A Syllabus for the ‘Occupy’ Movement

Conservatives are wrong to deride college courses on the anti-Wall Street protests. Here’s a lesson plan and possible reading list.

Schools from New York’s Columbia to Chicago’s Roosevelt University are offering courses on the “Occupy” movement. This has inspired some derision from the right, but I think that derision is misplaced. There is much that a course on the Occupy movement might profitably cover. Here are some possible lessons:

1) The Higher Education Bubble and Debt Slavery Throughout History. Since ancient times, debt has been a tool used by rulers to enslave the ruled, which is why the Bible explains that the borrower is the slave to the lender. One complaint of many Occupy protesters involves their pursuit of expensive degrees that has left them burdened by student loans but unable to find suitable employment. This unit would compare the marketing of higher education and student debt to today’s students with the techniques used to lure sharecroppers and coal miners into irredeemable indebtedness. Music to be provided by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

2) Bourgeois vs. Non-Bourgeois Revolutions: A Comparison and Contrast. The Occupy movement left its major sites—McPherson Square in D.C., Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, Dewey Square in Boston—filthy and disheveled. By contrast, the tea party protests famously left the Washington Mall and other locations cleaner than they found them, with members proudly performing cleanup duties.

This unit would note that social-protest movements are sometimes orderly and sometimes disorderly as a matter of approach, and it would compare the effectiveness and ultimate success of such relentlessly bourgeois movements as the tea party, the pre-1964 Civil Rights movement, Women’s Suffrage activists, and the American Revolution, against such anti-Bourgeois movements as the post-1968 Black Power and New Left movements, and the French Revolution.

Which accomplished more lasting good? Is Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic applicable to social movements?

3) Class struggles and the New Class. Professor Kenneth Anderson of American University has suggested that the Occupy movement is best understood as a struggle between the upper and lower tiers of the elite. In recent years, the upper tier, composed of bankers, financiers, etc., has become decoupled from the lower-tier sub-elite of “Virtue Industry” workers in fields like education, nonprofit activism, social work and the like—with the latter feeling betrayed and abandoned.

Getty ImagesThe Occupy Wall Street Movement in Union Square on Nov. 17, in New York City.

Mr. Anderson writes: “It was, after all, the upper tier New Class, the private-public finance consortium, that created the student loan business and inflated the bubble in which these lower tier would-be professionals borrowed the money. It’s a securitization machine, not so very different from the subprime mortgage machine. The asset bubble pops, but the upper tier New Class, having insulated itself and, as with subprime, having taken its cut upfront and passed the risk along, is still doing pretty well. It’s not populism versus the bankers so much as internecine warfare between two tiers of elites. The downward mobility is real, however.”

This unit would begin with Milovan Djilas’s analysis of the managerial “New Class” that ran the late-stage Soviet Union, and would then consider that analysis’s application to American society today. Similar thoughts by Friedrich Hayek and Christopher Lasch would provide insight on the nature of the intra-class, intra-elite struggle that marks the Occupy movement.

4) Scapegoating and anti-Semitism in mass economic-protest movements. The Occupy movement began as an assault on “the 1%,” a shadowy elite of bankers and financiers charged with running the world for their own benefit. Within a few months, the Anti-Defamation League was noting that anti-Semitic statements and sympathies seemed surprisingly widespread within the Occupy encampments. Compare with other such movements that led to similar results. Are such developments inevitable? If so, what strands in Western (and perhaps non-Western) culture account for this?

5) The Fragility of Public Health. Young and healthy upper-middle-class Americans, when huddled into encampments without modern sanitary facilities, developed a number of diseases, ranging from scabies to lice to tuberculosis, with surprising rapidity. In addition, populations of rats and other vermin exploded. What lessons can be learned about the fragility of public health, and the complacency bred by modern sanitation? Are we similarly complacent in other areas?

6) Class Differences Within Economic Protest Movements. While the Occupy movement’s proletariat were sleeping under canvas, many of its leaders were staying in five-star hotels. Six-figure sums of money were collected, but their disbursement was cloudy. Does every movement, however egalitarian in doctrine, inevitably produce its own overclass? Are “egalitarian” movements more prone to such outcomes? Readings: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Li Zhi-Sui’s “The Private Life of Chairman Mao.”

It is likely, of course, that the Occupy courses offered will partake of none of the above, and will instead be tedious, dated mashups of Fanon, Marcuse and Frances Fox Piven. But if students are offered no better than that, it will be the fault of their instructors, not of the subject matter.

Mr. Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He hosts “InstaVision” on

Comments are closed.