The four habits of highly successful social movements

at 10:24 AM ET, 10/05/2011

(On Monday, I asked Rich Yeselson for his thoughts on Occupy Wall Street. Yeselson, a research coordinator at Change to Win, is a skilled organizer and a thoughtful historian of social movements in America and Europe. On Tuesday, he sent over some notes, and I think they’re worth publishing in full. All opinions expressed here are his own. -- Ezra)


Occupy Wall Street participants are protesting corporate greed. (Spencer Platt - GETTY IMAGES)
The Wall Street protests seem to be gathering strength and expanding beyond the geographic limits of downtown Manhattan. The media, too, is finally amplifying the story. Whether they will grow larger and sustain themselves beyond these initial street actions will depend upon four things: the work of skilled organizers; the success of those organizers in getting people, once these events end, to meet over and over and over again; whether or not the movement can promote public policy solutions that are organically linked to the quotidian lives of its supporters; and the ability of liberalism’s infrastructure of intellectuals, writers, artists and professionals to expend an enormous amount of their cultural capital in support of the movement.

Americans--infatuated with the next new thing, and proud to believe they are outside the constraints and burdens of history--love neophytes, gifted amateurs. We’re action-oriented and suspicious of elitist expertise, and we thrill to the idea that anybody with moxie can jump in and deliver a baby or land a 737. Right now, it appears that anti-hierarchical, relatively inexperienced people are “running” the Wall Street protest. And they are doing big demonstrations really well. So far, so good. Anger can beget action. And action itself can be a battering ram that knocks down the doors of history.

But anger alone can’t sustain action. And action alone can’t sustain political militancy. Much like today’s Wall Street movement, the French students who struck their universities during the Events of May 1968 had a charming way with utopian sloganeering: “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!” as they said back then. But the students couldn’t work out a sustained alliance with their working-class allies or move to making structural demands for change that their militancy could leverage. They were not, in fact, realistic. In the end, a massive Gaullist backlash cleaned their clocks.

Movement building is exhausting, highly skilled work. What appears to be “spontaneous” is the result of painstaking organizing and--just like Oscar Wilde never said--constant meetings. Over the decades, social movements have convened meetings of every kind and size, from the farmer’s alliances of the Populist movement to the consciousness raising sessions of the second women’s movement. There have been meetings to assign mundane tasks of list building and phone calling to volunteers; meetings to debate and decide changes in strategy; meetings to hold people accountable for the stuff they promised to do at the last meeting—meetings meetings meetings.

Experienced organizers teach the less experienced and expand the circle of competent leadership. Rosa Parks was an activist veteran. Key CIO staff who organized the steel industry in the late 1930s got their start by organizing the great 400,000 worker strong steel strike of 1919. Betty Friedan was no novice housewife—she worked for a militant, leftist union in the 1940s. And today academics are learning that the Tea Party is composed not only of the newly disgruntled, but also of many people who have been politically active, some of them since the Goldwater campaign.

And what’s striking about the Tea Party after two plus years is not the Koch brother’s seed money, or the disruptions of congressional town hall meetings in 2009, but, more impressively and relentlessly, the sheer numbers of grass roots chapters around the country that regularly meet in order to implement their pressure campaign on the Republican Party.

Like with exercise, people have to make the time to do this somewhat tedious thing they nevertheless claim they really want to do. They did when building the CIO in the ’30s, and the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s. And people are making time to go to Tea Party meetings today. The many strands of the Syrian resistance just met in Turkey to coordinate their actions and demands. Ultimately, social media can augment, but cannot replace the tireless work of organizing and attending real life meetings.

So organizers have to keep the threads of resistance from unraveling, and, following their lead, supporters have to just show up over and over again ready to do boring work. As Woody Allen probably didn’t say either, that really is 90 percent of life, or at least, social movement building.

There’s a better chance they will keep showing up if they think that the movement connects directly to their everyday lives, that if it succeeds, those lives will be changed in an obvious and better way. In the United States, as the great historian Edmund Morgan pointed out years ago, social justice movements have always reworked that now awkward phrase from the Declaration that says “all men are created equal” to provide a justification for people seeking to expand the promise of America to include those left out and left behind: men and women, black and white, workers and employers, gay and straight.

The right to collectively bargain to change the terms and conditions of daily work promises social and legal equality to workers. The right to eat anywhere they wanted and to vote for the candidates of their choice promised social and legal equality to African Americans in the Apartheid South. The right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender, promises social and legal equality to gay and lesbian people. While authoritarian populist movements of the right usually seek to restore and retain privileges for some citizens at the expense of those less fortunate, successful social movements from the left are logical extensions of the bedrock birthrights of the American experiment to more and more people. “Justice for us,” says the Right. “Justice for all”, says the Left.

The phrase, “we are the 99 percent” nicely encapsulates the potential of OWS to become a movement of democratic extension. But right now, the precise demands of the Wall Street demonstrators include grandiose ideas like abolishing consumerism. A bit vague, and can even Lloyd Blankfein get it done by the end of the next quarter? As Harold Meyerson [wrote Tuesday] in The Washington Post, other groups around the country with a different leadership structure are making more concrete demands, including the modification of student and household debts and the imposition of a financial transaction tax.

Reworking debt should be distinguished from either “demand the impossible” notions, like abolishing consumerism, or smart lefty wonkmanship, like a financial transaction tax. I won’t dispute that an FTT is good policy, but neither it nor posturing about stopping other people from buying stuff that you find tasteless changes the lives of ordinary people in a clear and measurable way. It won’t affect how much they are paid and how they deal with their boss, or how they use public accommodations, or whom they choose to live happily ever after with. But lowering the crushing debt burden on millions of people in the midst of a “balance sheet” recession can do just that—it hits people where and how they live. If, as in this example, the demonstrators make proposals which have an organic connection to the pressing concerns of millions of people, they will heighten the potential of developing a movement which can leverage political change.

Finally, the emergence of the Wall Street movement is a reminder that the liberal left has not in quite a few years actually driven anything like a mass social movement in this country. When Obama was elected, some people made the mistake of thinking that an election-bounded jolt of energy that conflated a charismatic candidate with a popular political vision was such a movement. Nobody thinks that anymore.

The left does have something important however: a coterie of several thousand intellectuals, academics, writers, and engaged professionals who articulate liberal public policy, generate empirical and analytical expertise through the Internet, the media, and universities, and staff the offices of advocacy groups and progressive politicians on the local and national level.

This is, as I said, important, but, up to now, some people have imagined that the byplay between smart bloggers and tweeters, or even the charged pen of brilliantly argumentative and intellectually courageous Nobel Prize winners, in economics actually represent a vast swell of citizens demanding substantive change. But to paraphrase a guy who understood real political power: How many troops does Paul Krugman have?

But when a movement does arise, it needs an articulate exposition, and the brainy liberal left infrastructure’s time has come. Edmund Wilson put down his Proust long enough to report from the bloody coal mines of Eastern Kentucky. College professors all over the country held public “teach-ins” to educate their students and others about the history of the Vietnam War and American interventionism.

So there’s a big job out to do explaining and defending the Wall Street demonstrators to curious Americans. Krugman’s Army may be on its way.

 
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