If you've never heard of best-selling author Daniel Quinn, or his most famous book -- Ishmael -- I wouldn't blame you.
Quinn's ideas about society are a little bit out there for the mainstream reader. An un-nuanced reading of his works could lead you to believe he's everything from a communist to a radical libertarian. A closer look, though, shows that his ideas generally don't fit well within any of the -isms we use to classify world-views.
To give a very broad generalization of his work, Quinn nudges readers to examine the human condition within the context of the entirety of our time on Earth (millions of years), rather than just the time since the agricultural revolution (the last 10,000 years).
The future of change -- a great adventure
In one of Quinn's 1997 books -- My Ishmael -- he speaks of a type of revolution he believes must happen if human beings are to start living sustainably. He openly admits that he has no idea of when this revolution will happen, or the general course it will take. But the predictions he does make are eerily similar to what we see in the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement spreading across the Western world:
- It won't take place all at once. Clearly, protestors in the Occupy Wall Street movement aren't going anywhere. They seem to be picking up steam, but I highly doubt there'll be a "storming of the Bastille" moment.
- It will be achieved incrementally, by people working off one another's ideas. Quinn believes that a revolution toward sustainability will occur much like the industrial revolution occurred -- one person makes an incremental improvement on an existing invention or idea. The movement just tested one of these ideas this weekend, as many vowed to pull their deposits from banks like Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) , Citigroup (NYS: C) , and US Bancorp (NYS: USB) .
- It will be led by no one. I have yet to hear from an elected or self-appointed Occupy Wall Street leader.
- It will not be the initiative of any political, governmental, or religious body. There are certainly some who would like to paint Occupy Wall Street as the Democrats' response to the Tea Party, led by whiny kids who don't want to pay back their school loans. And though they may be right to an extent (there certainly are some students asking for silly things), the group is a broad cross-section of America. Its sympathizers include union workers, non-union workers, war veterans, pacifists, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and best-selling author Michael Lewis.
- It has no targeted endpoint. Certainly, this has been one of the most confounding aspects of the movement, as pundits and layfolks alike have struggled to figure out what exactly the movement wants. More on that below...
- It will proceed according to no plan. Though the weekend seems to be the time when things really pick up (working people are taking part, too), this seems to be a make-it-up-as-you-go type of situation.
Is there another way to look at this?
I promised I'd get back to point No. 5 from above. I believe it's the process that is drawing people in, rather than an eventual goal. People have a vague sense that something is wrong, and instead of being scared away by the fact that they can't pinpoint the cause of this sense, they are turning to the movement to help figure it out.
For more on this, I turn to another best-selling author. This time, it is Peter Senge, who -- in his managerial guide The Fifth Discipline -- wrote:
The discipline of team learning starts with "dialogue," the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine "thinking together." To the Greeks [this] meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. [Emphasis added.]
Senge later points out that -- oddly -- this practice is common throughout "primitive" cultures, but is rarely found in Western society -- where not knowing the answer without the help of others is generally frowned upon.
I will admit: It can be maddeningly frustrating to listen to the plethora of opinions and ideas coming from the Occupy Wall Street movement. As a warm-blooded American, I, too, am used to goals being crystal clear. Looking at it through the light that Senge provides, however, we might see that the very existence of this murky fog of intentions is the whole point behind the Occupy Wall Street movement in the first place.
At the time this article was published Fool contributor Brian Stoffel does not own shares in any of companies mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter at @TMFStoffel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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