The Understand Occupy Wall Street, All You Need To Understand is All of Political Philosophy, Part 1
Looking towards Marxism to explain Occupy Wall Street, as a number of writers have recently done, doesn’t go far enough to explain the sort-of-movement’s set of agenda items, or its choice of means for achieving its agenda. To fully understand the Occupy Wall Street Protests, its Providence counterpart, and how they differ from the Tea Party organizations, a wider view of political philosophy is needed — in fact, a view of all of it. Fortunately, understanding all of political philosophy is not quite as daunting a task as it may initially sound (especially when you have bloggers to guide you).
Alfred North Whitehead once said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. If you believe Whitehead, all you need to do to understand all of philosophy, political philosophy included, is digest the entire works of Plato. Of course, Whitehead’s claim was ridiculously broad; obviously it was the combination of Plato and Aristotle who at one point or another said everything on the subject of philosophy there is to be said.
Slight hyperboles aside, it is safe to say that most if not all of the important concepts still used in philosophy today were developed by the ancient philosophers. The differences that separate modern from ancient philosophy are in the normative, i.e. in the widespread acceptance of basic set of rights possessed by everyone, commoners and aristocracy alike. In the words of 20th century philosopher Allan Bloom, rights are “new in modernity, not a part of the common sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy”. In the ancient world, it was possible to think deeply and be concerned about concepts such as justice and virtue, yet still not be troubled by a practice such as slavery. This was not possible after the idea of universal equality had taken root. The political implication of this, also in Bloom’s words, is that modernity is “constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed”.
I don’t believe that philosophers or historians have settled on any single explanation of how the idea of the political equality of all men (and eventually women) crept decisively into society’s way of thinking over the millennia between Ancient Greece and the Enlightenment, but one theory worth pondering is that it was catalyzed by the spread of Christianity, with its core belief in all men being equal in the eyes of God. We do know that a connection between a Creator of all and equal rights for all was expressed at the beginning of the American Declaration of Independence, meaning that America’s founders either really believed in this idea, or if they didn’t, they were unable to identify a better alternative to base the existence of equal rights upon.
In tracing how ideas of liberty and equality made their way to the United States, historian Bernard Bailyn has noted they arrived in various forms: “Enlightenment abstractions”, “common law precedents”, “covenant theology”, and “classical analogy”, some more philosophical, some more practical. The Enlightenment abstractions — the most purely philosophical part — included the early and very successful theory of individual equality that had been posited by John Locke. Locke’s idea was that all men possessed a natural freedom in a “state of nature”, but that other men and unpleasant aspects of nature threatened that freedom. In response, individuals made a contract with another, agreeing to give up a small part of their natural freedom, to protect themselves from the threats that had the power to limit their freedom in a more severe way.
There were two great counterpoints to the ideas of Locke. One came from Edmund Burke. Burke rejected the idea that the goal of society was to restore man to life as it might have been in a state of nature. Burke doubted that such a state had existed in a meaningful way at any place or time. Man had always lived surrounded by other men and, in response, society had evolved habits and institutions that could protect an “ordered liberty” that would be something substantially less without them.
The other great reaction to Locke was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike Burke, Rousseau shared Locke’s idea that the goal of political organization was to get man as close to an ideal state of nature has possible. However, unlike Locke, he didn’t believe it would follow naturally from the pursuit of individual interests. Instead, Rousseau believed everyone had to subsume their individual wills into society’s “general will” in order to experience true freedom in modern existence.
I would not go quite as far as Alfred North Whitehead did in tracing everything back to any single thinker or very small set of thinkers but, over the past 300 years, there hasn’t been very much added to the combinations of underlying assumptions about the modes of political interaction explored by Locke, Burke and Rousseau. Their work has endured for centuries, because they each painted coherent pictures of how human instincts and intuitions about political interaction combine with conscious ideas of individual freedom and equality. There are some modes of human thinking that don’t really change, and a good comprehensive description from seventeenth or eighteenth century still applies today — so long as we are willing to stick with that normative idea that all men and women are created equal.
Social science taxonomists of various stripes would say that Locke, Burke and Rousseau gave expression to modes of thinking that are liberal (in the classical sense), conservative (which is a little different from “American” conservatism) and radical (which is a different thing from liberal), respectively. (But just in case, I’ve missed someone big, I will create an open thread immediately below this post, for anyone who wants to make a case for a fourth, orthogonal political philosopher).
What has been added to the work of the early modern political theorists is a whole lot of history, allowing for some assessment of whether the various theories are really all that logical, once the reality of human nature is added.
Looking across the breadth of political philosophy, the differences between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street become obvious. At the very fundamental level, the movements capture very different aspects of possible human reactions to political problems. The Tea Party movement, with its focus on Constitutional government, i.e. on preserving institutions and habits that have served many people very well for many years, are mounting a Burkean defense (of a day-to-day system, somewhat paradoxically, that is heavily justified in terms of the ideas of Locke.)
The Occupy Wall Streeters and Occupy Providencers, on the other hand, are tapping into the side of human nature explored by Rousseau — the philosopher of the big three whose ideas by-far provide the worst guide for building a livable political program…