It may be a year and half since Occupy London was evicted from their site at St Paul’s cathedral but the movement continues in its efforts to rethink the existing social and political order in the light of the global financial crisis. In retrospect, one of the more interesting aspects of the St Paul’s protest was the Occupy London’s economics working group’s engagement with the work of F.A. Hayek (Occupy London, 2012). This engagement has attracted much critical attention, focusing on the appropriateness or otherwise of the claim that the structure of the movement bears certain similarities to Hayek’s conception of social order (Hayek, 1960; 1982). Not only am I largely sympathetic to the views and demands of Occupy, but I also admire the attempt of its intellectual wing to subvert liberal capitalism from within, by appropriating the ideas of its most relentless defender. But I’m not at all convinced that Hayek’s conception of spontaneous order and of the distribution of knowledge in society lends itself well for this purpose.
There is a danger, I think, that in appropriating Hayek’s ideas Occupy will bring in the Trojan horse of his depoliticised individualism. Yes, Hayek has offered a conception of society which emphasises the decentralised co-ordination of knowledge. And, yes, the idea is deceptively attractive: it implies the rejection of hierarchy and alludes to democratisation. But, in Hayek, this notion of spontaneous co-ordination is grounded in a thoroughly depoliticised conception of the individual. Hayek’s ideal of a free society is a collection of ‘entrepreneurs’ – rule-following and self-interested individuals whose only purpose is to put their human capital to profitable use in the market economy. In other words, the Hayekian individual is not a good model for political action and agency.
Indeed, the two values most scorned by Hayek are precisely the ones without which Occupy could not exist: altruism and solidarity. Not only was Hayek a relentless crusader against social equality and economic justice, he was also rather unsympathetic towards meaningful political participation and democratic government. Hence my suggestion: if Hayek is to be used at all in the formulation of Occupy’s rationale and aims, then great care should be taken to ensure that his politically empty understanding of the liberal subject does not unintentionally slip in.
Occupy would perhaps be better advised to draw from Hannah Arendt’s account of spontaneous social action – an account in which spontaneity is tied to creative action, and not, as in Hayek, to rule-following. Arendt offers a much thicker understanding of human plurality than Hayek: When she speaks about the continual emergence of new ideas and initiatives, she refers to the realm of public, not private, life. Though not without its own limitations, an engagement with Arendt would at least avoid the danger of bringing in the Trojan horse of apolitical individualism and of rendering Occupy incapable of political action.
Does the analogy of the Trojan horse – resting as it does on the idea of a bounded space and a relatively clear distinction between inside and outside – reflect a fundamental misunderstanding, on my side, of Occupy and its openness? Perhaps. But, then again, how open can Occupy afford to be without becoming (or remaining) politically irrelevant? I do not mean to suggest, as is often done, that Occupy adopt the organizational structure of more traditional political parties and movements. In my view, the lack of specific aims or demands, of leadership and hierarchical organisation, of formalized membership and financing is the movement’s strength, not its weakness. What kind of social organisation do we want? And how should we reform our political system so as to make it more democratic and just? The point of Occupy is not so much to have ready-made answers to these questions, but to encourage people to ask them in the first place.
Occupy’s role is not so much to push specific political aims and demands, but to create the new political culture within which such demands will be voiced and heard. But it seems to me that Occupy needs to put forward a more clearly defined set of ideas to cultivate and strengthen a spirit of protest that will make real change clearly perceptible at the horizon of politics.
Dr Jorg Spieker is Lecturer in Political Theory at Birkbeck.
Occupy London (2012) ‘How Hayek helped us to find capitalism’s flaws’ Financial Times, 25 January.
F.A. Hayek (1960) The Constitution of Liberty (London and New York: Routledge).
F.A. Hayek (1982) Law, Legislation and Liberty (London and New York: Routledge).