A Practical Guide to Co-option

Also published in Occupy! #4. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.

Good problem to have

In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats&#151including the White House&#151started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.  

How often is a genuinely grassroots social justice movement in a position where it’s framing the national narrative, and where the major political parties are reacting to us? Having this kind of leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

So, in political struggle, when powerful forces want to co-opt your momentum, that means you have leverage, and that’s a good problem for a grassroots movement to have. Serious movement strategy conversations about the threat of co-option should start with this happy realization. Yes, wariness of establishment and “moderate” forces is certainly warranted. But generalized fears of co-option can have a paralyzing effect on our ability to activate a broad spectrum of allies &#151 especially if we uncritically lump together and dismiss every national organization, labor union, community organization, etc., that engages in any electoral work or even legislative work.

Even if you concede that establishment forces want to co-opt a more radical agenda &#151 well, so what? What does that even mean? It means that different groups and institutions have different agendas, and they’re always looking for ways to further those agendas. NEWSFLASH: We all have this in common! We all have agendas, and we’re partial to our agenda over others’ agendas. It is certainly true that more established institutions tend to command more resources than dynamic new configurations like Occupy Wall Street &#151 and that established groups tend to get stuck in their ways, and even to sometimes actively resist more radical accelerations of change. This is part of the terrain that we have to map and understand. But we should do this with an eye to finding and cultivating allies within institutions &#151 not to dismiss the institutions wholesale.

The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small “radicals only” space. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing large membership institutions, including labor unions, national advocacy organizations, community organizations, and faith communities. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment.

If we are to continue building on the momentum that Occupy Wall Street kicked off, we can’t treat institutions and individuals as if they were one-dimensional characters with simple and permanently fixed motives. Larger membership organizations can be complicated, and their programs and politics are often a mixed bag. The temptation for radicals is to focus on everything they’ve ever done wrong (i.e. all the things that radicals don’t like). But many of these institutions and movements began with premises that are not so far from our own. We have to figure out how to invite them and the people inside them to shift and to change. This includes institutions we don’t align with on every issue and who have disappointed us in the past. Achieving significant changes requires building broad alliances. While of course there are lines to draw (e.g. we should never align with organized racists), generally we can’t afford to be puritanical when it comes to building a broad movement.

One Co-option at a Time

Social movement theorists have a term for the sort of co-option that Occupy Wall Street should prize: infrastructure co-option. Nascent movements become mass movements not by building their own infrastructure entirely from scratch or recruiting new volunteers one at a time, but by “co-opting” existing institutions and social infrastructure into the service of the movement and its goals. The Civil Rights movement went big when existing institutions&#151especially black churches and schools&#151came to identify strongly as part of the movement. Organizers provided opportunities for members of those pre-existing institutions to make this new identification actionable and visible. This was cultivated to such an extent that, eventually, to be a member of certain institutions implied active involvement in the Civil Rights movement. When this happens with enough institutions, the movement gets a huge boost in capacity. And capacity means power.

Over the past few months many organizations and constituencies have been watching Occupy Wall Street, trying to figure out whether and how to relate to it. These organizations&#151including faith communities, the NAACP, MoveOn.org, labor unions, community organizations, and many other groups&#151understand how they and their members are affected by the crises that Occupy Wall Street has named and confronted. Some of them are already engaging in important ways, explicitly as part of&#151or in support of&#151Occupy Wall Street. And many more have long been engaged in work that clearly aligns with the movement’s core values&#151and probably even deserve some credit for helping to lay the long-term organizing groundwork that helped create OWS.

But there are still significant barriers standing in the way of broader constituencies conceptualizing themselves as part of a 99% movement and getting actively involved. The first and most obvious barrier is that many groups haven’t really been asked to get involved. During the first couple months of OWS, if a group wanted to get involved, it was typically a matter of them taking the initiative to approach us and ask what kind of support they might provide. Usually the answer was some variety of “Come down to Zuccotti Park” or “Stand up against Bloomberg for our right to occupy the park.” Often the groups that wanted to support OWS simply showed up. While this kind of involvement made perfect sense when we held the park, it’s clear that we now have to come up with other ways for more people and groups to take action as part of the 99% movement.

This is a critical transition for Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement. Remember that Occupy Wall Street kicked off with a well timed call-to-action, a ripe target, some planning, and a lot of crazy luck. As a result, OWS has understandably had more of a culture of mobilizing than of organizing. It’s been a little like a group of folks who don’t know anything about farming who arrive at a farm at harvest time. There’s delicious food everywhere, and all they have to do is pick, pluck, and gather it. And eat it! “Wow,” one of them exclaims, “farming is awesome! Why would we waste our time cultivating the soil? This food is delicious! I want to eat it all the time! This is working very well. We should just keep doing this &#151 all the time!”

Occupy Wall Street has been something of a harvest moment. It pulled thousands of people out of the woodwork who’d been waiting for something just like this to come along, and who were in a place where we could carve out time from our lives to engage it. But movements need hundreds of thousands if not millions of active participants to become mass movements. It’s difficult if not impossible to activate those kinds of numbers by just taking public action with the hope that other like-minded individuals will decide to join you. We need more on-ramps and more ways to be involved &#151 for folks who might not yet feel comfortable camping out at a public park.

More than any other factor, people get involved in social change because people they know and respect provide an opportunity for them to get involved. In their essay Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement, Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam cite proximity to movement activity as the single biggest factor for why people become active in grassroots change efforts:

Structural proximity to a movement, rather than any individual disposition, produces activism. Although individuals differ in their dispositions, the opportunities afforded by structural location relative to a movement determine whether they are in a position to act on these dispositions. Empirical support for these positions is unimpeachable.

In other words, while many people hold beliefs compatible with Occupy Wall Street, a very small percentage are currently taking action on those beliefs &#151 and a primary factor for why some people have become active is simply that they encountered opportunities provided by people close to them who are already active. This is why our growth has reached something of a plateau. And this is why it is now critical that we meet with folks who are movers and shakers in other social networks and institutions. That’s how the 99% movement can grow at the rate we all know it needs to; by activating whole swaths of society at a time.

But we have to approach those movers and shakers in the right way. Our “asks” of organizations shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. We have to start by establishing relationships. The term infrastructure co-option suggests a kind of functionalist attitude; as if a movement uses existing institutions in order to accomplish movement goals. One could look at the Civil Rights movement, point to core leaders, and argue that they exploited existing institutions to advance their agenda. But such an assessment would be wrongheaded. Civil rights leaders cultivated relationships with other organizations based on shared self-interest. This was a process of courting trust, cultivating deep collaboration and accountability, and making good judgments about the kinds of actions and messages that would resonate with different constituencies. Leaders had to act boldly, but also humbly.

Movement Season & Election Season

All of the above gets so much more complicated in an election year. Occupy Wall Street is an outsider force. It should remain an outsider force this year. If it were to endorse candidates or a particular political party, it would immediately lose all of its value and leverage. Our job is to push from the outside.

But that’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t have a strategy for engaging with the energy and media attention of the election season. We should. And how we do it will seriously affect our ability to continue to grow this movement, to be seen as relevant, to cultivate alliances, and to leverage power to effect real change.

As an outsider force, one of our biggest tasks is to set the terms of debate. For decades now, the terms of debate have shifted further and further to the Right, as conservatives united under a shared anti-government (i.e. anti-social spending) narrative, and progressive forces, fractionalized, waged mostly defensive campaigns to limit damage on an issue-by-issue basis. Interestingly, the rightward direction was probably no more apparent than in the case of the 2010 midterm elections, where the so-called Tea Party shifted the national debate into something of a moratorium on taxation and government spending on social programs and infrastructure. While the Tea Party’s agenda was deplorable, there are some lessons we might glean from aspects of their model (of an outsider grassroots force shifting the debate). To be clear, Occupy Wall Street is not “the Tea Party of the Left.” To our disadvantage, we don’t have nearly the financial backing that the Tea Party enjoyed via the Koch brothers and other major funders. Nor do we enjoy our own major cable news network that mobilizes people to come to our rallies. But to our advantage, because of our genuine independence from big corporate backers, we have been willing and able to tell the whole truth: not just that the government is broken, but that there were particular institutions and people who broke it. In other words, we have been willing to name Wall Street, the big banks, and the one percent as a culprit, and this naming rings true to a lot of people (even including some from the Tea Party base).

As recently as August of last year, anyone watching the mainstream news might think that the national deficit and social spending was the biggest problem facing the nation. That was a pretty impressive feat by the Tea Party. A month later, however, media outlets were at long last shifting their scrutiny to the consolidation of political power by the extremely wealthy, and the corresponding political disenfranchisement of the 99%. That shift should have happened long ago&#151that analysis should have long been commonsense&#151but it’s still an achievement that OWS can be proud of. And if we can keep that as the dominant framework&#151as the new commonsense&#151through the election season and beyond, we will have accomplished a great deal.

But many questions remain. What do we do, for instance, when candidates start to run on platforms that explicitly name “the 99%”? This is already happening. Are they co-opting our movement?

Yes, they are, in some ways. But, really, of all the slogans in the world, “We are the 99%” may be the one most difficult to claim exclusive ownership of &#151 after all, it’s a slogan that invites an overwhelming majority of people to identify with it. Moreover, there’s another way of looking at this: in some ways we are the ones who are co-opting them. At the very least, we are co-opting their speeches with our rhetoric. Once someone starts running on your rhetoric, you then have more leverage over them. You are better positioned to expose them if they’re just giving lip service to your ideas without any intention of delivering. And for all the horrendous limits of the two-party system, still a slate of candidates who get elected pledging to take on the big banks gives us a lot more to work with&#151as an outsider social movement&#151than a slate of candidates elected on a pledge to cut social spending. And more importantly, it keeps the momentum on our side.

Another important question has to do with how we engage allies who do endorse candidates. Many labor unions, for example, are likely at some point to endorse President Obama’s reelection bid. Some already have. And some will surely endorse specific state and local candidates. We’re an outsider force. We should never endorse candidates. But is it possible to ally around specific actions with organizations that also endorse candidates?

It has to be. We join up with others where we can, and we depart where we depart. If we call for an end to corporate personhood, for example, we should welcome as many co-endorsers as possible, including organizations that endorse politicians &#151 and even politicians themselves. Welcoming politicians’ endorsements of our goals doesn’t mean endorsing those politicians. This is an important detail, and it requires a precise threading of the needle. As an outside force, we have to take all politicians to task, regardless of party. But the details of how we do this matter. We need to pressure politicians and candidates, and the best way to do this is to ask them hard questions and provide pressure that pulls them in our direction (or put them on the defensive). If we ask good questions that resonate with the people who hear them, then we’re doing our job well. If, on the other hand, we make general statements like, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same,” then we’re being needlessly belligerent to our allies and potential allies (without even putting politicians on the defensive). An organization focused primarily on reproductive rights, for example, will understandably be very concerned about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the White House. We can take candidates from both parties to task on an array of other issues without spurning their reasons for deciding to endorse a candidate.

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Every once in a very long while, an “earthquake moment” hits and shakes the foundations of the political landscape. In an earthquake moment, structures that you long took for granted may suddenly display new features. Perhaps a structure was built on a hitherto invisible fault-line, and the quake splits it right down the middle. Someone who had felt constrained within her institution before the shake-up may now see and seize openings to move the institution in a bolder direction. And this is more likely to happen if organizers from Occupy Wall Street&#151the visible catalyst of the earthquake&#151approach longstanding institutions to strategize together about how they might engage with this moment. An earthquake moment is a time to invite people to engage. It’s not a moment to keep people in boxes, or to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to hammer Wall Street, the big banks, and the political system that has been fixed to serve only the very wealthy and powerful. Our task now is to activate as many people as possible into action. And this has to include people we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have as our best friends.

The Tactic of Occupation & the Movement of the 99%

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If we are to launch from a moment to a movement, we will have to broaden the “us”. We must win in the arena of values, and not allow ourselves to be narrowly defined by our tactics.

A month and a half ago a few hundred New Yorkers set up an encampment at the doorstep of Wall Street. Since then, Occupy Wall Street has become a national and even international symbol &#151 with similarly styled occupations popping up in cities and towns across America and around the world. A growing popular movement has fundamentally altered the national narrative about our economy, our democracy, and our future.

Americans are talking about the consolidation of wealth and power in our society, and the stranglehold that the top 1% have on our political system. More and more Americans are seeing the crises of our economy and our democracy as systemic problems, that require collective action to remedy. More and more Americans are identifying as part of the 99%, and saying “enough!” This moment may be nothing short of America rediscovering the strength we hold when we come together as citizens to take action to address crises that impact us all.

Occupation as tactic

It behooves us to examine why this particular tactic of physical occupation struck such a nerve with so many Americans and became a powerful catalyzing symbol.

On some level we have to separate the reasons for this broad resonance from some things the physical occupation has meant to the dedicated people occupying on the ground. Within Liberty Square there is a thriving civic space, with ongoing dialogues and debates, a public library, a kitchen, live music, General Assemblies, more meetings than you can imagine, and all sorts of activities. In this sense, occupation is more than just a tactic. Many participants are consciously prefiguring the kind of society they want to live in.

But it is also a tactic. A tactic is basically an action taken with the intention of achieving a particular goal, or at least moving toward it. In long-term struggle, a tactic is better understood as one move among many in an epic game of chess (with the caveat that the powerful and the challengers are in no sense evenly matched). A successful tactic is one that sets us up to eventually achieve gains that we are presently not positioned to win. As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire asked, “What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?”

By this definition, the tactic of physical occupation in the case of Occupy Wall Street has been enormously successful already. We have, at least for a moment, subverted the hegemonic conservative narrative about our economy and our democracy with a different moral narrative about social justice and real democratic participation. We are significantly better positioned than before to make bold demands, as we can now credibly claim that our values are popular&#151even that they are common sense&#151and connected to a social base.

Occupy Wall Street as “floating signifier”

I want to suggest that the primary reason the tactic of occupation has resonated so far and wide is because it has served as a symbol about standing up to powerful elites on their own doorstep. To most people, the “occupy” in “Occupy Wall Street” essentially stands in for the F word! Millions of Americans were waiting for someone or something to stand up to Wall Street, the big banks, the mega-corporations, and the political elite. Then one day, a relatively small crew of audacious and persistent New Yorkers became that someone or something &#151 became the catalyzing symbol of defiance we’d been waiting for.

Thus, Occupy Wall Street has served as something of a floating signifier &#151 amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values within the symbol. Such ambiguous symbols are characteristic of new populist alignments. Many objects can serve as the catalyzing symbol, including actions (e.g. the occupation of Tahrir Square or of the Wisconsin State Capitol this spring), individual politicians (quintessentially Perón in Argentina), or even constructed brands (e.g. the “Tea Party”). As the above examples suggest, this phenomenon can be seen in all kinds of broad political alignments, across the ideological spectrum. In all cases though, a degree of ambiguity is necessary if the symbol is to catalyze a broad alignment. If the symbol’s meaning becomes too particular&#151too associated with any one current or group within the alignment&#151it risks losing its powerfully broad appeal.

It’s important to note that although the signifier is floating (i.e. not peg-able), it is not empty of content. It has to be meaningful enough to resonate. Moreover, different symbols tend to pull things in different directions. Candidate Barack Obama as floating signifier, for example, pulled a lot of grassroots energy into what has turned out to be an establishment-reinforcing direction. Occupy Wall Street as floating signifier, on the other hand, seems so far to be pulling a lot of establishment forces in the direction of the fired-up, social justice-oriented grassroots.

When a challenger social movement hits upon such a catalyzing symbol, it’s like striking gold. One might even argue that broad social movements are constituted in the act of finding their floating signifier. Hitherto disparate groups suddenly congeal into a powerful aligned force. Momentum is on their side and things that seemed impossible only yesterday become visible on the horizon.

It becomes imperative then for the forces defending the status quo to tarnish the challenger movement and its symbols &#151 to destroy their popular appeal. This tarnishing strategy is accomplished by nailing down the floating signifier &#151 by fixing it to particular meanings, associating it with particular “kinds of people” and to narrower frameworks, so that it can no longer function as a popular symbol.

This is the phase we find ourselves in right now.

Expanding the “us”

We are engaged in a battle over values and ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people &#151 all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power. This idea has struck a chord and millions of Americans have quickly come to identify on some level with Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement.

In this epic battle over values and ideas, our opponents have already mounted a sophisticated public relations offensive to nail down the floating signifier and negatively brand the emerging movement. They are attempting to caricaturize, stereotype and “otherize” the most visible actors&#151the occupiers&#151in order to inoculate more Americans from identifying with “the 99%” and keep them from joining the movement.

“Character assassination” is a primary tactic that the powerful wield against challengers. It’s about tarnishing a person’s reputation, so that no one will listen to anything they have to say. It can be used against groups and movements too. When Mayor Bloomberg attempted to “clean Zuccotti Park”, he was making the first move in an ongoing character assassination campaign that has not ceased. Bloomberg and others have thrown everything in the book at us.

In the face of a character assassination campaign, our task and challenge is to expand the “us”. Our opponents want to portray the movement as a particular kind of person doing a particular thing (e.g. “dirty hippies”). Thus, it’s critical that we continue to bring more kinds of people, visibly engaged in more kinds of things, into the movement. The 99% movement has to be more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than any given tactic, and more than any “type” of person. We must not allow ourselves to be typecast.

The good news is that there’s already a lot in motion to buck our opponents’ strategy. Since September 17 (the start of Occupy Wall Street), the “us” has expanded exponentially. The movement has become far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupation. The 99% movement is Elora and Monte in rural West Virginia who sent hand-knit hats to occupiers at Liberty Square. It’s 69-year-old retired Iowa public school teacher Judy Lonning who comes out for Saturday marches in Des Moines. It’s Nellie Bailey, who helped to organize the Occupy Harlem Mobilization last week. It’s Selena Coppa and Joe Carter, who marched in formation to the New York Stock Exchange last week with 40 fellow ‘Veterans of the 99%’. The 99% movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.

Tactic, message, movement

We are moving in the right direction, but we must keep moving. We can’t let this expansion of the “us” plateau.

In the past week and a half, we’ve seen more and more news stories focusing on the physical logistics of occupation, including the problems and challenges. News outlets are presenting the tactic of occupation as if the tactic were the message and the movement itself. And our opponents are making some headway in negatively branding occupation and occupiers.

To navigate this challenge, it is important that we recognize a few things about our relationship to the tactic of physical occupation:

  • It has already accomplished more than any of us imagined.
  • It is incredibly resource-intensive to maintain.
  • It will not serve us forever (indeed, it’s utility may already be waning).
  • We will have to come up with other popular expressions of the values of this movement.

We have to distinguish conceptually between our tactics, our message, and our movement. Of these three, our tactics should be the thing we are least attached to. In oppositional struggle, it is critical to maintain the initiative; to keep one’s opponents in a reactive state. This is not accomplished by growing overly attached to any particular tactic&#151no matter how well it worked the first time&#151and thereby doing exactly what our opponents expect us to do.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to conceptualize the need to be innovative and keep our opponents on their toes than to actually come up with the right thing at the right moment to make it so. Moreover, it’s wrongheaded to get caught up in the elusive search for the perfect silver bullet tactic. Movements are, more than anything else, about people. To build a movement is to listen to people, to read the moment well, and to navigate a course that over time inspires whole swaths of society to identify with the aims of the movement, to buy in, and to take collective action.

“Occupy Wall Street” is the tactic that has launched a movement for social justice and real democracy onto center stage. It has served as the initial catalyzing symbol. Hopefully ten or twenty years from now, when we look back at all we’ve accomplished together, we’ll credit Occupy Wall Street as a critical moment that helped to spark and then build a lasting movement.

However, if we fail to find other successful tactics&#151and other popular expressions of this movement’s values&#151we will be pronounced dead as soon as the tactic fades. Fortunately, Occupy Wall Street&#151and the tactic of occupation&#151is neither the primary message nor the movement itself.  And, fortunately, we don’t have to invent the message for the movement from scratch.

“We are the 99%” has become a core message of this burgeoning movement. It emerged in tandem with the deployment of the captivating tactic of occupation. The framework of the 99% accomplishes a number of important feats:

  • The 99% frames the consolidation of wealth and political power in our society &#151 the central grievance of this movement and a central crisis of our times.
  • The 99% frames a class struggle in a way that puts the 1% on the defensive (whereas the common accusation of “class warfare” has somehow tended to put a lot of people in the middle on the defensive).
  • The 99% casts an extraordinarily broad net for who is invited to join the movement. Most everyone is encouraged to see their hopes and dreams tied to a much bigger public. Thus it frames a nearly limitless growth trajectory for the movement.
  • The 99% even leaves room for the 1% to redeem itself. There are many striking cases of “1 percenters” speaking out as defectors who are as vocal as anyone that the system is broken and needs to serve the 100%!

The 99% meme is a real winner. Its message and framework may prove better at helping  us weather the winter, both literal and metaphorical, than any one tactic could. It points the way toward a necessary expansion. It encourages us to not just act on behalf of, but alongside of, the 99%; to look beyond the forces already in motion, to activate potential energy, to articulate a moral political narrative, and to claim and contest our culture.

No framework will automatically deliver &#151 not without a lot of hard work and smart decisions. Thankfully, there’s a whole new generation of leadership stepping up to do just that. Together we can turn this moment into a movement that’s here for the long haul.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a grassroots organizer, trainer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir. He has been active in Occupy Wall Street working groups for the past month. He posts at occupyWINNING.com and BeyondtheChoir.org.