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Rebels and Messiahs: 10 Spiritual Ancestors for Occupy Wall Street

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We started to make a list of people throughout history who might be considered Occupy Wall Street's spiritual forefathers and mothers, but it got so long it felt like the album cover for Sgt. Pepper. Remember all those faces? So with great difficulty the list has been narrowed down to ten. There are rebels, organizers, poets, a conservative icon, and a surprise entry or two.

Each reflects some part of the heart, soul, and spirit of the movement -- at least as I understand it. If others feel differently, hopefully they'll create their own list.

1. William Blake

He was pretty obscure in the 18th and 19th centuries, while he was alive. Poet, painter, mystic, troublemaker, what Blake valued couldn't be purchased in the marketplace:

"What is the price of Experience? do men buy it for a song/Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price Of all that a man hath, his house his wife his children./ Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy/ And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain."

Blake was arrested for saying seditious things about the Crown to a soldier. He was a friend of Thomas Paine's. He and his wife used to sit in their garden and receive visitors -- naked. He sounds like the kind of guy who'd join a drum circle.

Blake told the religious establishment of his day "that Vision of Christ which thou dost see/is my Vision's greatest enemy."

2. Adam Smith

It seems like heresy. But conservatives who lionize Smith as the founder of the "free market" concept forget that Smith didn't believe in corporations that issued stock. He didn't think they had any place in that market. In fact, he even didn't think they should exist:

"(T)he directors of such ... companies, however, being the managers rather of other people's money than of their own, it cannot well be expected, that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private copartnery frequently watch over their own.... Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company."

Mr. Smith should go to Washington.

These words are from Book V of one of conservatism's sacred and foundational texts, The Wealth of Nations -- which, like most sacred texts, is read least by those who quote it the most. The few conservatives that do read it usually try to defuse these words by arguing that Smith was talking about the corporations of his time, not ours. Those corporations, they'll insist, were nothing like Wall Street. They were state-sanctioned monopolies run by a small groups of oligarchs who... oh, right.

In words that could have from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's report, Smith said that executives at these companies " have ... very seldom succeeded without an exclusive privilege, and frequently have not succeeded with one." Sounds surprisingly like Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Brian Moynihan, and the other CEOs at our too-big-to-fail financial institutions.

The creator of the Invisible Hand just gave Wall Street a spanking.

3. Thomas Paine

He's an obvious choice, but still a good one.

A lot of people know and love the paragraph that begins "These are the times that try men's souls," and it is beautiful. But a couple of other Paine quotes should resonate even more in Zuccotti Park. "Such is the irresistable nature of truth," wrote Paine, "that all it asks, and all it wants is the liberty of appearing."

He also said "An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot."

4. The Levellers

This English movement belonged to no political party or faction, elected its own leaders, wrote its own statements, and aggravated those of its contemporaries who thought it should promote specific policies and acts. It was a moral movement, a statement of values like OWS,and it had a profound effect on English society.

Their manifesto Agreement of the People demanded a fully representative and democratically elected Parliament, promoted religious tolerance during a time of persecution, and demanded that the law be applied equally to the powerful and ordinary citizens alike. (Does that last part sound familiar?)

Their petition entitled "To The Right Honourable The Commons Of England" was signed by one-third of all Londoners. That's right: One-third of the citizens there physically signed the petition. The Levellers were part of much broader struggles and events, and events eventually swept past them, but today their demands read like a blueprint for modern Great Britain.

The Agreement of the People made the revolutionary declaration that " the power of this, and all future Representatives of this Nation, is inferior only to theirs who choose them." In other words, Power to the People.

5. Reverend Claude Williams

Williams was a fundamentalist Southern preacher in the 1920s when it became clear to him that the poverty and segregation he saw throughout the South was immoral and un-Godly. He led a hunger strike for unemployed workers, went to jail, and was expelled from the church for heresy. Once, the story goes, a white houseguest was frightened to having dinner at his home with African Americans, since that was considered "race mingling" and could have gotten them all killed.

They say the Reverend flung open his window and shouted, "Let them see how the true followers of the Son of Man behave!"

He taught sharecroppers, worked with the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, and (according to folksinger Lee Hays) helped reshape the old gospel tune "I Shall Overcome" into a political anthem. Later in life he faced the House Un-American Activities Committee, worked with the civil rights movement, and founded the People's Institute for Applied Religion. He said of the poor whites he organized, "our approach was not an attempt to supplant their present mindset, but to supplement it with a more horizontal frame of reference. And we found that supplementing and supplanting turned out to be the same thing."

He once said "I've been run out of the best communities, fired from the best churches, and flogged by the best citizens of the South."

6. Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

Another obvious choice, and the Beatles got him first for Sgt. Pepper, but still essential. Gandhi inspired a movement that accomplished the impossible by liberating India. A central part of his life's work was his critique of corporatized, technologized, economic slavery. He wrote (in the male-oriented English of his time):

It has been stated that, as men progress, they shall be able to travel in airships and reach any part of the world in a few hours ... They will press (a) button and they will have their newspaper ... Everytying will be done by machinery .... Formerly men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money ...

Activists love to quote Gandhi's saying, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Of course, not every movement makes it through all four of these stages. Remember the "53% percent" movement someone tried to start in response to OWS? They never made it past the "laugh at you" stage, especially once they refused to condemn all those big corporations that don't pay Federal taxes.

7. John Ruskin

19th Century British writer John Ruskin is usually remembered as an art critic, and he certainly was that. But he was also a brilliant social theorist and critic of over-industrialization. Ruskin's perception of technology's dangers, the dangers of economic enslavement, and the way that culture feeds them both would have helped him fit in among the anthropologists, hackers, and culture jammers who first gestated the OWS concept. He wrote:

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both ... If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them ...

On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make him a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once ... but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him.

8. The "Lowell Mill Girls"

Industrial towns like Lowell, Massachusetts sprang up out of the ground in the early 1800s. Women were the most easily exploited populations in these Northern areas, and the women and girls of Massachusetts were soon put to work under grueling conditions in the mills.

Women were not encouraged to think independently, much less to form their own communities or movements. But the so-called Lowell Mill Girls did all three. Cloistered in boardinghouses, oppressed by poverty, belittled as weak and helpless by society, they fought back. They had no role models and no encouragement, but the Lowell Mill Girls fought back.

They organized the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, issued their demands, and gave speeches. From the 1834 editions of the Boston Transcript:

We are told that one of the leaders mounted a stump and made a flaming Mary Wollstonecraft speech on the rights of women and the iniquities of the 'monied aristocracy,' which produced a powerful effect on her auditors, and they determined to 'have their way if they died for it.'

The women marched and struck. They wrote and sang songs ("I'm so fond of liberty that I cannot be slave") and published their own literary magazines. They didn't win their demands, but their extraordinary courage and vision kicked down doors for later generations to walk through. The doors they broke down were doors of fear.

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a woman of her. The Lowell Mill "girls" chose womanhood.

9. Diane Di Prima

I've quote this contemporary poet before, but these lines seem too perfect to overlook for a movement that's challenging the way we think about power and money, as well the rich and powerful themselves:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
... history is a living weapon in yr hand
& you have imagined it, it is thus that you
"find out for yourself"

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides
... the war is the war for the human imagination
and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

10. Jesus of Nazareth

We don't want to offend anyone here, but consider: While theologians may debate his essential nature, historians have accepted him as historical reality since Josephus described his activities in "The Jewish War" around the years 67 or 70 AD. Christians call him the Son of God. Muslims consider him a prophet second only to Muhammad. Jews consider him a wise teacher.

But you could also call Jesus a 99-Percenter. He rejected the political and theocratic rulers of his time. "That which you do to the least of these," he said, "you do to Me." He also said "it's easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter Heaven." And remember, he overturned the money changers' tables outside the Great Synagogue.

It was more aggressive than OWS, whose demonstrations have only seen vandalism when outside anarchist elements come in. But the expelling of the moneylenders was certainly in the OWS spirit.

It might even have been called "Occupy the Temple."