Long before I dabbled in new media I was a timorous dabbler in markets, my investments driven algorithmically by computers at speeds that left me ignorant of what I “owned” from day to day. By comparison, the rapid, unprecedented convergence of online “new media” and the motley Occupy Wall Street assemblies that are defying what markets have become suggests a model of democratic decision-making that’s more interesting (and certainly no less effective) than any I’ve seen in Washington and on Wall Street itself. Could this dance of new media and old protest actually rescue republican dignity and equality from Wall Street’s roaring engines of creative destruction and Washington’s growing subservience to them?
Barring more police crackdowns or other external shocks, the occupiers’ numbers will remain small. But the new role being played by online media makes the small numbers on the ground no less important than the small numbers of Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. When the occupiers are at their deliberating, consensus-building, lyrical, and, yes, poignant best, their strange hand signals and “mic checks” are seen and heard ’round the world. And some of the world is responding instantly, in ways that cast a new light on the wild gesticulating and bellowing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
The occupiers and their online supporters aren’t storming established economic and political institutions as much as they’re bypassing them and old news media that’s enmeshed in them. They want the American republic to declare its independence from the market forces that are driving the old journalism and governing the government.
Even the producers of sympathetic news coverage and commentary, as at MSNBC and Huffington Post/AOL, are “marketing” the new political sensibility at the same time that they share it. They’re trying to have the best of both worlds. But these news corporations’ quarterly bottom-lining impulses will overshadow the politics if the producers see a limited return from anything that’s as critical of the marketing mania itself as any free people’s politics must now become. Not government censors but market sensors are groping and disrupting our deliberative capacities for quick returns.
The protesters are reminding us that republics have to be more than just aggregators of investment and consumption patterns. They’re proving grounds for citizens who learn to coax one another beyond algorithm-driven self interest to find their larger, better selves by pursuing goods in common that consumers and investors can’t. They’re challenging both market and state power with “cooperative power,” whose elusive strengths the writer Jonathan Schell has followed in Gandhian and American civil rights movements and Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s.
Many Americans in the 1770s thought it impossible and, indeed, inconceivable that a wobbly, elusive “public” could jettison a divine-right monarchy or abolish slavery and replace them with anything viable. Both monarchy and slavery had countless accomplices, accommodators, and apologists for a very long time. In 2008 Barack Obama embodied and testified to a civic-republican counter-narrative that anticipated that of today’s protesters and so drew their support. But because the only deliberative “hand-signals” Obama sought were those that cast ballots, he became, in effect, the star of a year-long rock concert, not the leader of a movement organized to sort priorities and advance them.
That’s where the occupiers’ new uses of new media come in. Many who are watching their assemblies online are becoming more involved in the deliberations than they ever were in Obama’s. They’re butting in partly because of “the invisibility in our political system of the greed and the ruin of people’s lives,” as Anne Marie Slaughter, a former State Department director of policy planning, told 200 old- and new-media journalists at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy last weekend.
Old-news editors and reporters are struggling to follow the new dance of the occupiers’ fledgling, innocent democracy and a journalism that isn’t so much “covering” it as finding itself getting “disaggregated and put back together differently” by thousands of new players. Reporters have to sift through countless, often conflicting, on-the-spot accounts by non-journalists that have already been “published” in millions of posts and videos when the professional reporters are getting out of bed.
As thousands of people around the country generate stories, videos, and arguments with an authority as persuasive as that of any pundit, the people on the ground, too, are trying to sift these narratives and arguments in their face-to-face deliberations and via the hand signals and vocalizations they employ to reach decisions. Millions of virtual participants online can immediately impress those priorities upon congressional and presidential candidates—if they get organized enough to do so. “Producing and consuming media are not discrete acts anymore,” Dana Boyd, a senior researcher a Microsoft, told the Harvard conference. Nothing quite like this was happening in 2008; could it in 2012? “We are globalizing the American adversarial system that brings truth” out of conflict, observed Slaughter, adding that the “best American ‘propaganda’ now shows citizens challenging their government.”
Former BBC anchor Nick Gowing remarked that the global dance of deliberators and virtual activists has heightened the “vulnerability, even fragility, of all forms of power and opens huge deficits in their legitimacy.” Reporters who try to stump the sleepy young occupiers by asking them questions they can’t answer are missing the point: the so-called experts and executives can’t answer a lot of basic questions, either. The reasons have more than a little to do with the algorithmic anarchy of markets and technology that has both provoked and enabled the protests.
With help from experts sidelined by the nominally powerful in Washington and New York, the occupiers and their online supporters are trying to change what Boyd called the relation of “real-time impulses to power.” At least they’re reviving Thomas Paine’s avowal that “We have it in our power to make the world anew.”
But do we? Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense swept the American colonies with the force of a Twitter revolution, but it wasn’t what actually organized the people it aroused. Democratic deliberation required skilled, dispassionate moderators and a discipline rooted in citizens’ voluntary commitments to sustain the results. It still requires that, because wherever there’s enough power to decide, there’s corruption whose seductions and coercions sap civic discipline.
Paine urged readers to bring “to the touchstone of nature” the dispossessions and subtler debasements of a monarchy whose mercantile impositions and little insults they’d accepted or endured out of loyalty, caution, or narrow self-interests they couldn’t imagine abandoning. “‘Tis time to part,” he told them, and we, too may be entering a time when Americans’ mystical faith in whorls of anonymous (and, like me, half-witted) investors will seem no less fantastical and illegitimate than divine-right monarchy did by the 1780s.
The dispossession and debasement of American citizenship today may still be invisible to players in Washington, the stock exchanges, the old media, and all who rely on them. But old forms of protest and new forms of media are bringing in new players and new political pressures, as the Tea Party has done. Some of them may forsake distinctions between “left” and “right” for civic-republican reconfigurations of government and markets that we are only beginning to imagine.
Standing in Zuccotti park last week, I recalled that Obama has written of his debt to “the prophets, the agitators…the absolutists” who’d sparked great shifts in American power. It was they who really started the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery and segregation, the weaving of social safety nets, and the dissolution of sexism. Most others, with stakes in things as they are, didn’t grasp what seemed clear to youths not yet “settled down,” to underdogs and eccentrics never integrated, to the newly dispossessed, and to oldsters who’d sloughed off the harness of convention and conventional wisdom. So now, too.
The next logical step from park occupations and new-media swirls would be into massive non-compliance: imagine 50,000 recent graduates declaring that they won’t repay their exorbitant loans. The irony is that it could happen by “default,” in both senses of that term, as thousands of students, like millions of homeowners, are simply unable to repay. The difference would be that no one could throw these recent students out of college or take back the diplomas they’d earned. The challenge would be to organize the political, logistical support they’d need in order to resist intimidation and prosecution by collections agencies and sheriffs. Beyond a certain point, the current outrageous lending system would be unable to enforce the rules enacted by its own bought-and-paid legislators.
A republic depends ultimately on public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor governments can provide. It needs the oxygen of a deliberation and voluntarism that a newly democratized journalism may summon, even more than Paine’s pamphlet did, but that it cannot ensure. So far, at least, the occupiers have issued and answered the summons with courage and comity, as well as with their digits. Soon it will be up to the rest of us.
Image: OWS media center in Zuccotti Park (Mat McDermott, Flickr creative commons, 9/30/11)