The Ephemeral State Of Nature

By way of the Volokh Conspiracy, an interesting glimpse inside Zuccotti Park:

As the communal sleeping bag argument between Lauren Digion and Sage Roberts threatened to get out of hand, a facilitator in a red hat walked by, brow furrowed. “Remember? You’re not allowed to do any more interviews,” he said to Digion. She nodded and went back to work. But when Roberts shouted, “Don’t tell me what to do!” Digion couldn’t hold back.

“Someone has to be told what to do,” she said. “Someone needs to give orders. There’s no sense of order in this fucking place.”

Leaderless anarchy is not sustainable. Voluntary compliance with rules established by consensus sounds great, until someone stops voluntarily complying and enforcement becomes necessary. The OWS’ers say they are building a new community, a new kind of community. Fair enough, but communities eventually need some kind of governance, as the OWS’ers are discovering.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Fair enough, but communities eventually need some kind of governance, as the OWS’ers are discovering.

    All they need is the invisible hand of the free market. You know, like the other lawless community centered in New York.

  2. I’m not sure where in the OWS charter it says that they won’t deal with doucheiness in their midst as needed.

    My impression of the square the last few days has been that governance is something of a side issue – there’s nothing remotely like a constant quorum of any kind. I think the thing is now too diffuse for there to be any realistic notions of implementation of supermajority rule or even distillation of aims. We’ve moved past the time when anyone could have tried to speak for it. Maybe it’s dissolving, maybe it’s evolving. Maybe it will re-cohere in a way where that will be possible again. But I think the moments those calling for structure in this thing were hoping to capitalize upon have passed.

    • At least one of them was practicing douchery, agreed. We lack information from the interview to know who was breaking an agreed-upon norm and therefore was engaged in douchery — or if there even was such a norm, in which case the one attempting to unilaterally impose the norm was the douche.

      But this is my point — someone, sometime, in some way, is eventually going to engage in douchery. The rest of the community must respond in some sort of fashion. Thus is government born, through the use of punitive measures to impose common norms. It’s as natural and inevitable a form of human interaction as sex.

      • From, “The rest of the community must respond in some sort of fashion.” to, “Thus is government born, through the use of punitive measures to impose common norms,” I think, there is more taxonomical ground to cover than I think you allow. I think at this point it’s something of a misapplication of terms to start talking about government. These are people voluntarily assembling in a place, already under a government. It’s more a question of what kind of order the meeting proceeds under. There certainly are norms – you can find various lists of rules for various gatherings on the web. BUt it doesn’t follow that just whatever actions that are taken to enforce them, if any, constitutes government or even governance. Is just one person voluntarily upbraiding another government? Or a self-designated ad hoc group that sees something that goes against the norms? I don’t see how someone saying, “Hey don’t do that! Don’t you know about the ground rules?” constitutes a refutation of the ideal of voluntary compliance?

        But even if it does, so what? You can hold out the ideal of voluntary compliance with agreed-upon norms but then go on deal with the practical problem of people not doing so. Maybe it says something about the invocation of that ideal, but what are you saying that practically means for the movement? It seems like you are trying to expand certain simple, eminently solvable problems that human beings always face when in close proximity with each other into some kind of definitive takedown of the very essence of this movement. I agree that it’s interesting to see how they’ll deal with these things over time, and how they’ll address various other more consequential decisions, but it’s not clear to me that this demonstrates some basic truth that is at odds with the overall thrust of the movement so far. It’s just stuff they have to deal with, which they will be able to deal with. What’s the point?

        • “I think at this point it’s something of a misapplication of terms to start talking about government. ”

          Primitive government is still government.

      • Governance is probably a somewhat fair description of what you’re describing, I’ll walk that back. But clearly some people there are trying to institute it to some extent. Some people may have anarchy as a goal, and I’m not sure I understand what you’re intending to imply, but I don’t think there’s any particular commitment to it across the movement. Moreover, while I understand the need to prevent some basic venial bad behavior, I definitely understand people’s wariness at instituting a broader decision-making structure that is openly attempting to define the movement around ideas and proposals that they don’t see as central.

        I guess I’m not sure what point you are making (and I want to know, because I find your analysis always incisive). I really see these issues of maintaining a minimum standard of conduct as quite distinct from those larger questions of the direction of the movement, which are definitely bound up in the question of governance. I think the day-to-day stuff is something of a sidelight and not really all that relevant as a test of the movement’s organizational capacities vis-a-vis its stated principles and aims. Are you saying that it is?

      • Wow, was that a lot of blah-blah-blah-ing. Skip it all if you want. What I was trying to say was just: Okay that’s an arguable but clear point (that as soon as you have or perceive the need for any rules, and conceive an intention to enforce them, you have the beginnings of government), but, what is the *point* of your point for this situation? Did you have a larger point that applies discreet facts about the situation on the ground to the principle illustrated by your smaller point that has some major import for the OWS movement? If so, how far would you take that larger point, and how far does your micro-point take you in that direction? If you follow at all.

        • Anarchy is fragile. A caution for those who are attracted to it. That is all.

          (Also, I found the story amusing.)

  3. Basically they’re rediscovering Locke’s tension between the State of Nature and Political Society.

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