Occupiers are openly advocating revolutionary change from the streets. But here is where I think the progressive movement’s love affair with OWS should find its limits. Occupy alone won’t produce the changes we need in this country. By focusing on physical occupation of public space, they’ve muddled their early message and have alienated potential allies. On the other hand, they have succeeded in kicking a door open. The public wants action on inequality and wants to go after the 1%. Progressives should walk through the door that Occupy opened – and they should be willing to work with anyone, Occupiers or not, who are interested in providing the leadership that is needed to make lasting change happen.
The goal of progressives should be to build a broader, long-term, mass movement to achieve a democratic economy, an equal society, and a peaceful planet. Taking to the streets is a tactic to help get us toward that goal. But it is those who are best organized who will prevail even if street action leads to major political change.
That is the key lesson of history. In February 1917 a mass movement took to the streets of the Russian Empire and overthrew the tsar. But because they were the best organized, it was the Bolsheviks who ultimately prevailed, even though most Russians seemed to prefer a more moderate and democratic outcome. In February 1979 a mass movement that had been in the streets of Iran for nearly a year finally toppled the shah. Many of the leaders of that movement wanted Iran to become a western-style liberal democracy. What they got was the Islamic Republic, because the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were by far the best organized group in the country.
In February 2011 a mass movement took to the streets of Egypt and overthrew Hosni Mubarak. But because they were the best organized, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that won the fall elections and is now poised to govern Egypt. The people of Tahrir Square are struggling to maintain their vision of the revolution and are finding that taking to the streets is a tactic that can work at times, but isn’t enough to produce long-term change. If it were, the occupations of Syntagma Square would have stopped Greece from imploding on austerity, and would have brought down the neo-Thatcherism of the Cameron-Clegg government in the UK.
Progressives were not wrong to care about winning elections and making sure the right people were in government. That matters a great deal. Who controls the levers of government, whose ideas prevail in a campaign, which ballot initiatives win and lose, which budgets get cut and which budgets get increased – all of these things are crucially important. And ultimately, if we are going to take our money back from the 1%, it’s going to require governmental action.
What progressives were wrong to do was to make electoral organizing such a central focus of their work, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The movement needs to broaden. The problem with focusing so much on Occupy is that it too is narrow. It’s the overture to the greater opera of change that is beginning. It won’t produce change on its own either.
Forgive the length of the blockquote, but there’s several important points in here. First, the focus on public space was really important in bringing people from behind their computers and into the person-to-person focus necessary to build a long-term movement. This important ingredient in fostering grassroots movement is underrated. That said, by November, the movement’s focus turned to the long-term physical occupation of public spaces rather than economic issues. There was probably no way around this, but the occupation of spaces is a means, not an end.
Second, I completely agree that progressives have focused too much on electoral change. As Cruickshank says, electing more and better Democrats is a necessary part of change, but for a long time Democrats have seen the electoral process as almost the exclusive area where change should be made, missing the bigger picture of fostering grassroots movements. Nowhere have we seen this more starkly than the labor movement. The AFL-CIO has funded Democrats for generations and has prioritized political advocacy over organizing as the primary protector of its interests. This strategy has completely failed. Without grassroots pressure, politicians can safely take progressives’ money and ignore them after they are elected. Remember how Jon Tester was the great hope of Kos in 2006. How did that turn out for progressives? Not so great as Tester has moved consistently to the center and the right over the past 5 years.
As Cruickshank notes, organized and established groups are the best placed to take advantage of discontent in the streets. Occupy should be a major wake-up call for progressive movements and is a huge opportunity. We’ve already seen Occupy focus national attention on income inequality and poverty. From Obama and the mainstream media on down, we’ve seen a new focus on these issues. That’s great, but progressive groups need to nourish movements in the streets, not try to co-opt them for the next electoral campaign.