To Occupiers: Learn or lose

On December 23, 2011, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton 

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

If those in the Occupy movement continue to confuse symbol with reality, they will estrange their natural allies.

If they confuse tactics with strategy, they will exhaust themselves in activities that accomplish little.

If they confuse leadership and structure with domination and hierarchy, they will forego the means required to accomplish their goals.

Their movement was catalyzed by the suffering of millions who cannot find jobs, earn a fair wage, pay their student loans, remain in their homes, or obtain needed healthcare. And also, by the certainty that the Western World’s financial meltdown was not an unfortunate accident. It was the inevitable result of made-in-America policies calculated to redistribute wealth upward.

It is widely acknowledged that the Occupiers’ focus on economic inequality has changed the national discourse. But in the context of recent history, I see a more significant accomplishment.

Historical significance

Taking advantage of the President and his party’s flaccid defense of working Americans’ best interests, the GOP seized the initiative, selling out the nation’s wellbeing to buy political advantage. Considering compromise to be an unnecessary evil, they wrenched politics rightward.

Deep within his character, Obama is a centrist. As the center moved to the right, he followed. Many who had hoped for real change despaired, became dispirited, and disengaged.

By articulating the injustice that so many Americans feel, the Occupiers gave voice to widespread discontent. By taking bold action, they fired the passion and imagination of the dispirited.

Yet none of this amounts to an enduring movement that brings lasting change. To accomplish that, they must abandon the illusion that continuing to hold public space has any impact on the conditions that ignited their protest. They must develop their leadership without abandoning their democratic culture. They must articulate a real-world platform that speaks to the concerns and hopes of the 99% for whom they advocate. They must formulate a strategy and structure that can achieve their platform’s goals. And in doing so, they must respectfully collaborate with their allies.

Symbol vs. reality

Whether intended or not, occupation was an innovative tactic. A march or rally makes brief news and then fades from memory. Occupation brought sustained public attention, recognition, discussion, and support.

So much so that municipal leaders hesitated to evict occupiers. But over time, the mayoral hypocrites who celebrated occupiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Tripoli’s Green Square, and Beijing’s Tinananmen Square yielded to unseen pressure, using force to remove and arrest American occupiers.

Just as well. It is time to move on.

But if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. And fighting for a symbol—occupation of public land—instead of a reality—the material interests of the 99%—avoids choosing the road that will best take you to your professed goals.

Moreover, it pits you against those who should be your allies. Law enforcement officers are solidly in the 99%. Forcing them to face off against you is…well, stupid. Equally stupid is closing down West Coast ports. It has no real impact on commerce, while it takes a day’s wages from workers and estranges Labor. Taken together, these actions erode positive public opinion.

Leadership vs. domination

Leaders hold out a vision. They speak the experience and hopes for a better life of those they lead.  They inspire followers, articulating the pragmatic possibility of change.

Leaders sustain focus. The most common and accurate criticism of the occupy movement is that it’s demands are all over the map. Its participants advocate everything from anarchy to animal rights. Without focus, there is nothing around which to build strategy and structure, or to achieve collaboration with allies. There is no coherent message to deliver to the public.

Without leaders, who will represent the Occupy Movement in press interviews, talk shows, or documentaries?  Who will help inspire followers?

Inexperienced idealists imagine that leadership is antidemocratic. Effective leaders can promote and ensure democracy within their movement. The 20th Century’s most successful movement leader was probably Martin Luther King. Yet I don’t recall anyone arguing that the Civil Rights Movement was undemocratic.

Strategy vs. tactics

Thus far, the Occupy Movement’s only actions have been tactical—holding ground, conducting demonstrations, attracting media attention. Strategy determines how an organization can best achieve its goals within the context of its operating environment, its finite resources, and opposing forces. Tactics that do not serve a strategy accomplish little that is sustainable. Tactics that are inconsistent with a strategy waste resources.

Large organizations are often compared to supertankers that require miles of travel to complete a turn. To respond to a threat or seize an opportunity, organizations without a clear strategy must agree on the nature of the event, agree on the response, devise appropriate actions, assign roles, and monitor activity. Or in the case of the Occupiers, they discuss process and then critique their discussion about process.

In organizations with a broadly understood strategy, the implications of the event are widely recognized, as can be the appropriate responses. Members already know their roles in conducting those responses.

Structure vs. hierarchy

A movement cannot execute a strategy without a structure that is consistent with its strategy. A division of labor allows members to choose roles in which they have the greatest skills and interest. Structure makes an organization effective and efficient.

In the 1960s, feminist leader Jo Freeman wrote “The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages….The ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about.”

What next?

If the Occupy Movement is to make a lasting difference for the 99%, it must embrace leadership, strategy, and structure. One strategy might be to take a lesson from the Tea Party Movement. This would involve running progressive populist candidates in primary races within districts that are strongly Democratic.

Another would be to remain outside the Party, but to pressure Democratic office holders to return to their historical values in the context of the new world order. The Civil Rights Movement formed an alliance with Lyndon Johnson that accomplished a great deal.

However, Democratic politicians may be less responsive to their constituents in an age in which their corporate owners withhold campaign donations, or merely threaten to do so.

Formulating strategy and structure will be more difficult now that the occupiers are no longer in physical and daily proximity. It can be done, but it will require leadership.


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