Supposedly inspired by the Arab spring, a protest movement has swept Manhattan’s Financial District in recent days in an attempt to “Occupy Wall Street.” Although the protesters don’t appear to have specific plans or demands, they are outraged by what they perceive as greed in the financial industry and economic inequality throughout the United States.
In her treatise of the 1960s student uprising at the University of California, philosopher Ayn Rand recognized that the protesters there weren’t necessarily driven by a particular ideology either, rather by a desire to “take over.”
In “The Cashing-in: The Student Rebellion,” published in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), Rand pointed out that the number one complaint among the “rebels” at Berkeley was that their universities had grown “too big” just as the nation’s banks today are deemed too powerful.
As if they had mushroomed overnight, the “bigness” of the universities is suddenly decried by the consensus as a national problem and blamed for the “unrest” of the students, whose motives are hailed as youthful “idealism.”
Excepts the students had no ideals, according to Rand. They had hardly been taught to think. They were the products of a modern philosophy that negated reason and told young adults that there was nothing certain in life. They came out of school into the world with the following sediments in their brains—“existence is an uncharted, unknowable jungle, fear and uncertainty are man’s permanent state, skepticism is the mark of maturity, cynicism is the mark of realism, and, above all, the hallmark of an intellectual is the denial of the intellect.”
Thus a young girl at Berkeley could tell an interviewer that she has learned that “there are no absolute rules,” before uttering that “we make rules for ourselves.” Sound familiar?
They rallied against “the system” and had to change everything, now. Their hoodlum tactics were answered with vague, apologetic concessions and evasive platitudes from “the establishment” which had taught its children that they were impotent and helpless yet had to rebel against everything they knew.
Whereas the majority of student activists probably were—and are—ignorant of the cause they were serving, their manipulators had very clear goals. They set out to convince the rest of society that mass civil disobedience was a proper and valid tool of political action; that there was a difference between violence and force and that the latter was an acceptable form of social action; that there was no difference between action and ideas. “They claimed that freedom of speech means freedom of action and that no clear line of demarcation can be drawn between them.”
Notice the enthusiasm of today’s “radical chic” who herald the Occupy Wall Street movement as a proper leftist counterpart to the Tea Party, a populist right wing revolt against government overreached that emerged in protest to President Barack Obama’s health care reform effort in 2009.
The “organizers” in the 1960s did not create the conditions for Berkeley to happen though, nor did they educate the hordes of embittered, aimless, neurotic teenagers who stamped their foots shrieking, “I want it now!”
[B]ut they do know how to attack through the sores which their opponents insist on evading. They are professional ideologues and it is not difficult for them to move into an intellectual vacuum.
Rand knew that the real battle was being waged in the classrooms. She understood that the battle was one of opposing ideas—between one that recognizes reality and one that doesn’t; one that accepts reason and one that rejects it; one that respects private property and one that abolishes it. All the particular issues, whether it’s “free speech” in the 1960s or collective bargaining rights and bank reform today, stem from these basic principles.
Rand also knew that the defenders of collectivism retreat quickly when they encounter a confident, intellectual adversary. “Their case rests on appealing to human confusion, ignorance, dishonesty, cowardice, despair.” The opposing side has the weapons of morality and reason on its side. “The collectivists dropped them, because they had no right to carry them. Pick them up,” she wrote; “you have.”