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CNN: Occupy Wall Street is Not a Protest But a Prototype

The more familiar something looks, the less threatening it seems. This is why images of funny-looking college students marching up Broadway or shirtless boys banging on drums comprise the bulk of the imagery we see of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Stock brokers look on, police man the barricades, and what appears to be a traditional protest movement carries on another day, week, or month. 

But “Occupy” is anything but a protest movement. That’s why it has been so hard for news agencies to express or even discern the “demands” of the growing legions of Occupy participants around the nation, and even the world. Just like pretty much everyone else on the planet, occupiers may want many things to happen and other things to stop, but the occupation is not about making demands. They don’t want anything from you, and there is nothing you can do to make them stop. That’s what makes Occupy so very scary and so very promising. It is not a protest, but a prototype for a new way of living. 

Now don’t get me wrong. The Occupiers are not proposing a world in which we all live outside on pavement and sleep under tarps. Most of us do not have the courage, stamina, or fortitude to work as hard as these kids are working, anyway. (Yes, they work harder than pretty much anyone but a farmer or coal miner could understand.) The urban survival camps they are setting up around the world are a bit more like showpieces, congresses, and “beta” tests of ideas and behaviors the rest of may soon be implementing in our communities, and in our own ways. 

The occupiers are actually forging a robust micro-society of working groups, each one developing new approaches - or reviving old approaches - to long running problems. In just one example, the General Assembly is a new, highly flexible approach to group discussion and consensus building. Unlike parliamentary rules that promote debate, difference, and decision, the General Assembly forges consensus by “stacking” ideas and objections much in the fashion that computer programmers “stack” features. The whole thing is orchestrated through simple hand gestures (think commodities exchange). Elements in the stack are prioritized, and everyone gets a chance to speak. Even after votes, exceptions and objections are incorporated as amendments. 

This is just one reason why Occupiers seem incompatible with current ideas about policy demands or right vs. left. They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th Century political operating system. And like any software developer, they are learning to “release early and release often.” 

Likewise, Occupiers have embraced the Internet access solutions of the Free Network Foundation, who have erected “Freedom Towers” at the occupy sites in New York, Austin and elsewhere through which people can access free, uncensored, authenticated WiFi. As this technology scales to our own communities, what happens to corporate Internet service providers is anyone’s guess. 

The Occupiers have formed working groups to tackle a myriad of social and economic issues, and their many occupation sites serve as beta testers of the approaches they come up with. One group is developing a complementary currency for use, initially, within the network of Occupy communities. Its efficacy will be tested and strengthened by occupiers providing one another with goods and services before it is rolled out to the world at large. Another working group is pushing to have people withdraw their money from large corporate banks on November 5, and move it instead to local banks or cooperatively owned Credit Unions. 

Whether or not we agree that anything at all in modern society needs to be changed, we must at least come to understand that the Occupiers are not just another political movement, nor are they simply lazy kids looking for an excuse not to work. Rather, they see the futility of attempting to use the tools of a competitive, winner-takes-all society for purposes that might better be served through the tools of mutual aid. This is not a game that someone wins, but rather a form of play that is successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going. 

They will succeed to the extent that the various models they are prototyping out on the pavement trickle up to those of us working on solutions from the comfort of our heated homes and offices. For as we come to embrace or even consider options such as local production and commerce, credit unions, unfettered access to communications technology, consensus-based democracy, we become occupiers, ourselves.

Reader Comments (19)

Nothing that you are talking about in this piece is new and different - everything that the Occupiers are doing has been done before, usually in socialist and fascist regimes. Your talk of no debate, consensus and compromise is not new either. Its been tried before, it is truly a failed policy of the past. Not sure why you think this is anything new - other than the form its taking. These protests are basically the same ones that racked Greece: all about how they can get the government to provide them more more more without providing. The occupiers see the world as an unfair place, and they feel that those who work within the system and are successful need to give up their wealth for others. Plain old redistribution of wealth - for nothing.

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Future

I'm not so sure Chris. I've been discussing this quite a bit and, although I originally saw this as "nothing new", reading Rushkoff and a few others I'm starting to think this really is a novel phenomena - or at least it could be if people stopped trying to frame it in terms of black and white, winning and losing, traditional/outdated zero-sum outcomes.

I'm not in NYC, the London protest is my local occurrence, but the 'feel' of the place (despite it's flaws, lack of clear communication and failure to properly engage the media) is not just your plain-old 'anti-capitilist' protest.

It really feels, to me at least, that it is plutocracy and the rigged system that is the target of the movement. It feels like the movement is slowly learning, "failing fast", and evolving a more and more nuanced, yet still open, agenda - one based around the umbrella issue, the broader philosophical issue, of a plutocratic system that smothers any opposition that cannot compete on its own terms.

I'm not sure I've put that very well, but, that seems to be at the heart of the struggle - how do you seriously discuss undermining, dismantling and rebuilding a system that controls the money and power and modes of discourse?

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Rose

Well, I'd argue that that system does exist, and it is capitalism, but not as performed by major corporates hand-in-hand with big government. At the risk of sounding like my socialist and communist buddies who say "well [insert system here] hasn't worked because we have never experienced it in its truest form yet", I'd say that when we've given free markets a real chance, and kept most of the cronyism at bay, that system has the most potential to let everyone do very well for themselves. When government starts manipulating the free market, only bad things can happen...

October 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Future

My hope about OWS is that it stays away from the sacrificial model of revolutions. It is not that hard to find the guilty, it is important to document that, understand how it happened and who did what, but it is also important to understand that if we were in the place of these guys we'd probably do the same thing as they did. These were not some obvious crimes like killing someone - it was all about gradually stretching the laws - everyone was just doing what everyone else around and before him did. It was a system failure, blaming people can make a revolution but it will not solve the problem. I have the feeling that OWS shares this intuition, despite being pressed by the media to go the civilization old way of blame and violence of what Rene Girard calls sacrificial crisis.

I like to think that the reason Poland was the first to have a democratic government in the whole Eastern Block is because Solidarity rejected the violence and confrontation.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZbigniew Łukasiak

How duh ya sign up here? Thanks!

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Bohart

enlightening blogpost, made me restructure/rename my pearltree
( a blogpost embeddable collaborative curational tool ) which i was building in order
to learn , collaborate and share my fascination with the OSW movement, thanks Douglas.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter@notpicnic

I came across an article from The Economist (big fan overall) earlier today. It talked about the original planning that went into Occupy Wall Street and how it was influenced by an ethnographer named David Graeber. The New York City General Assemblies are "an open, participatory and horizontally organized process through which we are building the capacity to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crises of our times. " This direction came as a result of Mr. Graeber, who has been involved in many other major protests, and, as an ethnographer, is highly interested in the human story.

The reason I gravitated toward this article so much, despite the fact that in the end it has a lot of critical comments on the movement, is that it points out my personal motivation for joining Occupy Fort Myers, my local OWS group -- public participation. I have made civic participation a mainstay of my academic and professional careers. I care deeply about people's ability to express themselves in the governance system and ensuring that there are mechanisms for them to do so. I guess I was just glad to hear that someone else noticed this theme of the movement.

It is easy for the media, participants and hecklers to drone on about the precision of the message in Occupy, but this Economist article nailed it on the head -- participatory democracy. The reason there are so many issues that come under the Occupy umbrella is that the people speaking them have scant chance to be heard otherwise. The original New York City Declaration had 20 some-odd statements ranging from banks to animals to health care to the environment. However, once you recognize that the voice of the people who care about these issues has been marginalized in our system of governance then you begin to understand why this movement is important.

It's true that we will probably not institute a system where people gather in town squares and waggle their fingers to demonstrate support (although this is nearly the voting procedure in many parts of Switzerland, so there are modern examples of this in the developed world). But hopefully, the major outcome of this movement is the recognition that people matter and participation in all its forms, institutionalized and informal, is important in the entire governance process.

It is simply not enough for a government to make a plan, tell people this is what they are going to do -- often kaotaoing to vocal minority oppositions (often financially motivated), then do whatever is easiest or makes the most fiscal sense. Businesses make money; that is their purpose. Governments are designed to serve people -- protecting them through establishing and protecting public goods. Since the public is their primary concern there should be a way for them to be involved and that way is participatory democracy, or its practical cousins participatory planning and participatory evaluation.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Banyai

". . . the recognition that people matter and participation in all its forms, institutionalized and informal, is important . . ."

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiam_McGonagle

Rushkoff, thank you for your important observations. Yesterday at general assembly in Albuquerque, where we have been forced to resort to human microphone due to police crackdowns, and where the hand signals of discussion and consensus building are also being used, I had the same premonition of something new coming into being that you point out in your articlee. The direct democracy that is being practiced across this country in these small groups hints at a brave new world. My sister forwarded me your article this morning. I will be sure to send it on as widely as possible. I agree that characterizing OWS as a protest is superficial. We are seeing, as you point out, a prototype for something much bigger than mere civil disobedience. We are seeing, perhaps, the beginnings of a new society. How promising.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Limkin

Hey Lerner:
Your plan is to bring down the economy and help poor people. Take a quick look at the last 2 years. When the economy gets really bad, it hurts poor people the most. The rich are insulated from bad economies. The poor have no such insulation. You will make things worse. If your little unon/organizing plan actually works, you will ruin everything for everybody, moron!
If 1/2 these kids knew what union tools they were, they'd protest you. You, SEIU, NYCC (ACORN), Soros/Tides/Adbusters are evil. You won't admit who you are or what you are really up to. But you don't fool all of us, you deceitful socialists. The last guy who was rallying people to stand up for the working man against the evil rich and claim what was rightfully theirs??
Oh yeah, his name was Adolph. He lost.

October 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter1/2 Jay

Hi Douglas,

Saw from a sign at the OWS protest today, that you will be speaking at the peoples library on Friday November 4th; Any time details for this?

It wasn't on the notice and i'd love to hear this.

Thanks much,


October 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

Wall Street is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises, gambling, bets and speculation. Wall Street doesn’t manufacture or produce anything. The Wall Street however attractive it may appear is built on paper. Wall Street only gambles and bets and speculates.
Modern day bank robbers are at Wall Street but they wear grey suits and not masks. Speculators, propagandists and financiers of Wall Street are given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers and the cumulative effect of the people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public’s trust in the present US government. There’s no question the Wall Street is rigged against the average consumers and taxpayers. The Wall Street has a lot more information. Wall Street jerry-rig the system so that Wall Street always win. If the Wall Street loses trillions, the US Treasury will bail the Wall Street out so it can go back and do it again.
50 trillion dollars in global wealth was erased between September 2007 and March 2009, including 7 trillion dollars in the US stock market, 6 trillion dollars in the US housing market, 8 trillion dollars in the US retirement and household wealth, 2 trillion dollars in the US individual retirement accounts, 2 trillion dollars in the US traditional defined benefit plans and 3 trillion dollars in the US nonpension assets.
There are trillions dollars of new money taken again from Americans to make deals and hand out outrageous bonuses. And when these trillions run out Wall Street will come back for more until the dollar becomes junk. The value of the US dollar declined very significantly during the last 70 years. The value of the US dollar in 1940 was worth 2,000% more than the value of the US dollar now.
Many big US manufacturers are outsourcing to Mexico and China to increase their profits, adding more unemployment in the USA. Manufacturing jobs in the USA declined 37% between 1998 and 2010. Since manufacturing industries declined in the USA, the US competitiveness in the global marketplace is also declined.
The demise of Glass Steagall act helped spawn the credit crisis by allowing the US Banks to reinvest money that was not theirs; they gambled; they failed; they passed down the burden to the people.
The top 6 US banks had assets of less than one fifth of US GDP in 1995. Now they have two third of US GDP. The financial crisis was created by the biggest US banks to consolidate power. The big banks became stronger as a result of the bailout by the US Treasury. The big banks are turning that increased economic clout into more political power.
Oligarchy is the political power based on economic power. And it’s the rise of the Wall Street in economic terms, that it’d turn into political power. And Wall Street then feed that back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and capture trillions of dollars.
Wall Street only has the lobbyists. Since the heads of Wall Street and their representatives are afraid because they don’t have the substance or the arguments, they will not come out and debate with the people who occupy the Wall Street.
The political and economical leadership of the US has chosed to cartel profits and transformed the US economy to serve the colluding and unlawful oligarchy. The political and economical leadership of the US is bailing out failed paradigms with trillions of dollars while committing social injustice to its people. The US banks are borrowing money at near zero interest from the US government, then lending it back to the US government at even mere fractions higher interest than they are paying. The net interest margin made by the US banks by lending the money back to the US federal government in the first 6 months of 2011 is 210 billion dollars.
Due to the oligarchs’ rapacious looting and their purchase of a politically protected luxurious lifestyle, the people of the US are on the road to permanent serfdom under a police state. The democracy was not given to the people of the US on a platter. It is not theirs for all time, irrespective of their efforts. Either people of the US organize and they find political leadership to take this on, or they are going to be in deep trouble.
The failure of governance to address the current critical issues have already produced catastrophic consequences. Now we are experiencing a major global paradigm shift and it is still unfolding.
--Nalliah Thayabharan

October 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNalliah Thayabharan

I believe the reason that the OWS protesters do not have an agenda or a list of demands is because there is not one thing, one issue, one law, one type of business that got us into this situation....where the top 1% has an unfair amount of the overall wealth in this country. To use "1/2 Jay's" comment above....comparing Adolph Hitler to the protesters.....

Adolph made laws, starting in the late 30's, there were hundreds of them, (see exibit in DC jewish museum), limiting Jews socially, economically, and politically. There was not one law that changed was a slow, organized process.

Since the 1970's that is what happened in the US. A slow, organized process whereby the top 1% (or thereabouts) would obtain more of the available wealth. The middle class has not seen a pay raise in 40 years. The removal of the Glass Steagall act was one, deregulation of financial institutions is another, and others that frankly I don't even know about. This led to the supreme court decision to make a corporation have rights like a person....absolutely ludicrous. That is my point, I would need an economic adviser to really understand what laws or deregulations led us to this point.

Therefore, it would be impossible for the average person on the street to verbalize what needs to be done. The tea party started out the same way...although there simplistic approach (no more taxes) is easier to they have actual representatives in congress. That is my hope for OWS....we get representatives in Congress that stand up for the 99%.

-steve kozak

November 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersteven kozak

Thank you for this article. I read it just a few minutes ago after despairing for most of the last couple of days about the fizzling Occupy movement here in Victoria, Canada. Sadly most people in our city are naysayers and they keep saying things like, "What are your demands? Why won't you just hurry up and tell us and then get out of here? Grmph, hrrmph!"

It is beyond frustrating to me, a 23-year-old, to have had my peers labelled the "me, me, me" and "instant gratification" generation when for a change many of us are actually assembling together and having slow, thoughtful discussions lasting weeks, possibly months -- and hopefully it'll remain ongoing -- about how best to live, which I believe is a question we humans never should have stopped ignoring.

Anyway, your words echo the thoughts I'd been having on my own but wasn't able to articulate yet and I now feel a little less alone and crazy and a bit more hopeful.

Thank you again.

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIvanhoe


I just stumbled across this article today and am also struck by how it gives fuller voice to my own thoughts. I'm 30 years older than you and a veteran of many protests. I'm not looking at this as a protest, but as an end-round.

Why should we waste our energy dismantling or even fighting the system? We would simply be co-opted by it, as progressive movements always have been. What is most hopeful to me is precisely what's bothering the establishment: Occupy groups that aren't listing demands or electing leaders.

The real goal is an ALTERNATIVE, not a tweaking, and that's exactly what would come out of a list of demands forwarded by a leader. The leader would be co-opted (or crucified--perhaps after being deified), and the demands would get a lot of lip service and not much more.

It's the end-round that would really change things. If we solve our most pressing problems within our own communities, it becomes less and less important what the plutocracy does. I don't think it's just young people who understand this, but it's absolutely essential that youth is involved because you'll have to carry it forward. This is more powerful than revolution-it's evolution. Our species is adapting to a new way of existing in order to avoid extinction.

I like that Occupy groups are literally living outside the box (literally living outside) because it resonates with thinking outside the box.

The day may come when the carefully constructed house of cards--our unsustainable practices and lifestyles--will collapse. What we learn through the Occupy movement may prove more valuable than most can imagine. So many post-apocolyptic scenarios offer a grim picture of human beings reverting to their atavistic worst. What if, instead, we evolved into our better angels?

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTLS

"Most of us do not have the courage, stamina, or fortitude to work as hard as these kids are working, anyway. (Yes, they work harder than pretty much anyone but a farmer or coal miner could understand.)"

Yeah, right. Are you serious?

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGuy with a clue

Stunning approbation, and yet I did not catch your dropping everything and running out to join the commune. All of the noble selfless ideals and still settting up for failure. In every culture, there wil always be 10% that have no interest in working for a living. And they will work VERY hard for something that holds out the promise of something for nothing. For a while. Like a thermodynamic system, this is only sustainable with the constant application of outside energy. Left to itself this movement will stabilize with too many people being net takers and hopefully even enough of another group being net givers. The folks carrying the load eventually burn out and leave, since it threatens their own ability to sustain a viable family unit. Works ok in times of plenty. Not so good in times that are hard. Once the lib/progs have run our dollar into the hyperinflation mode and folks start worrying about meals and such, look for this whole group to vaporize. With much teeth-nashing and complaining on the way out.
Does them no service to wax nostalgic about the commune culture just because you might be too young to have joined it.

November 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrik

My 21 year old son is involved in OWS in London England and soon back to Vancouver BC. Through listening to him my walls have broken down. I am a baby boomer, how can I understand? He began with this lament but slowly as he talked and I started to listen I began to understand his point and he realized that I am not too old or entrenched to change my views. Over the past 21 years my kid has taught me more than anyone else about me and about life, from the unfettered view that he has held. I gave him the right to think for himself and now he is. Wow ....should I now just yank him back to "earth"??

Why do we think that the environment "we" created (our form of capitalism) is right? What is wrong with questioning it? The current generation has been raised unlike my generation. We gave them a freedom of thought we never had and now they are showing us the flaws in our lives and our values. Instead of listening now as we did when they were little we are allowing the Police to bash them with battons, push and drag them and spray their faces with pepper. We should be ashamed!!! These are our children.

The OWSr's are telling us that its time to open our eyes and to see that the world we have created is not as great as we think it is, that we are going down some dangerous roads where we may be dismayed to find ourselves waking up one day. We should be grateful that these young people are refusing to accept status quo to make a better world for themselves and their children. We should admire their courage!

My son has opened my eyes. There are no easy answers to the many troubles that surround us. I am caught up in the culture and accepting of it. Does this make it right? No, it makes me vulnerable.

Thank you to all the young people with the courage to confront the lies of our democracy. Don't stop - dont give up. One by one you can win us over.

November 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commentera Mother

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January 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercwatchc
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