Doing It For Themselves

More than a statistic, “one per cent” has become the slogan of a diffuse but determined worldwide movement that, many believe, has already changed political discourse, regardless of its ultimate destiny. Where did it all begin? With an article entitled ‘Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%’ by Joseph Stiglitz in the May issue of Vanity Fair magazine - hardly a bastion of anarchist extremism. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and professor at Columbia University, is a neo-Keynesian economist who was famously fired from the World Bank for dissent.

In his Vanity Fair article, Stiglitz argued that increased concentration of the ownership of wealth was harmful for everyone, including the 1%. It’s an argument that doesn’t wash with critics of the movement, like conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who argues the movement should concentrate on expanding opportunity, not reducing inequality.

In a recent New York Times blog, economist Paul Krugman argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement was aiming too low. Krugman believes that the movement should be targeting the top 0.1% of the economy, which he argues has benefited most from the concentration of wealth in recent decades. This roughly equates to 307,000 individuals, a tiny fraction of the US’s five million-plus million-dollar households.

In an attempt to map the intellectual history of the Occupy movement, The Chronicle of Higher Education has traced its origins back to a remote Madagascan tribe. Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber, one of the intellectual figures behind Occupy Wall Street, conducted ethnographic research into a group called the Betafo from 1989 to 1991, written up in the 2007 book, Lost People. The Betafo are descendants of Madagascan colonisers and indigenous people. As the Madagascan government was too poorly resourced to provide services to the Betafo, they devised a form of autonomous, decentralised, consensus-based decision-making - in short, a form of anarchism.

What the Chronicle report doesn’t mention is that the Arab Spring demonstrations earlier this year on Cairo’s Tahrir Square also helped set the scene: there, makeshift social services - including tents, food, education and health facilities - were organised by demonstrators to make the occupation of Cairo’s centre of gravity sustainable. It’s a pattern taken up by Occupy protests around the world, which has also taken from the centuries-old commons movement and the anarchist ‘squatting’ tradition, such as this 2007 Barcelona squat, with its ‘occupy and resist’ tag.

The roots of anarchism stretch back at least to the mid-19th century. At the end of the 19th century, extremist anarchists invented modern-day terrorism. Joseph Conrad wrote about them in his novel, The Secret Agent.

But contemporary anarchism represents a wide field of ideas that straddle the left and right of politics and includes libertarian strains. The kind of leftist anarchism that intellectuals like David Graeber espouse champions grass-roots collaboration and autonomy. It eschews reliance on government but, unlike the anarchists that Conrad wrote about, also eschews violence: “One of the things that revolutionaries have learned over the course of the 20th century is that the idea of the ends justifying the means is deeply problematic,” the Chronicle report quotes Graeber as saying. “You can’t create a just society through violence, or freedom through a tight revolutionary cadre. You can’t establish a big state and hope it will go away. The means and ends have to be the same.”

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