Why the Metamovement Will Ultimately Fail

First edition of the Occupy Wall Street Journal. Full size copy and edition two here.

There have been, belatedly, attempts to connect the “We Are the 99%” Occupy Wall Street protests with the protests in the Mideast against anti-democratic regimes and in Europe against unemployment, austerity and government inaction. What is unique about the newest US protests (at least since the ill-fated anti-globalization protests of a decade ago), and perhaps the reason why it took so long for them to get media and public traction, is that they are anti-corporate more than anti-government.

Umair Haque, an economics writer (best known for his explanation of the phenomenon of Peer Production) I have written about on this blog over the years, and now a writer for HBR, has recently labelled these protests with the collective term the Metamovement. In his essay he says:

The common thread behind each and every movement in the Metamovement… [is] a sense of grievous injustice, not merely at rich getting richer, but at the loss of human agency and sovereignty over their own fates that is the deeper human price. In other words, it’s not just about inequality–but the deeper failure of institutions…

The deeper thread that runs through [these protests is] one not merely of loss of financial prosperity, but of the paring back of dignity, of the evisceration of agency, of the disappearance of that which might be said to be essential to the experience of being human…

Not every revolt ends in revolution–but every revolution begins in revolt. And make no mistake–this is revolt; insurrection against a monstrous, barbaric status quo that’s failed too many, too deserving, for too long–while serving too few, too undeserving, far too well. It is not in the nature of man or beast to stay yoked to the gleaming machines of their own economic, social, and moral annihilation.

The Metamovement is in essence a revolt against disempowerment, and, while government is the favourite whipping-boy, there is a growing awareness that globalization has led to corpocracy — concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy multinational business owners, who buy and sell politicians at will and hence control the laws, the regulations, law enforcement and other political decisions including when and with whom we go to war. Loathing government has always been popular and acceptable in North America (which is why most elections are about which party is hated more). Loathing big corrupt anti-democratic corporations is new, and unsettling to the corporatists and the mainstream media they own. It’s OK to howl at the puppets, but not at the puppet-masters.

As Jeff Wells explains, there is an overwhelming and global sense that the rest of us don’t matter any more in our globalized industrialized society, except as passive consumers of products. We are not needed or wanted any more for our ideas, for our viewpoints, for our knowledge and skills, for our approval at the voting booth, or even for our physical labour; the corpocracy would prefer that we just borrow more and spend more, endlessly, quietly, and uncritically, until we die.

The metamovement is short on coherence of demands (and hence was and still is dismissed as aimless and anarchic by media and politicians alike) because there is a growing sense that what is needed is not for those in power to do something different, but for those in power to cede that power back to individuals and community, and leave it up to those individuals and communities to decide on what, in their particular situations, should be done with that power.

And, as consultant-philosopher Charles Handy has pointed out in a warning to political, economic and social idealists, nobody gives up power voluntarily. This is the greatest challenge to the Metamovement, as the people of Syria, Libya and Yemen know all too well.

What makes the situation even more complex is that there is no coherent consensus among the various facets of the Metamovement on who should be ceding power, or how. In the Mideast the target is corrupt totalitarian governments, but who their power should pass to is far from unanimous, and that makes a lot of people nervous, especially those who’ve seen who has risen to fill the power vacuum in other countries.

Neither the target nor the goal of the Metamovement is clear in North America or much of Europe. To some extent the protesters are not for anything — their solidarity is in opposition, not in intention. The left-libertarians of Occupy Wall Street are opposed to global corporatism, and want it dismantled to re-empower individuals and communities (as one writer put it “We don’t want to overthrow the government, we just want it back.”). The right-libertarians of the Tea Party are opposed to government and government regulations (including regulation of corporatists), and want government dismantled through deregulation in order to — you guessed it — re-empower individuals and communities. Both believe the other is fraudulent, misguided and dangerous, but both are expressing, from their worldview and with the knowledge available to them, anger and outrage over our growing loss of dignity, disempowerment and even irrelevance to the global monoculture corporatist society in which we all live.

Meanwhile a large part of the populace, especially many young people, have pretty well given up on the possibility of any power shift occurring. Some of them think the Metamovement is ridiculous; most of them, I suspect, don’t know and/or don’t care about it. The billions around the world who have opted out of all active engagement with the political and economic system (other than continuing to support it with their purchases, their passivity and their resignation), are the real 99%.

So where is this Metamovement going? When there are no cohesive goals, demands, or measures of success, can the Metamovement ‘succeed’?

The real purpose of the Metamovement, at least in North America and perhaps Europe, is not to get the corrupt political and economic corporatist 1% to cede power, or to reform itself, or to compel political leaders to dismantle it or tax it fairly or reform it on threat of replacing them with leaders who will. Only the hapless Tea Party faction of the Metamovement is naive enough to believe that can or will happen.

The real purpose of the Metamovement, I would argue, is to re-engage the 99%, from the bottom up, community by community around the world, first to learn how things really work and what is really going on, and then to decide what actions need to be taken in response. In every nation and community the situation is different and the response that is needed will inevitably be different.

The purpose of the Metamovement is education and then organization. That means countering the official propaganda and refusing to support, with complacency, with tax dollars, with consumer dollars, with obedient wage-slave labour, or with the acceptance of crushing debt, the existing political and economic systems that are currently run for the benefit of the corporatists. It means curing the epidemic of anomie that has infected so many of us, everywhere. It’s a hugely ambitious goal.

In much of the Mideast that means for the moment deposing despots, and then struggling to avoid allowing either other ideologues or global corporatists to fill the power void. In North America and Europe that probably means both starving the system (by refusing to support it politically or economically), and smartly and strategically sabotaging it (where it is weakest) — blocking it, breaking it, or taking it at every turn, without causing suffering and without getting caught (at least until we are far enough along as a popular movement that the enforcement authorities will refuse to arrest us, and will instead join us).

This is and always has been the dream of revolutionaries. It has succeeded, sometimes, in the past, and it may succeed again, in some places and situations at least, for a while.

But look at where we stand now, the larger picture. Real democracy is, for all our efforts, rare in the world, and power inequality is staggering, growing by leaps and bounds, and almost unprecedented in human history. And we are headed towards a series of catastrophic and cascading energy, ecological and economic crises and no one is in control — no one, not the 99%, not the 1%, has the power to avert them. We have unleashed the sixth great extinction of life on Earth and it’s been accelerating unimpeded for thirty thousand years. We have created a political and economic industrial growth civilization monoculture that is unsustainable, out of control and unstoppable.

This is part of the learning that the Metamovement will have to internalize, relate to the local situation in every community, and decide how to act upon. So, of course we need a Metamovement to work to restore the balance of power in our political and economic systems, and to restore dignity and purpose to our lives. But such a movement will take a long time, will be fiercely opposed by powerful interests, will entail huge risks, and will have to play out across a backdrop of growing crises, the imminent train wreck of our global industrial growth civilization, for which we must all share the blame.

My sense is that, in the short run, the situation is simply not bad enough in most of the affluent nations of the world to engage sufficiently large numbers of people to learn and commit to what is needed and stick with it long enough to achieve the power change the Metamovement will discover is required to achieve their ends.

And every failure, like the recent failure of the anti-pipeline demonstrations in Washington DC (despite evidence of unethical and possibly illegal activities by both US and Canadian governments and regulators working with Big Oil), will only serve to demoralize the Metamovement and sap its energy.

And in the longer run, I believe that the massive and chronic crises we will all be facing will consume so much of our time and attention that the Metamovement will fall by the wayside.

In the meantime, I applaud the Metamovement and its hard-working members, especially those who are informed and not naive about what is really going on. I hope they succeed. I fear they cannot.

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24 Responses to Why the Metamovement Will Ultimately Fail

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Comprehensively thought through, Dave.

    I guess the only constructive thing I think after reading this is that sometimes the ‘we’, the 99% are not as rational as you. Maybe we can and will get surprised ? But I fear that will only happen when (not if) things get so far along that people everywhere have no choice but to rebel with all they’ve got (the biggest problem in having that happen may be that by then we will all be taking so much soma that we won’t have the energy to rebel as hard as we need to).

  2. Ron Lubensky says:

    Beautiful, Dave. Thx for linking the word “Metamovement”. Earlier, I wrote similarly but without the richness you provided: http://www.deliberations.com.au/2011/10/false-consciousness-awake.html

  3. Mike K says:

    Dave – Your doom-and-gloom is probably correct, but I don’t think you can say the meta-movement will fail because I don’t think you can clearly articulate a specific goal for it. If the economic trainwreck is imminent (and I believe it is) the more and more of the meta-movement will adjust to this as it becomes more and more obvious. We will see.

    Love and luck to you.

  4. tom matrullo says:

    Very apt and thoughtful comments, but I’m unwilling to concede that we must view #ows through a lens of success/failure. They are wise to resist demand that they have demands; that they coalesce into some easily recognizable organizational form, political entity, social niche. If #ows is something truly new, it has to be inchoate, strange, stuttering – this is a seeking of a new cultural base, new forms, new modes of acceding to truth as well as, as you rightly say, to power. But before all of that, this is a basic moment of tension in the relations of culture to the state. We should respect its need to squall before it can speak.

  5. jasontgordon says:

    The real purpose of the Metamovement, I would argue, is to re-engage the 99%, from the bottom up, community by community around the world, first to learn how things really work and what is really going on, and then to decide what actions need to be taken in response.

    It seems that you make an implicit judgement against actions by “the real99%” who have, with individual agency “opted out of all active engagement with the political and economic system (other than continuing to support it with their purchases, their passivity and their resignation).” Why the need for reengagement and legitimization of any political/economic system by these disaffected people? Why not see “the real99%” as having taken meaningful steps toward realizing an organic agorist anarchy whose basis relies on individual cooperative interdependencies rather than democratically sanctioned collectivization and coercion?

    The importance of the Metamovement for those who seek to re-legitimize government power is significant. They will try to cast #ows as democratic engagement rather than democratic renouncement , a form of consent by dissent that appeals to the prevailing power structure rather than a loud and unequivocal withdrawal of consent.

    That the hope is for #ows to declare terms on which they will consent to be ruled is to ignore the possibility that they wish not to be ruled at all.

  6. Annie says:

    I think you could just as easily write the post “Why the Metamovement will ultimately succeed.” I think it can go either way. Yeah, lots of reasons why it could fail, lots of forces to cause failure. But reverse is true too.

    I was in Paris in May 1968, that one failed but it wasn’t the last word.

    The forces of evil are all lined up, they could win the day.

    Or not.

  7. Cory Giacobbe says:

    Thank you Dave for your thoughtful analysis of the source and connections of all the movements taking place recently in the world. The populist uprisings are both exhilarating and troubling. I noted to all that would listen during our last US Presidential election that when we voted for change, we failed to express what we wanted changed and how. The Occupy x movements in the US seem to be a belated uprising of all the people who voted for Obama but didn’t get the change they were hoping for. Obama left the details of change open-ended, undefined, and instead of asking, we all piled our own hopes for change into the basket. The young people occupying US cities might not have enough knowledge yet about How Things Work to ask for the right things to get the change they want without dismantling the institutions that are working. Hopefully they will do their homework, and also learn from and collaborate with intelligent, seasoned and inclusive individual organizations in order to make practical demands.

  8. Orla Hegarty says:

    As I said in a recent post about why I am participating in this so-called ‘metamovement’, the 21st century is about awakening. We have to or else our species will face extinction by overpopulation and/or climate change. And this is why I agree with Annie…you could have easily changed the title to why it MUST ULTIMATELY SUCCEED.

    As much as the academic in me loves the term ‘metamovement’ and I really enjoyed this post, I fear that labels like this work to further polarize the 99%.

  9. Roy Williams says:

    Thanks for the insights. Beautifully articulated.

    But how about the converse? That without the metamovement, constituted ‘chaotically’ as it were, we will remain marginalised?

    See this blog post (http://roys-discourse-typologies.blogspot.com/search?q=ecosystem+), and:

    “The old forms of social structure and interaction have not disappeared; many will survive, but those that don’t will not necessarily even be contested. Instead, new forms of social interaction are emerging in parallel, and in true ecological fashion, the forms of interaction and representation that turn out to be irrelevant will just fade into obscurity. What is important for the argument here is that dynamic, uncertain, unpredictable, and even unstable (yet ordered) social structures and forms are, ironically, ‘establishing’ themselves. We need different theories to describe what is happening and why it is happening, and we can make a start on this if we combine a theory of how people act (affordances), how the modes of communication and interaction have changed (the internet, and the affordances of the micro/global ), and how new global/unstable forms of political and economic ‘commerce’ are emerging and, already, becoming established ‘uses’ in the world-wide web”. – from the conclusion to a paper on ‘Affordances and the new Political Ecologies’, forthcoming this year, in a book edited by the CSPVT at St Andrews University.

    This also relates to a substantive paper on ‘metasemiotics’a few years back (http://k-m-etaphors.wikispaces.com/Meta-semiotics), and a blog post on the current ‘monterisation’ of relationships in Facebook: ‘Remembering and Forgetting’ (see… http://roys-discourse-typologies.blogspot.com/search?q=Remembering)

  10. Denise says:

    “Metamovement”? Really? What a terrible use of language to describe people with energy, with heart, with optimism…yes, world problems are dire, but I’m afraid baby boomer cynicism and failure is not the answer. And your worldview (it’s the end, we are going to die, civilization is over) isn’t necessarily even true. Maybe it’s time for baby boomers to just step aside…or at least reframe your vision to ALSO see possibility and promise…it’s there.

  11. norberto rodriguez says:

    Good post Dave !

    i think the most important paragraph is where you say:

    ” my sense is that, in the short run, the situation is simply not bad enough in most of the affluent nations of the world to engage sufficiently large numbers of people to learn and commit to what is needed and stick with it long enough to achieve the power change the Metamovement will discover is required to achieve their needs”

    This is what i think is happening in Canada, no matter how bad it is for some people (not the 99% in here). i believe a majority of us are still enjoying a very good way of living , and will not be willing to take any risk that may change that lifestyle. Call and twitt friends asking to join and things like that, thinking that that will be enough.

    Yes, we may join the OWS for a while, mainly for fun, take some pictures and put them in facebook. But lets be honest, the bottom line is that we will not have the cojones to stick with it, because it is still not a crisis.

    We are still part of those passive consumers enjoying life and maybe once in a while we argue a little bit.. but don’t ask me to give up any of those pleasures i am entitled to have…

  12. Rick says:

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing. I like the ‘metamovement’ concept and believe it is apt. It is perhaps also ‘post-movement’ in many ways, but maybe we have enough ‘post’-isms in the mix for now. As for “the rest of us don’t matter any more in our globalized industrialized society, except as passive consumers of products” — therein lies a clue as to how the 99% can take back some of the power. Stop consuming products whose creators and distributors contribute to this massive imbalance. If 99% decides to do something in coordinated fashion, like stop buying x products or consuming y media, that will surely get the attention of the 1% and remove much of their financial fuel. Plus, its completely peaceful and legal and non-destructive. All it takes is coordination (obviously that’s not a trivial undertaking, but the metamovement is able to coordinate protests, marches, etc via social media and word of mouth, why not more long-ranging and widespread action?)

  13. mwiik says:


    Echoing others’ comments, great article, that is, thanks for clarifying a good part of what I’ve been thinking but insufficiently skilled or motivated to communicate myself. Good insight on the ‘real’ 99%.

    I agree it’s wise for the OWS folks to avoid specifics and demands, any such would segment the easily understandable 99% metaphor. I’m far from the 1%, but, at the moment, also far from most of the stories on the ‘We are the 99%’.

    I agree with your thesis that the ‘real purpose of the Metamovement…is to re-engage the 99%’; I can very slightly somewhat agree with jasontgordon’s comment, though I think it generous to treat detachment as an initializer for agorist interdependent cooperatives. In any event, the OWS people are actually in the streets and a focal point for communicating innovations to and from the larger world, from the ‘human mic’ to possible outdoor survival toolkits stretching the definitions of ‘tarp’, to transformative political skills which may derive from a material-poor but information-rich (and maybe time-rich) environments, a sort of ephemeralization testbed, as it were. This is the arena where I feel I might contribute, even if in a small way.

    I do find contrast in that your Metamovement failure scenario (‘in the short run, the situation is simply not bad enough’) seems misaligned with your generally more gloomy essays of late. We are priviledged to live as we do, and I am concerned that a sense of melancholic nostalgia (I dimly recall an ancient quote, something like ‘It is sweet to draw down the world with one’s passing’) hinders energy for positive action. Still, you keep blogging, so there’s that. My own hope balloons, already depleted, were further deflated by the Jeff Well’s piece (and I am glad you found it of interest; it seemed more directed at my own techno-utopian hopes than your more realistic (if still gloomy) perspective).

    It seems unfortunate that one of the best videos re this so far ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wK1MOMKZ8BI , 4.5 minutes worth watching if only as intro and leadup for the last 20 or so energetic revolutionary seconds), suggests four concrete steps. I agree with those who say it’s far too early for specifics, especially since such may fracture the 99% vs 1% metaphor. To mangle JFK, I would request other progressive, environmental, and social justice groups to ask not what OWS can do for them, but what they can for OWS.

    Most of us here in the west are priviledged; we have ‘climate change denial’ devices in our homes in the form of HVAC units, while temperature extremes and natural resource depletion mean only higher costs for us, others less fortunate are feeling the effects right where they are living now. No doubt the 1% have an array of reality-denial devices. It may sound callous but if we are to be witness to vast human suffering and death from our more safe position, perhaps that will spur us to action.

    Even so, I am reminded of what Bruce Sterling said of other civilization-preservation ideas, something like “Great idea! Now do it on a planet that’s broke and on fire”

  14. mwiik says:

    Noticed unfortunate repetition in my comment above, please excuse, or just ignore my 2nd paragraph.

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  16. Dingo says:

    The “metamovement” will only fail as civilization fails too, and since all the signs of myopia in our collective human nature do seem to point to catastrophic overshoot and progressive cascading collapse, the “metamovement” – which seems to have some wits, has to walk the rough path of survival and creativity going through the ruins, dealing with the planetary bottleneck our species has created.

    Comfort levels peaked years ago and are on the way down for all, whether rich or poor. Time to get off the couch before it gets repo’d, and do some real work that puts banksters and stock market parasites to shame. Just don’t expect this endless revolution to be on Youtube, Facebook or Twitter for much longer. That’s far too fragile a network – based on hypervulnerable technology and entirely under corporate control. The human mic seems to work much better, just as it did in the first street protests in Babylon.

  17. Very thoughtful post. I am personally very conflicted about the OWS movement. I can certainly get behind the idea of leveling the compensation structures within a company, from line-level employee to CEO. I mean, imagine the talent that you could attract if you paid line-level employees more and paid the CEO $15 Million instead of $20 million…

    At the same time I cannot, and will not, get behind the idea of the government setting compensation levels. Next comes government price controls and then the whole thing spirals into oblivion.

    I am interested as to any cultural shifts that may come out of this.

  18. C Drury says:

    I would like to share a “simply” written manuscript–that points out the basic problems confronting most of humanity—and the necessary changes–that must be made–if every person–worldwide–is ever going to have an opportunity to live a decent life.

    paperback copy–of pdf file is available

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  20. Howard says:

    What’s to be done? I like Umar Haque’s implicit call for ethics not for revolution. It’s more in-line with Gandhi or ML King. I believe the Communist’s Dictatorship or the Proletariate made a lie of the idea that it is the specifics of who’s in charge that’s the problem. The 1% is being disparaged mostly for abandoning the social compact to lord reasonable and justly over their dominion by being creators of real societal value. The worst thing to have happened recently is the propagation among the 1% of Ayn Rand’s nihilistic self-justifying bull-crap.

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  22. Poor Richard says:

    DP: “The real purpose of the Metamovement, I would argue, is to re-engage the 99%, from the bottom up, community by community around the world, first to learn how things really work and what is really going on, and then to decide what actions need to be taken in response.”

    I agree absolutely. Well said. Thank you.

    DP: “My sense is that, in the short run, the situation is simply not bad enough in most of the affluent nations of the world to engage sufficiently large numbers of people….”

    Maybe. We’ll see.

    DP: “And every failure… will only serve to demoralize the Metamovement and sap its energy.”

    Failures can have just the opposite effect. I think the movement will learn how to use and recycle everything. Our best and brightest creatives are committing.

    DP: “And in the longer run, I believe that the massive and chronic crises we will all be facing will consume so much of our time and attention that the Metamovement will fall by the wayside.”

    Things aren’t bad enough yet…but things will soon be too bad! Fair enough.

    Neither hope nor pessimism really matter. Predictions don’t matter. We believe the generation now alive is making a last stand for the ideals of civilization. I think such an existential disruption awakens something in the DNA. I sense it.

    Poor Richard

  23. Patrice says:

    Hi Friend, Well put together blog. I will post a link on my tumblr page.

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