Pundits tell Occupy Wall Street: give us your list of demands or you'll fail. Occupy Wall Street is obviously doing just fine without following that script. But why exactly? What is Occupy Wall Street doing right? Here then, some lessons from the history and theory of social movements.
1. Framing: "We Are the 99 Percent" and "Occupy Wall Street"
Hard times do not automatically send people into the streets. The history of humankind would look very different if that were the case.
The first and essential task of any nascent movement is to name the problem. Many would-be movements are stillborn for lack of a message that resonates within the society they seek to change. Sure, that has to be communicated, but social media technology is useless if no one identifies with your message.
"We are the 99 Percent" brilliantly speaks to fundamental elements of American identity and values. By drawing the circle of believers so wide, it smartly avoids classic traps American progressives are wont to fall into. "Occupy Wall Street" names a culprit that is widely blamed for our nation's crisis.
Its contrast with a meme that has floated around for two years provides an object lesson in why framing is so critical to movements. 'Tea Party of the Left' never galvanized a movement because eight out of ten Americans hold a negative or indifferent view of the Tea Party. Those who do identify with the Tea Party are the most Republican, most conservative, and most economically secure members of the electorate--hardly the 99%. I'll have a lot more to say about the many myths about the Tea Party in my forthcoming book, Delirium. But what's relevant here is that the Tea Party activates a negative frame, repelling rather than attracting people to a cause.
As the movement evolves, it needs to preserve and amplify these initial successful frames. Already a shorthand for the movement has introduced, I fear, a problem of message down the line. What works in the frame Occupy Wall Street is Wall Street, but protests outside of Manhattan have adopted Occupy [fill in city name here]. The connotations of this are all off for a movement that will only succeed if it attracts mainstream approval. Although it's probably too late for such a change, let me offer a modest proposal. How about reframing, say, to Occupy Wall Street-LA, or Occupy Wall Street - Cincinnati? Let's keep the focus on the real problem.
2. Creativity, Self-Discipline, and Resilience: The General Assembly
Long ago the mass protest march became so normalized in the repertoire of American politics that it ceased to have much effect. Scholars who study social movements have even called the U.S. a "social movement society," and suggested that authentic social movements fare poorly in such an environment.
Occupy Wall Street's creative tactics, self-discipline, and resilience in the face of mockery, sporadic police violence, and bad weather has caught the attention of a distracted world and quite simply earned its respect. It was able to rise above the noise and upset the routine by its creative tactic: the occupation of public space governed by a General Assembly. (On the real story of how this happened, see the excellent myth-busting article by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones. The blend of festival and seriousness at Zuccotti Park has been infectious, inspiring occupations around the country. The method, an occupation governed by a General Assembly, is one that can be duplicated ad infinitum. As important, it has built-in opportunities for sympathizers to participate in other ways without having to make the full commitment to camping out. This Saturday, 951 protests took place in 82 countries, and OWS reports it has received $300,000 in donations.
3. Splitting the elite: Ben Bernanke's "I can't blame them" v. Eric Cantor's "mob"
Judging by GOP talking points, OWS has usefully struck fear into the hearts of the powerful. Which brings us to a little appreciated and very important early victory of the nascent movement: winning some elite support.
What was true in Tahrir Square was true in Johannesburg 21 years ago and Selma 46 years ago. A common element of many successful movements of the last half century is that some people with power side with the movement over their own partners. When Egyptian soldiers and commanders refused to attack democracy activists in Tahrir Square, when South African businessmen demanded the apartheid government stop violently repressing their employees, when the U.S. government ordered Alabama to allow Martin Luther King and civil rights activists to march from Selma to Montgomery, the democracy movements advanced.
Sophisticated social movements leverage those elite divisions for their own benefit; they engage in dialogue and negotiation with the sectors of the elite that are willing to compromise.
OWS needs to beware of those who are quick to shout co-optation and slow to recognize political opportunity. Every social protest attracts purists who care more about perfection than success. These purists always denounce any widening of the movement as a sell-out. They are almost always wrong. It is a good thing that Bernanke, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and other Democratic Party leaders are speaking out in support of Occupy Wall Street. OWS should welcome and cultivate this wider support, even and especially when it comes from those with power.
What's Next? The Coming Challenges
Will all this be enough to turn the burgeoning protests into a full-fledged social movement for real change? Over the next few posts, I'll offer some more thoughts from the history and theory of social movements. Next up, the dangers and pitfalls typically faced by American movements. And finally, some lessons from the past to help OWS get to the next stage.
---Nancy L. Cohen is a historian and author. This series of articles is based on her course, "Comparative Political Movements," given in the political science department at Cal State, Long Beach in 2009. She is happy to answer questions at @nancylcohen.