Thou Doth Protest Too Much—Or Maybe Not Enough

What started a few weeks ago as a stunt—or so it seemed—has grown exponentially in numbers. “Occupy Wall Street,” a protest movement that stands for many disparate things, but seems to unite in anger toward the nation’s financial elite, has drawn thousands of demonstrators in New York and elsewhere. Major labor leaders have also joined in.

Peter Drucker—who, as we’ve noted, frowned upon many of Wall Street’s practices—saw a lot of political movements over the course of his life, and he wrote about them with interest. He considered protest to be many things at once: often aimless, often ineffective, often dangerous—and yet in many ways healthy.

During the protests against globalization that took place in the late 1990s, for example, Drucker saw aimlessness. “So far, these protests have no focus,” he remarked in Managing in the Next Society. “They are protests against the system, whatever that means. … They are hitting out at yesterday’s targets, but they are hitting out because of today’s pain.”

The protests of the 1960s, meanwhile, struck Drucker as both ineffective and potentially dangerous. They were ineffective, because society, broadly speaking, was unaffected. “One might indeed assert that the highly publicized and highly visible developments and media events—the headline- and demonstration-makers—are little more than whitecaps on the surface of the ocean,” Drucker mused in Toward the Next Economics.

Photo credit: Frances M. Roberts/Newsroom

But in their absolute rejection of authority, the ’60s protestors were also treading in perilous territory. “There is even greater danger in the rebellion against organization by the young people of today: their vulnerability to false leaders,” Drucker warned in The Age of Discontinuity. “It is not true that young people repudiate leadership. They seek leadership. They need leadership. If they cannot find it in the ‘establishment’—not even with the ‘loyal opposition’—they become easy prey to the demagogues.”

[EXPAND More]Yet, in the end, the worst thing of all might be no protest whatsoever. “The danger does not lie in a ‘revolt of the masses,’” Drucker wrote in The Future of Industrial Man. “Revolt is, after all, still a form of participation in social life if only in protest.” Rather, the danger lies in “cynical indifference” or “complete despair.”

Do the current protests of Wall Street matter—and, if so, how?[/EXPAND]