Occupy Movement: A hashtag revolution
18 October 2011
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
The “Occupy” movements springing up around the world are a new form of political participation: the unorganised citizen is calling for an ongoing dialogue with institutions such as political parties and trade unions, from which authority is slowly draining.
It seemed a demonstration of the type we know – a classic street protest. Last Saturday, all around the world, people answered the call for a joint day of protest and came out onto the streets. In Frankfurt in Germany, several thousand walked through the financial district and gathered in front of the building that houses the European Central Bank. The event began and ended with conventional rallies. What was interesting, however, lay in the peacefulness of the walk in between.
What had already appeared on the internet manifested itself in the street in a remarkable manner. Many couples came, especially older ones. Political parties made a poor showing, and there was little evidence of trade unions. Clusters of more than five people were rare. It was a protest of individuals, who emerged from an anonymous society and found each other in a community of strangers.
Motives seemed varied. One older man spoke of his fear of war, and a group of younger people vehemently refused to take off their Guy Fawkes masks, reflecting a spectrum that ranged from serious political missionary work to the slapstick. Establishing who the protesters are and what they want is no easy feat. But perhaps these are not the questions that matter, and two others are probably more important: how did this form of protest arise? And how can its potential be used for the good of society?
Where is the movement?
The street protests in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement no longer signify a show of social support for trade unions and political parties. It is the citizens who are representing themselves, directing their protest against institutions without having to institutionalise in turn. They take the initiative on their own and, through this common action, become part of a society in protest – but in a way that is neither destructive nor inconsequential.
The U.S. president, who always responds to the political demands of the people with the question “Where is the movement?” today faces a movement that is not putting forward any obvious, unified demands. The usual logic of development of the protest has been reversed. The diagnosis made two weeks ago by the American University journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, observing the protests in New York – it’s “a hashtag revolution” – rings true for Germany as well. Jarvis was merely exaggerating, for the movement is no revolution. But it does point up an interesting structural evolution.
Enormous potential for mobilisation
The hashtag, which is used in the “social networks” of the internet to organise comments and messages by topic, has turned into a more powerful means of coordination of communication, which weakens another different and yet still central logic: the authority of the authors. The content that gets discussed – or rather, the content that is constantly passed on – is where the appropriate hashtag pops up, and not just where the media heavies set the tone and the tempo. The principles of the “spiral of silence” lose their effect.
This momentous shift in the way public discourse works still seems relatively weak. However, it is also of interest to Germany, and especially for the existing parties. The slowly expiring usefulness of party programmes, made up ad hoc with an eye to election dates and updated to stay fresh over the medium term, can now shed their last remaining significance. In their place, new forms of creating a rapport between politicians and the public appear to be coming along, and will be based on ongoing discussion. The balancing act between the need for institutional closure within the parties and their openness to the issues of the public is not reduced by this, but rather takes on a new character.
With a little analytical boldness, it might be asserted that the “Occupy” movements are no ordinary protests, but rather the phenotype of an evolving type of political participation. This civic participation is oriented towards known forms, yet moves on entirely new mechanisms. It’s already showing enormous potential for mobilisation. Above all, it’s distinguished by one thing: it gets the better of political despair.