Preparing For The Next ‘Movement Moment’

| Strategize!

Above Photo: From Turkish Confusion by Anthony Freda.

As alumni of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street phenomenon might tell you, more preparation might have expanded Occupy’s impact. Such a “movement moment” is inevitably marked by improvisation, but bringing lessons learned from previous uprisings is bound to help.

More such moments are on their way — particularly in countries like the United States, which are experiencing increasing polarization and longer-term decline of the legitimacy of both political and economic establishments.

We can’t predict where and when the next movement moment will start. Fortunately, help has shown up to steer us away from predictable mistakes when the moment comes.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s new book is right in time, revealing deep learning from the important role he played in the Occupy movement. He also draws on years of other organizing work and his research on social movements.

The book starts with a deliberately provocative title: “Hegemony How-To: A Road Map for Radicals.” Hegemony, Smucker says, is acceptance by the mainstream of a particular worldview as common sense. He expects we free-thinkers might be reluctant to foist upon society a new orthodoxy. He challenges us nevertheless: At heart, don’t we want ours to be the leading values in mainstream society?

An example from my own research would be the revolutionary movement in Norway. A century ago, capitalism and the patriarchy were hegemonic — the “common sense” of the mainstream. The values of equality, democracy, and cooperation were held by a small counter-cultural movement of workers, farmers and their middle-class allies.

The movement practiced its values in small co-ops, unions and student associations. Their plan was to nonviolently force a power shift, putting their values into practice on a policy level and eroding the mainstream’s previous faith in inequality. In other words, a small movement intended to make their values the new Norwegian common sense.

The small movement grew and made their revolution. In January, the Guardian reported on a recent study by behavioral economists comparing American and Norwegian workers’ attitudes toward inequality. The results from three different experiments were the same: The Norwegians were far less accepting of inequality and much more willing than the Americans to try to redress it. Clearly, the revolution worked.

In Occupy, however, Smucker observed a reluctance to be as bold as the Norwegians had been a century ago, a refusal to make specific policy demands, much less project a vision of what we want. He began to wonder if self-identified activists are content in their proud marginality, having a monopoly on truth. If our worldview became common sense, do we fear that would mean we’re less special, less ourselves? Do we believe our identity depends on differentiating ourselves from most people? In some unconscious way, that would help account for Occupy’s inability — even unwillingness — to reach out “beyond the choir,” or even to accept and act on many of the requests that came from outside to join in and support the movement.

The response of elites to Occupy

In the early days of Occupy I suspect that the economic and political elites’ worry was shown by the extraordinary attention given by mass media. Even though not all that many people participated in the Occupy sites, their rapid growth and accuracy in naming class struggle revealed the movement’s potential force, which was scary to the privileged.

I believe that the scariness in those initial weeks was partly in response to the fact that the occupations were sustained over time. That feature contrasts with one-off demonstrations like the Women’s March on January 21, which received little media attention considering it was the largest protest in U.S. history. Elites know that the people attending one-off rallies and marches will go home promptly. One-off actions have little power potential because they announce in advance that they won’t be disrupting anything for long. Occupy’s early days, though, left everyone wondering: Would Occupy’s sticking around mean it will grow, involving masses of people who don’t have a previous identity as “activists?”

Smucker helpfully distinguishes between potential and kinetic force. Kinetic force actually shifts power and makes structural change possible. “Occupy Wall Street,” he writes, “signaled the potential for a broad alignment focused on economic inequality and a rigged political system that serves the ‘1 percent.’ After a few weeks … the amorphous mobilization was recognized by a substantial cross-section of the progressive left ‘establishment’ (e.g. institutions including labor unions, community organizations, national organizations, and other membership organizations) as having de facto provided the potential for such an alignment.”

Smucker believes Occupy was unable to realize that potential partly because of its unwillingness to give up its specialness, its identity, as different from not only the 1 percent but most of the 99 percent as well. Instead of seeing its values as a gift offered to the majority, it resisted sharing with those who didn’t pass an ever-higher litmus test of purity and commitment. In effect, it chose against growing large enough to force a power shift in U.S. society.

How ‘activists’ limit a movement’s potential

I admire the compassion with which Smucker explores why we sometimes undermine our own intention. He acknowledges that in our society individuals really are being atomized. Many feel lonely. It’s a relief to find a clubhouse where people can hang out with others like themselves, to join “the cool kids.”

Individuals do indeed deserve community. The problem, Smucker says, comes when we make the need for community more important than our mission. We then settle for having been influential (Occupy did, after all, bring inequality into U.S. political discourse), not having changed any policies that make inequality grow ever larger.

He suspects another fear might be lurking beneath the surface: fear of being powerful. I’ve noticed that not enough of us operate with author and organizer Starhawk’s distinction of power-over (domination), power-with (cooperation) and power-from-within (spiritual assertion). Unconsciously we may accept the patriarchal view that “getting things done” requires power-over.

In order to resist power-over in our movements we distrust each other, make a fetish of consensus and disavow open leadership. We falsely believe that building effective organizations to foster mass revolutionary movements requires becoming bureaucracies willing to sell out. To avoid this danger, we sacrifice our mission, choosing behaviors that limit our organizational effectiveness.

Smucker also reports another group life dynamic that shows up, inside Occupy and elsewhere, by quoting author Bill Bishop: “In like-minded groups over time ‘people are constantly comparing their beliefs and actions to those of the group. When a person learns that others in the group share his or her general beliefs, he or she finds it socially advantageous to adopt a position slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a safe way to stand out from the crowd … It’s counter-intuitive, but people grow more extreme within homogeneous groups as a way to conform.’”

That evolution toward the ever-more-extreme position traps the group in its bubble, disconnecting it from the diversity of people who are open to change. We see this among groups on college campuses as well as in urban neighborhoods.

For Smucker, this dynamic is one more reason why we can’t expect to make the most of movement moments unless we pay attention to the self-limiting aspects of internal movement life. His book heightens our awareness and points to potential solutions.

I would add two solutions, however, to the ones he includes. Even fairly homogeneous groups can transcend the dynamics he names by centering on campaigns and cooperative businesses. A campaign creates a specific demand and constantly evaluates its progress toward that goal. If the group gets caught in self-limiting dynamics, it fails. Similarly, a cooperative business has a bottom line. If group dynamics seriously sabotages worker productivity, the group either wakes up or the business fails.

Inspiration from the past

In a brilliant and nuanced section on organizational culture and leadership, Smucker compares the trajectory of two high-profile ‘60s organizations: the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. A familiar dynamic occurred in both: Members gave leadership status to individuals who best represented the culture of the group, who were most “hardcore.”

At a certain point in each group’s life the leaders led their groups in opposite directions. In SDS, the group imploded in 1969 and some leaders used hardcore status to start the doomed Weather Underground. In SNCC, “very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean efforts such as going into the most segregated areas in the South and organizing.” SNCC’s choice led to exercising its greatest power on the national scene.

In each group both members and leaders can take responsibility for the dramatically different outcomes. What Smucker shows is how the largely-unconscious group culture influences direction. That awareness can free us to take charge.

When we take charge of our own group culture, we are at the same time showing that we can be trusted to pursue the larger revolutionary project. Smucker’s book offers a kind of chart for diagnosing the condition of our own group’s culture — a gift to us all.

  • AlanMacDonald

    George opens with this, “As alumni of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street phenomenon might tell you, more preparation might have expanded Occupy’s impact.” —- but actually this is the deeper seminal truth:

    “more strategic thinking might have expanded Occupy’s impact.”

    I’m going to start with the chant which is easy — and then explain the strategy very quickly explain the strategy (which can also be easy to understand, if we unwrap it briefly in simple Q & A form):

    Chant effective for all issues, wars, WS looting, etc., and all ‘symptom problems’:

    “What do we want?”

    “Political Revolution!” [Bernie’s simple and effective phrase]

    “What’s it against?”

    “the EMPIRE”

    “When do we DO it?” [The normal chant word ‘want’ is changed to ‘DO”]


    This strategy for demonstrations/protests delivers a short/complete ‘action sentence’ with an object, unlike Bernie’s mere two-word passive sound-bite and unlike “Occupy’s” even thinner single word lack of any message.

    Question #1. Why is it important that the ‘message’ be broad enough to allow it to be used against all ‘issues’, ‘identity issues’, ‘symptom problems’, for our failing; political, economic, and entire “social order”?

    Answer: Because it has to gather & coalesce as many people as we can across all issues.

    Question #2. But why doesn’t this strategy & chant address those popular ‘issues’

    Answer: Because there are literally hundreds of ‘issue’ messages — which creates ‘all messages’, and that delivers NO single coherent ‘message’ (this was the major problem for Occupy, by allowing the media to ignore, blunt, seed confusion, and cede the ‘message’ power to the media/propaganda-sector of the Empire).

    Question #3. I’m still a bit unsure of this aspect of the strategy & chant?

    Answer: Here’s an old human flaw, “Can’t see the Forest for the Trees” and here’s what the Empire leverages to divide and distract demonstrators and protestors, “Can’t see the Forest of Empire for the Trees of Issues”.

    Question #4. But just having one message that we’re all ‘against Empire’ might not work? How do we act on that? How to we change the voting or get any action?

    Answer: Well, as Marshall McLuhan might say today, “The message is the action”. The chant delivers the ‘message’ of “Political Revolution against Empire” — so this is a complete ‘action’ sentence, and the last shout of the chant is, “When do we DO it?” “NOW!” means we the people of America in the streets in a loud, public, sustained, but peaceful “Shout heard round the world” that these hundreds, thousands, and hopefully tens of thousands, and millions of America’s own citizens are ‘calling-out’, ‘exposing’, and ‘ripping the mask off’ their country being any kind of functional democratic Republic — and they are actually right now, in the streets, and in large numbers ACTING in a “Political Revolution” that is happening right now ‘against’ their country acting like an ‘Empire’ —- which means right here domestically inside the Empire treating us like ‘subjects’, and for all ‘others’ overseas who are suffering the wars of this Empire.

    Question #5: So are we actively calling the United States of America an American EMPIRE?

    Answer: Essentially Yes, — which would probably be treason if we had guns in our hands, but we don’t. We’re using our ‘free-speech’ and our ‘freedom of expression’ (with signs) to ACTIVELY petition and present to our country that it is acting like an “Empire abroad and tyranny at home”, which certainly covers every and all ‘identity issues’, ‘issues’, and ‘symptom problems’ that are currently being less effectively addresses by any and all demonstration and protests by anyone today.

    [There are some more complex questions about the actual form, structure, and locus of the entire Empire, but we can start without getting into more details — and we would be wise to start NOW]

    Question #6: This strategy doesn’t seem to have anything to do with incremental changes in voting, or campaign financing, or even the existing political parties?

    Answer: BINGO. It’s a strategy for peaceful “Political Revolution against Empire” not political phony reform or pasting-over of the existing broken system, that has ‘captured’, controls, and almost fully “Occupies” our former country and its unreconstructible government — which ‘We the people” are actively calling an Empire.

    Question #7: But will this “Political Revolution against Empire” really work — is there any precedent?

    Answer; Only if it is totally peaceful — since any entrenched ruling structure in any modern country, let alone this one, has the “heavy weapons” to crush any Revolution that engages in any violence. If it turns toward any violence, instead of just the peaceful voices use, it will end very badly and unsuccessfully.

    As far as precedence, even the supposed ‘last Empire on earth’, the Soviet “Evil Empire” which was supposedly brought down by a loud-mouthed but dumb President by merely saying “Bring down that wall” and calling it an “Evil Empire” (without knowing that all Empires are “Evil”), the collapse was faster and more surprising than even the CIA could imagine — because the Russian people themselves were behind knowing,

  • DHFabian

    From another perspective: Occupy began as an extraordinary People’s movement that could have changed the course we’re on. But before we had time to catch our breath, it was effectively redefined (by Dem pols and liberal media) as a Middle Class Movement. The rest of us finally walked away, and that was the end of Occupy as a movement in the US.

    Have you paid attention to how “inequality” is defined has been defined over the past 20 years or so? It refers to the gap between the better off and the rich, the workers and the owners. “The poor” are depicted as no one worse off than a minimum wage worker. In reality, the poor have simply been written off as something less than people, disappeared from the media/public discussion.

    The point is that years of work went into successfully dividing and subdividing us by class, race, and ideology.

  • DHFabian

    Well, who are The People, and what do they want? What’s the problem, and what can we do about it? That empire is the corporate state — the source of jobs for nearly all employed Americans. How many can afford to risk losing their jobs by Rising Up, knowing there’s nothing to fall back on today?

    We know all the popular rhetoric and slogans, but we’re stuck with reality. Life is tremendously complicated, yet everything comes down to the basics — survival. We can envision a better country, and it looks great when we exclude real life factors. For example, what would you do with those who can’t work (health, etc.) and those for whom no jobs are available? (note: No one can survive on promises of eventual jobs.) We’re some 20 years into one hell of a war on the poor, during which even liberals have shrugged in indifference.

    If we had a revolution, who would fight whom, and for what?

  • kevinzeese

    Your history of Occupy is more a reflection of your views than what actually happened.

    Occupy played its role as the take off of a new movement era. It showed people were awake to the corruption of government and the economy. It challenged corporatism, the wealth divide, money in politics, racism, anti-environmentalism — it raised a lot of issues, changed the political discourse and let people know they were not alone in holding these views.

    These take-off moments are a necessary step in developing a successful social movement. Movements than evolve from the take-off and reorganize as important strands in a mass movement. We have seen that with the anti-foreclosure and anti-debt movement, the $15 an hour campaigns, climate campaigns, Black Lives Matter, challenges to inequality, opposition to corporate trade, advocacy for healthcare for all etc. This is natural evolution and Occupy served its role well.

    Of course the political parties and mass media have their own agenda, which you describe, but do not attribute that to Occupy — Occupy was in opposition to the political duopoly and Wall Street.

  • AlanMacDonald

    Fabian, your singing was lousy — and your logic is worse.

    “Well, who are The People, and what do they want?”

    WTF is that supposed to mean, Fabian?

    “What’s the problem, and what can we do about it?”

    Again — stupidity, eh?

    Then, Fabian, you go on to complain about how awful it is living like a powerless ‘subject’ under this “living hell” of an EMPIRE, but don’t want to change anything.

    And your final (thank God) line asks, “who would fight whom?”

    Did you even read my comment? — or don’t you understand the difference between ‘calling-out’, and exposing the Empire vs. fighting it.

    Where did I use the effin words; ‘fight’, battle, shoot, violence, or any effin thing of the sort, you dolt?

    I wrote the chant and strategy real real simple, so that anyone could follow.

    Do you want me to rewrite it, specifically for you, and then Flesch test it down to the fifth grade level?

  • AlanMacDonald

    Yes, Kevin, Occupy “changed the political discourse and let people know they were not alone”, and it did indeed create a great “take-off” moment, movement, coalition, alliance, and ‘actions’ to ignite broad willingness to address an array of the worst problems we (all the people of the 99%, including the poor face).

    However, as you said, “the political parties and mass media have their own agenda” and in tight alignment with all the sectors of this disguised Empire, including; corporate, financial, military, media/propaganda, extra-legal, Think-Tanks, and those two phony Vichy Parties, they were able to ‘do a job’ on the much larger, but dividable majority of ‘we the people’.

    I’m convinced that the tiny 1% ruling-elite Empire is actually glad and well served by the too vast array of individual ‘protest issues’, ‘demonstration issues’, and wide but thin focus of these peoples’ movements and protests —- because the unified Empire understands that while a broad coalition is effective in gathering in more individuals, that an enormous breadth and diversity of the ‘identity issues’ that it takes to gather people will allow the Empire to split-off and weaken any single focused and powerful strategic message.

    This seems to be where we are today. A cacophony of confusing and overlapping messages — which as you know can lead to ‘all messages’ being reduced to ‘no message’.

    Some can’t see the Forest of Empire for the Trees of Issues — and that serves the purpose of a disguised Empire quite well, my friend.

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