I concluded Part 1 by summarizing three mistakes progressive change agents often make in trying to build a broad alignment: 1) Building from scratch, 2) Purism, and 3) Long lefty laundry lists. Summarizing the latter, it’s tempting to think that the way to attract a broad base is to name lots and lots of issues (e.g. at a rally or protest) — so that there will be “something for everyone”. Perhaps counter-intuitively, “…the more issues you name explicitly, the less your appeal tends to resonate with any of the constituencies you’re hoping to attract. The more we spell out how each issue is explicitly connected, the less it becomes about a particular issue (i.e. entry/identity point) that any particular person, group, or social bloc is concerned about.” [Long lefty laundry lists]. I concluded by asking, “If it doesn’t work to explicitly spell out how all our issues and all the fragmented aggregations of heterogeneous society are connected—if that only aligns the highly analytical and the fringe radicals, and doesn’t activate broader bases—what about linking these …
Building upon the basic idea of hegemonic contestation discussed in my last post, I want to now move into an exploration of the mechanics of this process. Specifically I want to examine a structural pattern found in hegemonic alignments — and, even more specifically, in hegemonic alignments that can also be described as populist. First, I want to define a few terms for purposes of this post: A hegemonic alignment is an aligning, however temporary or ephemeral, of different social groups, blocs, identities, aggregations, organizations, etc. into a tenuously unified force that intervenes in social reality (enters a hegemonic contest). The alignment, because of its broad social bases and combined capacity, can pack a much more powerful punch than any of its component parts could on their own. Such an alignment is not necessarily clearly defined, delineated or formally coordinated — usually it is none of these things. In addition to the alignment’s engaging in a hegemonic contest in relation to the remainder of society (i.e. groups outside of the alignment, both opposition and “neutrals”), typically …
That Max Berger has some real zingers. He and I spent the past few days at Harvard with Marshall Ganz and the Leading Change Network. Max discussed Occupy Wall Street during a panel on Organizing vs. Mobilizing. And — boom — he drops this ripe physics metaphor: Force equals mass times acceleration. We [Occupy Wall Street] had a lot of acceleration and little mass. Preach it, comrade Berger. Can you spot the real Max Berger?
I’ve been thinking more about the processes involved in the projection of primary/proximate group-oriented experiences and instincts onto larger, abstract imagined communities. These processes seem, by all accounts that I put stock in, historically contingent. In other words, the tendency to identify with a large, abstract, realistically unknowable public (e.g. a nation, a religion, a race, an economic class, etc.) is a relatively new phenomenon; there’s evidence that most cultures did not engage in this sort of identification/projection throughout the course of known human history. Elements/pieces of this puzzle to dig into in future writing: uprooting/disappearance of traditional communities “alienation of labor” emergence of mass media: newspapers and novels at first (see Imagined Communities), followed by radio & television (Internet and its feeding of particularisms and self-selecting tendencies may complicate this — see The Filter Bubble). mass media messages are still interpreted / internalized / assimilated through the intermediaries of “real” (/local/proximate/primary) social groups (e.g. family, congregation, workplace, etc.) I’ve written about this some before (here), but I’m gearing up to go into greater depth. …
“The attribute ‘utopian’ does not apply to political will in general, but to specific wills which are incapable of relating means to end, and hence are not even wills, but idle whims, dreams, longings, etc.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks In late October my cousin came down to Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park), then home of Occupy Wall Street, to meet me for a drink. He arrived about 20 minutes early so he could check things out for himself. My cousin and I both grew up in farmhouses outside of the very small town of Bird In Hand, PA. He has lived in New York for a few years now. I was eager to hear his impressions about Occupy Wall Street. “What stood out to me,” he told me at a bar around the corner, “was how you all are recreating society — or creating a microcosm of society. It’s all there: a kitchen, a medical tent, a security force, a public library, and a whole alternative decision-making structure. It’s fascinating!” Much has been made about the …
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.
If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.
A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol — with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.
Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.
Occupation as tactic
It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.
On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.
But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”
By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular—even that they are common sense—and connected to a social base.