Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Squaring The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

“Democracy is the safest of all states.” Aristotle (Politics)

Aristotle can be dismissed as a racist, misogynist, or xenophobe. He may be all those and a dry writer, but few if any have attempted a project so broad or accomplished it so well. He probed, dissected, and classified problems in the human and natural sciences of his age, laying the foundations of these sciences for ours. Nowhere is this more evident than in Political Science.

We have him to thank for the classification of governments, the separation of powers, the wisdom of flexibility, the good sense of rule by law, the prudence of moderation, and the advisability of political inclusion. The last two shed light on recent political dicontent and give us a way to square the Tea Party with Occupy Wall Street.

Why do they call themselves the Tea Party?

In one sense it’s obvious for any student of American history, an allusion to a Colonial act of civil disobedience (for an unfair tax) staged against the British Parliament and Crown, who were asking the Colonists to pay for England’s imperial expenses–something they were not willing to make sacrifices for. Moreover, they were decrying the very idea of taxation by a government thousands of miles away in which they had no effective voice. The Tea Party’s and Colonists’ revolutionary slogan “No taxation without representation!” was defended on the basis of England’s unwritten Constitution.

Today’s Tea Party wants to send a similar message. Their confrontational, politically incorrect–often strident and distrustful–rallies trumpet, “We will not pay for this, because it is not what we asked for.” They feel overwhelmed by a remote Leviathan in Washington, where their voices are not heard. Rightly or wrongly they are frightened by a mammoth Federal government and would like to replace it at the local level.

Why Occupiers? And why the tents?

In the heyday of America’s Progressive Era (1900-1916) radical labor and socialists regularly held gatherings lasting for days that collected activists from around the entire country. They would give long-winded speeches and strategize. These rallies also served as celebrations and encampments, and people stayed for weeks at a time. The rally-protest-celebration was a model for Occupy Wall Street, while anti-corruption was the starting point of its demands, the Mideast revolutions its immediate inspiration.

The Tea Party’s civil disobedience inolved refusing to pay a tax (even destroying property that would be taxed). Occupy Wall Street, like the Progressive Era’s encampments, like the Egyptian’s Tahrir Square occupation, was reclaiming public space as a symbol of reclaiming government. A city park, paid for and maintained by government, was by definition community-owned. An elite, whether a 1% or 2%, should not and could not (or so they thought) exclude “the people.”

Occupy Wall Street was civil disobedience against the alleged hijacking of community space and social resources by an oligarchy for its private benefit. The occupiers were shouting, “The market itself is a public space” that exists only with society’s approval and government’s support. Any market, like Wall Street, presupposes a government that maintains a monetary system, a banking sector to put it into effect, a court system to enforce its contracts, and police power to protect its private property rights, rights that entail exclusion–of “people” from the elites’ belongings.

Today’s Tea Party protests the contradiction and “unconstitutionality” of taxation without representation, while Occupy decries the hypocrisy of social cost for private profit. The first was asking to be let ALONE. The second was asking to be let IN.

What does Aristotle have to do with it?

Unlike Plato, Aristotle was not a poet. He was a biologist-classifier-organizer. To him we owe much in the natural sciences and social sciences. The classification of government into: monarchy, republic, or democracy–tyranny, oligarchy, demagoguery in their sickened forms–comes from Aristotle’s Politics, as does the concept of the separation of powers, the distinction between means and ends, and more.

These alone would not make “Politics” relevant to our 21st century problems, manifested in Tea and Occupy. Rather, it is because he was a biologist and understood life, that he understood struggle, instability, equilibrium. He viewed the polity as an organic whole, and just as an organism has parts that fit together symbiotically, so too must a state. Just as an organism exists in equilibrium with its environment, a state must adapt to its people and conditions.

Although Aristotle does not endorse any one form of government–he repeatedly warns that each polity must choose what works best for itself–-and advises that all should avoid extremes, that any government should not permit one part of the people to excessively dominate over the rest. Excessive domination, he said, results in tyranny, oligarchy, or (in the case of majority-rule) demagoguery. Above all, he advises that regardless of the justice of laws, rule according to law breeds respect for government and, ultimately, stability. Sedition, as he calls political discontent, originates from one group extracting too much from its own position, or from the government itself neglecting to abide its own laws.

Fittingly, these are chiefly Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street grievances. Both feel unrepresented and excluded, and Occupy also protests profiteering by an elite at the public expense. Both feel oppressed by a minority faction. Both have refused to give into the two-party system, feeling it would endorse the status quo. Both view the Parties as co-opted by internal oligarchies. The first believes that extravagant bureaucrats and “dependent people” are robbing the public treasury; the second believes that corporations (especially finance and energy elites) are the profiteers. [See links to their “platforms.”]

Indeed it may be impossible for either to get what they want from the status quo electoral (and party) system for several reasons.

First, the Republican and Democratic parties are doing rather well under the current system. They have never earned so many contributions from corporate and individual sources. It would be hard to convince them to change lacking a prevailing force of reform; such a forceful push is not likely under the current electoral system. Single-member plurality districts (gerrymandered or not) nearly mathematically shut out alternative parties. Furthermore, the very practices that Tea and Occupy lambast, government largess and systemic financial corruption, immensely benefit both Republicans and Democrats. The “profiteers” at the other end of “corrupt transactions” are clients or patrons of the Parties. If one party breaks rank, it will lose a substantial amount of financial contributions, and would effectively cede an election to the other party–at least that is conventional campaign-finance wisdom.

Second, if through the unlikely passage of campaign finance reform, or by sheer courage, one party offers up a Tea or Occupy platform, it will not be able to implement it under the current US Constitutional structure. [This was recently demonstrated by Congress in 2013.] Not only would it be exceedingly difficult to pass a bill through both Houses against the will of one party, but such reform would need to be enforced by the Executive, then approved by the Judiciary. US history has shown this to be nearly impossible, as demonstrated in the so-called “Progressive Era” that took 40–50 years to implement relatively modest reforms such as a minimum wage, or maximum work hours. Such reforms, repeatedly introduced beginning in the late 1800s, were either not enforced or overturned by the Supreme Court–that is, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reelected to a fourth Presidential term, threatened the Court with a “judicial coup” (that would have added six additional justices hand-picked by him!) This heavy-handed threat apparently worked, because his reforms were approved within a few months of the historic “show-down” in the Spring of 1937. It would not be extravagant to assume that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street will not wait 40 years to have their grievances redressed.

Third, these movements are not merely seeking policy reform, such as lower taxes or the end of corporate welfare. In both cases, at least one demand is direct or participatory democracy. Since Occupy is a worldwide, decentralized phenomenon, we cannot pin it down to a particular set of ideas. In New York, it did not make specific demands, partly due to its ideology of no hierarchy, but also, significantly, because it envisioned an organic interconnection between government and governed, analogous to “open” technology, and asked for free access to culture and information.

“Some persons of distinguished families who, because they are so, disdain to be on equality with others….these are the fountain from which seditions arise.” (Politics)

Indeed, the Tea Party’s call for accountability and liberty, Occupy Wall Street’s insistence on openness and inclusion, are nothing new under the sun. They are but expressions of old themes that not only trace back to the Progressive Era or the American Revolution, but are as old as Aristotle, as old as organized government: moderation in government and inclusion of the people.

Those grievances could not be more authentic or more legitimate coming from opposite ends of the spectrum. Perhaps the unoriginality of these grievances has emboldened the Two Parties to ignore them. Perhaps they do so at their peril.

And democracy, after all, is better when all participate “just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse.” Aristotle Politics Book III.

6 comments on “Squaring The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street

  1. Pingback: Remembering Mubarak: Tahrir, Zuccotti, & Future Democracy | Ahmed R Teleb

  2. Pingback: Remembering Mubarak: Tahrir, Zuccotti, & Future Democracy | Ahmed R Teleb

  3. Pingback: The Politic: Borrow a French Word to Save the American Republic? | Fila Sophia

  4. Pingback: Squaring The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street |...

  5. keithsutherland

    Nice piece Ahmed, nice to see the provenance of modern political movements and it’s quite a feat to find the common ground between two very different phenomena.

  6. Pingback: Citizen Reviews and Brand Gov | Fila Sophia

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