Still an Overgoverned Society?

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What makes the Occupy Wall Street episode so interesting is that it’s the first development in quite a while to signal a longing for profoundly different times. This was not just a matter of its inception — a significant improvement of methods that were first employed to organize the street protests during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle — but from the better reviews it has received.

Thus writing last month in Bloomberg Businessweek, reporter Drake Bennett described in the journalistic form known as a “tick-tock” how anthropologist David Graeber, of the University of London,  last August joined a meeting in Bowling Green, a park in lower Manhattan. It had been called by Adbusters, a Vancouver magazine, but  Graeber discovered that the agenda had been planned mainly by local labor activists, “verticals,” in his parlance. It would consist of a rally with speeches, followed by a march, to present various demands. Graeber thereupon moved to the other end of the park, a core group formed around him, to be schooled in the methods of the “‘general assembly’ … the central concept of contemporary anarchist activism.”

At the end of the day, the march was cancelled and Occupy Wall Street began to assume its eventual shape. It was these “horizontals” who then planned the protest in Zuccotti Park in a series of general assemblies over the next month, Bennett wrote.  Once the encampment was successfully established, on September 17, Graeber went off to rejoin his girlfriend, returning a month later to take his bow in Businessweek and push his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

Last week, in The New Yorker, journalist Mattathais Schwartz sets the story in a more general frame. This time Adbusters has its day. The bi-monthly magazine, founded in 1989 by a veteran activist named Kalle Lasn, “is not the only radical magazine calling for the end of life as we know it,” writes Schwartz (himself the founder of the Philadelphia Independent, published from 2002 to 2005), “but it is by far the best looking.”

It was Lasn and his senior editor Micah White who had come up with the idea of an encampment, Schwartz explains, set the date the occupation would start, and registered its catchy name at  “If anybody could claim responsibility for the Zuccotti situation,” he continued, “it was Lasn.” And in 5,700 words Schwartz spells out in considerable detail  more of the behind-the-scenes history of what happened in September in lower Manhattan.

These rival claims being fought out on clay-paper magazines make fascinating reading.  It’s always possible that Zuccotti Park itself may be no more enduring than the Port Huron Statement.  That, too, seemed important at the time, but instead it turned out to have been a skirmish in a much larger drama, to which it contributed to a very different outcome.  To me, though, it seems that in its overall critique of the dominance of the commercial ethic, Adbusters is onto something likely eventually to succeed.

We owe to Philip Mirowski, of the University of Notre Dame, and Dieter Plehwe, of Berlin’s Social Science Research Center, the outlines of the most capacious frame so far of the story in which we’re been  living the last seventy five years – the rediscovery of market processes.  In The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective,  they associate it with the doings of  a small group of economist- intellectuals led (sometimes in different directions) by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. From this small beginning, they say, emerged eventually the political platforms of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and, ten years later, the “Washington Consensus.”

They don’t tell us anything about the road to Mont Pelerin (that’s the little Swiss village near Montreux where in 1947 the Mont Pelerin Society organized itself):  the centralizing, collectivist, authoritarian trend that had been building in Europe since German and Italian unifications of the 1870s. For that, consult Ninteen Eight-Four, by George Orwell, or To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson. But antagonistic as it is, The Road from Mont Pelerin is still a good start on organizing our understanding of the last 75 years.

With a view to keeping my bearings, I’ve been reading An Overgoverned Society, a collection of speeches by the late W. Allen Wallis, to see if it had any resonance today. Published in 1976, it was considered to have been prescient in its time.  Wallis had been among the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society (he had attended graduate school at the University of Chicago with Milton Friedman and George Stigler); in1962 he became president of the University of Rochester, a position from which he exerted considerable influence (the end of the military draft and the creation of an all-volunteer army were among his enthusiasms).

Sure enough, the book begins (as Mirowski and Plehwe believe the Mont Pelerin Society itself began)  with a long quotation from The Good Society, by Walter Lippmann, written between 1933 and 1937 (“The predominant teachings of this age are that there are no limits to man’s capacity to govern others, and  that, therefore, no limitations ought to be imposed on governments….”)

Two things struck me about An Overgoverned Society. The first is how close Wallis and his fellow insurgents were to achieving their aims, and how little he seems to be aware of it  The battle over the draft already has been won. Friedman’s argument about the significance of monetary expectations is about to be put to the test (and, thirty years later, his argument about the failures of the Federal Reserve Board at the beginning of the Great Depression). The election of President Reagan is just four years away.

The second is how completely Wallis omitted from his case exculpatory evidence.  There was nothing about the resumption of rapid growth after World War II, thanks in large part to the Marshall Plan; the civil rights revolution, beginning with the integration of the armed forces in 1948; government’s  contributions of infrastructure, from the GI Bill to the Interstate Highway System to the creation of the computer industry.  And of course Wallis had no inkling of the problems of the present day soaring health care costs, the likelihood of climate change, the problem of currency zones.  Whereas Milton Friedman’s 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, still seems fairly taut, the Wallis speeches sound to my ear like Tea Party rhetoric, little more.

Believing that societal norms alter and evolve in long pulses, that a gradual turning has begun, I have to say I am still heartened by the excitement with which Occupy Wall Street has been received.  Its inner story is something of a disappointment:  the tenets of “contemporary anarchy” are a weak foundation on which to build a “thought collective;” Adbusters’ emphasis on voluntary simplicity is more promising. The movement expresses a powerful longing for a time in which the power of money will be reduced. Maybe it’s a spiral instead of a zigzag; but the direction is slowly changing.  The road from Mont Pelerin is in the rear-view mirror. The next part of the journey has begun.