New York City, October 19: The Sense of a Movement

New York City, October 19: The Sense of a Movement by Todd Gitlin

Does this movement want to curb the plutocrats? Or does it just want to be?

October 21st, 2011 reset - +

OCCUPY, MARSHALL GANZ ASKED: Is it a moment and a movement? Either way, it's the fastest growing phenomenon on the left in decades. If we add that its thrust — not its tactics, necessarily, but its slogan "We are the 99 percent," which was a nifty way to formulate opposition to the prevailing plutocracy — almost instantly garnered supermajority support throughout the country, then there may not have been anything like Occupy since the late 19th century movements against the robber barons. In the course of a month of human events, Occupy has whipped up an incandescent compound of joy, anger, hope, and resolve that shows no signs of fading and many signs of spreading. Emotions are not a movement, but they are its absolute prerequisite. Emotions have come out in the open. As in the sign above, from Foley Square in lower Manhattan, October 5.

If this is a moment before the literal and figurative winters kick in, it's an extended moment — one heading into its second month of occupations, which seem to number a few hundred people apiece (or fewer: a reporter told me that Occupy Nashville started with nine). They have been joined, rhetorically, and not always seamlessly, by unions,, various lobbies and liberal-left groups, along with freelance members of the self-declared 99 percent, when they foray outward to public spaces like Foley Square and Times Square. On Oct. 15, Occupy Nashville mustered hundreds; Occupy Wall Street, many thousands in Times Square. Hundreds — or is it thousands? — of solidarity demonstrations around the world: whatever numbers you trot out today — numbers of cities, numbers of occupiers — will be obsolete before the first frost.

So what is a social movement? In part, it's the sense of a movement: a tissue of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and images. The feelings get entwined and complicated. All kinds of relationships develop, evolve and conflict. The minute you think you've got a movement pinned down it morphs.

But a moment doesn't become a movement until it continues — becomes a force, or a combination of forces. Almost always, in order to continue, it has to create institutions. It needs organizations, because individuals enter, exit, change and falter; the spirit, to endure, requires social bodies, structures that can outlast individual cells.

But movement isn't a thing. It isn't, itself, an organization. It doesn't have officers or headquarters. It's a verb seeking to be a noun, yet fearful of hardening at the same time, for noun-things solidify, and anarchic energy afoot wants to be liquid, not so much a thing as a process: an ensemble of moving parts, very much in motion, each drawing upon the others and pressing upon them, each making their moves in the light of what others do, an ensemble of movement actors. There's the inner movement, the outer movement, the politicians, the opposition — and, never forget, the police. They can do you favors, as did the NYPD, first with pepper spray, then with the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrest. But you can't count on that.

The inner movement has a horizontally organized internal life: an amalgam of task forces and working groups operating under the awkward but so far workable discipline of direct democracy. A common sentiment in the public spaces, as far as I can make out, includes such deep suspicion of representative government — of the very principle of delegation — and such strong faith in the decision-making capacities of ordinary people, as to have invested all legitimate authority in the daily general assemblies.

"Let the people decide" was an early sixties slogan, but SDS never coherently knew what it meant, or even worried enough about not knowing. In the late '60s, when police bullhorns blared out arrest orders, "In the name of the people of California...," crowds shouted back, "We are the people." But we weren't. In fact, a large majority of the people of California elected Ronald Reagan governor in 1966 and reelected him in 1970. The question of which people get to decide what: This is, of course, the master problem of political theory, and let's just say I have no triumphant solution to offer here. It's a problem that doesn't go away. No matter the urgency, no matter the passion, no matter the circumstance, it just plain doesn't go away. A serious movement has to be serious about it.

It also has to get serious about disruptions of its own discipline. It can't afford to be simply an sum of individual wills — for the scatter of unbridled egos gives you more of the You're-on-Your-Own society which is the deserved target of the present revolt. One of the early New York occupiers told me the other day that, after lots of neighbors protested against the noise from 12-hour-a-day drum circles, the general assembly decided to ask the drummers to confine themselves to two hours a day. All did except one, who thinks he has a natural right to drum just as long and as loud as he likes. What do you do about that? When a few crackpots show up in Liberty/Zuccotti Park with anti-Semitic signs, what do you do about that? (This problem is not hypothetical: See Michelle Goldberg here.) What would you do if they were Klansmen?

Some militants object that direct democracy is slow and cumbersome, that the human microphone (repeat after me, one sound bite at a time) is even worse, an instrument of groupthink; but so far, at least, there's an insistence on supermajority requirements and a universal right to speak.


Does this movement want to curb the plutocrats? Or does it just want to be? I can respect the reasons why a community might want to persist. For all the talk in this culture about communities — the business community, the intelligence community, and so on — the quest for them is an American staple, and for good reason.

Some of the activists of the inner movement want a revolution, or an approximation to it, a quasi-revolutionary something that is more than a sum of reforms. Some think it's already in progress — that's the meaning, more or less, of the slogan "Occupy Everywhere." The inner movement as a whole — not all of them self-professed revolutionaries, of course — want to sustain the encampments simply for the sake of community and conversation. They want, in other words, an anti-institutional institution of their own making. They don't want to be flattened into the dependency on authorities that is inherent in the concept of making demands.

You can't learn anything serious from the current rhetoric by examining Google searches for the word "revolution." (If you're curious, though, they seem to have peaked this year in August in the US.) But you can learn something from talking to Occupy militants. I've distilled a bit from some conversations this past week in New York and Boston here. I admire their sense of urgency and most of their insouciance. If they're smart, they'll continue to be riveted to the realization of how far nonviolence can take them — us — and, at the same time, how stupid violence would be.

But one thing a social movement isn't is a revolution — an uprising that seeks to overthrow an entire social system, to replace it with a different one, including a different structure of power. Revolutions, to succeed, must render the old authorities incapable of ruling. The old order must break down and cease to deliver essential services. As long as the police and the army function, a would-be revolution is nothing more than a wish. (The great radical sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr. made this point in a New York Review of Books piece in 1969, but the would-be revolutionaries of that era weren't paying attention.) Circumstances, more than wishes, determine whether revolutions develop. Wanting them doesn't count much, or at all.

But wanting a movement — wanting it with an amalgam of anger and hope — matters a lot, because the anger and hope behind that desire feed the flames, generate momentum, liberate energy, split adversaries, change situations. In our case, disappointed Obama supporters, fervent anarchists, and lots of independent middle-class and working-class people who have been grousing for months wanted a movement. We've all been stalled, throttled, though people will disagree about how much the lunatic Republicans are to blame and how much the irresolute Obama. In any event, we needed a spark. We got it.

Now what? The spinoffs matter, and there won't be a single direction, no matter how much baffled journalists ask for it. Moreover, the outer movement is as important as the inner movement. As I write, there appears online (where else?) a call bearing the imprimatur of the Zuccotti/Liberty Park general assembly to a "national general assembly" to convene in Philadelphia (where else?) on July 4, 2012 (when else?) "to debate, organize and implement the 99% Declaration which contains a Petition for the Redress of Grievances and an Action Plan." This national assembly is to "consist of 870 Delegates elected from the 435 Congressional districts. Each Congressional district shall elect one woman and one man by direct ballot voting." ?The resulting National General Assembly will vote upon "a final Petition for the Redress of Grievances," which will be delivered to all three branches of the federal government before the 2012 election. If the final Petition for the Redress of Grievances is not acted upon by the government, the Delegates shall organize a nationwide, grassroots, non-partisan effort to elect independent candidates in the 2014 midterm election. This election of independent candidates will seek to replace ALL of the existing members of the House of Representatives and ALL Senators up for election in 2014.

I have no idea what will become of this idea. I mention it only to prove that these people are serious.

Without the occupiers' audacity, ingenuity, and fortitude, we would be precisely nowhere at this moment. They took the initiative and changed the game. Where we are isn't clear, of course, but we're somewhere. At the least, the discourse has changed (as this recent Think Progress piece makes clear). Suddenly we're more than Jon Stewart-, Stephen Colbert-, and Rachel Maddow-watching couch potatoes (don't get me wrong, I love 'em all). We're not just grousing and grumbling about Obama, accusing liberals of treason to the left, accusing radicals of irrelevance. For now at least, we're not waiting for the revolutionary miracle, as Leonard Cohen didn't say.

So everything I write and say about Occupy should be seen against this background. They changed not only what we are pleased to call (somewhat euphemistically) the national conversation but also the conversation that is taking place on what can loosely be called the left. We had all the attitudes but we were hungry for new facts. Now we have some.

Now a debate about the direction of a possible movement against the plutocracy attracts more than a scatter of earnest participants. Now polls like this recent one from CNN noted by Greg Mitchell on his Nation blog — 76 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Republicans, support increasing taxes on those who make more than $1 million a year — get reported. There is an accelerating, actual grown-up debate, not the sort of sloganspeak we heard (and are no doubt about to hear again) about national debt, as if 9 percent unemployment were a nonstarter.

Now the outer movement — the aforementioned amalgam of community groups, unions, etc. that turn out for marches on special occasions and feature placards that say programmatic things like "Tax Wall Street Transactions" (that one was printed up by the nurses' union) — is actively discussing what they should do. Should they agree on a common five- or ten-point program, a sort of Compact with America, touching on, say, progressive taxes, in particular, a Wall Street transaction tax, debt relief, and so on? Should they then tell candidates for election in 2012 that they should sign on if they want the votes, the money, and the labor of the millions who have been touched by the Occupy campaign? I think they should.


Democratic politicians have already opened their mouths, at least tentatively. Some sound, to my ear, full-throated (Nancy Pelosi). Some are cagy — "tiptoeing," as TPM's Benjy Sarlin put it two weeks ago (Barack Obama). Some are hostile: "Mobs," said Eric Cantor, who promptly shut up, possibly because some in his circle advised him it might not be, well, politic to piss off such a big hunk of the population. Said chief of staff and former investment banker Bill Daley of Occupy, "I don't know if it's helpful," when asked by Dave Weigel whether the protests might be helpful to the White House's work for a jobs bill.

When figures of power recognize that there's a popular movement that they need to take seriously, this is a victory. The Democrats can only be said to have "co-opted" Occupy if Occupy folds into the Party, gives up its encampments, and transforms itself into a Get Out the Vote operation for the Democrats. They shouldn't. They should retain their independence. (Think how much farther along we would be if the Obama people hadn't dissolved the whole organizing infrastructure of the 2008 campaign into the DNC, which-no surprise-saw it as a threat.)

"Beginnings are always good," said a Palestinian-American of my acquaintance after the Oct. 5 march from Zuccotti Park — Liberty Square — to Foley Square. Hope is tonic. An extended moment like the last month is an epiphany in the desert. It's in the nature of ragged, zigzag history-which is the only kind that happens, ever — that the spirit ebbs, flows, churns. But think about this:

If you're, say, 21 years old today, and you have a sense of the larger world and at least an occasional passion to rise to the occasion, if you're alert to suffering and intellectually serious and available for action, you may have experienced two extended moments of political hope in your lifetime: the Dean campaign of 2004 (you would have been 14) and the Obama campaign of 2008 (the first time you were eligible to vote). The first, in its failure, led directly onto the success of the second. The second was, as some of its critics noted, an engagement unconsummated.

There was an Obama movement, the child of his charisma and a collective longing to awaken from the Bush nightmare. That movement rocked the Denver stadium the night he accepted the nomination. It recruited skilled organizers, trained volunteers in Obama camps, mobilized them to get out the vote. It bent over backwards, and squinted at times, to keep itself riveted to Obama the community organizer, Obama the opponent of the Iraq war, Obama the defender of drowned New Orleans, Obama the writer and the sender-of-chills-down-your-spine — and to push back, to leave in the blurry background, Obama the premature bipartisan, Obama the wonky Progressive, Obama the nice guy. This is not the place to argue about what Obama has accomplished and what it has not. The thing to note for present purposes is that youth vote, which put Obama over the top, went home after 2008, and if you want to explain the 2010 midterm results, you need no more elaborate explanation.

Our American autumn, most obviously, is not the overthrow of a regime. It's a celebration of human initiative in an awful time. It's a continuing education. It's necessary, but not sufficient. You might call it an audacity of hope.