Rushkoff vs. the 1%

October 7, 2011

On Wednesday, CNN asked HiLobrow friend and contributor Douglas Rushkoff for his opinion about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here it is — good stuff! The version at includes links; check it out.


(CNN) — Like the spokesmen for Arab dictators feigning bewilderment over protesters’ demands, mainstream television news reporters finally training their attention on the growing Occupy Wall Street protest movement seem determined to cast it as the random, silly blather of an ungrateful and lazy generation of weirdos. They couldn’t be more wrong and, as time will tell, may eventually be forced to accept the inevitability of their own obsolescence.

Consider how CNN anchor Erin Burnett, covered the goings on at Zuccotti Park downtown, where the protesters are encamped, in a segment called “Seriously?!” “What are they protesting?” she asked, “nobody seems to know.” Like Jay Leno testing random mall patrons on American History, the main objective seemed to be to prove that the protesters didn’t, for example, know that the U.S. government has been reimbursed for the bank bailouts. It was condescending and reductionist.

More predictably perhaps, a Fox News reporter appears flummoxed in this outtake from “On the Record,” in which the respondent refuses to explain how he wants the protests to “end.” Transcending the shallow partisan politics of the moment, the protester explains “As far as seeing it end, I wouldn’t like to see it end. I would like to see the conversation continue.”

To be fair, the reason why some mainstream news journalists and many of the audiences they serve see the Occupy Wall Street protests as incoherent is because the press and the public are themselves. It is difficult to comprehend a 21st century movement from the perspective of the 20th century politics, media, and economics in which we are still steeped.

In fact, 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.

Are they ready to articulate exactly what that problem is and how to address it? No, not yet. But neither are Congress or the president who, in thrall to corporate America and Wall Street, respectively, have consistently failed to engage in anything resembling a conversation as cogent as the many I witnessed as I strolled by Occupy Wall Street’s many teach-ins this morning. There were young people teaching one another about, among other things, how the economy works, about the disconnection of investment banking from the economy of goods and services, the history of centralized interest-bearing currency, the creation and growth of the derivatives industry, and about the Obama administration deciding to settle with, rather than investigate and prosecute the investment banking industry for housing fraud.

Anyone who says he has no idea what these folks are protesting is not being truthful. Whether we agree with them or not, we all know what they are upset about, and we all know that there are investment bankers working on Wall Street getting richer while things for most of the rest of us are getting tougher. What upsets banking’s defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns.

That’s because, unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop (as in the election of Obama), 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.

Occupy Wall Street is meant more as a way of life that spreads through contagion, creates as many questions as it answers, aims to force a reconsideration of the way the nation does business and offers hope to those of us who previously felt alone in our belief that the current economic system is broken.

But unlike a traditional protest, which identifies the enemy and fights for a particular solution, Occupy Wall Street just sits there talking with itself, debating its own worth, recognizing its internal inconsistencies and then continuing on as if this were some sort of new normal. It models a new collectivism, picking up on the sustainable protest village of the movement’s Egyptian counterparts, with food, first aid, and a library.

Yes, as so many journalists seem obligated to point out, kids are criticizing corporate America while tweeting through their iPhones. The simplistic critique is that if someone is upset about corporate excess, he is supposed to abandon all connection with any corporate product. Of course, the more nuanced approach to such tradeoffs would be to seek balance rather than ultimatums. Yes, there are things big corporations might do very well, like making iPhones. There are other things big corporations may not do so well, like structure mortgage derivatives. Might we be able to use corporations for what works, and get them out of doing what doesn’t?

And yes, some kids are showing up at Occupy Wall Street because it’s fun. They come for the people, the excitement, the camaraderie and the sense of purpose they might not be able to find elsewhere. But does this mean that something about Occupy Wall Street is lacking, or that it is providing something that jobs and schools are not (thanks in part to rising unemployment and skyrocketing tuitions)?

The members of Occupy Wall Street may be as unwieldy, paradoxical, and inconsistent as those of us living in the real world. But that is precisely why their new approach to protest is more applicable, sustainable and actionable than what passes for politics today. They are suggesting that the fiscal operating system on which we are attempting to run our economy is no longer appropriate to the task. They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.

And in the process, they are pointing the way toward something entirely different than the zero-sum game of artificial scarcity favoring top-down investors and media makers alike.


ALSO SEE: Rushkoff vs. the 1% (1) | Tactical Utopia | Feral Dissent | Don’t Mourn, Organize | Occupying Our Gardens | Grand Theft Politics | The Black Iron Prison | News about the Wage Slave’s Glossary


Kudos, Most Visited

What do you think?

  1. So much of the media and political systems still work in the old style — narrow and focus your frame, establish targets, and create clear steps toward modest goals — that the whole ecosystem is reeling from the power of this hazy, decentralized movement of discontent and uneasy solidarity. A movement that can’t be bought off, appeased, or simply rejected and allowed to peter out? All those mechanisms of marginalization are proving to be frustratingly ineffective against this form of protest.

    Incidentally, in my last blog post on this phenomenon, I said almost exactly the same thing as you did in this post, so cheers to synchronicity!

  2. Yes — when the prison bars are invisible (and even internalized) there’s a lot to be said for simple stubbornness. It doesn’t look heroic in the way that we’ve become used to seeing heroism portrayed… but it might work better.

    This is something about which Philip K. Dick (whose protagonists often fail in their struggle, while a minor character survives to keep fighting at the end) was way ahead of the curve: In a 1970 letter, Dick writes that “I know only one thing about my novels. In them again and again, this minor man asserts himself in all his hasty, sweaty strength… Perhaps [my critics] are bothered by the fact that what I trust is so very small. They want something vaster. I have news for them: there is nothing vaster.”

    Though Nathaniel Hawthorne was even more ahead of the curve: “We had left the rusty iron frame-work of society behind us,” exults his narrator Coverdale, in The Blithedale Romance. “We [stubborn utopian colonists] had broken through many hindrances that are powerful enough to keep most people on the weary tread-mill of the established system, even while they feel its irksomeness almost as intolerable as we did.”

  3. I understand the frustration of people in their personal lives. All three of those pictures show people with personal problems:

    My mom and dad work all the time
    I served in war but now I deliver pizza.

    I think the question everyone wants to know, including democrats like myself, is… what do you want the government to do about a person that must deliver pizza for a living? What do you want Wall Street to do about someone that borrowed too much money from them and then couldn’t pay it back?

    I’m 100% Obama democrat and even I don’t understand the logic behind the vague catchphrases I see on signs there. Mom and dad works all the time? I don’t think CEO’s should earn billions of dollars but I’m pretty sure they work VERY hard. Steve Jobs worked right up until a few weeks before his death. Are they home all the time?

    And the pizza sign just really puts together the confusion on the part of people like me… what can be done about that? On a government level?

  4. – Also: Please don’t compare these protests, or the similar Tea Party protests, to people that have had the courage to overthrow dictators.

    You’ve got people out there on iPads and iPods singing songs like it’s a party. Those iPods and iPads are a symbol of greed in itself, of excess. Excess is relative. Greed is relative. The picture I’m getting is that everyone in America, the government, the businesses, and the private citizens always want more than they can afford.

    The entire “Wallstreet” theme is about holding people accountable for wanting more, and yet you have people out there complaining about debt that are holding objects they can’t afford. Meanwhile, there are homeless people nearby that must also scoff at the excess of these protestors.

  5. Any comment that invites an actual discussion is being erased. Unless you agree with this article, I guess you’re not invited to post. This is part of the problem in America. Everyone wants to talk. No one wants to talk, then listen, and then talk.

    If protestors don’t want a dialogue, then nothing will ever change. You have to be willing to listen to opponents if you want to change their way of thinking.

  6. I will not be visiting this website again because of this. Sadly, I enjoyed this website. I also enjoyed this article, which is why I posted in the first place. I sincerely do want to understand what protestors are asking for. As a democrat, I certainly have no problem with these sentiments being broadcast. I agree there is an enormous amount of greed and unfair financial influence on policy when it comes to these companies. I also agree that a combination of policy change AND personal change is the fastest route to a recovering economy. There’s room for both discussions.

  7. Kristy — and others who haven’t posted to HiLobrow before — all comments by new commenters are held for moderation until we get around to reviewing them.

    Also — Douglas Rushkoff didn’t choose the illustrations for this essay, I did. I hope commenters will respond to Rushkoff’s essay.

  8. :) Thank goodness!
    This is my favorite website right now. I wasn’t looking forward to leaving it. Thank you for the great articles.

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