Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe: Movement’s principles arise from scholarship on anarchy
October 18, 2011
Academics have become frequent visitors to Zuccotti Park, the 33,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza in the heart of New York City’s financial district that is now the site of a nearly monthlong protest, Occupy Wall Street.
Famous scholars like Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, and Frances Fox Piven have spoken to the crowd, with their remarks dispersed, word-for-word, from one cluster of people to the next through a “human megaphone.” Many others, such as Lawrence Lessig, have lent their support from farther away, as the demonstrations have spread to cities and college campuses nationwide.
The movement has repeatedly been described as too diffuse and decentralized to accomplish real change, and some observers have seen the appearances by academic luminaries as an attempt to lend the protest intellectual heft and direction. Certainly, its intellectual underpinnings and signature method of operating are easier to identify than its goals.
Economists whose recent works have decried income inequality have informed the movement’s critiques of capitalism. Critical theorists like Michael Hardt, professor of literature at Duke University, and Antonio Negri, former professor of political science at the University of Padua, have anticipated some of the central issues raised by the protests. Most recently, they linked the actions in New York and other American cities to previous demonstrations in Spain, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and in Athens, among other places.
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.
In Betafo he observed what he called “consensus decision-making,” where residents made choices in a direct, decentralized way, not through the apparatus of the state. “Basically, people were managing their own affairs autonomously,” he says.
The process is what scholars of anarchism call “direct action.” For example, instead of petitioning the government to build a well, members of a community might simply build it themselves. It is an example of anarchism’s philosophy, or what Mr. Graeber describes as “democracy without a government.”
He transplanted the lessons he learned in Madagascar to the globalism protests in the late 1990s in which he participated, and which some scholars say are the clearest antecedent, in spirit, to Occupy Wall Street.
Soon after the magazine Adbusters published an appeal to set up a “peaceful barricade” on Wall Street, Mr. Graeber spent six weeks in New York helping to plan the demonstrations before an initial march by protesters on September 17, which culminated in the occupation.
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…
In August the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made two decisions that will likely affect the lives of immigrant workers and their families in considerable—and potentially contradictory—ways for years to come. The first stipulates that private-sector employers inform their workers of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by posting notices similar to the ones they are already required to post for other workplace laws and regulations. This decision is at least partially motivated by “the increasing proportion of immigrants in the work force” and the fact that they “are unlikely to be familiar with their workplace rights.” The second reflects the influence of the Hoffman Plastics case (2002), in which the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented immigrants who are dismissed for pursuing their rights under the NLRA are ineligible for the standard remedies of back pay—that is, the wages they would have received had they not been dismissed—and reinstatement. While a majority of board members found the arguments for granting back pay to undocumented workers “compelling,” they nonetheless resolved a case that originated in 2003 by noting that the broad language of the Hoffman precedent “forecloses backpay awards for undocumented workers regardless of the circumstances of their hire.”
The two decisions are, at least in some sense, at odds with each other. While the notice requirement is designed to inform workers of their right to pursue “concerted activities” protected under Section 7 of the NLRA whether they are unionized or not, the Hoffmanprecedent creates a subclass of workers who are ineligible for the standard legal remedies when those rights have been violated. “As a result,” explained NLRB members Wilma Liebman and Mark Gaston Pearce in their ambivalent concurring opinion, “the Act’s enforcement is undermined, employees are chilled in the exercise of their Section 7 rights, the work force is fragmented, and a vital check on workplace abuses is removed.”
The contradictions are laid bare by the recent experiences of Somos un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant resource center in Santa Fe, New Mexico that has achieved a good deal of success by using the NLRA to defend unorganized immigrant workers engaged in protected and concerted activities. When housekeepers at the Santa Fe Hilton complained about their working conditions in 2008, for example, they were dismissed by hotel management. But Somos helped the aggrieved workers file a complaint with the NLRB, and the case was eventually settled out of court when the Hilton agreed not only to offer the plaintiffs back wages but also to post bilingual signs notifying workers of their NLRA rights. Somos has also shown that out-of-court settlements are not a necessary means of redress. Immigrants who worked for the contractor who provided janitorial services to the Santa Fe Public School System turned to Somos in 2010, when their own complaints about sexual harassment and the non-payment of wages were met by threats of immediate dismissal. The NLRB responded by ordering the company to reinstate the workers, pay their back wages, and post a notice of their NLRA rights.
The Somos experience is not unique. While the NLRB makes no systematic effort to track complaints that come from non-unionized workers, such complaints are apparently proliferating at a rapid rate, fueled in part by immigrant- and worker-advocacy groups that operate much like their counterpart in Santa Fe. Fortified by the NLRB’s notice requirement, such groups could eventually breathe new life into old labor laws. “Any group of workers can act as a union if they band together,” says Peter Zschiesche of the Employee Rights Center, and their efforts to do so are protected by the NLRA regardless of their immigration or collective bargaining status. Workers therefore have the right to demand respect for labor and employment law, remedies for past abuses, and protection from retaliation or reprisal on the part of their employers. By exercising their rights in new and creative ways, they can at least potentially avoid the perils and pitfalls of an outdated New Deal industrial relations regime that presupposes majority (or contract) unionism.
The timeliness of the NLRB’s notification ruling further magnifies its potentially positive impact. The requirement was issued in the midst of a monumental economic crisis, and previous crises of this magnitude have ushered in fundamental shifts in industrial relations. For example, the Panic of 1873 animated the growth of the craft unions that came to be affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, and the Great Depression opened the door to the industrial unions that would form the backbone of the Congress of Industrial Organization. Today’s Great Recession may well mark a third historical turning point in American industrial relations…
October 18, 2011
With market confidence in Greece and Italy further eroding, Germany’s cash reserves are now the last best hope for the euro. Without a bold, continentwide rescue effort led by Germany, the single currency is likely to disintegrate. Yet it now seems clear, as indeed it should have for the last three years, that Angela Merkel’s government would rather risk the euro’s collapse than act decisively.
Germany has profited mightily from the adoption of a common currency. Blessed with a dynamic export economy that does most of its trade within the eurozone, it has gained more than anyone else from the greater ease of doing business with its neighbors. What’s more, even Germans who remain nostalgic for the Deutsche mark should realize how catastrophic a collapse of the euro would be. The world economy would fall back into recession. German exports would shrink precipitously. German banks, which have large holdings of Greek and Italian assets, would require vast sums from taxpayers to survive. Unemployment and the national deficit would skyrocket.
Germans, in other words, ought to be falling over themselves to protect their currency from meltdown. And yet, at each and every turn, they have done as little as they possibly could. When pushed to the brink, Merkel has been willing to make available modest funds to avoid immediate financial meltdown; under intense international pressure, she has recently persuaded the Bundestag to increase Germany’s contribution to the European Financial Stability Facility, a bailout fund for the euro. But despite periodic promises, she has not even tried to look for a large-scale political or financial plan capable of ending the crisis. In fact, she continues to oppose any proposal — like a truly harmonized fiscal policy or the introduction of Eurobonds — that might help European economies regain the confidence of the markets. Why?
To explain Germany’s response to the crisis we must start from the fact that the country has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last 20 years. In the postwar era, leaders from Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt realized that, for Germany to be readmitted to the fellowship of civilized nations, it had to atone for the recent past. Germany thus paid reparations to Israel, concluded peace treaties with its eastern neighbors, and, above all, entered an unwavering alliance with former foes like Britain, France, and the United States.
But the contrite Germany of the postwar era has been long gone. Since Germany’s reunification, the need to atone for Auschwitz has been replaced by the desire to draw a definitive finish line underneath irksome talk of the Third Reich.
The first decisive step in this direction was taken in 1998 by Martin Walser, a famous novelist, when he called Auschwitz a “moral baseball bat” wielded by sinister outsiders intent on harming Germany’s interests. Germany’s assembled political and cultural elite feted Walser’s speech with standing ovations.
The call for a finish line went on to shape Germany’s foreign policy. In 2002, struggling with a difficult reelection campaign, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder decided to exploit his opposition to the Iraq war for electoral gain. His country, he promised, would no longer be America’s lapdog; instead, it would go the “German way.” Schröder unexpectedly won reelection.
Finally, during the Libya crisis, Germany’s center-right government demonstrated that even the traditionally more hawkish and pro-American parts of the political spectrum are now intoxicated by this notion of independence. Foreign Secretary Guido Westerwelle not only refused to let German troops participate in the Libya operation — he even went so far as to abstain in the crucial U.N. vote authorizing the mission…