How do we move beyond movement moments, and start taking strategic advantage of the moment in such a way that strengthens our efforts decades down the road? Did we gain strength from involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement, or not? Is the idea of Occupy Wall Street a short-sighted route to building mass revolutionary movements? — The Occupy Movement is a thing of the past. I think it’s safe to say that now. I don’t say this to be a downer on the movement or to destroy the momentum that we may have built. These moments of accelerated activity for the left are important, but they aren’t all that we are. And so, I don’t see the Occupy Movement coming to an end as a bad thing for us as radicals. But, we should recognize it so that we can begin to move onto new phases and next steps of our continual growth as a movement.
To do this, we need to look back briefly and reflect on Occupy and what it teaches us. My experiences were largely with Occupy Rochester, and most of my reflections will begin from there. But in my conversations with many people that participated in other Occupy’s, I don’t think that what I saw in Rochester was unrepresentative of many Occupations around the country.
As with any movement, we should start with what we’ve gained over the course of the moment. With Occupy, there seem to be a lot of fairly vague things gained. Economic inequality is now a national talking point. Moderate to liberal politicians and mainstream media have been forced to recognize economic inequality as part of the conversation, even if superficially and through the same flawed, capitalist lens that they have always seen through.
For some of the more militant elements of the left in the country, we also discovered that there is some validity to the idea that courageous and militant actions that step outside of the typical venues for social change are in fact capable of inspiring mass participation and self-organization.
But, in some of the more objective outlooks, it doesn’t seem to me as if we’ve gained much. It doesn’t seem as if any of the various Occupy groups have spawned sustainable organizations capable of continued resistance to the structures that cause the inequality that Occupy originally identified as much of the problem. So while we may have inspired ourselves, which should never be dismissed, it also doesn’t look like we’ve become much more widespread in our organization or in our collective power.
The trajectory toward revolutionary change is a long one, and we have moments that may be revolutionary or they may just be moments that we should strengthen ourselves ‘ building new combative organizations and growing the membership of the ones we already had. From where I stand, it seems as though we missed that moment. And, what worries me, is that in my short time of involvement in these sort of movements, that seems to be a regular feature of the US left.
As the global justice movement in the US slowed, it didn’t seem like we had built a stronger left. The energy of this movement, however, did flow nicely into building a large anti-war mobilization movement. Unfortunately, that also didn’t seem to build new or strengthen many existing organizations and resistance movements.
To me, this is central. These movement moments require a great deal of resources. Time, energy, and money are required to build these huge mobilizations. In most movement moments it seems that a lot of activists simply burn out, having put in more energy than they really had. If our movements cost this much, we need to come out on the other side stronger and better suited for the next fight.
So, what is it that leads us to miss these moments? I’m sure there are dozens of answers, all of which are just as partially correct. The part that I’m hoping to contribute is that I think we often display a sort of notoriously short American attention span. We get excited about the exciting portions of movements, but don’t commit ourselves in a massive enough way to the more serious, harder part of building movements ‘ targeted outreach, consciousness raising, analysis development and organization building.
Activists in US-based movements see mass protests in Egypt, student strikes in Quebec, workplace takeovers in Argentina and leap to saying that we have to do those sort of actions. They’re right, partially. In the US we absolutely need movements that can and will take those sort of actions to fight for fundamental changes in our social and economic reality. So we jump to organizing an occupation because that’s the goal and it looks exciting.
However, if we take a step back and look at the movements that inspire us, we’d quickly realize that they’re able to take these mass actions after years of work developing organizations and spreading consciousness. If they didn’t skip that work, we shouldn’t believe that we can. We live in a nation that has an incredible ability to dodge basic class consciousness, with little recent experience in mass militant protest, where people have very little sense of the actual power they could wield.
With a quick glance at some of the many international movements that inspire us, we can see that there is considerably more to them than the mass actions that we see
Egypt ‘ ‘Ash-shaÊb yurÄd isqÄá an-niáÄm (The people want to bring down the regime.)’
Just a few months before Occupy Wall Street broke out, the Arab Spring was inspiring a generation of activists throughout the world. While the demonstrations seemed to begin (can we ever really say begin?) in Tunisia, it’s the mass protests of Egypt that seemed to catch the world’s attention. On January 25th, 2011 mass protests appeared in Tahrir Square to protest growing poverty and the leadership of the three decade-rule of Hosni Mubarak. These protests are largely seen as spontaneous.
However, when we look to the youth that seem to have spontaneously called this protest, we find an organization called the April 6th Youth Movement. What is the significance of April 6th? On April 6th, 2008 a series of strikes led by textile workers in Mahalla led to a national general strike and the push for a labor movement independent of the state apparatus. The April 6th Youth Movement formed from this movement as an organizations of leftists, students and workers calling for drastic social change and recognizing the power of organized people to achieve that change. Much of the groups activity was tied to a facebook group that in 2009 had 70,000 members actively participating in debate and massively extending political, social, and economic consciousness of youth in the country.
Only five days after the initial protests in Egypt, Egyptian workers saw the necessity for mass organization to coordinate their participation and formed the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU). On February 6th, EFITU called for a General Strike and began to shut down entire sectors of the economy. On February 11th, Hosni Mubarak was no longer in power in Egypt.
Quebec ‘ ‘Why do you strike when you have the lowest tuition in Canada? We have the lowest tuition in Canada because we strike.’
More recently, many of us in the US left have been inspired by the huge student strikes that have swept Quebec. What has to be remembered by all of us is that this is a dramatic surge of energy and militancy from students that have a decades-long tradition of organization. Both students and anarchists have been well organized in Quebec for years.
The more militant arm of the Quebec student movement ‘ Association pour une solidaritÃ syndicale Ãtudiante ‘ was formed in 2001 and by the time of the strike in 2012 had 50,000 members in 25 university-level organizations. The other major student unions in Quebec have a combined membership of around 200,000. Members of these unions pay dues into an organization that is then able to hire staff, maintain offices, fund organizing efforts, etc. It’s in moments of mass-movement momentum that these organizations are able to form and then again it’s in those moments that these organizations are able to grow.
Anarchists and other revolutionaries have been actively involved in these organizations and the various movements around them for years. Some of these revolutionaries act simply as participants within the major student unions and some of them coordinate as members of groups like the anarchist Union Comuniste Libertaire. The existence of organizations like this help them to coordinate the efforts of revolutionaries and actively participate in the battle of ideas internal to the student movement.
Argentina ‘ ‘Que se vayan todos (they all must go!)’
Further back in the early 2000’s many of us involved in various labor and community efforts were inspired to hear about the worker recuperated factories movement and the growing people’s assemblies in Argentina following their massive economic collapse.
As the economy collapsed, many workers took over their factories and workplaces rather than allow them to close and layoff all workers. In many cases, these workplaces began to operate again under worker control. A federation of worker-controlled workplaces grew and began to organize and advocate for further expropriations. In Buenos Aires, directly democratic neighborhood assemblies appeared to organize around the immediate needs of their territory as the government went through many rapid changes. Through workplace and community organizing, movements in Argentina began to create the institutions capable of sustainably maintaining grassroots, rank-and-file power.
In many ways, these were some of the most spontaneous formations. Even here, we find a long history of mass-movement building. Most workers in Argentina already belonged to unions. Thousands of people were active in socialist parties and anarchist organizations. These organizations had participants that were active in unions and community groups before the economic collapse. So, to say that the ideas raised in the intense moments of the 2001 economic collapse and following uprising were totally spontaneous would be faulty. However, this uprising became the birthplace of totally new organizations that took on very new forms from the ones before them.
Even in the case of a much more spontaneous collapse and uprising, the movement forces in Argentina seemed better poised to strengthen their efforts after the movement moment. They didn’t simply wear out activists. They built new organizations, many of which have lasted for years and engaged thousands of new people and substantially built the organized power of working class movements.
Back in the U.S.A.
There is no short-cut for organizing! If we’re ever going to genuinely change society for the better, we’re going to need to build massive organizations in workplaces, communities, and schools. We absolutely should be aiming for the day when we can organize general strikes, student strikes, university occupations, and all of these exciting tactics that keep many of us so inspired by the power of everyday people to take control of the world around them. But, we also have to be real with ourselves. We need these tactics to win rather than get crushed. We need to have them build our movements rather than drain them. We need to come out stronger on the other end of the intensification of struggle.
If that’s going to happen, we need to get comfortable with the real work necessary to build organizations. We need to build a tolerance for the less-than-sexy work of decision making processes. We need to spend more time spreading our ideas and messages to people that aren’t already activists or lefties.
In short, we need to dedicate ourselves to being life-long movement builders and organizers rather than momentarily excitable activists.