[For the first half of the essay, see the original post at Znet. - BA ]
... Creating Social Power
Where the rubber hits the road for the Occupy Movement, I believe, is whether they can turn this incredible mobilization, and with all of its symbolic importance, into a force of social power.
... The key to whatever success has been generated in the US (and elsewhere), over time, has been the development of social power by the people below to force the people above to do what those below want. It’s really that simple: developing social power from below to force the people above to do what we want.
The question is: can Occupy do this on an on-going basis? That’s the $64,000 question. Key to this challenge, I believe, is to “organize” this herd of active individuals into a series of conscious political groups, each based on solidarity, and then to unite with other groups at a greater level of solidarity.
Arguably, that could be said to be where Occupies are: with their open, democratic processes in their General Assemblies, these are an effort to create that group-ness, that collective identity and unity. And out of that, have come decisions to engage in collective behavior, as Occupy Oakland did, twice closing down Oakland’s port.
My gut, however, tells me this is not sufficient: it’s too general. And is too weak; I don’t think organization at this level will be sufficient to withstand on-going police repression. We need more time, and more intimate settings, to get together to think out these issues than is possible with general assemblies, no matter how brilliantly run and how inclusive they are.
I think each Occupy needs to pull people together, but then to encourage people to organize themselves into affinity groups, of between, say, 5-12 people. This sized group is small enough where people can build personal connections and make decisions that all can abide by, and yet be big enough for folks to engage in collective activities while having some in support in case of arrests, etc.
I’m going to return to an article I published on November 16, 2011, “Open Letter to Occupy Wall Street Participants: Taking Advantage of Seasonal Down Time” (www.zcommunications.org/contents/182754/print.)
I argue that we need to further “construct” the 99% movement. We need to build the unity and clarity that we aspire to, recognizing that we don’t have it yet.
If you visit an encampment or join a march, what you find is a wide range of thinking and positions, moving from (generally speaking) left-of-center liberals to progressives on leftward, with a few thinking Republicans mixed in. (I’m not putting anyone down, but am trying to describe our political diversity.) This doesn’t make one position “correct” and everyone else “wrong,” but it acknowledges that we are not unified politically. In my opinion, we need to respectfully discuss these differences and try to come to more developed common positions.
For example, there are major questions we must face: are we trying to “reform” the system, or do we want to begin a process to consciously try to create a new society (whatever that means)? Do we focus primarily on domestic issues, or do we focus on domestic and global issues at the same time? Do we support Obama and the Democrats in 2012, or do we also begin to seriously build an alternative third party for 2016 and subsequent elections? (I’m not trying to confine questions to these issues, but these come immediately to mind.)
There is one thing to note, however, in how I even constructed these questions: they each reject dichotomous thinking—Pepsi or Coke?—and argue that we need to develop processes to understand and develop solutions that incorporate our best thinking, and that includes all shades of positions. In other words, rejecting “either/or” options, and replacing them with “both/and” ones, shifting the discussion from “this” or “that” to both, and discussing priorities rather than absolutes. I think focusing on processes and priorities allows us to confront significant and important differences among ourselves in ways that dichotomous thinking simply doesn’t allow. (This also rejects the dichotomous thinking that mainstream society has been locked into by the elites and their passive educational system.)
The problem with addressing processes and priorities, however, is that it takes time: there are no simple answers. It requires treating those with whom we have differences with respect—and that means being willing to listen to them, to try to understand where they are coming from, and to intervene when they need to hear “alternative” visions.
Again, general assemblies cannot provide the forum for this. We need smaller groups, and more time.
As I said above, I think we can learn from the women’s movement, the anti-nuclear plants and weapons movement, and the anarchist movement (and which have been adopted by others). We need to come together, small group by small group, to begin the process of thinking things out. I’m suggesting that we start creating house parties or something comparable, where people gather in people’s homes or some other amenable locations, to begin these processes. Now, these meetings can be based on a number of commonalities: particular political positions/ideologies (socialist, trade unionist), geographical proximity (college dorm, neighborhood), commonalities (race, gender, class, sexual orientation/identification, primary language, religious orientation, etc.), or whatever brings small groups of people together: none is more important than any other; the goal is to create sustainable groups that will last over time, and are intended to engage in commonly-desired political activities in the not-too-distant future.
Key to this, I suggest, is that we take time to begin getting to know one another. In other words, I think we should approach these house meetings with the idea that, if all possible, we will continue over an agreed upon time to try to work things out together. Say, at the first meeting, we agree that if we return to the next house party, that we are willing to commit to a further six weeks of meetings with this group of people. At the end of this agreed-upon period, we can then each decide if this process works for us with these people, or that we will be free to find another, more compatible group, with no hard feelings. With that agreed-upon understanding, we can proceed.
Once there is a commitment to a period of working together, then I suggest we not jump immediately into debating political issues, but that we take time to at least share something personal about ourselves. So, for example, we might give each person five minutes to tell about their lives, however they want to do this: where they are from, what kind of family do they have, where they went to school, etc., etc. Whether done at the same time, or in a second “round,” it is always good to share individual stories of how you got politicized, or what brought you to the 99% movement. You might do another “round” on what each person would like to see come out of the 99% movement, maybe desired goals that are immediate and those that one might desire over the long-term. Folks will find, if my experiences are of any value, that as we get to know one another, we can relax, we can discuss differences more easily, and we can respect each other even more.
Once this is done—and it is worth it to take the time to enhance the comfortableness level for everyone—then I think each group should identify what are three key issues that each person thinks are most important for their group and the movement to address, and why. Take time to discuss this, as decisions made will probably drive the group’s work, at least over the immediate term. Then once the priorities are set by the group, then I’d encourage people to read articles and books on the subject, or get movement intellectuals in one’s area to come and discuss the issue, etc. In other words, I think it’s important to find the best thinking available, and utilize it to inform one’s discussions.
In other words, I think we need to consciously create affinity groups out of gatherings of individuals, so as to enhance democracy, strengthen organization, develop solidarity, and deepen the political understanding—and I’m talking in the broad sense, not just confining this to electoral politics—of the Occupy Movement. This development of affinity groups will allow us to consciously deepen our resistance, while allowing us to develop a process by which we hammer out our visions of, and pathways toward, a new societal model, one which is based on global solidarity in the struggle for environmental sustainability and for economic and social justice.
What I am suggesting is not rocket science. For social movement scholars, as I said above, it should be obvious I am building off the work of the late Alberto Melucci, who recognized that social movements did not emerge out of thin air, but were products of the processes by which they developed. I agree with Melucci that we have to think out and develop processes to build the type of social movements that we want.
Melucci advances a three-step model that he had identified in his research in Italy. First, individuals have to come together for the purpose of further political engagement, building on commonalities (however defined), to create a group that meets one’s needs sufficiently to result in an emotional commitment to the further development of the group at least for an agreed-upon period of time. This is what he calls creating a “collective identity.” Each group is a result of interaction, negotiation and (sometimes) conflict, but is based on a willingness to work together for an agreed-upon period of time. Ultimately, the purpose of each group is to develop a level of understanding and unity that allows them to engage in collective activity.
Second, the group needs to engage in some collective activity as a means of attempting to achieve a commonly desired political goal. This means doing something together that involves taking some personal risk, whether simply identifying members of the group publicly as supporters/proponents of a particular controversial issue, or of engaging in some conflictual activity that is intended to enhance public awareness or as a means to seek further public participation to further advance towards one’s chosen goals. [Obviously, participating in Occupy activities does this to a certain degree, but to date, this seems so far to be on a largely personal basis—here I’m talking about engaging in common activity as a group.]
And third, this requires that each group “frame” their activities in ways that enhances their particular project. In other words, acting in and of itself can be interpreted in a number of ways, whether to enhance one’s intended meaning or to discredit it. Each group wants to ensure that their activities are interpreted as accurately as possible so as to enhance their efforts, which, in turn, undercuts opponents’ distortions or counters efforts to undermine the group’s project. This means consciously developing one’s “story,” one’s political analysis, so as to share with friends as well as the media so as to increase public support. [This is based on the understanding that there are almost always three different positions that develop in any organizing project: those that support the project, those that oppose it, and those in the middle who don’t care or who are not paying attention, with the middle usually being the largest of the three. The goal of any organizing project is to move those in the “middle” to supporting the project being advanced.]
These three steps should be considered as part of an upwardly spiraling process, interconnected and not separate in real life. One creates a group that develops a shared political understanding, engages in collective action to advance their chosen political goals, and frames it to enhance their support by “outsiders,” which, in turn, leads to more people joining the group, further collective action and supportive framing, to more people joining the group….
Ideally, people create as many affinity groups as they deem necessary. And if/when the group decides to engage in non-violent direct action, there are people in the affinity group who might be willing to risk arrest, while others can’t, so those who can’t provide jail support for those who get arrested. Thus, this model allows for differing degrees of commitment even within an affinity group.
However, this describes the process for developing an affinity group. How do they work with other affinity groups? One model found to be useful in the past is that of a “spokescouncil,” whereby each affinity group in a network is seen as a spoke and they come together at certain times to discuss/develop different plans and programs with the goal of creating a unified campaign and component “actions” to advance that campaign. Generally, an affinity group will meet, develop their particular positions, and then “empower” a delegate or set of delegates to represent them at the upcoming spokescouncil. By being empowered, this means that affinity group representatives have the approval of the group to do their best thinking and to take the best decisions at the council, and that will, therefore, bind the affinity group to carry out any decisions made.
That brings us to another crucial issue: decision-making. How can we be as democratic as possible, so as to respect everyone as well as to ensure all sides of issues being discussed get aired before making a decision, while yet not being stymied by a never-ending “process” that impedes activities?
Rather than waiting to address this issue only when it raises its’ head, I suggest it be confronted early-on in the life of each affinity group. The process we developed in a San Francisco veterans’ group that I was active in during the 1980s offers an intelligent way forward that works: recognize that there are two different levels of issues, and establish a different decision-making criteria for each.
We decided that all issues could be placed in one of two categories: “action” items, and “organizational” items. Action items were simple: do we endorse this or that?, do we meet in June or July?, etc. For these, we always sought consensus, but if we could get that and there was division, we simply settled on a majority vote, with 50% + 1 deciding.
Organizational issues were major issues that could affect the very existence of the organization, such as do we endorse political issues, do we replace petitioning with non-violent direct action, etc. For these—and if there were differences regarding categorization, we also addressed that first—we established a “super-majority” (2/3s, 3/4s, etc., affirmative) required to pass these items in the face of no consensus before addressing the issue itself. Requiring a pre-defined “super majority” before getting into the discussion indicated this was a serious issue, while allowing it to be discussed in detail, prohibited much “maneuvering” to get a simple majority vote, and meant enough people desired it so as to preclude organizational splitting. Thus, this took a conservative approach to organizational change, not destroying a successful organization, while keeping the organization from being immobilized because we didn’t have complete consensus. This approach, or something similar, I suggest, deserves people’s consideration.
In short, what I’m suggesting herein is that we further develop our political understandings and unity, while moving towards being a movement of unified small groups instead of unaffiliated individuals. This would enhance our common understandings and our ability to present them to others, while increasing our social cohesion, providing us with more internal social and political support as we move forward. This, obviously, would be done with the idea of coalescing these affinity groups into larger and larger Occupy encampments, and a stronger and more powerful Occupy Movement.
It is this third level—developing social power—that truly threatens the 1%. They don’t appreciate our mobilizations, and they don’t like the symbolic nature of our mobilizations, but they fear our developing such social power that we can force them to do what we want; in other words, they fear the very democracy that they have long told us our country is based upon.
It’s our “job” to make this democracy real, through building strong, unified and determined organizations that can work together with people everywhere, in the US and around the world. And pushing onward….
Kim Scipes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. His latest book, AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage?, has recently been published in paperback. For details, links to reviews, and 20% off paperback price, go to http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/book.htm. Scipes also has a chapter in the soon-to-be published book, It Started in Wisconsin.