You Gotta Have A Dream: five reflections on Occupy

1/ Framing ‘we’ broadly

I saw (punk band) The Damned at the Lyceum in 1981. During the set, the guitarist, Captain Sensible, took time to criticise (fellow punks) The Clash for selling out.

As it goes, a year later Captain Sensible himself was on Top Of The Pops performing (i.e. miming to) his hit cover of ‘Happy Talk’ from South Pacific. Which goes to show that the whole selling out thing can end up a bit of a minefield.

But at the time, the Captain was just articulating a fairly well widespread view that The Clash’s latest album fell short, musically, of being punk.

And I was reminded of this kind of in-group purity test when reading ‘Hegemony How-To’ by Occupy alumni Jonathan Smucker.

One of the central points he makes in the book is that Occupy encouraged a tendency towards insularity. There was too much focus on ‘the life of the group’ at the expense of strategically engaging with policies and power structures.

Smucker recognises that group identity is important. But he suggests that, to maintain this sense of group, Occupiers rejected opportunities to work with potential allies.

He makes the more general point that defining yourself as a narrow, special interest group reduces your scope for wider engagement.

How you define ‘we’ constructs a political alignment.

So, he says, make that as broad as possible.

2/ Understanding the ‘disruptive power’ needed to effect change

I also read ‘No Shortcuts’ recently and in it Jane McAlevey briefly references Occupy, noting that:

“An incorrect power analysis can lead people who want to end capitalism to think that small numbers of demonstrators occupying public spaces and tweeting about it will generate enough power to bring down Wall Street”.

Again, this is in the context of a wider point that – in any situation – it’s important to understand the power required to exert meaningful influence.

This, she suggests, depends on:

1/ the extent of ideological resistance you need to overcome, and

2/ the targets’ assessment of the cost of settlement.

Where both these things are low, change is more easily achieved. But, when they are high, the kind of disruptive power you need to support your claim will be high, so you will need to build community and workers’ power, requiring a longer-term investment in organising.

3/ New ways of thinking about activism needed

Micah White’s conclusion from Occupy in ‘The End of Protest’, meanwhile, is along the lines that the old tactics don’t work any more and we need new ways of thinking about, and doing, activism.

That sounds like a good call to action for the sector, although it’s not totally convincing/clear to me what that actually looks like. (His recipe, in summary, is “a greater emphasis on subjectivism and theurgism”.)

4/ Acting as ‘prophets of the present’

In my latest podcast, on power, Anastasia Kavada (who with Michaela O’Brien leads the University of Westminster MA Course in Media, Campaigning and Social Change) mentions Alberto Melucci’s notion of social movements as ‘prophets of the present’.

Social movements can perform a role of talking about conflicts that others aren’t (yet) aware of – and in speaking about things not yet addressed, they can shape and create the language that we use.

So Occupy naming ‘the 99%’ represented a critically important linguistic contribution. When we think of the 99%, we think of common interests that weren’t clear before, so opening up new space for debate about inequality.

5/ Understanding and interpreting success

So there are a load of different possible interpretations and different lessons flowing from them.

Dave Karpf in ‘Analytic Activism’ notes this diversity:

“Some [scholars and activists] view [Occupy] as a dramatic success that signals a shift in 21st century politics … Others view it as a flash point that eventually spluttered and failed … The debate over the impact of social movements rests on an unstable foundation, since the very nature of ‘impact’ is subject to debate”.

It’s harder to assess achievements when you’re not realy clear what you are trying to achieve, and what success would look like.

But even when that is identifiable, I still think that the Occupy example helps illustrate that in campaigning most things (a) are contested, (b) are subjective [i.e. there isn’t a definitive truth, different credible interpretations are always possible] and (b) look different over time, as influences play out.

But it’s in making sense of this stuff that we build our effectiveness.

 

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