Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?
Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?
Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.
But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.
Context matters. Wall Street is not Tahrir Square. The United States is not Egypt. We have very different cultures, economic conditions, and political structures. Just because something on the other side of the globe seems awesome and inspiring to you, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it here. And trying to do so shouldn’t be your starting place.
Organizing matters. A notable “Tahrir Square” moment in the United States was November 30, 1999, when over a hundred thousand people effectively shut down the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. It was quite inspiring. Unfortunately, just like now, a lot of young radicals wanted to magically and formulaically replicate that everywhere, and attempted to do so at similar summits for the next two years, with diminishing returns. Seattle was only possible because of the grassroots organizing that had been steadily building in much less flashy, less glorious campaigns for the previous decade (e.g. anti-NAFTA organizing).
If your big introduction to collective action is a moment like November 30 in Seattle, it’s quite understandable, however mistaken, to try exclusively to replicate such magic. It’s like arriving at a farm during the harvest. Wow, all this delicious food is everywhere, and all you have to do is pluck it from the vine! You just want to keep harvesting and harvesting — why would anyone try anything else?! That the harvest was only possible through planting, watering, and diligent tending (including weeding!) escapes your notice. And this isn’t entirely your fault; if the farm had more resources, your elders would be taking the time to give you a better orientation.
Leadership matters. In a call to action, it matters who is making the call. Their legitimacy among already constituted social identities matters. It will make a difference, for example, if the call to action is being made by the head of the AFL-CIO, by prominent religious leaders, or, say, by Adbusters. You’ve got to start with a realization that there are plenty of reasons why people would not want to go to Wall Street to take action. They have other commitments in their lives, including jobs and families. And they might get arrested or hurt. However, in moments of real social upheaval a surprising number of people often prove willing to make significant sacrifices… if they think their sacrifice might actually make a difference. People are more likely to believe their efforts will make a difference when they are being asked by leadership that has already earned their faith and trust. (This leadership can be institutions and organizations, not just charismatic individuals.)
These mistakes are not entirely the fault of the brave young radicals who are taking the streets. The smallness and fringe-ness of the Occupy Wall Street protests is symptomatic of a much broader cultural pattern. This is part of a world in which politics is more about individual self-expression than about strategic engagement. This helps explain why the freak flag flies so freely at the protests, and why protest “organizers” probably didn’t approach the leadership of the AFL-CIO or the NAACP to try to build buy-in from social bases that are bigger and broader than their own small self-selecting circles. Radicals, like a lot of other people, are caught up in their own self-selecting, self-reinforcing information universes. A few nodes in their network put out a call to occupy Wall Street, all their “friends” repost and retweet, and suddenly it seems that the whole country may just be on the brink of revolution.