Anarchists can be a funny lot. Just when you think you have them pegged — distrust of authority, distaste for hierarchy, a far-more-than-healthy suspicion of society’s institutions — they’ll turn around and start pontificating after the fashion of Monty Python’s Constitutional Peasant, inventing all manner of rules that, while certainly diluting personal authority, often seem just as restrictive as the instruments of state power they are supposed to replace. It’s a phenomenon that for many has contributed to a view of anarchists as being ineffectual hypocrites.
Of course, such would be an enormous oversimplification. Anarchism is as broad an ideological spectrum as any, and misunderstood more than most. Recently, though, the world has had a chance to see the 21st century face of this old school of thought, by way of the now-fading Occupy Wall Street movement. This new generation had a lot to prove, and in many ways they’ve succeeded in overcoming anarchism’s more debilitating stereotypes. But in escaping old follies, they’ve also sacrificed some worthy lessons of the past at the risk of becoming as ineffectual as their forebearers.
By now we’ve all become accustomed to images of tents set up in parks around the world, filled with activists and, in some instances, agitators fed up with the way liberal democracies are being run. People from many different backgrounds and walks of life came together to spread one message: they and the rest of the world were no longer willing to be run by the so-called “one per cent.”
It’s quite remarkable, really, that such a ragtag collection was able to put aside the many differences that often splinter activist groups. No Black Bloc took control of the groups’ message; no Battle in Seattle obfuscated the issues at hand. It was a real and shining example of the ideals of anarchists and their kin, a global movement with no leaders, few rules, and one message.
So from a certain, ideologically-grounded standpoint, the protests may be looked at as a success, even a model for the future. From a more practical perspective, though, the view isn’t as rosy. The Occupiers are slowly but surely being forced out of their tent cities with virtually nothing tangible to show for it — no major financial reforms have been implemented in the United States or elsewhere in response to the popular outcry.
This can be attributed to a number of factors, not the least of which is that the movement, in its attempt to be a catch-all for a variety of critiques, forewent a focused objective. Everyone was angry about roughly the same thing, but from there opinions on a solution would undoubtedly have diverged tremendously.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the Occupy efforts lay buried in its oversimplified numerical slogan. The movement’s almost total rejection of the gamut of Western institutions — banking, government, law, corporations — did much to stop it from gaining steam when it could have been co-opting these pillars in order to force reform from both the inside and out.
This would be no new tactic — most revolutions have owed a great debt the now-maligned “1%.” The socialist and communist revolts of the early 20th century were almost all led by intellectuals and, more importantly, supported by elements of military leadership. Mohandas Gandhi, famed for his doctrine of peaceful resistance, owed many of his early successes in South Africa to the fact that he was a lawyer, which gained him influential friends, immediate standing amongst his own supporters and a nuanced appreciation of the issues his people were facing. These and many other fronts of change, from King Jr. to Ataturk, all hailed from or worked their way into the cream of society’s crop, and they certainly didn’t succeed by then abandoning the ivory tower to become one of the masses.
Of course, some of the Occupiers, the real hard-core of the bunch, will maintain that the entire “system” is broken, and that the only acceptable solution is to bring it all crashing down; they will never accept the idea that change can be affected from the inside. This is the sort of position, though, that might only find some realistic prospect of success with a widespread and violent revolution, and others in the Occupy movement would undoubtedly abhor such a turn.
It’s left, then, to this more reserved majority to recognize that in order to successfully reform the elements of our society they see as broken, they must be willing to work within the system as well as beyond it. Institutional authority tends to have an inertia all of its own, and changing course, even a little, can take quite a bit of doing. But like a real ship, such forces ultimately remain tools at the mercy of those willing and able to guide them. If the Occupy movement wishes its cause to survive the snows, it must accept that even if driven from below, change will ultimately come from the top.
Failure to recognize this puts the whole enterprise at risk of being remembered as history’s least effective united front.
Greg Sacks believes systems must change from within.