Six weeks ago, a couple dozen protestors decided to camp out in New York’s Zucotti Park and began a movement dubbed “Occupy Wall Street.” Their numbers have since ballooned from dozens to thousands; ‘Occupy’ movements quickly spread to Boston, San Francisco, Chicago and dozens of other U.S. cities. In the last month the movement has successfully jumped the Atlantic Ocean; tens of thousands have gathered in cities across Europe, with protests now springing up in an astonishing 900 communities worldwide. And yet despite the size of the ‘Occupy’ movement, and the viral speed with which it is spreading, the question I hear most often asked of these protestors is: “What do they want?”
Well, if you spend a day marching with this group, you’ll quickly learn the majority want some basic improvements to our democracy: campaign finance reform, more corporate regulation, and an end to bank bailouts. You’ll find some folks demanding stronger environmental protections and affordable healthcare as well. These are policy demands, and good ones at that.
But this is not what they really want. They don’t want something new. They want back what has been taken from them.
They want back the Original Freedom of a Human Being.
Whether you believe in Darwinian evolution or Adam and Eve, we can all agree that early humans were free to roam the world as they pleased. We all had the same job back then: finding food, raising children, and avoiding predators. If our nomadic ancestors could do these three things, they were successful, and we can assume, happy.
Then, ten-thousand years ago, things started to change. A technological advance occurred in the form of agriculture, and that meant humans could now stay in one place, growing crops that would feed them year in and year out without the burdens of traveling long distances to hunt. With agriculture came civilization, and with the concentration of people came the concentration of wealth. Before farming, no man or woman could “own” much more than the clothing on their backs and the tools in their hand. Yet after the agricultural revolution, land suddenly had value. Livestock had value. Buildings had value. The strongest leaders, those most capable of imposing their will on others, came to control more and more of these treasures. The earliest kings were born.
In the time since those first civilizations in ancient Mesoptomia, the only thing that has fundamentally changed is this: We have traded strong, worthy kings like the fabled Hammurabi for a feeble class of politicians, bureaucrats and CEOs. That these men may be stupid, or weak, or both—is irrelevant. We have become so accustomed to the paradigm of servitude that we have forgotten why it exists in the first place.
Of course, most people don’t think of modern day America as built on servitude or oppression. In fact, most Americans are brought up to believe that this country is the freest place on Earth. Yet contrasting our modern freedoms with those of our pre-civilized ancestors reveals how few freedoms we actually have.
For instance, this country is known as the land of opportunity. But those opportunities have eroded significantly in recent years. While the official unemployment figure stands at around 9%, when you factor in people who are underemployed, quit looking for work, or forced back to school because there just aren’t any jobs for them, that unemployment number is closer to 20%. And even if you have a job, actual incomes haven’t risen at all in the past twenty years, while everything else has gotten more expensive. We are all working harder, and longer, for less. And the trend is getting worse.
Primitive man didn’t have this problem. Hunters and gatherers were not employed by anyone; they worked together to obtain food by whatever means necessary. The food itself—animals to hunt, vegetables to pick, fruits to eat—were free to whoever could procure them. They were not owned by a corporation. While food may not always have been plentiful, freedom to acquire it was. Any man could go anywhere and work hard to get what he needed. No degree, no application, no permit was required to feed yourself.
Today, if you’re lucky enough to have a job, your biggest expense is probably a simple home for you and your family. The cost of this home is merely that you work 50-70 hours a week for thirty straight years, during which time if you fail to make payments, or if something called a “housing bubble” bursts and your home loses 40% of its value, the bank has the right to kick you off of their land and onto the streets. They used to call this “indentured servitude” back in colonial times.
Primitive hunter-gatherers didn’t have this problem. Their homes were wherever they built them. Land was available to whoever chose to occupy it. And it was, of course, free.
In the modern day, citizens of western countries enjoy many basic freedoms that are the envy of our third world counterparts. For instance, in the United States, the first amendment grants ‘Occupy’ protestors such rights as freedom of speech and freedom to peaceably assemble. These are among the most sacred freedoms bestowed by our democracy.
Yet if I shared these wonderful freedoms with our primitive ancestors, I doubt they would see much merit in them. Why, exactly, should I need permission to speak freely? Why does that right even need to be written? Exactly why should I be thankful that I am allowed to peaceably assemble? Primitive man, from the first moment he created language, could say whatever the hell he wanted to. Freedom to assemble, to practice religion, to speak your mind…these are not privileges I need granted to me. They are not even inalienable rights. These are freedoms I possess intrinsically, by simple virtue of having been born a human being. That so many modern people have consented to having these rights taken from them is no doubt the reason why Americans are foolishly glad to have the rights at all. But make no mistake; even one iota of erosion of these and other freedoms is no minor offense. Someone is stealing something from you that should never have been stealable in the first place.
I don’t mean to say that pre-civilized society was a utopic paradise. Let me be clear: The human condition has always been one of hardship. No matter what century you are born in, the universe places pain and peril in front of us. You can die of disease in the jungle, or cancer in a hospital; you can be eaten by a bear in the mountains, or hit by a bus in Manhattan. You can be bullied and oppressed by the leader of your hunter-gatherer tribe, or by the guy behind the counter at Bank of America. That life will be hard, that men will compete with each other…these are givens.
What is not a given is the degree to which we accept it. In ancient times, when we lived in tribes no bigger than one hundred people, the strong also rose to the top. But their power was checked by the majority…if they went too far, if they became too oppressive, the 99 would topple the 1. And it wasn’t that hard to do. No one man possessed the strength to defeat the will of the mob. So the one generally kept his greedy paws in check.
Occupy Wall Street, perhaps without knowing it, has rediscovered this truth. They, too, are champions of the 99%, seeking to recover some of the autonomy that has been slowly and painfully leeched from them over the centuries. They aren’t asking for much. Just the basic freedoms and dignities that they know, deep down, they should have always had anyway. Homo Sapiens have been walking around this planet for 200,000 years. For the first 190,000 of those years, we were totally, unconditionally free. Only in the last ten millennia did our ancestors begin consenting to concepts like slavery, servitude, and oppression of the many by the few. And with every day that we leave this perverse power dynamic in place, we consign our children to the same servitude that our parents left us.
Of course, contemporary society has its perks. Modern man enjoys new freedoms that our ancestors could only dream about. We are free from predation, and in the West, fear of starvation. We are free to develop and employ technologies that have increased human efficiency a thousand fold. We are even free to fly, from city to city and continent to continent. But must these gifts really come at the cost of oppression by the few? Steve Jobs, standing on the shoulders of other technological giants, created tools that are enjoyed by millions, enriching himself in the process. He was rightfully admired by his countrymen, probably because we all benefit from having wise men at the top. I like to think that Jobs would have been elevated to leader of his clan were he born 15,000 years ago, just as he was today.
The same cannot be said for Healthcare CEO’s who earn bigger bonuses by denying heart transplants to children. Or Countrywide brokers who intentionally defrauded taxpayers to line their own pockets. Or our elected politicians, who enjoy a 98% incumbency rate so long as they sell favors to lobbyists against the better interests of the American people. If some primitive version of Steve Jobs would have been an exalted tribe leader, these thieves and manipulators would have been at best exiled by the tribe and, at worst, set upon with spears and rocks as punishment for putting their greed so far above the well-being of their tribesmates. But we cannot truly blame these modern exploiters of our flawed system; they have assumed, correctly, that people are so comfortable with the status quo that no one will lift a finger to stop them. There is no mob at the doorstep. And when we do march on places like Wall Street, modern man tends to leave the spears at home. Which, if you think about it, defeats the purpose entirely.
I doubt we’ll ever get back to a true hunter-gatherer society. I don’t think that modern people could do without their cell phones and espresso machines. But perhaps the important thing to note is that, even if we wanted to, we can’t. That’s the Original Freedom that has been taken away. There is no longer anywhere in the world where you can simply go and be free, immune from the tentacles of governments and corporations. There is simply nowhere to hide from the modern oppressors. That’s why people are angry. They have had the taste of freedom described to them, they have even been told they are enjoying that taste. But they know it isn’t true. Something is missing. And for all our modern intelligence, the one person who truly understands what we hunger for is, ironically, a caveman. He conquered this planet, and partook of all of Earth’s bounties, free and unencumbered. And each and every one of us is a blood relative of his. No part of this planet belongs to any one human in particular, but to all of us. If you want to take back your birthright, your Original Freedom, don’t stop with Wall Street. Occupy All Streets.
Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain recently said of the ‘Occupy’ movement: “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Fair enough, Herman. But you miss the point. Unlike you, most of them didn’t make ‘getting rich’ their life’s goal. They just want to be free. And you’d be wise to remember that banks, corporations, and the very notion of wealth is a mirage. It all exists only because the current system allows for it. But if things get bad enough, if your fellow tribesmen feel that your thirst for money is infringing on their personal human space, their Original Freedom…they may revert to the old system. And in that system, even the very strong can be deposed by their tribes in a heartbeat should they lose their claims to legitimacy. In fact, it just happened in Libya. A strongman of forty years had a stranglehold on power one minute, and the next, found himself being dragged through the streets, beaten and bloodied and spat upon by his subjects, before being shot in the head.
And that was the work of a mere six million angry Libyans. I’d hate to see what three-hundred million angry Americans, rediscovering their sense of freedom, could do to a guy like Herman Cain.