Occupy Wall Street and Puritanism


Puritanism developed in England at the end of the 16th century and is a religious movement. The faith to be God’s chosen people and the assignment to improve the world strictly according to the bible are the basic principles of the Puritans and they are conserved until today. The Puritans believed that you can achieve everything you want like success, money and happiness if you work hard and are industrious, if you are punctual and have perseverance. Asceticism and frugality are important. Alcohol, gambling, betting and speculating at the stock exchange are considered as vice. The motivation to have success and money is not to better their life but the wish to be agreeable to God. In the 17th century Puritans were persecuted in England and in consequence many of them emigrated to New England. Because Puritanism was the only religious orientation in the New World it became very important and the Puritans didn’t tolerate other religions.

Occupy Wall Street

At the 17th September 2011 a group of about 1000 people in New York began, after a longer lead time, to protest against the power of the banks, against them speculating with money and against social inequality. They built a camp in the Zuccotti Park (Manhattan) and reached a great interest of the media. The movement spread quickly all over the world. During the months of protests there were several problems with the police.

Some demands of the supporters are:

  • No discrimination due to skin colour, sex and sexual orientation!
  • Education for everyone!
  • No control of the press!
  • No corruption!
  • More state control of the banks!
  • Better handling with taxpayers’ money!

Occupy Wall Street – A modernized and worldly form of Puritanism?

There are some similarities of this movement and Puritanism but there also are a lot of differences.

For both groups moralities like tolerance, honesty and integrity are important. They censure corruption and speculation with money at the stock exchange.

But there are many differences:

  • The Puritans try to design their life for God. Everybody for himself. Everybody is responsible for his success, happiness and rights. The followers of the Occupy-Movement try to create a better society with less social inequality and try to show that the concentration of power and money at the banks causes this inequality.
  • They have a totally different idea of the duty of the state. The Puritans want the state to keep out of economy. “Every man is the architect of his own fortune”.
    Occupy Wall Street wants to see the banks under the control of the state. They want the state to intervene and limit the power of the banks. They demand a responsible and controlled handling with the money of the taxpayers, for example no bonuses for directors.
  • For Puritans men are sinners. Only through hard work and asceticism they can make their way to God.
  • People in the camp in Zuccetti Park don’t think about such things, they just want social equality and a good life for all people with or without God.

To my mind the comparison of Puritanism and the movement of Occupy Wall Street is far-fetched. Even when we don’t speak about God the differences predominate the similarities. The followers of OWS are modern people who want to live in a modern world, who have humanistic goals and fight for more equality in the world. Sure, many of them have a television at home and a car in the garage, maybe they want to play in the lottery and go betting at a horse-race at the weekend.This has nothing in common with the ascetic and strict Puritanism.

Success, Puritanism and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street is a protest movement that first appeared in 2011. Inspired by the Egyptian protest on the Tahrir Square the streets around the finance center of New York were occupied. By now the Occupy movement has turned into a global movement with lots of other, similar protest all around the world, especially in America and Europe. The aim of the protesters is to stop economic inequality and the dependence on the financial market as well as its power.

The Puritans were a small, very religious group that came from Great Britain to America around 1620 fleeing from prosecution. Wanting a simple and pure Church they didn’t agree with the Anglican Church and therefore they weren’t exactly liked by the king – the leader of the Anglican Church. When they arrived in America they founded a colony and tried to build a society according to their wishes, with democratically elected leaders and an economic system based on values like perseverance, honesty and integrity. Stock exchange and conflicts between the workers and the owners of the industry wasn’t in their interest and contradicted their ideals.

In this essay I want to discuss whether Occupy Wall Street is a modernized and worldly form of Puritanism.

On the one hand there are obviously arguments that show a similarity between Puritanism and the Occupy movement.

Both groups were fighting for change and tried to make the world a better place according to their world views. In both cases the government didn’t like them very much: The British King prosecuted the Puritans – the reason for this is clear: he didn’t want to lose his power. In the present was an attempt to clear Zuccotti Park – the center of the occupation – with the help of riot police. The government thinks the Occupy protesters are troublemakers and the protesters think that the government is controlled by the economic system and therefore see it as an enemy. This rejection of and at the same time by the powerful people is a parallel between both, because both were trying to fight them.

The Puritans and the Occupy movement have a similar structure: The protests of the Occupy Movement are not organized by a worldwide institution, but there are lots of local assemblies – the biggest one is the New York City General Assembly, but they only define the protest in New York. Every Occupy protest group is free to make own decisions and isn’t controlled by any higher organization. The Puritans weren’t such a closed, defined community as it sounds when one uses the word Puritans either: There were lots of small groups which belonged together because of a common belief, not because of a common leader (in contrast to the Catholic Church for example: there were lots of communes too, but they were kept together by the leadership of the Vatican and therefore same rules everywhere). Still there is a difference between the two groups: while the Occupy movement made the choice to have this structure the Puritans probably didn’t do that consciously, it just happened, because in the times of colonialism it was by far harder to communicate over long distances than it is today with the help of technical progress such as the Internet. But this independence of the single collectives within the groups – on purpose or not – is something that they have in common.

Furthermore economy is an important topic for both groups. Because of their strict moral perception the economic system of the Puritans underlay strict rules and big expectations. Honest work definitely played a central role in their lives: it was a kind of service to god. There were no such things as exploitation of labor or gambling with the future of the own people. But there was a functional economy which fed the people and kept everybody happy. It didn’t matter whether you were born as the owner of a factory or not, because following the ladder of success everybody could be a successful businessman. So if somebody was rich it was because of honesty and not because of betraying as many others as possible. This is the kind of economic system the Occupy protesters are dreaming of. As the poor “99 percent” they feel robbed and cheated by the “1 percent” of successful businessman. They think that today one can only become rich by making other people poor and therefore feel treated unequally by the government. So what Occupy Wall Street wants is in fact a modernized and worldly form of the market and industry the way it would be according to Puritan ideals.

But this doesn’t have to mean that Occupy Wall Street is a modern form of Puritanism. In fact I think that this is even the point that makes them different form the Puritans. Because if you take a look at a document from the Puritans, e. g. the Mayflower Compact and compare it with the “Declaration of the Occupation” by the New York City General Assembly one major difference catches one’s eye. While the Puritans defined themselves, the Occupy movement only blames the others. The Puritans didn’t just say “the king is bad” and camped in front of his palace but went and created a new society by themselves, including themselves being fair to themselves. They didn’t just say “the big industry and stock exchange is bad” but built an economy themselves. The Occupy movement doesn’t take this step – for fairness one has to admit that building a new society might be a little bit harder today than during colonialism, but still this somehow passive attitude of the Occupy protests (“go and change it, (bad) government!”) is a major difference that should not be underestimated.

Furthermore I think that the most separating thing is that while the Occupy movement restricts itself to criticize the finance market, Puritanism was far more. Not only didn’t it limit its requirements to the finance market but to the whole economy and all industries, but one also shouldn’t forget that the economy was only a domain of life that was dominated by the Puritan ideology, but not the origin of it. Economy and business obviously played a big role in the Puritan society but the origin of their world view was their religion on which all of their ideals were based. In fact it was even the origin of the Puritans itself and therefore their main aspect. Understandably Occupy Wall Street isn’t about religion at all and it isn’t a whole world view or a belief. Puritanism was a way of life and not just a list of critical points or wishes.

Breaking the whole world view down only to its economic part would be wrong. I therefore disagree with the thesis: Occupy Wall Street is not a modernized and worldly form of Puritanism. While they have some things in common, it is by far not enough to be called a form of Puritanism – otherwise any decentralized, anti-government group with a focus on economy would be a form of Puritanism – which is clearly not the case.