11/15/2011 09:36 am ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

Anarchism, Liberterianism and OWS

Occupy Wall Street has, from its earliest days, been something of a bazaar of causes and hobbyhorses. That, in fact, is what defines it, as I argued in a post a few weeks ago: not a single program or doctrine, but a kind of open process that, among its more articulate spokespersons, could be described as anarchism or direct democracy. That process has baffled most of the media, accustomed to the orthodox left, right or Republican, Democratic split. This explains the initial reaction to OWS that it was simply a Tea Party for the left and the insistence by pundits that it stood for this or that. But it soon became clear that something else was going on. One day as I wended my way past Zuccotti Park, I was struck by waving signs demanding to "End the Fed." This shruggingly seemed, at the time, to represent an example of the general incoherence of OWS. But a few days later, on the prime media strip along Broadway by the park, there were suddenly four sign wavers in a row urging not only to "End the Fed" but to sign up with Ron Paul, last seen on the GOP presidential debate stage trying to help Rick Perry with his list of agencies to kill.

This is the kind of thing those on the left -- labor, say, or doctrinally correct progressives -- will reject as just a fringe manifestation or, more darkly, an attempt by forces of the right to co-opt the movement, a sort of Occupy Wall Street occupation. But I'm less sure of that today than when I first saw those signs. Early this week an OWS press release publicized "Federal Reserve Awareness Day" on Wednesday featuring a "moderated discussion" between an outside expert, David Korten, and an occupier, Harrison Shulz, on the Fed's role "in the corrupt and dysfunctional systems of financial malfeasance that caused global depression."

Perhaps the most articulate and sophisticated of OWS "spokespersons" (that being a mild contradiction in a movement that rejects leadership) is David Graeber, an anthropologist from Goldsmiths, University of London who, as far as I can tell, was first identified as such in a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek last month, and who has since confessed to being the creator of the "We are the 99%" slogan. Graeber is an open advocate of anarchism, and was a key player in the discussions in New York that occurred last summer that gestated what we now know as OWS. Graeber, however, is no naïf. He's long been involved in anti-globalization campaigns (or as its known by activists, "global justice") over the last decade -- he seems to have lost his position at Yale University over his activism -- and he's the author of a recent book, "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," which I hope to review in the next few weeks. Graeber has had a few moments in the public eye, including two interviews on television -- one on PBS in August (before the protest began) about debt, the other with Charlie Rose in 2006 -- where he freely discusses a range of subjects. Both now take on greater significance than when they were broadcast.

Graeber particularly goes into the history and beliefs of anarchism with Rose. He has very interesting things to say about the ties between anarchism today and in its American heyday (heyday being a relative term -- it's always been relatively small) in the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s and up to World War I. He argues that the war ushered in a long period of global conflict and struggle, right up to the Cold War, driving underground a movement that argues against the necessity for authority, hierarchy and government. Anarchism, he notes, re-emerged in the form of the anti-globalization movement as the Cold War ended and the economy boomed. Of course he was speaking in 2006, before the financial crisis and before the world economy began to shake and shudder. Looking back now, you have to wonder why, under these crisis conditions, so many seem attracted to what Graeber calls "experiments in direct democracy" and re-imagining the world in new ways. But, of course, Graeber in 2006 could no more foresee the crash any better than, say, Alan Greenspan.

But that's a digression. Here's Graeber on Rose in 2006 with his short definition of anarchism: "Anarchism is about acting as if you're already free. ... Anarchism is democracy without the government. Most people love democracy, but most people don't like the government very much. Keep one, take away the other -- that's anarchism. Anarchism is direct democracy." He elaborates. "Anarchism is the commitment to the idea that it is possible to have a society based on principles of self-organization, voluntary association and mutual aid. It's not the belief that we are necessarily going to have it but that we could have it. You can't know it's possible. But by the same token you can't know that it's not possible."

Graeber's description of the anarchist impulse, as an experiment without government, veers awfully close to Ron Paul-like "End the Fed" libertarianism. Venture capitalist and libertarian Peter Thiel, for instance, has helped fund The Seasteading Institute, whose "mission is "to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems." One of the founders of the institute is Patri Friedman, a grandson of Milton Friedman, and a former engineer at Google. What is the difference between Zuccotti Park and a free, autonomous and sovereign community located in (presumably warm) international waters? Well, the seasteading idea remains theoretical, while OWS exists, albeit with the fragile and ironic permission of the police and city. The emphasis of a Thiel or a Paul (who Thiel has endorsed for president) involves a far more profound belief in markets than the anarchist belief in direct democracy, which has its market-like aspects but which is no fan of the wisdom of markets. Paul and Thiel-style libertarianism has an Ayn Randian edge -- meaning a kind of Nietzschian belief in supermen dragged down by the demons -- that is utterly lacking in the consensus style of Graeber and anarchist theory. The OWS crowd, naively or not, seem to believe it can transform the larger community by example, like medieval monks praying for our souls in giant monasteries; the steasteading crowd seems to argue that they can only carve out their free space outside the oppressive shadow of the nation-state.

Both are utopian, in the technical sense that neither exists (or at least that that existence is artificial; OWS could be wiped out tomorrow). And both suffer from the contradictions and flaws of any utopian venture in history. But for all their differences -- and there's a huge stylistic difference between the pensive academic Graeber and the often pugnaciously argumentative capitalist Thiel -- the roots of the two movements are tangled, and the language that they use to describe their aspirations and goals is very similar. "End the Fed" may just be a silly sign among the many at Zuccotti Park. Or it may suggest ideological commonalities that we should pay greater attention to.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.