Occupy Wall Street and the Hashtag Revolt
Why Occupy Wall Street Cannot Be Run as an Institution.
#OccupyWallStreet has been drawing complaints that it doesn’t have a demand and a goal. But I say that is precisely its significance.
#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.
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