Friday, October 21, 2011

What the Occupy Protests Mean: A TIMN Interpretation (Part I)

[UPDATE — December 27, 2011: Significant edits made, including adding basic TIMN points I’d forgotten to mention at the end of the main text, a sidebar that recently occurred to me about 2011 vs. 1848, new readings for the addendum, and links to just-posted Part III.]

What’s here is Part I of what has evolved into a multi-part post about the Occupy movements, presented as though it amounts to notes for a briefing. Combined, the parts address selected aspects of the causes (Part I), conduct (Part II), cognition (Part III), and consequences (Part IV [pending]) of the protests. Most of the posts are done from a TIMN perspective about social evolution. Part III is also about the Occupy protests from a cognitive STA (space-time-action) perspective, in a nod to this blog’s other theme.

* * *

Part I:  On the Causes of the Occupy Protest Movements

•    The series of protest movements around the world — before, after, and including Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, etc. — have common themes, despite occurring in disparate places with varied participants. 
*  The driving wedge consists of a new generation of young activists who are well-educated, energized by novel connectivity, and clustered around particular demands and critiques, as follows:  
*  demands for dignity and democracy, for openness and opportunity, for fair and lawful treatment, for belonging and inclusion;  
*  critiques that their country’s systems are too much in the grip of exclusionary predatory elites who covet and loot, abuse and neglect, and who rule through excessive cronyism, corruption, and uncaring disdain. 
*  And the grandest themes mean these systems are now rotten and should be changed.

•    And what are these systems that the protesters are assailing?  Troubled varieties of the two “winningest” systems of the modern era: patrimonial corporatism and liberal democracy. 
Patrimonial corporatism:  strong centralized state, ruling clique(s), huge patronage networks, large public sector, dependent private sector, often with trappings of democracy but rigged elections and constrained political parties.  Think Mexico, Egypt, Japan, Greece, mostly a couple decades ago.  In TIMN terms, patrimonial corporatism is strong on T+I, constrained on +M, and resistant on +N. 
Liberal democracy:  limited state, countervailing powers, circulating elites, free elections, independent political parties, limited public sector, capitalist private sector, often with obscured patrimonial and corporatist aspects.  Think Europe, Scandinavia, North America.  In TIMN terms, liberal democracy is muted on T, strong on +I+M, and nascent on +N. 
Note:  This distinction is designed to move beyond the conventional one between dictatorship and democracy (or totalitarian vs. authoritarian vs. democratic), which normally treats dictatorial regimes as negative and unsuitable.  In TIMN, patrimonial corporatist regimes often suit current local conditions quite well, better than would a liberal democracy.  Both systems can work well for their circumstances, when properly led.  (The term “patrimonial corporatism” has rarely been used before, but I think it has a lot of typological potential.)   

•    The protests indicate that, in the societies at stake, both systems have gone awry, become corrupt and sclerotic, and are in deep trouble, no longer properly serving much of the population. 
*  Where patrimonial corporatism has been the norm (e.g., Egypt), the protesters want their systems to become more like liberal democracies. 
*  But where liberal democracy has been the norm (e.g., the U.S.), the protests imply that this system has turned increasingly undemocratic and plutocratic — indeed, patrimonial and corporatist (as in charges of crony capitalism, regulatory capture, revolving doors, neo-feudalism, plutonomy). 

•    If these protests amounted to ordinary movements in ordinary times, then appropriate adjustments might work, via standard scenarios: 
*  Activists would ally with established organizations, like political parties and labor unions, as well as form new entities to pressure for reform. 
*  Cairo (not to mention other capitols where patrimonial corporatism has prevailed) would authorize significant liberal-democratic reforms. 
*  Washington (not to mention other capitols where liberal democracy has prevailed) would make serious efforts to reduce the patrimonialism and corporatism that now pervade it and other power centers. 
*  And/or measures would be taken to repress the movements, such that few reforms occur, business-as-usual endures, and co-optive adjustments are made in who gets paid to play.
*  In the best such scenarios, the distortions in these triformist (TIMN's T+I+M) systems would be remedied:  separations, balances, limits would be corrected for each form; “monstrous moral hybrids” (see Part IV) would be disbanded. 

•    However, from a TIMN perspective, these are not ordinary movements or ordinary times.  The triformist (T+I+M) era is ending; the quadriformist (T+I+M+N) era is beginning. 
Triformist era:  18th-20th centuries, following spread of market (+M) form alongside earlier tribal and institutional (T+I) forms; exemplified by capitalism, liberal democracy, familiar conservative vs. liberal debates about roles of government and business, occasional upsurges of social and cultural tribalism, on both Left and Right. 
Quadriformist era:  began in mid-to-late 20th century, with rise of network (+N) form of organization, whose nature and implications have barely begun to unfold, but which appears to strengthen civil society far more than state and market actors.
* The Occupy-type movements are doing more than other movements to date to express and propel the rise of the (+N) network form. They will succeed to the extent that they continue to do so.
•    This theme about Occupy and similar movements elsewhere is in line with TIMN system dynamics that I’ve laid out before:
During the rise of a new form, subversion precedes addition: When a new form arises, it has subversive effects on the old order that weaken the old forms, before it has additive effects that serve to consolidate a new order.” (source)
New modes of conflict and cooperation emerge with each evolutionary shift: A society’s efforts to transition from one stage to the next, or relate to a society that is at a different stage, are bound to create internal and external contradictions; indeed, the values, actors, and “spaces” favored by one form tend to contradict those favored by another. Thus, the rise of a new form induces epochal philosophical, ideological, and material struggles that are jarring to a society’s stability, transformability, and sustainability. This happened in the past when tribal systems faced the rise of states, and states the rise of market systems. It will happen anew now that the network form is on the ascendance, energizing mainly nonstate actors.” (source)
I shall elaborate and clarify further in Parts II, III, and IV. Meanwhile, Parts II and III will have little to add about a key theme introduced above — patimonial corporatism — but Part IV will return to discussing it.

* * * * *

Sidebar:  Several interesting comparisons, notably here and here, show that the world-wide pro-democracy uprisings of 2011 resemble Europe’s democratic revolutions of 1848, more than other historical antecedents.  The similarities include the extent of popular participation, the demand for democracy, the nature of the grievances, and the use of media.  And since the 1848 protests produced mixed results all across Europe, an implication is to expect not much better outcomes this time around. 

Maybe so.  But I bring the comparison up for another reason: 

If 2011’s wave reflects the rise of the (+N) network form, as I posit above, what about the 1848 wave?  Where’s the similarity in that TIMN regard?  Back then was too early for the network form of organization to be much of a cause (even though social network analysis can be applied to the 1848 wave).  But — and here’s my TIMN point — it was an era when the (+M) market form was on the rise, reshaping not only economic but also political and social dynamics.  Indeed, representative democracy depends on the penetration of (+M) market principles and dynamics into the (+I) realm of the state.

This is in keeping with what I’ve written before about TIMN’s system dynamics across the ages:
“As each form takes hold, energizing a distinct set of values and norms for actors operating in that form, it generates a new realm of activity — for example, the state, the market.  As a new realm gains legitimacy and expands the space it occupies within a social system, it puts new limits on the scope of existing realms.  At the same time, through feedback and other interactions, the rise of a new form/realm also modifies the nature of the existing ones.  An example is the evolution of European absolutist regimes into liberal democratic regimes, which occurred as old hierarchical state institutions gave up on mercantilism and were remolded by the rise of the market system and the collateral spread of marketlike electoral politics.  If the addition of a new form occurs properly — including through the creation of new regulatory interfaces — the older forms and their realms end up being strengthened, not weakened, even as their scope is newly limited.” (source) (earlier)

Of course, that’s rather sketchy, and I don’t know enough about the 1848 wave to be sure, but I figure the hypothesis is worth this sidebar for possible further consideration:  The 1848 revolutions were “caused” by the rise of the market form, much as the 2011 revolutions are “caused” by the rise of the network form.  As to whether the post-1848 outcomes imply being cautious about expecting much from the 2011 wave, I’ve little idea.  But my sense of TIMN suggests that the stakes this time around involve a different kind of democracy, not just representative democracy.  I’ll hope to clarify this as Parts II, III, and IV take shape.

* * * * *


A collection of quotes, gleaned from roaming around online write-ups about Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and related protests elsewhere. Inclusion does not mean approval, only that I sense a bearing on matters raised in the main text of this post. Arranged according to whether a quote speaks mainly to the causes (see Part I), conduct (see Part II), cognition (see Part III), or consequences (see Part IV) of the protests.

Causes of the protests:  background critiques — A few readings show the importance of dignity.  Some speak to the role of civil society.  Several call for new social compacts.  Most rage against capitalism.  Since TIMN requires the market form to persist, I’d prefer critiques of capitalism that still praise the market form when it is applied properly.  I only found a few for this set of readings.

Kurt Andersen:
“"My son set himself on fire for dignity," Mannoubia Bouazizi told me when I visited her.
“"In Tunisia," added her 16-year-old daughter Basma, "dignity is more important than bread." …
“In Sidi Bouzid and Tunis, in Alexandria and Cairo; in Arab cities and towns across the 6,000 miles from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean; in Madrid and Athens and London and Tel Aviv; in Mexico and India and Chile, where citizens mobilized against crime and corruption; in New York and Moscow and dozens of other U.S. and Russian cities, the loathing and anger at governments and their cronies became uncontainable and fed on itself.
“All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries' political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt — sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats. Two decades after the final failure and abandonment of communism, they believe they're experiencing the failure of hell-bent megascaled crony hypercapitalism and pine for some third way, a new social contract.” (source)

Marlies Glasius:
“… Instead, I suggest that all the movements of 2011 have common antecedents and common ideological elements, in particular articulating a new emphasis on dignity, and a radical concept of democracy as a practice. …
"… A totally new element in the vocabulary of all the movements has been an emphasis on human dignity, which is constructed as requiring fulfillment of basic socio-economic needs, treatment with respect by authorities, and participation in determining one’s fate. The flip side of this appeal to dignity is indignation. The protests are not just against unemployment, wage cuts and other austerity measures, but also about having been lied to by politicians and about different manifestations of crony capitalism.” (source)

Marc Lynch:
“But the uprisings were not only about jobs and bread; as Sudanese intellectual Abdelwahab El-Affendi wrote in January, echoing a famous slogan of the 1950s, the revolutions were needed so that the people would deserve bread. The theme of restoring the dignity of the people pervaded the Arab uprisings. The police abuse that drove Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation and killed the young Egyptian Khaled Said struck a chord with populations who experienced daily the depredations of uncaring states. The gross corruption of Ben Ali's in-laws and Hosni Mubarak's efforts to groom his son for the presidency simply insulted many Tunisians and Egyptians -- and they were ever less afraid to say so. A fiercely independent and articulate rising generation would no longer tolerate brazen corruption, abusive police, indifferent bureaucracy, a stagnant economy, and stage-managed politics. …
"That opening was seized by an increasingly aggressive press, led by figures like the irreverent editor Ibrahim Eissa and liberal publisher Hisham Kassem, as well as determined new Internet citizen journalists. Independent newspapers such as Eissa's al-Dustour eviscerated the pretensions of their rulers. Al Jazeera talk shows threw every issue open for debate. Activists like Tunisia's Sami Ben Gharbia used Internet tools to reveal the Tunisian first lady's shopping trips to Paris on the president's private jet. Bahrainis used Google Earth to reveal the shocking size of lands expropriated by the royal family for private use. Egyptians like blogger Wael Abbas circulated videos of police abuse and identified individual officers online. This opening of closed regimes to raw information and opinion, a faith in the power of public ideas, was itself one of the key ideas underpinning the Arab uprisings.” (source)

John Robb
“The real reason we are seeing this movement right now is because Capitalism, the last great ideological system, is in crisis.  This isn't merely a crisis of outcomes (economic depression, financial panic, etc.), it's a crisis of BELIEF.  While people generally believe in the idea of capitalism, a critical mass of people now think that the global capitalist system we currently have is so badly run, so corrupt, so terrible at delivering results that it needs either a) a complete overhaul or b) we need to build something new.” (source)

George Monbiot:
“The findings of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves. He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. "The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill." Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.
“Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers throughout Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out, they blanked him. "The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture."” (source)

David Graeber:
“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the real priority of those running the world for the last few decades has not been creating a viable form of capitalism, but rather, convincing us all that the current form of capitalism is the only conceivable economic system, so its flaws are irrelevant. As a result, we’re all sitting around dumbfounded as the whole apparatus falls apart.” (source)

Bill Moyers:
“Those “men of action in the capitalist world” were not content with their wealth just to buy more homes, more cars, more planes, more vacations and more gizmos than anyone else. They were determined to buy more democracy than anyone else. And they succeeded beyond their expectations. After their forty-year “veritable crusade” against our institutions, laws and regulations — against the ideas, norms and beliefs that helped to create America’s iconic middle class — the Gilded Age is back with a vengeance.” (source)

New Scientist:
“As protests against financial power sweep the world this week, science may have confirmed the protesters' worst fears. An analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations has identified a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy.
“The study's assumptions have attracted some criticism, but complex systems analysts contacted by New Scientist say it is a unique effort to untangle control in the global economy. Pushing the analysis further, they say, could help to identify ways of making global capitalism more stable.” (source)

Naomi Wolf:
“Suddenly, the United States looks like the rest of the furious, protesting, not-completely-free world. Indeed, most commentators have not fully grasped that a world war is occurring. But it is unlike any previous war in human history: for the first time, people around the world are not identifying and organising themselves along national or religious lines, but rather in terms of a global consciousness and demands for a peaceful life, a sustainable future, economic justice and basic democracy. Their enemy is a global "corporatocracy" that has purchased governments and legislatures, created its own armed enforcers, engaged in systemic economic fraud, and plundered treasuries and ecosystems.” (source)

Matt Taibi:
“Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It's about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one's own culture, this is it. And by being so broad in scope and so elemental in its motivation, it's flown over the heads of many on both the right and the left. . . .
“We're all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire. Everything from our pop culture to our economy to our politics feels oppressive and unresponsive. . . .
“But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.” (source)

“. . . The primal social contract of western liberal democracies has been broken. Governments cannot fulfill their most elemental obligations – the provision of basic social and security services, the fair and effective organization of markets and currencies, and the long-term leadership to assure a stable future.
“Governments have failed to prevent the capture of their governing structures by the very parties they are meant to govern. Not surprisingly, democratic governments have lost the trust of their citizens, which is now manifesting itself in “Occupy” protests in more than 900 cities around the world. Protesters are no longer content to “work within the system” for change because they realize that the system itself is rigged and dysfunctional. Read between the lines, and it is easy to see that protesters are demanding a new system of governance, one that can uphold a fair and functional social contract and restore trust, the currency of legitimacy.” (source)

Slavoj Zizek
“They are saying we are all losers, but the true losers are down there on Wall Street. They were bailed out by billions of our money. We are called socialists, but here there is always socialism for the rich. They say we don’t respect private property, but in the 2008 financial crash-down more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.” (source) (alternate)

Wendy Brown:
“The OWS events this fall are the twin gifts of, on the one hand, the inspirational Arab Spring and, on the other, the colossal failure of the Obama presidency to place even a light rein on neoliberal de-regulation or install a modest interval of separation between Wall Street and Washington. If the first was an obvious trigger, the second should not be minimized: Had any of the promised Obama "hope" been substantially realized—early withdrawal from Iraq war, closing Guantanamo, stimulating economic recovery with jobs creation, repealing the Bush tax cuts, tightening regulations on finance capital, expanding access to affordable higher education, reining in health care costs—many Occupy Wall Streeters, especially the young, might have remained wedded to the electoral political process that engaged them so intensely just three years ago.” (source)

McKenzie Wark:
“The ruling class in the United States is less and less one that makes things, and more and more one that owns information and collects a rent from it. Sometimes this is productive, in that it at least designs new things and creates new markets for them. Apple and Google: the commodity economy at its finest. But in other respects the ruling class becomes one that just seeks rent without really doing much to earn it.” (source)

Michael Hudson:
“… What is easiest for most people to accept is the idea of restoring the way the economy used to be more in balance – back when people earned income by being productive rather than getting rich by transferring other peoples’ savings and public giveaways into their own pockets. But what I sensed in New York was anger not only at this economic problem, but the fact that the political system is broken. There is no one to vote for as an alternative to pro-bank candidates. So what began as anger has become a gathering awareness that Mr. Obama was simply fooling voters instead of leading the change he promised. That’s what politicians do, of course. But people hoped that he might be different. That was the gullibility he played on. He has turned into the nightmare they thought they were voting against. …
“There is no way to clean up the mess that the Democratic Party has become since politics moved into Wall Street’s pockets. The Republicans also have become a party of lobbyists. So it looks like there is no solution within the existent system. This is a revolutionary, radical situation. The longer that the OWS groups can spend on diagnosing the problem and explaining how far wrong the system has gone, the longer the demonstrators can gain support by showing that they share the feelings everybody has these days – a feeling of being victimized. This is what is creating a raw material that has to potential to flower into political activism, perhaps by spring or summer next year.
“The most important message is that all this impoverishment and indebtedness is unnecessary. There is no inherent economic reason for things to be this way. It is not really the way that “markets” need to work. There are many kinds of markets, with many different sets of rules. So the important task is to explain to people how many possibilities there are to make things better. And of course, this is what frightens politicians, Wall Street lobbyists and the other members of the pro-oligarchic army of financial raiders.” (source)

Naomi Klein
“Ten years later, it seems as if there aren’t any more rich countries. Just a whole lot of rich people. People who got rich looting the public wealth and exhausting natural resources around the world.” (source)

Chris Hedges:
“Tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands. . . .
“. . . The liberal class, which at once was betrayed and betrayed itself, has no role left to play in the battle between us and corporate dominance. All hope lies now with those in the street.” (source)

Nicholas Kristof:
“So, yes, we face a threat to our capitalist system. But it’s not coming from half-naked anarchists manning the barricades at Occupy Wall Street protests. Rather, it comes from pinstriped apologists for a financial system that glides along without enough of the discipline of failure and that produces soaring inequality, socialist bank bailouts and unaccountable executives.
“It’s time to take the crony out of capitalism, right here at home.” (source)

Phillip Blond
“All was well in the liberal universe, until the collapse not just of the economic compact, but of the social accord as well. After the crash and after the riots [in London], and amid the continuing, terrifying disaster of the debt crisis, the ruling liberal orthodoxy seems anything but secure. Nor should it be — the social fragmentation that has broken parts of our society and eroded much of our social compact continues apace, as does the collapse of economic growth across the western world.” (source)

Umair Haque:
“Our institutions are failing — they're failing us; failing the challenge of igniting real, lasting human prosperity. If institutions are just instruments to fulfill social contracts, then ours are shattering because the social contracts at their hearts have fractured.
“I call it a Great Splintering — not purely an economic phenomenon, as in "Great Contraction," but a social one: an era when social contracts are being torn up, abrogated, betrayed, abandoned, by accident, by design, by "regulatory capture," or simply by polities too gridlocked to progress. Broken social contracts aren't just tidy abstractions, empty of visibly real consequences, disconnected from the noise and clamor of our messy human lives. As they break, yesterday's ways of living, working, and playing rupture; yesterday's organizations, from corporations to banks to nations, creak and crack.” (source)
Paul Mason:
“19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest "meme" that is sweeping the world - if that premise is indeed true - is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don't seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for "autonomy" and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.
“20. Technology has - in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera - expanded the space and power of the individual.” (source)

Alexis Madrigal:
“DELETE Strategy/Marxist ideology:  Despite the dogged determination of some on the right to read any critique of capitalism as pure Marxism, this is just not the case. While some protesters may espouse the desire for massive and structural changes to our economic system, they are not calling for a Marxist revolution. As journalist Bruce Nussbaum put it, "OWS is against Crony Capitalism, not Capitalism. It's FOR Entrepreneurial Capitalism... OWS has splits. Some want a share economy. Others are nihilist. But most see Steve Jobs as a hero."” (source)

Amitai Etzioni:
“Some days one cannot but wonder whether one should join Occupy Wall Street, the tea party or both.” (source)
* * *

For additional readings, see the addendums to Part II, Part III, and Part IV [pending]. 

Many thanks to posts by Michel Bauwens and his P2P Foundation blog for initially pointing out many of the foregoing readings. 

Many thanks to Richard O'Neill, director of the Highlands Group and Highlands Forum, for his overall interest and encouragement.


[UPDATE — November 30, 2011:  I’ve substantially edited this post since its initial posting and updating in October.  The post now stands alone as Part One, and its addendum now contains only the readings that pertain mainly to this part.  I have added new readings — and may yet add more.  I’ve moved earlier readings that go better with Parts Two and Three.]

[UPDATE — December 6, 2011: I’ve added about a half dozen new readings to the Addendum, and entered links to Part Two.]



eddie/shiqin said...

Apologies, I had left the link at the comment at another post, so I'm re-posting it here:

The relevant points, as I thought relevant to TIMN or to STA:

"More conceptually, space and time are important technologies because the name "occupy" specifically refers to occupying physical space for an extended period of time. A march takes up space, but an omnipresent occupation with tents also takes up time. With the recent wave of police effort clearing occupations of their infrastructure, this balance of space and time becomes increasingly important and something I hope to expand on in a later post.
" I'll be following this closely.

David Ronfeldt said...

eddie -- many thanks for the pointer. it's useful, as is your comment.

by now i've seen so many readings about space and spatial aspects of the occupy movement that i plan to do a separate post from an STA perspective.

i welcome your interest, and apologize for my delay in approving the posting of your comment. -- onward, david