Law professor Alasdair Roberts (of my own alma mater Suffolk University Law School) wonders whether Occupy Wall Street might replace the labor movement. Roberts observes that while Occupy brought thousands of young people into the world’s streets, the organized labor movement was markedly absent.
Roberts notes the cultural dissimilarities between the populism of Occupy and that of the traditional labor movement, centered on major unions like the AFL-CIO. Beyond the fact that country music and Marlboros were probably hard to come by in the Occupy tents, Gen Y’s protesters have demonstrated an aversion to the hierarchy and centralization that defines organized labor (as opposed to, for instance, organizations like the IWW).
Worrying about the effectiveness of “loosely structured networks” like Occupy, Roberts argues that “coolness toward engagement in everyday politics” is among the weakness of the “new species” we’re currently witnessing the birth of. But a healthy distance from pragmatic red team/blue team political diversions is actually one of Occupy’s greatest strengths, empowering it to avoid the colonization and sanitization that has neutered the American labor movement.
What the United States cries out for is just the kind of labor radicalism that Occupy might agitate — the experimentation and spirit of inquiry characterized by Americans like Josiah Warren. Warren is a luminous example of how social ideas can live and influence communities outside of politics.
Warren, a dedicated disciple of the socialist visionary Robert Owen, had spent much of his life tinkering with practical experiments in creating an economically just society. Convinced that commitments to collectivism were destined to submerge the individual in the community, Warren treated the perceived failures of the Owenite settlements not as proving the implausibility or impossibility of true economic justice, but as showing that the means chosen had been problematic.
Neither property nor free exchange, Warren concluded, was the source of the social problem. Instead, both, properly freed from the strictures of the state’s laws, were indeed the best and surest way of reducing price to cost, of eliminating usury or exploitation in all of its forms (rent, interest and profit).
The free market was thus regarded as the mechanism for ensuring that exchanges would be of roughly equal values. The students of Warren, in turn, became America’s homegrown incarnation of the anarchist movement, at once free marketers and wholehearted socialists — albeit in a sense that is today mostly relegated to historical footnotes.
And today’s market anarchists, whether or not they maintain that genuine libertarian principles would mean the death warrant of rent and interest, certainly foresee a radical transformation within society. If a society is just in its treatment of each sovereign individual, if no one enjoys coercive privileges or “rights” to invade or aggress, then whatever result comes forth must be just as a matter of course.
The radical shift envisioned, then, is not to be feared, but welcomed as a consistent expression of commonly held values. The “policy demands” that Professor Roberts dignifies may turn out in practice to be merely the tepid half-measures that the state has always overstated as “reform.”
If Warren’s communities sought to escape the established framework and its physical spaces, then Occupy may be thought of as attempting to reclaim them for good. In light of the downward trend he points out, Roberts might not be so worried about the chances of success for fluid, decentralized movements like Occupy, the next step in the evolution of protest.