roughly 1914 to 1989, a period during which the world was continually either fighting or preparing for world wars, anarchism went into something of an eclipse for precisely that reason: To seem "realistic", in such violent times, a political movement had to be capable of organising armies, navies and ballistic missile systems, and that was one thing at which Marxists could often excel. But everyone recognised that anarchists - rather to their credit - would never be able to pull it off. It was only after 1989, when the age of great war mobilisations seemed to have ended, that a global revolutionary movement based on anarchist principles - the global justice movement - promptly reappeared.

It is an interesting idea. One could argue that the era of wars built up the power of governments. World War II enabled the US government to implement income tax withholding that funded the post-WWII welfare state. But such a theory has to contend with Sweden that pretty much sat out the world wars and Cold War and yet still built up a huge state apparatus.

The late Christopher Hitchens was intensely leftist and yet, especially later in life, demonstrated strong libertarian leanings.

I had been interested in libertarian ideas when I was younger. I set aside this interest in the 60s simply because all the overwhelming political questions seemed to sideline issues of individual liberty in favor of what seemed then to be grander questions. I suppose what would make me different now is that I am much more inclined to stress those issues of individual liberty than I would have been then. And to see that they do possess, with a capital H and a capital I, Historical Importance, the very things that one thought one was looking for.


Karl Marx was possibly the consummate anti-statist in his original writings and believed that the state was not the solution to social problems, but the outcome of them, the forcible resolution in favor of one ruling group. He thought that if you could give a name to utopia, it was the withering away of the state. Certainly those words had a big effect on me.

Keep in mind that Hitchens was a bundle of contradictions. He is someone I wanted to meet and ask some hard questions. Too late now. But perhaps advances in neuroscience will some day explain why some people hold so intensely and invest so much in their faith, whether religious or secular.

So then is left libertarianism going grow in popularity? What about support for anarchy? Will the level of armed conflict between states get so low that human impulses for battle will focus more on battle with their own state?

Since my view of human nature is sufficiently dim I don't see anarchy as workable. We need The Leviathan to protect us against amoral predators.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 December 18 09:57 PM  Cultural Wars Goodthinker

bbartlog said at December 19, 2011 6:56 AM:

Tyler Cowen is a tool. I deliberately stopped visiting his website because it becomes quite clear after a while that he deliberately ignores various elephants in the room in order to maintain an online persona which is at once clever, highbrow, and non-controversial (a little like NPR, really).

CamelCaseRob said at December 19, 2011 7:28 AM:

I can't even imagine what anarchy would look like. Can anarchists even explain what they want?

Mark said at December 19, 2011 1:53 PM:

Left libertarianism could grow in popularity because populist attacks on Wall Street bankers rightly resonate with the general public and the left libertarians may be more likely to do that than rightwing libertarians or conservatives. Some rightists confuse the crony capitalism that exists now with the free market variety of capitalism and defend the current system thinking they are defending capitalism. Left libertarians are also more likely to attack the bloated military establishment and advocate making needed budget cuts there and that will make them more popular in the future. With our rising national debt eventually we'll reach a point where we have to decide between cutting granny's social security or Medicare and the military budget and I think cutting the military budget will become more popular with the general public at that point.

Michael L said at December 19, 2011 2:14 PM:

your speculations about future evolution of OWS are implicitly predicated on the belief that such evolution is purely endogenous and so should converge on beliefs and perceived interests of the participants. But if, let's say, the movement is run by the likes of George Soros (much like back in the day disarmament movement was run by Russian agents), then instead of evolution we can get fairly abrupt "party line" switches to whatever it is that the people behind it want at any given time (which will have nothing to do with libertarianism in any form).

Mercer said at December 19, 2011 3:10 PM:

Anarchists were big in Spain during their civil war. Orwell wrote about them at length in Homage to Catalonia. A big part of their appeal was an opposition to hierarchy. OWS is also anti-hierarchy. The Tea Party activists also portray themselves as a flat organization. Who does not describe themselves as for the "people" and against the "elites"? I think any large society will have some hierarchy.

"fundamentally wrong with the structure of American governance then the OWS people don't know what it is or how to fix it."

One of the things wrong is the government is in bed with Wall Street. OWS understands that and that is the reason for its popularity. This is also why I think it will be more popular then the Tea Party because Tea Party politicians and activists are reluctant to criticize Wall Street.

Luke Lea said at December 22, 2011 1:02 PM:

As trade, immigration, automation, and uncontrolled healthcare spending drive median real hourly wages down, down, down, and the return to capital up, up, up, I'm glad OWS is protesting. So what if they don't understand the causes or the solutions? They don't claim to be political economists. As for being anarchists, please. They are not anything but unhappy and pissed off, rightly so in my opinion. You'd be too if you had a lower IQ. Maybe your children will.

Luke Lea said at December 22, 2011 1:04 PM:

Make that median real hourly take-home pay.

McNeil said at December 23, 2011 1:14 PM:

Ouch! Sorry fellas, but I tend to lean towards the left. Socialism is clearly a more evolved ideology than Capitalism, even if it hasn't come to a full realization in America.

Now, as opinions here seem to lean to the "right", I guess I'll just have to be ready for all that trash reply about how high the IQs of all those with rightist tendencies are and how low are those with leftist.

"How can such a very few still live so large and leave so little for the rest of us" or something like that goes the phrase. Even characters in idiotic film stories can come up with one or two elegant phrases.

Hammerless said at December 24, 2011 11:11 AM:

"We need The Leviathan to protect us against amoral predators."

A .38 snub nose can work wonders.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2011 8:44 PM:


I wholeheartedly concur with your comment:

Some rightists confuse the crony capitalism that exists now with the free market variety of capitalism and defend the current system thinking they are defending capitalism.

Though I think we have to separate out businesses that have lobbyists in Washington DC just to prevent themselves from being robbed by government versus businesses that make their livings off of either government contracts or government protections of their industries. So I'd draw a big distinction between Silicon Valley and Wall Street with exceptions on either side.

Luke Lea,

I think the OWS folks probably have moderately high verbal but low spatial IQs. The really low IQ people aren't protesting by forming camps. Its more of a moderately intelligent SWPL thing I think.


No, its usually the left that labels the right as dumb. The right usually labels the left as foolish.

You probably aren't a regular. Let me explain my take on IQ and the political spectrum: High IQ academics lean left. High IQ people in non-parasitic industries lean right. Though there are exceptions of course.

Mthson said at December 26, 2011 11:44 AM:

"I think the OWS folks probably have moderately high verbal but low spatial IQs."

Good point.

A friend of mine who's a student at UC Berkeley and who supports OWS wondered on Facebook why all his friends in the physics department, unlike his theater and dance friends, opposed the Berkeley OWS protests.


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