Monday, August 27, 2012

On the Obsession with Mass Movements

Occupy Wall St General Assembly2 at Washington Square

One of the most peculiar things about the current struggle and unpleasantness is the constant calling for some kind of mass movement to correct matters, something like the Civil Rights Movement or the Farmworkers' Movement or something like that.

What's peculiar about these calls is that these movements were never mass movements in the sense that they involved the majority of the population at any given time, or -- in the case of the Farmworker' Movement, any significant fraction of them at any time. In the South, the Civil Rights Movement was never a popular movement, and it could barely poll a majority in the North until after most of the Civil Rights legislation was in place. They're called "mass movements" because large numbers turned out for some of their events, and ultimately they achieved a certain level of victory. It's a designation in hindsight.

Because these and other movements were at least partially victorious, the movements themselves had to be "mass movements." But in fact, they weren't.

By comparison, the Occupy Movement (Becoming Revolution) was, for a time, a mass movement in that it involved hundreds -- indeed, ultimately thousands -- of "branches" that attracted huge crowds routinely over the course of many days and weeks, and it can still put together something of a grand parade from time to time. The spirit of the Occupy Movement is not gone by any means, though the overt practice has muted considerably.

As a rule, I'm very leery of "mass movements" in any case: they are the ideal breeding ground for riot, demagoguery, and mob action among other things. Mass marches are difficult to put together and exhausting to implement. I could go on. Mostly a true mass movement is a sales operation, marketing, and that is not an ideal setting for accomplishing serious social, political, and economic change that benefits the People as a whole. Bottom line, mass movements may have their place, but not as Teh Revolution.

The point is that to be successful, a movement needs to be compact, mobile, determined, assertive, persistent and clear in its objectives and goals. A Revolution shares some of those qualities, but as a rule, a movement seeks participation in the established systems of society and governance by those who were previously excluded while a Revolution seeks to overthrow and replace the same.

A movement may -- or may not -- attract widespread popular support and approval; initially it almost certainly won't. A Revolution, on the other hand, may never have popular support during the course of the struggle. This is primarily because most people, most of the time, will resist making any kind of drastic changes in their lives, changes which are pretty much the point of a Revolution. A movement only seeks change in an aspect of people's lives, sometimes a very fraughtful aspect, to be sure (gay marriage, anyone?), but still it's not about the complete overthrow of established systems of society and governance. It is about participation in those systems.

I've been pretty clear that I see the Occupy Movement as a Revolution Aborning, one that the established systems of society and governance see as an existential threat that must be crushed. This is as true in the United States as it is anywhere else that the Occupy Movement has gained a foothold, and the efforts to stamp it out have become quite energized and frequently violent. The official violence unleashed against Occupy has had the effect of subduing the actions of the Movement and significantly curtailed its development as a Movement, let alone a Revolution. From appearances, the Movement is... almost gone. The operative word being "almost."

On the other hand, it triggered a diverse and diffuse systematic development of alternatives to the status quo, and it inspired innumerable protest actions against various aspects of the current state of affairs leading to the media's acceptance of the fact that "Occupy changed the conversation." I would dispute that myself, because the "conversation" they're talking about is the media's own conversation, which is, by definition, what it chooses to talk about, and the media has almost completely forgotten about Occupy and the issues it brought to the forefront.

Occupy has had its profoundest difficulties in developing and implementing a self-sustaining operating model that is flexible enough to survive repeated hammer-blows from internal factions and external forces.

As an ideal, the General Assembly model should work, but it doesn't.

The Ancient Greeks found this out many years ago, and fairly quickly abandoned the direct democratic model except as a pro forma exercise. The problems with the model were primarily due to its vulnerability to demagoguery and corruption. There was no way to prevent either.

Which is not to say that direct democracy along the lines of the General Assembly model doesn't have value and shouldn't be utilized. The problem in its modern iteration -- which echoes the ancient problem -- is one of scale. General Assemblies don't work on a gigantic scale -- which is what they were becoming in New York City. The GAs became so large that they split in two -- and then into many other GAs around Manhattan and in the Boroughs. But that didn't solve the problem, and so there developed the Spokes Council model, a form of representative democracy, that was adopted over strenuous objection, and it led almost inevitably to the near-death of the Occupy Movement in New York.

The Spokes Council never actually functioned, let it be said, except as a preliminary exercise. Whether it would have worked, I don't know, but the Raid occurred almost immediately upon its formation, and there was never the opportunity to find out.

Zapatistas have apparently been able to operate a Spokes Council model successfully for years, so there's no intrinsic impediment. There just wasn't an opportunity for it to function in New York successfully. (I've been told that there are examples of its successful functioning in this country, but I haven't seen them.)

The Spokes Council by its nature limits the mass appeal of the Movement, though I'm not sure that is immediately apparent. Rather than enhancing the main body of Occupy, it separates an Elect from it, and provides the Elect with all substantive power, leaving the General Assembly with no real function or power but to rubber stamp the decisions of the Spokes Council or reject them. In some cases, the GA  doesn't even have that power.

It was not the Black Bloc that interrupted the development of the Occupy Movement, it was the coordinated, always destructive and often violent police raids that did the trick. By comparison, the Black Bloc action in Oakland in November of 2011 was a fly-speck.

The raids, the very public destruction of the encampments, and particularly the mass arrests were terrifying, and were intended to frighten ordinary people away from participation. They worked. Black Blocs had essentially nothing to do with it. It was a matter of implementing policy decisions from the top to put a stop to the Occupy Movement insofar as possible.

The irony of course is that the raids and destruction and arrests had the effect of dispersing the Movement to a far wider extent than I thought initially, such that the spirit of the Occupy Movement is now pretty much everywhere. The police response to almost any protest is now hyper-reactive and violent (see the police behavior toward protest in Anaheim as one example; for another, check out the police violence against crowds at the Art Walk in Los Angeles who weren't even protesting.)

This is the kind of official behavior that triggers mass resistance-- once the shock of the official violence wears off which can take a while.

But once mass resistance takes hold, it is difficult and sometimes impossible for the establishment to restore and sustain compliance.

Mass resistance is not the same as a mass movement, but it can be a precursor. Mass resistance is usually spontaneous, triggered by outrage against official misconduct. A mass movement, on the other hand, is generally not spontaneous but is instead a carefully orchestrated sales operation designed to promote a particular social or political endeavor. Mass movements are typically the result of marketing. The appearance of a mass movement or the declaration of one when there really isn't one is even more of a marketing ploy.

Obsessing on the creation of a mass movement seems to be a feature of both the old-line Socialists and large swaths of the "Non-Violence" community, neither of which can conceive of a successful movement, let alone a Revolution, that is not at bottom a "mass movement."  Thus both have a tendency to denounce the Occupy Movement for not fitting their specific criteria of what a successful Movement/Revolution should be/must be.

But it's always easier to be the critic than the creator, isn't it?

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