An extreme political camping trip or renegotiating the social contract: thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

First page of Constitution of the United States

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My thoughts on the Occupy Movement is that it is dangerously close to being like an extreme sport like snowboarding in being an extreme political camping trip and not an intellectually coherent attempt to renegotiate the social contract.  From the agendas, especially in the United Kingdom, it would seem that the “occupation” is trying to recreate the social contract within a society. The Occupy movement has set up a camp outside St. Paul’s cathedral, which looks to model itself as a miniature version of a society, but on some sort of egalitarian structure.  Yet, there it shows a deep political naiveté, and a core ambiguity.  Creating the community has been relatively easy for the Occupy movement. Someone else keeps the order (the police) someone else makes sure the rubbish is cleared (local government), someone else provides the food (donations), someone else provides the toilet facilities and someone else makes sure the land is available (Church of England).  All of this without the key challenge of the modern society—taxes, which someone else pays for so they can undertake the adventure. The more recent efforts to create a social welfare state within the community ultimately depend upon the social welfare state around them.

Unlike the true state of nature, from whence all societies have come from, the groundwork already exists, there is no need to worry about the Hobbesian vision of a world out of which on must escape (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short) has been done already. Thus, they seem, and this is perhaps a strong word, like political parasites living off society and not operating as an alternative to society.

The movement is in danger of appearing as political camping trip and not a serious attempt to redirect the politics of the nation or the nations. I do not mean this as a harsh criticism, but rather as a direct challenge to understand that politics requires more than self-directed action, it requires words, slogans, and above all promises so that others can follow. Ultimately, because of the scale issue, it will need decisions that not everyone can agree. Then, we begin to see haves and have-nots. We also see majorities and minorities.  Consensus may be a nice idea on a small scale, but no amount of technology or good will is going to allow a modern state, one that can give all the benefits required and craved by the public, on a general assembly approach.

The alternative is that the Occupy Movement is interested in recasting the social contract and in doing so fundamentally; changing what exists now into something else.  Herein, though is the deeper challenge that remains unarticulated.  By that, I mean there have been manifestos and there has been talk of new constitutional convention in the United States, but there has been no clear discussion or development of how the new politics will be delivered.  The current representational democratic system, for all of its apparent flaws, still delivers.   The system still delivers political action across the country.  Yet, the Occupy movement has not said whether it will try to use that system, oppose it, or simply try to work around it.


In each alternative, there is a general weakness to the movement.  To work within the system is to accept that it is working and it has set the ground rules.  At the same time, though it is a sophisticated approach in that a political action plan to change the country has to work within the existing laws.  The laws exist to protect the people and anything that undermines that protection, the people will oppose. To paraphrase Machiavelli, people want to protect themselves from being oppressed and fee free when they are not being oppressed by the powerful.  As such, the laws, within a constitutional democracy protect the people from domination.  To change a democracy, you have to change the laws. Yet, there does not seem to be an effort, either directly or indirectly, to engage the mechanisms necessary to effect political change.


Therefore, we see the second possible alternative; confront the system.  Buildings can be occupied and so can parliaments, but what will that change? Some will even claim that raising the issue and keeping it in the public eye is a victory.  Yes, but what has it achieved? Even if the movement “won”, they would have to sit down and figure out what they are going to do. They too will have to make sure the order is kept, the rubbish is cleared, the land available, taxes paid and collected. The danger from this political naïveté is that it becomes captive to demagogues and those wishing to use that huge positive energy for their own political purposes. I wish them luck, but I hope that the public has not forgotten the past and what sacrifices were made in the 1930s and the 1940s and the 1990s to even make the occupy movement possible.


The third option is trying to work around the system. Yet, that still does not lead to the change or the intended goal.  The problem is that this attempts to ignore the politics and still achieve a political goal.  When I mention politics, it is not a question of knowledge or even expertise. Instead, it is to suggest that the attempt to found a state if fraught with amazing difficulty. If the occupy movement is attempting to found a new political order, they are doing it, now, on the back of the existing system. The problem though is that this is not the 1930s where the system was broken in many countries with mass unemployment and weak, if non-existent, social welfare states.   As I mentioned, someone else clears the rubbish, someone else makes sure the lights are on; someone else brings the food,

and someone else enforces the law.

This latter issue is most problematic for the movement, and its deepest weakness, because it goes to the core of what it means to found and maintain a political order.


Aristotle pointed out 2500 years ago that we come together for security and we stay together for the pursuit of the good life. Coming into being for the sake of living, it exists for the sake of living well” (1252b27) [Aristotle Politics] However, there does not seem to be this understanding of security within the movement. The movement seems to believe that human nature is good when the reality is that human nature is deeply flawed. [Original sin to say the least] Those flaws need the institutions and organisations that support the order and stability that allow us to have a civilisation.  As James Madison pointed out in Federalist 51

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The political order is needed to sustain the economic prosperity that allows political leisure to occur.  Working from dawn to dusk does not leave time for political leisure. Leisure leads to culture and within it, we can contemplate politics.  One must remember that Socrates and his compatriots had leisure on the back of slaves.

“Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and so living link with a church community and with divine worship.”


The Occupy Movement enjoys the leisure to contemplate politics because there is a culture that allows it to act. However, where it fails is that it has no link to the divine.  Even though it attempts, especially in the UK, to link to the church community, its core ethos rejects the order set out by Christ and the church.


Machiavelli pointed out that the founding of new modes and orders required violence, audacity, and a vision of the future state. In other words, unarmed prophets were not successful, but armed ones were as in the Prince Chapter 6.  Thus, there is a real danger that violence and disorder can occur in the camps, from within, because they are not structured to maintain order.  In part, this is from a flawed understanding of human nature.


In the end, the movement must decide if it is trying to found a new political order or reform the existing one.  Once it decides that, it will need to consider how it will do that. If it seeks to reform the existing system, it will have to show what is still working and what is not working and then disentangle them.  Once it has disentangled them, the movement or its leaders need to weave together a new web of politics. See Plato’s Statesman (g) Weaving the Web of the Human Political Community (305e-311c (

One can admire the youthful enthusiasm, but history forces me to remember that such ventures rarely succeed.  In the end, they usually collapse into bloody violence or dissipate under the deadweight of disillusionment.

I see a simpler way to renegotiate the social contract given the source of the economic and political crisis. If we can teach our children to obey the laws and live within their means as well as find the spiritual worth of their fellow human beings, we will have gone a long way to reminding ourselves and society what it is that the West stood for and its greatest traditions.

If we do that, we can renew the political soul of the West. Socrates defines justice as “working at that which he is naturally best suited,” and “to do one’s own business and not to be a busybody” (433a-433b



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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