#OccupyWallStreet & the failure of institutions

#OccupyWallStreet has been drawing complaints that it doesn’t have a demand and a goal. But I say that is precisely its significance.

occupywallstreet photo

#OccupyWallStreet is a hashtag revolt. As I learned with my own little #FuckYouWashington uprising, a hashtag has no owner, no heirarchy, no canon or credo. It is a blank slate onto which anyone may impose his or her frustrations, complaints, demands, wishes, or principles.

So I will impose mine. #OccupyWallStreet, to me, is about institutional failure. And so it is appropriate that #OccupyWallStreet itself is not run as an institution.

We don’t trust institutions anymore. Name a bank or financial institution you can trust today. That industry was built entirely on trust — we entrusted our money to their cloud — and they failed us. Government? The other day, I heard a cabinet member from a prior administration call Washington “paralyzed and poisonous” — and he’s an insider. Media? Pew released a study last week saying that three-quarters of Americans don’t believe journalists get their facts straight (which is their only job). Education? Built for a prior, institutional era. Religion? Various of its outlets are abusing children or espousing bigotry or encouraging violence. The #OccupyWallStreet troops are demonizing practically all of corporate America and with it, capitalism. What institutions are left? I can’t name one.

In a Foreign Affairs essay in 2008, Richard Haass argued that the world is moving from bi- and unipolarity (that is, the Cold War and its aftermath) to nonpolarity (i.e., no one’s in charge). “We now operate in an open marketplace of influence,” I wrote in my last book. “One need no longer control institutions to control agendas.”

Now one needs a network. #OccupyWallStreet is that network, the headless tail. Even it’s not sure what it is. Indeed, I think it would have been better off not issuing a manifesto written by a committee of the whole park, going after even animal rights and ending with its own Ninth Amendment: “*These grievances are not all-inclusive.” Henry Blodget mocks many of their demands. Feminisnt says they aren’t specific enough. They can’t win.

But I think they are already winning. #OccupyWallStreet is a start and it is growing, as Micah Sifry wrote: “There’s something happening here, Mr. Jones.”

What’s happening is an attempt to define a new public, now that we can. Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are all countries being reimagined and remade: start-up nations. Hear Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir talk about building a new constitution, using Facebook, on the principles of “equality, transparency, accountability, and honesty” — liberté, égalité, fraternité, updated for the networked age.

In the end, this is why I wrote Public Parts, because we have the tools and thus the opportunity to rethink and reorganize our publics and decide what they stand for. The power and freedom that Gutenberg’s press brought to the early modern era, our networked tools now bring everyone in this, the early digital age. “They empower us. They grant us the ability to create, to connect, to organize, and to aggregate our knowledge…. They lower borders, even challenging our notion of nations.” That’s what the youth of these countries are doing.

Media have mocked the denizens of #OccupyWallStreet as scruffy, young hippies. But you should have seen me — and more of media’s bosses than you can imagine — in ’68. Scruffy, simplistic, bombastic, angry, determined, self-righteous, right, and high — that was us. Media dismissed us just as they dismiss the denizens of Zuccotti Park. Authorities thought they could round up all the ’68ers in Grant Park, just as they do now on the Brooklyn Bridge.

When I visited #OccupyWallStreet’s park Friday, I wore a sport coat. I had to because earlier that day, I had a meeting at a place where they wear them. But I’m glad I brought it, for it’s time to show that #OccupyWallStreet represents more than scruffy young leftists. I don’t say that for a moment to denigrate them and their spirit. They built #OccupyWallStreet. No, I say it’s time for more of us to follow their leadership and join them, to show that what they represent — the anger, the determination, and the inherent hope — speaks for more of us, even people in suits.

What #OccupyWallStreet has done with considerable success — as the best hashtags and publics do — is open a conversation, one we must have, about the shape of our nation and society and future. If you don’t like their manifesto and demands, fine: What are yours?

At the end of Public Parts, I present mine, knowing they aren’t the right ones but urging people to enter a conversation not about complaints or demands but instead about the principles of our new and open society.

I don’t think #OccupyWallStreet is or should be about just venting anger or demonizing business or complaining or demanding. Indeed, of whom are we making these demands? The failed institutions? The ones our networks will disrupt if not displace? I say the message of #OccupyWallStreet should be more hopeful than that: building a new and open public based on the principles of a society that will replace the dying institutions and their ways.

  • I often think that the Interny replaces the middle man. Retail is replaced by buying direct from the manufacturer.
    Publisher is replaced by blogging directly with your audience.
    University is replaced by Wikipedia and communities.
    And so on. The question is: is government a middleman? What does new, public self-governing look like. Who distributes the resources? Is Adams hand behind all of this?

  • “it’s time for more of us to follow their leadership and join them, to show that what they represent — the anger, the determination, and the inherent hope — speaks for more of us, even people in suits. ”

    …and from what I’ve seen in Boston, I would add to your list their discipline, respectfulness, courage and openness. They run their meetings with patience and principals that make people feel welcomed to add their voice, a rare thing in many professional gatherings.

    If we’re smart, we’ll sustain their movement until it really is occupying our cities and towns, and people believe again that town hall meetings aren’t just places for Tea Party members to blow steam; they can be places of civic dialogue. We need to adopt the occupyers’ attitudes that we don’t need somebody else to make things right. We need to do it ourselves.

    • Thanks for the Boston report, Annie. Yes, I think we’re all getting more accustomed to working in networks v hierarchies.

  • S Smith

    Section 8a of the flag code states:”The flag should never be displayed with the Union down except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property”
    Perhaps it is time to deem flying the flag upside down is most appropriate. A nation in distress indeed with imminent danger to life and property.
    A potent symbol to represent a new way forward.

  • It’s unfortunate that #OccupyWallStreet is largely unfocused. To quote a movie from the 1950s, Americans are “mad as hell, and [they’re] not gonna take it anymore!”

    I think there is a clear focus for #OccupyWallStreet, and I’ve been posting it here and there on Google+ and Facebook. The American situation is not going to improve as long as the government is bought and paid for by corporate America.

    *Campaign finance reform* is THE necessary step to reforming Wall Street, government, and everything else that manifests itself in the grievances of the growing crowd. Demand that your representatives enact a law that would restrict individual campaign contributions to $5000 per person per year, and completely ban corporate campaign contributions. The penalty should very simply be disqualification from holding public office, a penalty that will hurt a career politician more than any fine or prison sentence.

    When the American government is bought and paid for by the people, there will be chaos, but it will be better than the current situation of organized theft.

    • FYI… the movie was “Network,” And it was from the 70’s… 1976 to be more precise.

    • Gianni Lovato

      Incidentally: “Network” was a 1976 film (I’m mad as hell…).
      It is indeed a pity that #OWS’s grievances are unfocused, but, to be fair, there is such a multitude of choices!
      Your “pet one” was actually addressed on several of the signs, that I saw but:
      a) only obliquely or indirectly and…
      b) without even a suggested solution (granted: it’d take a lot of smarts to fit it in)
      I am afraid that, unless each time we complain aloud about something, we also strive to provide a solution in ideas (as you do), but also in thoughts and deeds, we risk becoming just another aspect of the problem.
      Personally, my limited capabilities allow me to handle only a couple of issues in a lifetime, in this fashion.

  • Gianni Lovato

    On Sunday, September 18, after finishing work, I drove 300 miles+, to Zuccotti Park. My battered car was loaded with camping equipment, blankets, pillows, tarps, potable water, propane tanks, canned food, frozen food and anything I was able to gather in the short time available.
    Also, I was willing, ready and equipped to spend time with the protestors myself, despite my advanced age and aching bones.
    I wanted it to be my second chance of being, from the start, on a bus that, like the one that started its run in 1968, but never got as far as it could have, when it lost its way in the fogs of hedonism, permissiveness and lack of discipline.
    Alas! Once again, despite the way-too-few disciplined, busy and committed individuals, what I saw was too much and too many of the negative carry-overs
    of the same kind of symptoms that killed what could have become the First American Renaissance (and the second one for Western civilization).
    I am afraid that 90% of these 99%ers, once they have grown tired of smoking pot, of disrobing or wearing their neo-but-already-outdated-hippie garb, will too get a job in the corporate world, start a family and move to suburbia.
    Who knows? Maybe one of them, 43 years from now, might even get in his car and drive a few hundred miles to drop off some supplies to the next batch of protesters…
    Or perhaps you could ponder some of Nicholas Kristof’s advice: http://tinyurl.com/6fsjz6b and REALLY focus on changing what needs to be changed and/or improved. Possibly including and beginning with ourselves, of course

    • Ah, yes, what happened to us aged hippies. Suits in suburbs, eh?

    • Aaron Quaday

      Dear Mr. Lovato,
      Thank you on behalf of those of us who can’t be there in support of the Occupy Wall St. folks. It was kind to bring supplies and to engender a spirit of solidarity with the Occupiers. This article reminds me of that slogan from the last presidential election and which I’ve seen in photographs of the Zucotti Park gathering ‘We are the Change we’re waiting for.’

      That is a mindset that I’d ask you to reconnect with to counter exactly those trends of which you are so wary. This is exactly the sentiment that this movement needs to hear and to speak directly to you. I am old enough to be much more moderate in my relation with chemical substances and have seen plenty of incidences of futility in conversing with those intoxicated. Yes, our youth can sometimes act in a haze, so can a perfectly sober individual.

      In my time teaching the students of the generation going experiencing the college life now, I witnessed a much more focused commitment on the part of the students to the principles of egalite, liberte, and fraternite than I remember a majority of my classmates assuming were worthy of their diligence. Yet, I know they are entering social situations that expose their minds to terrible dangers and their spirits are being pummeled (as mine has felt pummeled for a decade) by the reality that engaging in our economic and political systems betray some core beliefs in justice and fairness.

      I don’t intend for my reaction to your comment to be critical, but to suggest that we owe it to ourselves to keep trying. Perhaps the crowd at Zucotti is not one ready to hear your voice, but perhaps there is someone in that crowd whose previously-stifled tongue is looking for exercise needs you to hear what it feels like.

      Were you indeed seeking to be satisfied by the gestalt of a crowd? Or do you want to instill in those who are involved in the essence of what you learned from your experiences during the 60’s? Or, perhaps your presence there and your reaction in this comment is just exactly the sort of ripple in the pond that is needed to avert this (possibly last) opportunity to set right what is so off-kilter today from descending into an undisciplined fog of hedonism and permissiveness. Indeed, a great danger is the possibility that we all accept the illusion of success in some materialistic satisfaction of the complaints of this movement will overshadow the reality that the distribution of SCARCITY WORLDWIDE is untenable and if not redressed by more modest living standards in our country, may be used to justify even greater militarism (to protect some precious property or resource in the future). Forget Share the Wealth, Spread the Scarcity!

  • Grabbing my heels and briefcase now!

    • Blue suit with sneakers is allowable under the New York business dress code.

  • reality

    ————-WE ARE the 99%————

    Politicians are paid by and work for 1%

    ————- One message ————–

    ————WE ARE the 99%————

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  • elefkos

    I read the article having experienced #syntagma in Athens, we truly are in the early digital age and should not rush to make something out of all this,its global and its gonna take a while!

    Logic dictates the partially corrupted political/financial part of the system will try to undermine all that is happening.

    New age western warfare is bloodless,digital and based on controlling mass big city psychology.

    Very inspiring article,congrats!

  • It’s not that “institutions” failed – it’s that institutions organized during the industrial age have failed.

    What are seeing is what it means to try and create an institution in the information age.

  • kurt lewin

    Excellent insight. Our institutions have not kept pace with human progress. Time to integrate, e.g, imagine if arrested you get a phone call AND a tweet or email…

    The process of discussion allows for examination and new ideas to emerge. We now have a forum for that work. The PEOPLE control (or not) the discussion, not the media. Honor the process, resist the pressure to ‘produce’ a ‘product’.

    The ‘task’ right now is a coming together of a fragmented America/Planet. Peace

  • Troy McConaghy

    The name alone implies something about the shared intent of those involved. It’s not called “Occupy Broadway” or “Occupy Madison Avenue.”

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  • “building a new and open public based on the principles of a society that will replace the dying institutions and their ways.”

    precisely. as usual. 1811 memes simply cannot advance 2011’s twenty second century dreams. academic moral retribution exacted from “those responsible” for driving the final few yards off the cliff, however justifiable, will do nothing to alleviate the existential agony of the people. with a 58% labor participation rate, we are all either one paycheck from the street, or living on the streets, ever since the age of the regular paycheck melted away like a cold war ice age. beyond the point of transition, the age ahead will prove better; if we implement better. #basicincome is a principle and practice at least 50 years in the making. martin luther king jr. called for it. canada modeled it for full nationwide rollout. sarah palin’s alaska has practiced it on a 1/12th scale for decades; it’s called the alaska permanent fund. #basicincome is a baton that we aquarian age hippies can be proud to pass on to our digital age hipsters. there are many proposals that make sense and are vital. #basicincome is unique in that it can literally #endpoverty by meeting maslow’s most rudimentary human needs, as basic human rights. #basicincome models a hopeful, peaceful, ultimate productivity dividend emergent from the cultural evolutionary process known as industrialization. in the west, overall, we’ve done well. now, it’s time to do good. please consider building the following of @basicincome as a measure of collective cognition support for this ideal. thank you.

    “This is the real news of our century. It is highly feasible to take care of all of humanity at a higher standard of living than anybody has ever experienced or dreamt of. To do so without having anybody profit at the expense of another so that everybody can enjoy the whole earth. And it can all be done by 1985.” R. Buckminster Fuller, The World Game, 1971

    “The future of the future is the present, and this is something which people are terrified of.” Marshall McLuhan, 1967

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  • Adam

    Jeff, can you comment on why #occupywallst has not been a twitter trending topic? Does it matter? What does it say about the openness of twitter?

  • Ryan

    Mr Jarvis,
    I recently discovered your blog. I like what I’ve read so far… Can you take a minute to clarify your conclusion in this post?
    OWS shouldn’t just be about (protesting for change) but “building a new and open public based on the principles of a society that will replace the dying institutions and their ways.”
    Can you expand on this a bit? how do you feel this differs from protesting? how does it fit into the process?

  • Joe Kalucki

    Can someone clarify why these people are at Wall Street and not the Capital?

    • David Allen

      I think it is because they do not believe that their elected officials will listen to them. They believe, instead, that their elected officials listen to those who finance their compaigns. So they protest at a symbol of the rich. In my opinion, politicians are not monolithic. They listen to voters and donors. Some are wholly corrupt, some try to serve. Some are in the middle.

  • Kety

    Thank you for this inspiring article Jeff.

  • Aaron

    The issues raised in this blog post are precisely the sort of rhetoric that needs to be injected into the movement. Unless the terms of the discussion shift away from demands toward a new social vision, the movement will eventually disintegrate. Thank you for this. The fate of the public is truly what’s at stake in this movement.

  • Trent James

    With all due respect — and I do respect much of what you have said over the years — this is one of the most inane pieces of commentary I have ever encountered. What difference is there, except in the level of violence and vandalism — between these people and the recent protesters in the areas around London, or the banlieues of Paris? Or, for that matter, the demonstrators under Robert Peel’s England of the early 19th century?

    Seinfeld was reputed to be “the show about nothing.” A similar description applies here.

    • Ridiculous. The London protestors had no cause. These folks do. Go down and meet them and talk with them before trolling.

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  • Jim Bob

    This is not a movement. Y’all get yer asses to work and earn a paycheck.

  • I’m a bit surprised at how long this has gone on. It seems to be giving a more diversified group of protestors the change to unite, as the themes are a bit hard to pinpoint, aside targeting big corporations and the wealthy.

    I was looking at the latest picket signs and trying to tie them together with the original protest.

    I was surprised to see the celebrity line up that was seen there.

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  • Hi Jeff,

    interesting article. I felt the same way about the hashtag revolution phenomenon. I have been following the global revolutions and OWS through hashtags for months. It really ramped up after OWS as well.

    I bought and built a news reader for revolution news, especially for OWS.

    I have it at hashtagrevolution.com. Take a look if you get a chance. I’d be happy to collaborate with someone on it. I’m a web designer by trade and believe the project could be much bigger.

    Viva la #FuckYouWashington


    Byron King

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