Where Will The Next Social Movement Come From?

| Strategize!

Above: Photo by Ward Reilly taken at Occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, a dance party on the night the encampment were threatened was eviction. The large party dissuaded the police.

How Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street can transform the Ivory Tower.

Much of our future is reliably unpredictable, and what more so than the moments when mass movements suddenly break out and sweep across our world? Who expected, for example, that for perhaps the first time in history hundreds of thousands of people would hit the streets of U.S. cities and towns—and millions the global streets from London and Barcelona to Sydney and Jakarta—in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq, a war, that is, that hadn’t even begun? Or that such a movement would essentially vanish not long after that war was predictably launched?

Who imagined that, in September 2011, a small group of youthful protesters, settling into Zuccotti Park, an obscure square near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, would “occupy” it and so the American imagination in such a way that “the 1%” and “the 99%” became part of our everyday language; Wall Street (as it hadn’t been for decades) a reviled site; and “inequality” part of the national conversation rather than just the national reality? Who imagined in the moment before it happened that such a movement, such a moment, would then sweep the country and the world, that streets and squares in American cities and those around the world would be “occupied” and that global inequality would become, and remain, an issue of import?

Who imagined that a small number of environmentalists running an obscure organization called 350.org would help spark a climate-change movement that would spread globally in a startling fashion, mount a large demonstration in Washington and others across the planet,venture into the Arctic and by kayak into the waters of the American West, and actually stop the building of a pipeline slated to carry the carbon-dirtiest of energy sources from now-ravaged Alberta, Canada, to the American Gulf Coast, and—with a growing divestment movement and other activities—put the fear of god into the most profitable and influential corporations on the planet?

And who imagined that the shooting of a young black man in a place no one (outside of Missouri) had ever heard of and the death-by-choking of another black man on the streets of New York City, events that were, in the annals of American policing, hardly out of the ordinary, would propel a protest movement whose name couldn’t sum up its goals better—Black Lives Matter—to national prominence or that this would, in turn, help spark a movement of millennials, discussed today by TomDispatch regular Avi Chomsky, that would sweep college campuses nationwide?

Is there anything stranger than what in the world, on occasion, gets into us human beings, what suddenly makes us so ornery that we sometimes stand up to overwhelming power in defense of convictions that, until moments before, we didn’t even know would occupy us in such a way? And perhaps nothing is more useful than the unpredictability of such moments, such movements. Otherwise how would they ever catch power off guard?

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

  • Steven Berge

    We don’t need another movement. We need to focus the current movements on the root cause of almost all problems, that being the control of anything important by big money. That would be the revolution to end all revolutions. There are several organizations fighting the power of big money such as; Move to Amend, Represent US, Money Out People In, Money Out Voters In, just to name a few.

  • chetdude

    Connect the next dot…

    Why is there a system of “control of anything important by big money”?

    Who benefits?

    Who perpetuates such a system?

    The Movement is VERY strong and growing but as you suggest is purposefully, deliberately atomized into thousands of small movements/organizations/interest groups that experience numerous defeats and some small “victories” but somehow cannot coalesce as well as the implicitly and explicitly well organized few that call the shots…

    I think part of the reason is that tired, overworked, under-rewarded human beings bombarded by the most effective propaganda machine in history cannot find their way out of the trap of believing that the dominant paradigm is the ONLY way to do things – if we could just “fix” some of its major drawbacks all would be well…

    Unfortunately for the “endlessly hopeful”, the system’s drawbacks are its features. It’s a system built on inequality, the domination of the many by the few and the overexploitation of our only Home to the benefit of those few. Money is the medium and scorekeeper but it’s the process of Domination that is our enemy…

    The cure is to foster our innate spirit of co-operation, the REAL order of the universe. To foster in our own minds, in our interactions with one another and our Planet and in the institutions and organizations we create.

    Those “masters of the universe” are only as powerful as we allow them to be. Take the power away from the dominators by ignoring them and creating our own systems of mutual support.

  • Kathy Barker

    Oh, I hope these movements include militarism as a target of activism. War and militarism is left out, and they cause so much harm….

  • kevinzeese

    US militarism is a key issue for many reasons. It has a big impact on the federal budget — more than half of federal discretionary spending. And, the US empire produces an “empire economy” which is a source of a lot of US economic problems. Of course, the US is also causing chaos wherever the military goes in to operation. The US is not creating stability or security but conflict and ongoing violence.

  • Kathy Barker

    Perhaps non-violence can be the issue that unites social movements. War, militarism, racism, environment destruction, lack of health care, poverty, etc etc are all manifestations of violence.

  • zmann

    The Bernie Revolution was conveniently left out never mind that it was just as important, if not more than each of those other movements.