What do Social Movements Accomplish? And How?
A recent panel discussing what is next for Occupy Wall Street was diverse in ethnicity and age of the panelists, but narrow in political perspective. The shared belief that legislative reforms would constitute victory for the movement was disappointing. Sponsored by the journals Jacobin and Dissent, the stated purpose of the panel was to reflect on “Phase II” of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), as many people feel that the wave of evictions, including from Zucotti Park in New York City, marked an end to the first phase of the movement. In some ways, there was admirable diversity in the panel. It was not a sea of white faces. Furthermore, there was substantive debate, particularly about how to conceptualize the relationship of the Occupy movement to the labor movement. Sociologist Frances Fox Piven emphasized the conservatism inherent in the structural position of labor leaders, and the need for bold tactics to be injected from elsewhere. Mike Hirsch, who works with the United Federation of Teachers, argued that Piven’s view of the leadership of the union movement was accurate twenty years ago, but that there has been movement at the top, as awareness of the crisis facing labor sinks in. On the other hand, Dorian Warren, a professor of political science at Columbia University, suggested that the most reliable allies for OWS in the labor union might be found among younger, less institutionalized unions like Domestic Workers United. These three tendencies — mobilization among the grassroots, in alliance with OWS, to pull labor unions out of their complacency; a more liberal leadership gradually moving towards the OWS movement; and younger, more activist-style unions working closely with OWS — aren’t mutually exclusive. Together, they may map out labor responses that are already emerging and will play a more prominent role in the next year or two.
On the other hand, the overall political perspective of the panelists was not very diverse at all. All the panelists seemed to subscribe to a similar perspective about what would constitute movement success: the passage of major legislation (or even constitutional amendments) that would address the primary concern of the movement, economic inequality. This perspective was reinforced by a number of references to historical movements, most notably Great Depression-era struggles of workers and poor people, and the Civil Rights movement of the late ’50s and ’60s. In both of these cases, the movements could claim victory in the sense the panelists were discussing. The rebellions of the ’30s produced an improved legal climate for unions and crucial reforms like social security. The civil rights movement is typically seen as triumphing with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Strangely absent from the discussion was the anti-war movement and other movements of the late sixties, such as Black Power and feminism. Had they been included, the understanding of what constitutes movement success might have been richer. Although there were some achievements of top-down reform associated with these movements, such as the end of the draft, the withdrawal from Vietnam, and the election of African American mayors in most major cities, it is fair to say that these were not the primary way these movements changed the United States. In fact, what should have been the crowning legislative achievement of this wave of feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, failed. Yet these movements changed American society, a lot. They did so primarily outside of the state.
What I’m suggesting here is related to, but not the same as, the distinction between prefigurative and instrumentalist approaches to movements. The ‘instrumentalist” approach focuses on the ends. How can we get this law, for example, campaign finance reform, passed? What alliances should we create? What should our message be? “Prefigurative” approaches attempt to put in place the sort of social relations we would like to see right now. For example, notwithstanding the huge problems with the formal democratic realm of electoral politics, we can create real democracy in the present through general assemblies. Instrumental attitudes tend to point towards the state: how do we change it? Prefigurative attitudes tend to lead away from the state: let’s make it right ourselves. But the sort of social movement victories I’m thinking of are more enduring than is implied in the prefigurative focus on general assemblies. For example, one of the victories of the movements of the late sixties was the transformation of a number of academic disciplines in the United States, including American History, Sociology, and Anthropology. A new discipline, Cultural Studies, was created which was heavily soaked in the values of the movements. As a result, the experiences of marginalized peoples are now much more openly discussed in universities. The workings of power — in the rhetoric of OWS, the machinations of the 1%, although there are also more complex ways to think about power — are also studied, although it was almost a taboo subject in the ’40s and ’50s. Many on the left trivialize this achievement, but the right has understandably been alarmed by it, and has worked hard, so far unsuccessfully, to reverse it. The spread of food co-ops and alternative bookstores in college towns and cities was another achievement of the movement. Right up to the present, they provide both a visible reminder that non-corporate ways of doing things are possible, and are often an important launching point for social movements.
These sorts of achievements are also relevant to other movements. The consolidation of industrial unions was a key victory of the ’30s. This is not simply because unions facilitated the creation of relatively well-paying jobs with some security and decent benefits. The existence of the unions themselves was (and is) a very good thing. Unions are a continual reminder, above all to their members, that collective struggle has its virtues, practically a radical statement in the intensely individualistic culture of the United States. They provide much of the political base for economic liberalism in the United States. Again, less attention should be paid to left complaints about the unions, and more to the tireless efforts of the right to destroy them. That is a clue to their importance.
These sorts of non-state achievements are all the more significant at this time because it is not at all clear that state-based reforms are likely in the next decade or so. On the panel, Piven alluded to this prospect when talking about education. “Forty years ago, there were all these books talking about how elites wanted public education, because they wanted their factory workers to be properly socialized”, she said (I’m quoting loosely). “But now the elites don’t own factories in the U.S. and are trying to destroy public education.” Reforms come if a substantial minority of the elite recognizes that they can preserve most of their wealth, power and privileges by accepting certain popular demands. It isn’t clear right now that that will happen in the near future. Particularly given that reality, it is crucial to be clear about the importance of building powerful alternatives in a non-state manner. This may occur by creating alternatives outside of traditional institutions, and it may occur by transforming institutions, including universities, and even corporations, without some green light from the state. If elites don’t choose to endorse reforms, those alternatives might provide the launching pad for a revolutionary movement to overthrow them, another alternative strangely unmentioned at the panel.
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