There is a temptation to equate the Occupy Wall Street protest movement with social utopian movements of the nineteenth century. This temptation may be appropriate as applied to the Zuccotti park site of the protests, but among the satellite protests in cities large and small the historical corollary seems far too generous.
Granted, the OWS tent villages are more organic than the methodically planned experiments at Brook Farm or among the Shakers, Owenites, or other Fourierists. Yet OWS and its myriad predecessors share much in common. All strive to be a society within a society. All are in part a reaction to the economic turbulence of the day. All implemented their own community ethics and attempted to shield them from society at large. All accepted the view, born of Rousseau, that human nature could be perfected, that through a reasoned ordering of civil society inequities and injustices could be swept away.
History demonstrates that from the Reign of Terror under Robespierre to the social utopians to the followers of Marx, Engels, and Hegel, reality collides rather unpleasantly with Rousseauian ideals. Sometimes the effort quietly blows away, like the dejected who disbanded the North American Phalanx, other times horror ensues. Watching and waiting to learn how far down this road the Occupiers would tread has been an important hobby.
Recent news from the Occupy Albany site suggests that this thinking may be far too lofty. The occupy protesters may be little more than physical campaign signs, sharing more in common with the yard signs that litter public spaces every election season than with high-minded individuals and social experimenters.
It has come to light that most – practically all – the tents comprising Occupy Albany are uninhabited. Many have never been occupied. They exist only as a prop to inflate the size of the movement. A local news reporter recently suggested that, at best, the Occupy Albany site had as few as two or three people tending it each night – just enough presence to create the illusion of activity. It has been no secret that the Occupiers take this a step further, working in shifts, leaving the bulk of their numbers able to sleep at home, enjoy warm showers, and so forth.
As this is the case, it is wrong to think of the Occupy movement as either social utopian or as a latter day Hooverville. At best it is performance art, at worst it is just another mélange of political eyesores improperly claiming public space for private aims and waiting for authorities to uproot, like so many campaign signs stuck along the highway.