ThinkSwiss NY 2012: Occupy Rousseau: Inequality and Social Justice



If one sees a handful of powerful and rich men at the pinnacle of greatness and fortune while the mass crawls in obscurity and misery, it is because the former value the things they enjoy only to the extent that the others are deprived of them, and they would cease to be happy if, without change in their own state, the People ceased to be miserable."  Discourse on Inequality, p. 95.

New York: From the Celeste Bartos Forum in partnership with Live from the New York Public Library, the ThinkSwiss Festival event on Friday night entitled "Occupy Rousseau: Inequality and Social Justice" shared on the same stage the voices of some of the preeminent scholars of Jean Jacques Rousseau, historians, politicians, journalists and Occupy Wall Street activists for what was to be a night filled with heated debate and shared concern over the state of the American experiment in Democracy which today finds itself under attack like never before. A list of the participants brings forth the diversity to which the night's event was dedicated to: Benjamin Barber, Pascal Couchepin, Guillaume Cheneviere, Laura Flanders, Victor Gourevitch, Amin Husain, Governor Thomas H. Kean, Nanneri Keohane, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Simon Schama, and Governor Eliot Spitzer (see bios in event program below). 

In a lengthy event which ran for over two and a half hours, it is difficult to outline the range of topics which were covered and so a brief summary will hopefully suffice. The stage set, the lights dimmed, Benjamin Barber and the former President of the Swiss Confederation chatting with Governor Eliot Spitzer in the corner, and after technical issues with an oddly-chosen video of Ralph Nader speaking to the merits of the legalization of marijuana, Paul Holdengräber (Director of NYPL Live) introduced the President of the New York Public Library, Dr. Anthony W. (Tony) Marx. Speaking to the power of education to redress inequality (as he witnessed first hand in his time spent in South Africa during Apartheid), Dr. Marx underlined the need for an informed polity and noted the New York Public Library's dedication to the free and public ideas of all New Yorkers, saying, "This is the place where you can read a copy of Rousseau if you do not have access to one." Through the use of a double yellow line metaphor as one is stuck in traffic, Dr. Marx pointed to the fact that no matter who one is, if one is entrenched in an abominable situation for too long with a clear indication that another path may lead to a quicker and more just solution, we as human beings will indubitably choose to cross that double yellow line to continue moving forward. From all indications from how the night progressed, such a double yellow line has already been crossed and the time for alternative solutions to a growing number of issues facing our lives and more broadly, our Democratic experiment, has been upon us for quite some time. Pierre Maudet, current mayor of Geneva, Switzerland was next to speak to the global relevance of Swiss ideas in America and New York City in particular.

One could not help but think him a strange bedfellow to a number of the other speakers, particularly the Occupy Wall Street activists. As explained to be by an anonymous Swiss reporter sitting next to me, Maudet was recently found to be in ardent opposition to the Occupy Geneva movement. He did not speak to the Occupy movement in the short time that he was on stage. Benjamin Barber (moderator for the night) soon took stage, outlining the general rules of the night, the breadth of Rousseau's continued influence on our society, and the fact that over the course of the night, the stage would be "occupied" by the numerous speakers to come. With a clarity and eloquence often rightly attributed to Barber, he noted that it was clear to many in America (from the Tea Party to those in Zuccotti Park) that Democracy is not working. Importantly noting that no longer can we as a citizenry scapegoat the politicians but must ourselves take the lead in building the community (ala movements such as the Occupy movement), Barber was right to insist that 300 years after the birth of Rosseau, the inequalities and injustices which he so often spoke to through his numerous works, but in particular the Discourse on Inequality, still very much exist. The question before the panel of the night was simply, "What can we do?"


Professor Victor Gourevitch, translator from French to English of most of the books by Rousseau that English readers will pick up today, was perhaps the most revolutionary voice to hit the stage. Through poised and patient contemplation, Gourevitch was able to calmly take the numerous falsities we may attribute to Rousseau (that he was a revolutionary, that he longed for a return to the "natural" state, that he was ardently against inequality, to name just a few) and knock each one down with an expertise on the man and his works that he has built over the many years of working with his material. He noted that Rousseau was indeed a thinker of great scope and intensity but was very moderate in his proposals and offered practical suggestions. He in fact, often warned against revolution and was a true believer in the rule of law. And while it was true that he was very much opposed to inequalities based not on merit but inheritance, his reaction to such inequalities would not be an endorsement of the Robespierre approach but would rather be asking how, given the existence of such inequalities or "chains", such inequalities could be legitimated by the people experiencing them. Asked what he thought Rosseau would think had he known Robespierre would carry a copy of the Discourse on Inequality in his back pocket during the French Revolution, Gourevitch stated that Rousseau never intended for Robespierre to act as he did and noted that to read Rosseau in a revolutionary light in line with the actions of revolutionaries such as Robespierre is a matter of, "Picking the raisins off the cake." He would later note that Rousseau would likely be opposed to many, if not all, modern cultural "isms": multiculturalism, feminism, cosmopolitanism, and more. And Rousseau, he reminded us, was a proponent of elective aristocracy and not participatory democracy on a small scale.

Guillaume Chenviere spoke next to a key event which occurred in the middle of Rousseau's life and his experience of Geneva: banking. In the late 17th century/early 18th century, Geneva was transformed into the banking center of the world and a lab for people's sovereignty. It was Rousseau, he states, who greatly believed in the importance of state legitimacy built on its citizens sovereignty and that freedom should always be in obedience to the law and never to a single person. In the early 18th century, families who had previously lived side by side with others began to be monetarily and socially divided through the influx of large swaths of cash resulting from the newly-founded banking industry and a new tension arose in Geneva. It would be a moment in Geneva's history that would forever mark the thought and works of Rousseau. 


Nanneri Keohane, current professor at Princeton University, would soon note that current social inequalities which have rooted through the influx of commerce and private property, has corrupted us deeply and that movements such as the OWS movements have arisen in direct response to such corruption. A believer that Rousseau's works were far from conservative (in opposition to what Gourevitch had stated), Keohane would remain largely quiet after her initial exchange, noting only  later in the evening how deeply affected she was by her experiences with the London Occupy movement. Meeting a woman from Northern England with children who had lost her job months ago and had come to London to be with people in the movement that seemed to understand and care about her plight underlined a recurring theme of the night: that elected leaders worldwide were out of touch with (and sometimes in blatant disregard of) the needs and wants of their people. 


Laura Flanders, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Amin Husain soon took to the stage, joining the others. Amin and Khalil quickly took prominence amongst the other speakers, clearly representative of the younger generation and the generation most involved in the current Occupy movements worldwide. Mr. Husain noted that while it would be nice to have a Rousseau around these days, there is a danger to fetishize the man and forget that the world we today face (one faced with a plethora of information and overcrowding) was quite different than Rousseau's world. Presenting structural critiques, the OWS movement presents structural critiques not only isolated to Capitalism whilst consciously avoiding making decisions in the early stages of the movement. The goal, according to Husain, was and is to create a space to join in on conversation which aims to answer one primary question over all others: What should our new social contract be? Inspired by the power of people facing a lack of representation in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain and elsewhere and told as many are that the end of history is upon us (that Capitalism is the best system that we can create), Husain quipped, "If this is the best that we can do, we don't want it." The OWS General Assembly speaks to the true Democratic process and allows people the chance to imagine beyond the confines set before us, explains Husain. 


Race and the lack thereof in Rousseau's life and work would be the focus of the night's next speaker, Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Noting that there was no Atlantic slave trade during Rousseau's life, Muhammad would rightly point out that while other possibilities of how to envision the social contract abounded within other cultures and locales across the world at the time of Rousseau's writing, Rousseau's simplistic collapsing of the human dichotomy into the noble and the savage man spoke to his lack of experience with race and general ignorance (shared by many at the time) of the many societal and political possibilities which existed elsewhere around the world. Muhammad drew poignant connections between the Atlantic slave trade, the advent of the modern day corporation, the commodification of human beings as private property (in America as well as places such as Apple factories in China for example), and the decline of Democracy and freedom directly resulting from the fortification of the rights of corporations in the face of the declining rights of actual human beings. 


Laura Flanders would speak to a rumbling that is upon us, similar to the rumblings that occurred 300 years ago when America rose to revolt against the East India corporation. Noting that lack of public space for debate and awareness, Flanders in her usual television and radio flair, would say little during the night but  occasionally chimed in with well-timed and witty remarks, particularly in response to views on women's rights during Rousseau's times and our own and the downsides to the modern day information boom. Says Flanders, "We are full of blogger I's but where are the Democracy we's?"


The next round of speakers were the politicians, Pascal Couchepin, Governor Tomas H. Kean, and Governor Eliot Spitzer. Mr. Couchepin, described by some as a revolutionary Swiss leader yet marred by his animated fight against the Swiss government contributing any money to a 1998 $1.25 billion dollar settlement between Swiss banks and Holocaust survivors, underlined education and access to information and noted that in Habermas' view, the foundation of Democracy is discussion. The audience was largely deterred from understanding what Couchepin was saying with his rather thick accent (even the Swiss journalists around me were struggling), but he did note that the influence of money is a big problem but was careful to say anything too harsh against this as he noted that many of his friends and colleagues were in the banking industry, a statement which was not surprising but nonetheless was quite telling. 


Tomas Keane would declare his themes for the night early on: the need for better education and a nostalgic yearning for the imagined community of his youth. Noting that the schools in the US are amongst the worst performing and most segregated in the world, Keane would go on to remind us that Rousseau did not believe in original sin but believed that out of education would arise good people. Eliot Spitzer, oddly a spectacular addition to the stage of rather left-leaning speakers, would offer mild-mannered and calculated statements on the difficulties of fostering democracy while not hindering growth and would note that it is a shame that so many exit the political process in America. In a poignant return, Husain noted that Spitzer's comments were the epitome of the disconnect between politicians and their people and that, against what he had said, there is in fact a very political movement of people in America and, realizing the talking heads are not hearing them, have chosen different tactics to bring attention to the plights of the 99%. Spitzer retorted that while what the OWS movements are doing is great, they are by no means new, "It is what community democracy is supposed to look like and we have just not done a good job with it." Hearing Spitzer's remarks about the media's tendency to ride the momentary flavor and not look at the larger picture, one could not help but be reminded of the personal axe Spitzer might have from the fairly recent media frenzy surrounding the March of 2008 revelations that he was a client of Emperors Club VIP


Wrapping the night up in hopeful aims for the future, Husain asked the audience to not fetishize OWS, fight against the urge to ask the OWS movements to clearly define their demands, and allow something new to emerge. Using not only words but bodies, we must, according to Husain, learn from others. On the topic of growth, he stated, "There's no more room for growth. Maybe we need another word."


The night ended with an array of questions from the audience and a call for a meeting of the OWS General Assembly outside of the New York Public Library following the event. The March issue of the OWS publication, Tidal, can be viewed here. Through at times heated debate surrounding Jean Jacques Rousseau and the many ideas his works put forth, Occupy Rousseau was a perfect lead-in to a festival aimed at grappling with the many dire issues facing democracy today and begging of its speakers answers to the all important question, "What can we do?"


Follow JK on Twitter @JKFow


Further Resources

Program for "Occupy Rousseau: Inequality and Social Justice" event



Benjamin Barber, Laura Flanders, ThinkSwiss