The Occupy movement is celebrating May Day to emphasize the importance of workers’ rights by starting a general strike across the US. The strike is meant to show that “the 99 percent,” by sheer weight of numbers, are a force to be reckoned with.
History is replete with Peoples’ movements that, claiming weight of numbers and well-meaning intentions for others, have changed the course of society--but not necessarily for the better. In other words, pathologically altruistic movements. The French Revolution, for example, began with conceptions of fairness that, in 1793, devolved into the Reign of Terror—one of the most painful episodes in French history. The monarchy and many of their key supporters were guillotined, and a dictatorial committee enacted legislation forcing farmers to surrender grain to the government—this was soon extended to bread and other essential products. The Law of Suspects was enacted, which allowed counter-revolutionaries to be charged with vague “crimes against liberty”—resulting in an avalanche of guillotined heads. Mobs beat people to death for anything that provoked their jealousy or ire—thinking differently, possessing too much, or simply falling afoul of someone who could use the excuse of revolutionary ideals to kill and take possession of another’s property.
Russia’s Catherine the Great, who did so much to champion the ideas of the Enlightenment, realized as a consequence of the French Revolution that enlightenment ideas, when taken to extremes, formed the basis of an ideology that was more dangerous to the people than the monarchal system it was meant to replace.
Communism—another pathologically altruistic ideology—took up where the French Terror left off. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, and similar pathologically altruistic slogans that took no account of the greedy mishmash of human motives, were used as an excuse to kill millions. Indeed, there is good evidence that the Communist regimes of the twentieth century killed over 100 million of their own people. In a telling example, there is only one period in the history of exotically beautiful Chinese Yixing pottery where there is no creativity whatsoever. This was during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. If you were a Yixing potter and you showed any creativity whatsoever in your work, you were killed. After all, it was unfair if you had creativity while other potters didn’t.
The Occupy movement seeks to make things fair for everyone, not by allowing people to flourish with their natural talents, but rather by focusing on and tearing down anyone who has more—more talent, more industriousness, more intelligence and, often as a consequence of these natural qualities, more possessions.
In some sense, then, occupiers can be Eric Hoffer style "true believers" with the best of intentions. Sadly, their actions can grow from jealousy writ large, underpinned by threats of anarchy, promoted by those who would benefit from being perceived as altruistic leaders, whatever their true underlying motivations.
Beware the mob that advocates fairness. History shows that the results are often not pretty.
Barbara Oakley is a co-editor of Pathological Altruism, Oxford University Press, 2012.