Harnessing the winds of change
They come in sudden gusts when and where we least expect them. The Middle East seems mired in endless authoritarianism and a street vendor sets himself aflame and ignites a regional rebellion for democracy. The governments of Bolivia and Brazil send bulldozers to carve a highway through the Amazon rainforest, and are upended by a two-month-long march of indigenous people to the Bolivian capital. Public anger over the U.S. economic crisis gets diverted into a campaign against the national debt, and suddenly a youth movement springs up to Occupy Wall Street and shifts the country into a debate over corporate power.
These are the winds of political change that alter the landscape of nations, the actions of governments and corporations, and the hearts of the people that become a part of them. Some are big like these. Others are smaller and more modest. But large or small, they are some of the most inspiring moments that democracy has to offer.
But what does it take to harness the winds of change? What can we do to make them more than something that inspires us in the moment, but then fades away? Activism and democracy come with no guarantees. Both will always be at least, in part, an act of faith. But we needn’t simply let the final results rest with fate. In between the passion these winds set loose and the results we hope they will deliver lies another ingredient – strategy.
So what’s the strategy of Occupy Wall Street?
What it all comes down to is that
I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.
- Alanis Morristte
There has been much debate among progressive pundits about whether the Occupy Wall Street rebels occupying parks and public spaces in New York and across the nation actually have any coherent goals and a plan to achieve them. Will the protest that has been so successful at winning attention actually deliver anything concrete, or will it be remembered later as simply protest theater, the left wing’s 2011 flameout to match the right’s “President Michelle Bachman?”
The OWS activists officially do have a nine point agenda for change and its ambitions are clear. They want corporations stripped of the legal personhood normally reserved to humans. They want the financial industry to be closely regulated. They want corporations kicked out of financing political campaigns and corporate lobbyists blocked from writing legislation. They want America’s wealthiest to pay their fair share of taxes.
So if the starting point of the OWS plan is the occupation of parks and the endpoint is a reversal of three decades of U.S. economic policy – what exactly is the path of action that moves the nation from one to the other? That’s sort of a long and complicated journey. What’s the strategy?
In fact, it is completely reasonable that the OWS activists don’t have it all figured out just yet. What they are trying to do is hard and people with that kind of easy certainty about the world work for Fox News, not as movement organizers. What they are doing that is most important right now is fanning the political winds for change, progressive change – and with young people at the forefront.
Consider the fortunes of America’s current youth. Those that don’t go to college are looking at an economy where it will be a struggle just to earn enough income to move out of the parental home. Those that do go to university will graduate with huge student debts and miserable prospects of finding jobs to pay them back. Add in the glories of global climate change and their generation may also raise their children in a world that looks less and less like the one where they spent their own childhoods and more and more like the plot of a science fiction movie.
Facing such a future, the choice is either to be ticked off or oblivious. The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, along with its brethren of protesters worldwide, tells us that large numbers of young people are opting for ticked off. Thank goodness. What young people are seeing and reacting to is an economic system that has been relentlessly rigged to make all the winners even bigger winners, at the expense of everyone else. During the lifetime of the current 30-year-old, America’s wealthiest one-percent have increased their share of the American paycheck from $9 of every $100 earned to $19. You don’t need an economics degree to notice that the guy across the table just took a second piece of pie before you even had your first.
Three Universal Questions
But as the activists in Zuccotti Park and around the rest of the country map out their next moves, there are three important questions about developing advocacy strategy that are basic and universal. How the OWS movement answers those questions will have a lot to do with whether it achieves something other than fond memories for those who joined it.
What do we try to change first?
Since you can’t change everything about U.S. economic policy all at once you need to pick which thing you will try to do first. Picking a first clear objective is tricky stuff, important to get right and easy to get wrong. The first concrete objective of any movement needs to be simultaneously big enough to inspire people and confined enough to deliver something real, not in five years but in one, tops. Otherwise people lose patience and move on to other things, most especially their actual lives. It also needs to set you up for the next and bigger battles by naming the right enemy, creating the right symbolism, and generating real momentum.
How do we broaden our base of support?
In a democracy, passion and creativity among a few can spark a movement, but to get the goods you need ‘the people’ in big numbers. That begins by stitching together alliances of the philosophically aligned, which OWS has already begun. But then it is important to raid the other side and come up with some recruits. The more crazy diversity you can put together the better. The New York Times recently hosted a ‘summit’ between the caricatures of a barefoot and longhaired OWS protester on one side and a well-dressed, middle-aged broker on the other. If OWS can put together a duo like that, but joined on the same side, its power will start to stretch and grow.
How do we pick actions that leverage our power as far as we can?
David used a sling to slay Goliath. Chicago civil rights groups in the 1960s forced city officials to bargain by occupying the stalls in every public restroom at O’Hare International Airport (no law restricted how long one could take to comply with nature’s demands). Farmworkers staged boycotts. Seamstresses in Jessica McClintock’s Oakland dress factory took their protest to the front door of her San Francisco mansion. Every movement needs to figure out that special match between what its people can do and what will bring maximum pressure to bear on its targets. What can OWS do once it leaves the park that will make corporate America and its political minions feel real heat?
Economically and environmentally the world has seemed of late to be set on corporate-driven autopilot that we can’t shut down. As it turns out, real democracy – not just the kind where people get to vote for 12 hours every two years or so – still lies, like hidden embers, ready to rise into action if the right breezes blow. Regardless of what OWS does or does not accomplish in the months ahead, it has already established a mood of hope and inspiration where both seemed almost gone. It is a reminder that we as a people are indeed still free to decide our own fates. But we need to do that both as creatively and as strategically as we can.