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Markets, New Media, the Occupiers, and the Next Step

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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. But now a rapid, unprecedented convergence of online "new media and the motley Occupy Wall Street assemblies is defying what markets have become. It suggests a model of democratic decision-making that's interesting (and certainly no less effective) than any in Washington or on Wall Street itself.

But could this dance of new media and old protest actually rescue republican dignity and equality from the roaring engines of creative destruction and Washington's growing subservience to them? I spent a few hours in Zuccotti park two weeks ago and last Monday, looking for clues that I've sketched in Dissent magazine and now, here.

Barring more police crackdowns or other external shocks, the occupiers' numbers will remain small. But the new role being played by online media makes those small numbers on the ground just as vital as were the small numbers of Minutemen at Lexington and Concord. When the occupiers are at their deliberating, consensus-building, lyrical (and, yes, poignant) best, their 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 all the really wild gesticulating and bellowing that goes on daily on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Surveying the park occupants' slovenly dishabille, I thought of a recent report that students in Yale's elite "Grand Strategy" seminar have been notified of discounts from a tailor from Bangkok and been advised that "Once you have a custom suit, it's really hard to go back." And I couldn't help but wonder which group is wearing the clown suits.

The occupiers and their virtual supporters online aren't storming established economic and political institutions as much as they're bypassing them and the old news media that's enmeshed in them. They want the American republic to declare its independence of market riptides that are deranging the old journalism and that are governing the government. "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?" asks media critic David Carr in The New York Times, which does try (though it often fails) to keep journalism alive as the public trust and civic art that the First Amendment was meant to protect.

Even producers of sympathetic news coverage and commentary, as at MSNBC (and, to be fair, Huffington Post/Aol), are "marketing" the new political sensibility as well as sharing it. They have to try to get the best of both worlds. But the marketing -- driven by these news corporations' quarterly bottom-lining imperatives as they try to stay competitive -- overshadows the politics when producers or their corporate managers see a limited return from anything that's as critical of the marketing mania itself as any free politics must certainly now become.

The protesters insist that market riptides, and the politics and the old journalism that are captive to them, are debasing our public story lines as hired pundits and politicians bypass our brains and hearts on their way to our lower viscera and wallets. Not government censors but market sensors are the problem here, groping and disrupting our deliberative capacities for quick returns. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz are sincere in their politics, but their producers are sincere about audience ratings and the impact on the network's bottom line. If not enough viewers make MSNBC competitive, or if advertisers pull commercials for any other reason, the lineups and contents will shift as surely as night follows day.

There's nothing narrowly "political" about this, really. But there's nothing liberating, either, no matter what apostles of "free markets" tell us: It's one thing to break up congealed, stodgy conventions and sweep away intellectual cobwebs; it's another do do it so relentlessly and chaotically that there's never a chance to cultivate any humane alternative. Even governments get into the game, with demagoguery and, at the same time, surveillance of citizens -- or subjects -- in the name of protecting them.

Whatever you think of the people sleeping in parks and fortifying themselves haphazardly against the rain and cold weather, they're reminding you that republics are more than just aggregators of investment and consumption patterns. They're proving grounds for citizens who learn to coax one another beyond algorithmically-driven self interest at times to find their larger, better selves by pursuing goods in common that consumers and investors can't.

The idea is to challenge both market and state power with "cooperative power," whose elusive yet decisive strengths the writer Jonathan Schell has followed in Gandhian and American civil-rights movements and Eastern European revolutions of the 1980s. Schell's important book The Unconquerable World, depicts and assesses the growth, since the middle of the last century, of bottom-up cooperative power. He describes how it has defeated the coercive power of corporate employers and vast, national security regimes several times since then, almost without firing a shot.

Such developments turn on significant shifts the majority's thinking. In the 1760s most Americans thought it impossible and, indeed, inconceivable, that a wobbly, elusive "public" could jettison a divine-right monarchy and replace it with anything viable. Same in the 1840s, regarding the abolition of slavery. 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 to such thinking, anticipating the alternative thinking of today's protesters and so drawing their support. But because the only deliberative "hand-signals" he sought were the ones 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' uses of new media come in. Many who are watching the assemblies online are getting involved in the deliberations more than they ever were or could be in those of the Obama campaign. They're extending the discussions and the organizing partly out of frustration with "the invisibility in our political system of 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 Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy two weeks ago.

Old-news editors and reporters are struggling to follow the occupiers' fledgling, innocent democracy. Journalism isn't so much "covering" these developments as it's being "disaggregated and put back together differently" by thousands of new players, Dana Boyd, a senior researcher a Microsoft, told the Harvard conference. Reporters have to sift through countless, often conflicting, on-the-spot accounts by non-journalists that have already been "published" in billions 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 such as those to support new regulations of money in campaigns, to place new taxes on financial transactions, and to re-enact the Glass-Steagall legislation that transformed ordinary people's savings into steroids for commercial banks.

Unthinkable? Right now, yes. But, with better organization and, yes, leadership, millions of virtual participants online could impress such deliberated priorities upon congressional and presidential candidates. Nothing quite like this happened in 2008, when people followed Obama rather than led or pushed him. But now "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." That's true in journalism itself: "Producing and consumer media are not discrete acts anymore," as Danah Boyd noted.

Reporters who try to stump sleepy young occupiers by asking them basic questions about the economy that 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 a lot to do with the algorithmic anarchy of markets and technology that has both provoked and enabled the protests. .

With help from experts who've been sidelined by the nominally powerful in Washington and New York, the occupiers and their online supporters could do more to change what Boyd called the relation of "real-time impulses to power." Already they're reviving Thomas Paine's avowal that "We have it in our power to make the world anew."

But do we, really? 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 always corruption, whose seductions and coercions sap civic discipline. Can today's protestors really reconfigure the swirling, deliberation-flummoxing market combines that their own new media are riding?

Paine anticipated one answer to the question by urging readers to bring "to the touchstone of nature" the dispossession and subtler debasement of a divine-right 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 to the would-be players at Yale or Harvard. 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 have abandoned distinctions between "left" and "right" to embrace civic-republican demands for reconfigurations of government and markets that we, like Americans in 1776 and 1860, could only try to imagine. A surprising number of the people I encountered in Zuccotti Park last week are American patriots, and some of them are principled, libertarian conservatives. Even the much distorted word "progressive" may have to be retired.

Standing in Zuccotti Park, I recalled that Obama has written of his debt to "the prophets, the agitators...the absolutists" who'd sparked great shifts in American power. "Hotheads" and "cranks" were indispensable to prompting the big shifts in conventional wisdom that made possible the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery and segregation, the weaving of social safety nets, and the dissolution of sexism.

Most people, staked in things as they are, aren't eager to grasp what seems so clear to youths who aren't yet "settled down," to underdogs and eccentrics who've never been integrated, to the newly dispossessed, and to oldsters who've sloughed off the harness of convention and conventional wisdom. "Insiders" are of then the very last to know, as I showed here in "Bluster in the Beltanschauung," criticizing pundits such as Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait for siding with Obama's neo-liberal palace guard.

The outsider's catalytic effect showed up in the folkloric legend that when Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he greeted her as the "little woman who started this great war." Just as her novel and Paine's pamphlet re-focused the country's thinking, new media may speed the present shift, helping citizens to reclaim and channel their power instead of following those who've been channeling it with diminishing legitimacy and results.

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 that could happen by "default," in both senses of the 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 colleges they've already graduated. 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-for legislators.

A republic depends ultimately on public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor governments can provide. A hand-lettered sign I saw lying among the sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park let Alexis de Tocqueville make the point: "When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry. In such a place one no longer finds citizens, only subjects."

A republic refills its wellsprings through the public deliberation and voluntarism that a newly democratized journalism could summon, even more than Paine 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 digits. But now it's up to the rest of us.