There’s an interesting debate happening right now among Occupy participants and Progressives observing the movement about what the best strategy is for the group moving forward. Rather than delving into the endless sea of advice heaved at the protesters on a daily basis about what their ten-point policy plan should look like, I want to examine the issue more broadly.
David Atkins wrote a blog post yesterday that stated OWS could draw lessons from the Egyptian election in which the liberal parties and youth activists failed to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years. «There is a lesson here,» Atkins writes. «No matter how well-intentioned the revolutionaries and no matter how successful the revolution, at the end of the day organizational power will step in to win the day.» While Atkins is clearly sympathetic to those who seek «anti-organizational» and «apolitical solutions to America’s problems,» he adds that «those who either refuse to or fall behind in the participating in the process, like the liberals and secularists in Egypt, will find themselves at the mercy of those who do.»
Atkins’ advice is to «Occupy the Democratic Party,» a well-intentioned suggestion that Occupy has been hearing since its inception.
Journalist Austin G. Mackell, who has been covering the Egyptian revolution since its beginning, remarked that this is akin to «a bunch of environmentalists joining the loggers guild, to you know, change things from inside the system.»
Atkins clarifies that he doesn’t mean Occupy should necessarily get involved within the Party, but perhaps protesters could instead create separate organizations that are designed to «instill fear» of the base and of primary challenges in Party politicians. Alas, Atkins seems to have much faith in America’s electoral system that consistently shuts out marginalized voices such as Ralph Nader and Ron Paul.
I want to unpack the concept of «instilling fear» a bit here because the obvious parallels between the civil rights movements and Occupy are too great to ignore. Like Occupy, civil rights leaders didn’t ask permission to protest, and while Martin Luther King Jr. did ultimately form a tentative alliance with Lyndon Johnson, (though it was no love affair — Johnson once said King was a «hypocrite preacher») in order to see the landmark passages of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the real struggle happened on the ground in acts of civil disobedience. It took horrible footage of police dousing protesters with firehoses and unleashing ferocious attack dogs on innocent protesters to capture national, and the President’s, attention.
But the comparison between the two movements is shaky in other areas. In the 1960s, the concept of civil rights was a truly terrifying concept to white southerners (and many northerners,) so I don’t want to diminish the struggle MLK and others endured to see these acts passed. However, while a political partnership was possible between MLK and LBJ, it’s difficult to see how Occupy will form a similar partnership considering their demands would mean their politician allies would be engaging in career suicide by angering their corporate donors.
Yes, there is a legend that after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he turned to an aide and said, «We have lost the South for a generation,» but with a two-party stranglehold on the country, which no third party can hope to compete in, and is now funded by massive corporations, Democrats have grown to stop fearing their constituents and start fearing the upper brass at Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil.
Occupy is attempting huge feats here, and while some emerging demands (reinstating portions of Glass-Steagall, for example) seem more manageable, there is also momentum building to fundamentally change the system of hyper-Capitalism crushing the majority of Americans rights now. Occupiers are never going to «instill fear» into the larger Democratic Party by allowing themselves to be co-opted by the very broken system they’ve been protesting this whole time. Seriously, try to envision what a meeting between Democrats and Occupiers would look like when protesters propose banning «big corporate donations to campaigns and [setting] equal spending limits.» I mean, holy shit, Max Baucus won’t stop screaming for days.
The main takeaway beyond all our handwringing should be an understanding that the whole reason Occupy has been such a exciting, revolutionary movement is precisely because it doesn’t ask for permission — not from city officials when members camp outside or occupy abandoned buildings, not in order to wage some of its marches, and certainly not from the Democratic Party. It doesn’t seem like the group is going to ask for permission when it breaks into foreclosed houses to reintroduce homeless families to them on Monday, either.
By the way, that «instilling fear» thing has already worked, and has GOP pollster Frank Luntz shaking in his boots. He recently advised the Republican Governor’s Association to avoid mentioning Capitalism.
«The public…still prefers Capitalism to Socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem,» he said.
It may be true that a majority of Americans still favor Capitalism to Socialism, but 36 percent of Americans have a positive image of Socialism despite decades of propaganda attempting to convince them otherwise, and some polling indicates Congress is less popular right now than Communism. The country, it seems, is ripe for change. (Not suggesting Communism is a good alternative here. I’d much prefer a Democratic Socialist model myself).
Atkins is right that social movements do need to instill fear into the political elite in order to have a significant impact, but that fear won’t come from Occupy asking permission to sit at the negotiation table. That change will come following mass acts of civil disobedience – by disrupting the flow of normalcy until the movement can no longer be ignored. Eventually, if negotiations do occur, Washington will have to learn how to work with Occupy, a leaderless movement that votes on everything democratically, which can oftentimes be a painfully slow process. But that is the very nature of Occupy. Anything other than that process won’t be OWS, but rather a co-opted mutant breed masquerading as the revolutionary force.