New media are often the drivers of such change, opening new worlds and giving birth to new worldviews, for good or for ill. Who would have guessed, as the fifteenth century waned, that the Gutenberg printing press would revolutionize Western civilization by giving millions of Christian believers direct access to the Bible? Or, centuries later, that radio would allow fascism to flourish?Unlike most earlier movements, though, the American occupiers and their analogues in other countries are remarkable in the extent to which they are animated by emotion rather than ideology. They assault the dominant institutions of their societies but conspicuously lack any clear alternative vision.
[F]or many of the protesters, the alternative to the hated system is the rebellion itself. Spontaneity, sharing, being together—these characteristics of the various occupations, the rebels believe, reflect how society should work. One might describe this communitarianism as new, but it does recall Romantic figures like John Ruskin, who reacted against industrialization, capitalism, and modern individualism and imagined an idealized premodern past. The nostalgia for some idealized communal past may even partly explain the political success of radical Muslim organizations in Egypt and Tunisia: in the time of Mohammed and his immediate successors, these groups claim, Muslims were a warm, unified community. Why can’t we bring that back today?It is far too soon to guess at the impact these various confused but widespread youth revolts will have. In authoritarian countries they might promote greater individual freedom; in free societies they might promote repression and deadly conflict. Or, they might be no more than the tools and fools they often seem to be and will leave no lasting traces. Given the potential for catastrophic destruction in today's highly unstable international system, let us hope it is the latter that is the case.
As with all political nostalgias, contradictions abound, just as they did when the antimodern Gandhi, who drew inspiration from Ruskin, happily used British-built railways to cross India. Today’s Chilean protesters want to ban electrical power plants but couldn’t imagine life without the Internet, any more than the occupiers of Zuccotti Park could survive without their cell phones and social-media apps—the latest innovations of the capitalist system that they despise.
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