Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.
Good problem to have
In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats—including the White House—started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”
The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.
And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.
How often is a genuinely grassroots social justice movement in a position where it’s framing the national narrative, and where the major political parties are reacting to us? Having this kind of leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!
So, in political struggle, when powerful forces want to co-opt your momentum, that means you have leverage, and that’s a good problem for a grassroots movement to have. Serious movement strategy conversations about the threat of co-option should start with this happy realization. Yes, wariness of establishment and “moderate” forces is certainly warranted. But generalized fears of co-option can have a paralyzing effect on our ability to activate a broad spectrum of allies— especially if we uncritically lump together and dismiss every national organization, labor union, community organization, etc., that engages in any electoral work or even legislative work.
Even if you concede that establishment forces want to co-opt a more radical agenda— well, so what? What does that even mean? It means that different groups and institutions have different agendas, and they’re always looking for ways to further those agendas. NEWSFLASH: We all have this in common! We all have agendas, and we’re partial to our agenda over others’ agendas. It is certainly true that more established institutions tend to command more resources than dynamic new configurations like Occupy Wall Street— and that established groups tend to get stuck in their ways, and even to sometimes actively resist more radical accelerations of change. This is part of the terrain that we have to map and understand. But we should do this with an eye to finding and cultivating allies within institutions— not to dismiss the institutions wholesale.
The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small “radicals only” space. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing large membership institutions, including labor unions, national advocacy organizations, community organizations, and faith communities. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment.
If we are to continue building on the momentum that Occupy Wall Street kicked off, we can’t treat institutions and individuals as if they were one-dimensional characters with simple and permanently fixed motives. Larger membership organizations can be complicated, and their programs and politics are often a mixed bag. The temptation for radicals is to focus on everything they’ve ever done wrong (i.e. all the things that radicals don’t like). But many of these institutions and movements began with premises that are not so far from our own. We have to figure out how to invite them and the people inside them to shift and to change. This includes institutions we don’t align with on every issue and who have disappointed us in the past. Achieving significant changes requires building broad alliances. While of course there are lines to draw (e.g. we should never align with organized racists), generally we can’t afford to be puritanical when it comes to building a broad movement.
One Co-option at a Time
Social movement theorists have a term for the sort of co-option that Occupy Wall Street should prize: infrastructure co-option. Nascent movements become mass movements not by building their own infrastructure entirely from scratch or recruiting new volunteers one at a time, but by “co-opting” existing institutions and social infrastructure into the service of the movement and its goals. The Civil Rights movement went big when existing institutions—especially black churches and schools—came to identify strongly as part of the movement. Organizers provided opportunities for members of those pre-existing institutions to make this new identification actionable and visible. This was cultivated to such an extent that, eventually, to be a member of certain institutions implied active involvement in the Civil Rights movement. When this happens with enough institutions, the movement gets a huge boost in capacity. And capacity means power.
Over the past few months many organizations and constituencies have been watching Occupy Wall Street, trying to figure out whether and how to relate to it. These organizations—including faith communities, the NAACP, MoveOn.org, labor unions, community organizations, and many other groups—understand how they and their members are affected by the crises that Occupy Wall Street has named and confronted. Some of them are already engaging in important ways, explicitly as part of—or in support of—Occupy Wall Street. And many more have long been engaged in work that clearly aligns with the movement’s core values—and probably even deserve some credit for helping to lay the long-term organizing groundwork that helped create OWS.
But there are still significant barriers standing in the way of broader constituencies conceptualizing themselves as part of a 99% movement and getting actively involved. The first and most obvious barrier is that many groups haven’t really been asked to get involved. During the first couple months of OWS, if a group wanted to get involved, it was typically a matter of them taking the initiative to approach us and ask what kind of support they might provide. Usually the answer was some variety of “Come down to Zuccotti Park” or “Stand up against Bloomberg for our right to occupy the park.” Often the groups that wanted to support OWS simply showed up. While this kind of involvement made perfect sense when we held the park, it’s clear that we now have to come up with other ways for more people and groups to take action as part of the 99% movement.
This is a critical transition for Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement. Remember that Occupy Wall Street kicked off with a well timed call-to-action, a ripe target, some planning, and a lot of crazy luck. As a result, OWS has understandably had more of a culture of mobilizing than of organizing. It’s been a little like a group of folks who don’t know anything about farming who arrive at a farm at harvest time. There’s delicious food everywhere, and all they have to do is pick, pluck, and gather it. And eat it! “Wow,” one of them exclaims, “farming is awesome! Why would we waste our time cultivating the soil? This food is delicious! I want to eat it all the time! This is working very well. We should just keep doing this—all the time!”
Occupy Wall Street has been something of a harvest moment. It pulled thousands of people out of the woodwork who’d been waiting for something just like this to come along, and who were in a place where we could carve out time from our lives to engage it. But movements need hundreds of thousands if not millions of active participants to become mass movements. It’s difficult if not impossible to activate those kinds of numbers by just taking public action with the hope that other like-minded individuals will decide to join you. We need more on-ramps and more ways to be involved— for folks who might not yet feel comfortable camping out at a public park.
More than any other factor, people get involved in social change because people they know and respect provide an opportunity for them to get involved. In their essay Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement, Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam cite proximity to movement activity as the single biggest factor for why people become active in grassroots change efforts:
Structural proximity to a movement, rather than any individual disposition, produces activism. Although individuals differ in their dispositions, the opportunities afforded by structural location relative to a movement determine whether they are in a position to act on these dispositions. Empirical support for these positions is unimpeachable.
In other words, while many people hold beliefs compatible with Occupy Wall Street, a very small percentage are currently taking action on those beliefs—and a primary factor for why some people have become active is simply that they encountered opportunities provided by people close to them who are already active. This is why our growth has reached something of a plateau. And this is why it is now critical that we meet with folks who are movers and shakers in other social networks and institutions. That’s how the 99% movement can grow at the rate we all know it needs to; by activating whole swaths of society at a time.
But we have to approach those movers and shakers in the right way. Our “asks” of organizations shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. We have to start by establishing relationships. The term infrastructure co-option suggests a kind of functionalist attitude; as if a movement uses existing institutions in order to accomplish movement goals. One could look at the Civil Rights movement, point to core leaders, and argue that they exploited existing institutions to advance their agenda. But such an assessment would be wrongheaded. Civil rights leaders cultivated relationships with other organizations based on shared self-interest. This was a process of courting trust, cultivating deep collaboration and accountability, and making good judgments about the kinds of actions and messages that would resonate with different constituencies. Leaders had to act boldly, but also humbly.
Movement Season & Election Season
All of the above gets so much more complicated in an election year. Occupy Wall Street is an outsider force. It should remain an outsider force this year. If it were to endorse candidates or a particular political party, it would immediately lose all of its value and leverage. Our job is to push from the outside.
But that’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t have a strategy for engaging with the energy and media attention of the election season. We should. And how we do it will seriously affect our ability to continue to grow this movement, to be seen as relevant, to cultivate alliances, and to leverage power to effect real change.
As an outsider force, one of our biggest tasks is to set the terms of debate. For decades now, the terms of debate have shifted further and further to the Right, as conservatives united under a shared anti-government (i.e. anti-social spending) narrative, and progressive forces, fractionalized, waged mostly defensive campaigns to limit damage on an issue-by-issue basis. Interestingly, the rightward direction was probably no more apparent than in the case of the 2010 midterm elections, where the so-called Tea Party shifted the national debate into something of a moratorium on taxation and government spending on social programs and infrastructure. While the Tea Party’s agenda was deplorable, there are some lessons we might glean from aspects of their model (of an outsider grassroots force shifting the debate). To be clear, Occupy Wall Street is not “the Tea Party of the Left.” To our disadvantage, we don’t have nearly the financial backing that the Tea Party enjoyed via the Koch brothers and other major funders. Nor do we enjoy our own major cable news network that mobilizes people to come to our rallies. But to our advantage, because of our genuine independence from big corporate backers, we have been willing and able to tell the whole truth: not just that the government is broken, but that there were particular institutions and people who broke it. In other words, we have been willing to name Wall Street, the big banks, and the one percent as a culprit, and this naming rings true to a lot of people (even including some from the Tea Party base).
As recently as August of last year, anyone watching the mainstream news might think that the national deficit and social spending was the biggest problem facing the nation. That was a pretty impressive feat by the Tea Party. A month later, however, media outlets were at long last shifting their scrutiny to the consolidation of political power by the extremely wealthy, and the corresponding political disenfranchisement of the 99%. That shift should have happened long ago—that analysis should have long been commonsense—but it’s still an achievement that OWS can be proud of. And if we can keep that as the dominant framework—as the new commonsense—through the election season and beyond, we will have accomplished a great deal.
But many questions remain. What do we do, for instance, when candidates start to run on platforms that explicitly name “the 99%”? This is already happening. Are they co-opting our movement?
Yes, they are, in some ways. But, really, of all the slogans in the world, “We are the 99%” may be the one most difficult to claim exclusive ownership of— after all, it’s a slogan that invites an overwhelming majority of people to identify with it. Moreover, there’s another way of looking at this: in some ways we are the ones who are co-opting them. At the very least, we are co-opting their speeches with our rhetoric. Once someone starts running on your rhetoric, you then have more leverage over them. You are better positioned to expose them if they’re just giving lip service to your ideas without any intention of delivering. And for all the horrendous limits of the two-party system, still a slate of candidates who get elected pledging to take on the big banks gives us a lot more to work with—as an outsider social movement—than a slate of candidates elected on a pledge to cut social spending. And more importantly, it keeps the momentum on our side.
Another important question has to do with how we engage allies who do endorse candidates. Many labor unions, for example, are likely at some point to endorse President Obama’s reelection bid. Some already have. And some will surely endorse specific state and local candidates. We’re an outsider force. We should never endorse candidates. But is it possible to ally around specific actions with organizations that also endorse candidates?
It has to be. We join up with others where we can, and we depart where we depart. If we call for an end to corporate personhood, for example, we should welcome as many co-endorsers as possible, including organizations that endorse politicians— and even politicians themselves. Welcoming politicians’ endorsements of our goals doesn’t mean endorsing those politicians. This is an important detail, and it requires a precise threading of the needle. As an outside force, we have to take all politicians to task, regardless of party. But the details of how we do this matter. We need to pressure politicians and candidates, and the best way to do this is to ask them hard questions and provide pressure that pulls them in our direction (or put them on the defensive). If we ask good questions that resonate with the people who hear them, then we’re doing our job well. If, on the other hand, we make general statements like, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same,” then we’re being needlessly belligerent to our allies and potential allies (without even putting politicians on the defensive). An organization focused primarily on reproductive rights, for example, will understandably be very concerned about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the White House. We can take candidates from both parties to task on an array of other issues without spurning their reasons for deciding to endorse a candidate.
Every once in a very long while, an “earthquake moment” hits and shakes the foundations of the political landscape. In an earthquake moment, structures that you long took for granted may suddenly display new features. Perhaps a structure was built on a hitherto invisible fault-line, and the quake splits it right down the middle. Someone who had felt constrained within her institution before the shake-up may now see and seize openings to move the institution in a bolder direction. And this is more likely to happen if organizers from Occupy Wall Street—the visible catalyst of the earthquake—approach longstanding institutions to strategize together about how they might engage with this moment. An earthquake moment is a time to invite people to engage. It’s not a moment to keep people in boxes, or to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to hammer Wall Street, the big banks, and the political system that has been fixed to serve only the very wealthy and powerful. Our task now is to activate as many people as possible into action. And this has to include people we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have as our best friends.