Class examines ideas behind Occupy Wall Street movement

The nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement drew considerable attention last fall with rallies, demonstrations, encampments in parks and public spaces and, at times, friction with local law enforcement.

In response, two Oregon State University philosophers developed a course to examine the Occupy movement — and by most estimates, it’s one of the first Occupy-themed college courses in the nation.

The goal: provide students with a better understanding of the ideas and philosophies of members of the Occupy movement, who rally against the fact that the wealthiest 1 percent of the population hold more financial and political power than the remaining 99 percent.

“This course isn’t really about the Occupy movement, but the ideas that seem to be floating back and forth between people who are part in the movement itself,” said Joseph Orosco, philosophy professor and one of the class’s instructors. Orosco team teaches with Tony Vogt, a philosophy and sociology instructor.

The class provides a focused look into the movement that launched on Sept. 17, when protesters began gathering in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The movement’s website (www.occupywallst.org) reports that more than 100 U.S. cities and 1,500 cities world wide have organized under the banner of the Occupy movement; they also count 6,300 Occupy-related arrests.

Members of Occupy Corvallis have been meeting since fall and have staged several public protests, including protests at the downtown Bank of America at 324 S.W. 3rd St.

Orosco and Vogt — both of whom have attended Occupy Corvallis meetings — said New York City’s New York University and Columbia University are offering courses on the Occupy movement with a social science bent; OSU’s course might be the only Occupy-themed philosophy course.

The angle is to help students understand the movement that’s been characterized by some as having no demands.

“If the Occupy movement is really about democratizing the system, that’s not a demand you can meet with simple reforms.” Vogt said.

Half of the 20 students enrolled in the two-credit Political Philosophy of Occupy Wall Street course are graduate students, with the other half undergraduates. Not all are philosophy majors. 

Students are assigned readings each week — some examples include “The Communist Manifesto” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” — and then convene for about two hours of discussion on the readings’ topics; Orosco types the seminar-style setup as a “pretty standard kind of philosophy course.” (Vogt notes that the readings are politically left-leaning compared to the range of readings often assigned in other OSU philosophy classes because the Occupy movement itself is more left- than right-leaning.)

A recent class began with a discussion on the Political Compass, a quiz that provides guidance to political identity by using a four-quadrant model-right versus left, authoritarian versus libertarian-than a traditional right-versus-left model.

The class then launched into an analysis of three political philosophies: populism, Marxism and anarchism. They discussing how each philosophy would characterize a good society, how the people can achieve this society and the government’s role in this society.

Much of the discussion centered around populism, a political philosophy that centers on the needs and wants of the common people and what Orosco and Vogt called the predominant philosophy by members of the Occupy movement. The discussion also compared and contrasted left- and right-leaning populism, the latter of which recently represented by the Tea Party movement.

Tom McElhinny, a graduate student in the class who’s studying applied ethics who’s a member of Occupy OSU, said the discussions are the best part of the course; he cited a recent class discussion on Marxism, a political philosophy that’s tied to socialist political identities, as a topic that created heated debate.

“But, it was extremely civil,” he said.

Orosco and Vogt plan to discuss community organizing, civil disobedience and nonviolence, participatory democracy and environmental sustainability in future class sessions. They’ve also highlighted how the Arab Spring — a series of political revolutions in the Middle East that began in Tunisia in December 2010 — and recent workers’ movements in Latin America have influenced the Occupy movement, turning it into a worldwide phenomena.

“There’s a global influence and a global impact that’s happening,” Orosco said.

Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or gail.cole@gazettetimes.com.

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