#OWS: What the Media Can't See About America's First Web-Era Movement

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Occupy Wall Street is a pluralist protest that's better at asking questions than offering answers. By cherry-picking messages and images, its critics are missing the bigger picture.

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When the now-national demonstrations against the Wall Street / Washington status quo began in New York last month, it was easy (too easy, it turns out) to write the whole thing off as a hackneyed, vapid hipster fest. The most confident early appraisals were essentially verbalized eye-rolls: In mainstream news coverage, new-to-CNN business anchor Erin Burnett's first reported segment on the story was called "Seriously?!," a heading that said everything she needed it to. On the (non-libertarian) right, National Review editor Rich Lowry quickly gratified anyone who might happen to hate being surprised by Rich Lowry, identifying the protestors as a "a juvenile rabble" and "woolly-headed horde," "the perfect distillation of an American Left in extremis." Some on the (old-school) left, meanwhile, showed their own acute disdain, with political cartoonist Ted Rall -- author of Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right -- writing that "for me and other older, jaded veterans of leftist struggle, [Occupy Wall Street's] failure was a foregone conclusion. ... yet another opportunity to agitate for real change was being wasted by well-meant wankers."

... this non-movement movement was doomed before it began by its refusal to coalesce around a powerful message, its failure to organize and involve the actual victims of Wall Street's perfidy (people of color, the poor, the evicted, the unemployed, those sick from pollution, etc.), and its refusal to argue and appeal on behalf of a beleaguered working class against an arrogant, violent and unaccountable ruling elite--in other words, to settle for nothing less than the eradication of capitalism.

Now, weeks later, The New Republic has set out to fill a remaining gap on the anti-OWS spectrum, declaring in a behind-the-paywall editorial for the magazine's November 3 issue that liberals should oppose the movement -- chiefly on account of "the protestors' apparent allergy to to capitalism and suspicion of normal democratic norms," but also on account of their "creepy" ways of trying to reach, and speak with, consensus.

Yes, TNR is castigating Occupy Wall Street for its putative group-think in a collective statement published under the byline "The Editors." But don't be too distracted by the irony. There's an important issue here: The more we want to take the revolutionary (vs. reformist) strains in OWS rhetoric seriously, the more we'll have to ask a question that real revolutionaries have ended up with some grim answers to, from the Jacobins of the 18th century through the Bolsheviks and Maoists of the 20th: How is society going to work after the Revolution?

The thing is, it's only theoretically an important issue. No one at any Occupy Wall Street demonstration across the country today is actually overthrowing capitalism or America. No one is doing anything to precipitate the overthrow of capitalism or America. No one is even plotting actions that could at-all plausibly threaten to precipitate the overthrow of capitalism or America. True, a bunch of OWS protesters in New York did listen attentively as the Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek spoke to them about how awesome it would be if American capitalism came to an end, and how in China people are at least still able to dream of a better world, unlike us, and how blah blah blah. But Slavoj Zizek always talks that way, to the -- let's be clear -- relatively few people in the world who are seriously interested in what he has to say. We shouldn't be shocked that a guy like him would show up at demonstrations like this, nor should we attribute more significance to an appearance like that than it deserves. By all means, let's oppose Slavoj Zizek. But let's not pretend that opposing Slavoj Zizek is somehow opposing the philosophical underpinnings of Occupy Wall Street. You're not going to scratch the surface of signs reading "I Have a 4.0 GPA and $20,000 in Debt; Where's My Bailout?" or "We Want Our Country Back, Bitche$" or "I'm for Regulating the Banks; Apparently That Makes Me a RADICAL" and find Slavoj Zizek. You'll find real people with real stories trying -- with varying degrees, and kinds, of success -- to speak to the economic and political circumstances that determine their lives. Some will be confused, sure, maybe ridiculous; but many have already shown themselves to be, whether ultimately right or wrong, informed, smart, and serious. Why summarily "oppose" them? Why not, say, engage them in conversation? There's no good reason to suspend criticism about Occupy Wall Street, or necessarily to buy into any one of its zillion messages; but there's no good reason, either, just to pick our favorite things to hate about Occupy Wall Street and then tell ourselves that the whole multifaceted, rapidly changing movement must be those things writ large.

Douglas Rushkoff has an intriguing take on Occupy Wall Street that wouldn't have been intuitive to most of us a few weeks ago but may now seem more and more plausible. He thinks it represents the emergence of a new, distinctive, and authentically 21st-century type of social movement, one that a residually 20th-century media is still having a hard time getting its head around:

... we are witnessing America's first true Internet-era movement, which -- unlike civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign -- does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint. Yes, there are a wide array of complaints, demands, and goals from the Wall Street protesters: the collapsing environment, labor standards, housing policy, government corruption, World Bank lending practices, unemployment, increasing wealth disparity and so on. Different people have been affected by different aspects of the same system -- and they believe they are symptoms of the same core problem. ... this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.

Of course, however well we might understand Occupy Wall Street now, in September and October, we can't really anticipate what the movement will turn into, let alone what a "21st-century social movement" is capable of turning into. Occupy Wall Street could, as far as we know, develop a more traditional organizational hierarchy and "narrative arc." It could fragment into different camps with different policy priorities, or with no policy priorities. It could end up being co-opted by one or more of the interest groups that have already joined with it in apparent solidarity. Who knows. But that's all the more reason why we shouldn't try to write the book on Occupy Wall Street anytime soon. Instead, let's follow this story as it evolves. Let's take advantage of Twitter, Tumblr, Vimeo, and other social media to see it and understand it in ways we haven't been able to see and understand mass-dissent movements in the past. Let's be like the Internet.

Image: Reuters
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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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