The occupation movement that began on Wall Street and is now spreading across America is part of a tradition known in the American Revolution as the “people out of doors” – marches, demonstrations, and impromptu assemblies that historian Gordon S. Wood described as “extra-legislative action by the people” who “could find no alternative institutional expression for their demands and grievances.” The movement has provided new hope for progressive social change. But it also raises many questions about how such movements can be sustained and grow powerful while retaining the democratic impulse that inspired them in the first place.
From Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin, to Wall Street, few things are more predictable than unexpected social movements. While the new electronic social media facilitate their emergence, the history of such movements is far older than the Internet. Indeed, the startling appearance of social movements has played a crucial role in shaping modern history from the Great Upheaval of 1877, whose strikes and general strikes closed America’s railroads and more than a dozen American cities, to the Russian Revolution of 1905, to the Montgomery bus boycott, to the general strikes of Polish Solidarity. When and how such movements will arise may be unpredictable, but their patterns and dynamics can be better understood by studying their history.
More than a “Tea Party of the Left”?
Why is it possible for social movements to emerge, often at the very point that people seem most disorganized and hopeless? The answer usually lies not in the clever tactics of organizers (though they can help), but in the realization of common problems and the often surprising human capacity for self-organization in response to them. As people feel increasingly outraged at the conditions they face, they begin to mutually recognize each others’ discontent and potential readiness to act. In such contexts, an exemplary act like walking off the job or refusing to leave a segregated lunch counter — or occupying a park near Wall Street — can dramatize for large numbers of people their common situation and their ability to act in response to it. Once people recognize that, the action of a few hundred protesters can “spread by contagion” across boundaries of geography, subculture, and even nation and in a few days draw in thousands of people in hundreds of distant locations. It’s happened over and over again.
We know that social movements ranging from abolitionism to the American civil rights movement to the Women’s Liberation Movement to Polish Solidarity have had made genuine social change. But how can they have such powerful effects when they are made up of people who appear — and feel — so powerless within existing institutions and when they are opposed by such massive concentrations of power?
As the theorist of nonviolence Gene Sharp, channeling Gandhi, has made so clear, the answer lies in the fact that governments, corporations, and other powerful institutions depend on the people who cooperate or acquiesce in their power by providing labor, resources, civility, and consent. Social movements can be powerful because they embody the possibility that people may withdraw their acquiescence and consent, undermining the “pillars of support” that governments and institutions need to survive and realize their goals. Social movements can present a significant threat to those who hold power – and thereby compel them to change. As Bertolt Brecht put it in his poem “From A German War Primer,”
General, your tank is a strong vehicle.
It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people.
But it has one fault: it needs a driver.
How this potential “power of the powerless” can actually be mobilized depends on the specific pillars of support. For example, in the civil rights era many Southern businessmen swung from “massive resistance” to encouraging acquiescence in desegregation because they feared the reactions of Northern business investment to racist violence. The Kennedy Administration moved to support civil rights, albeit tepidly, in part from its fear of foreign disapproval of US racism, especially in newly independent African countries courted by the Soviet Union. Democratic Party politicians were highly dependent on large black voting blocs in Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago, but their support was jeopardized when Democrats in the South perpetrated and Democrats in the White House and Congress tolerated highly visible racial oppression. While the civil rights movement was a direct confrontation with the evil of segregation, it actually drew much of its power from the “indirect strategy” of putting pressure on the forces whose acquiescence made it possible for segregation to persist.
Occupy Wall Street dramatically illustrates the withdrawal of acquiescence in the domination of American economics, politics, and life by the 1 percent economic elite. It also represents the withdrawal of consent from the silence of politicians and the media about the realities of class in America and their impact on the 99 percent. Indeed, it represents a withdrawal of consent from Barack Obama and the leadership of the Democratic Party who colluded in the bailouts and other economic policies that made the rich richer and the poor poorer.
In the long run, the “anti-Wall Street movement” can be more than simply a “Tea Party of the Left” that perhaps influences elections but fails to make significant social changes that address its participants’ problems. But to do so it will need to develop concrete ways the “99 percent” can undermine the pillars of the “1 percent.” Stimulating the 99 percent to self-organize on their own behalf is the crucial first step in that direction.
We know that, despite their contributions, social movements have sometimes come to a bad end. Some have flared up brilliantly, only to peter out after their initial flash in the pan. Others have become the bases for new hierarchies: Some Communist movements became totalitarian tyrannies; some labor movements became corrupt bureaucracies. Some movements for liberation have been like William Blake's "iron hand" that
“crush'd the Tyrant’s head
And became a Tyrant in his stead.”
The current generation of youth movements around the globe is often characterized – by themselves and others – as “anarchist” or “horizontalist.” Whatever the term, the key idea is opposition to hierarchy not only in society but in the movement itself. They are often mocked for their sometimes extreme opposition to leadership in any form. But their insistence that, as the old-time Wobblies of the Industrial Workers of the World used to say, “We don’t have any leaders – we’re all leaders” provides a partial antidote to the danger of liberation turning to domination and to the interminable ego-driven battles among would-be leaders and leadership groups that scorched Students for a Democratic Society and the New Left.
The global 99 percent
While much of the discussion of the occupation movements has focused so far on their relation to upcoming contests in American politics, the occupiers themselves have a far broader, indeed global perspective. From its inception, the Occupy Wall Street movement consciously modeled itself on the “Arab Spring” and the movements that subsequently spread around the world from Spain to Chile and from Wisconsin to Tel Aviv.
In a statement produced by consensus after days of discussion, Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly declared, "We acknowledge the reality: The future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members." They urge "the people of the world" to "create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone."
The problems faced by the “global 99 percent” are indeed global. We face a globalized economy whose problems cannot be solved by any one country alone. We face a global climate catastrophe that requires radical carbon reductions by all countries in the world. The same goes for hunger, destruction of the oceans, weapons of mass destruction, and so many of the other problems we face. Behind them all is a crisis of global self-government in which the last vestiges of global cooperation are being replaced by a war of all against all and in which international economic, political, and military forces systematically defeat efforts for national democratization.
Even problems that appear primarily national like health insurance or education or unemployment are aggravated and made intractable by globalization and global neo-liberalism. The banks and other corporations that Occupy Wall Street is protesting are, after all, global. More than half of the profits of S&P companies come from outside the US, according to Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at The Economic Outlook Group. Similarly the solutions will have to have a global dimension.
National organizations and movements faced a similar situation in the 1990s as neoliberal globalization hit full speed. Labor, consumer, environmental, and other organizations that were overwhelmingly focused on national issues came up against the emergence of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the globalization of corporations and labor markets. What happened, unexpectedly, was a kind of self-organization on a global scale. Different groups in different countries began getting to know each other, backing each other’s campaigns, reading each other’s analyses, passing joint declarations, and organizing joint actions. The result was the Battle of Seattle – and a plethora of other international campaigns around debt, AIDS drugs, food policy, genetically modified organisms, capital markets, and myriad other global issues. The global climate protests that accompanied the Copenhagen climate summit represent their most recent progeny.
The big difference is that Occupy Wall Street and its kin are already part of a global movement with many common themes and objectives. Their global self-organization is well under way. And they can only achieve their objectives if they can make governments cooperate to meet the common interests of the global 99 percent.
Creating a process
Many people are asking whether the Occupy Wall Street movement can be sustained. But that may not be the most important question. When historians look at the hunger marches of the early 1930s, they don’t ask how many years they continued, let alone how they affected contemporary elections. Rather, they consider them as part of a process that generated the unemployed movement, the industrial union upsurge, and the leftward swing of the “Second New Deal.”
Of course at the moment it is critical to spread the occupations and provide support and resources to help them continue. But ultimately their significance will lie in what the rest of the 99 percent do. What will the occupations stimulate beyond simply a continuation of themselves?
Occupy Wall Street does not need to be the whole movement of the 99 percent. Occupy Wall Street recognizes this when it calls on people everywhere to form their own assemblies and "create a process to address the problems we face.” It isn’t their job to organize unions, lobby Congress, or run candidates in elections. Their job is to inspire the rest of the 99 percent — including those who are in non-youth milieus and in educational, political, legal, and other institutions — to organize themselves and develop concrete strategies to make the entire range of changes that will be necessary to meet “the problems we face.” And they can do that best when they stay true to themselves, retain their own authentic voice, and provide the direct action, street heat expression for the discontent of the 99 percent.
A delegation from Occupy Washington recently marched to join a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline. Street heat support for anti-eviction actions and strikes is a logical next step. Such action builds alliances, show how people can directly affect a situation, and ties the movement more visibly to the needs of the 99 percent.
Social movements have often combined battles on the ground with struggles for change through legislation. In the 1930s, labor struck and organized on the ground and defied local bans on freedom of speech and at the same time fought in Congress for “labor’s Magna Carta,” the Wagner Act. In the 1960s the civil rights movement fought white supremacy one lunch counter and one voting booth at a time, and at the same time campaigned for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. In fact, the two levels were synergistic.
The people out of doors were crucial players in the events that led up to the American Revolution. Encampments like Occupy Wall Street have played a critical role in American politics from the war veterans’ Bonus March encampment of 1932, to the Resurrection City encampment of the Poor People’s Movement following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, to the 1989 Camp Solidarity where some 50,000 people camped out in support of striking Pittston mine workers. Occupy Wall Street is writing one more chapter in that noble story.
Power to the people out-of-doors!
Jeremy Brecher’s new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action, just published by Paradigm Publishers, addresses how social movements make social change. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, including Strike! and Global Village or Global Pillage and the winner of five regional Emmy awards for his documentary movie work. He currently works with the Labor Network for Sustainability.