Radicals & the 99%: Righteous Few or Moral Majority?

The Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be a movement of “the 99%”, challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is just a bunch of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.

They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Young radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.

What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist. But clearly the radicals did something right here. They’ve flipped the script by framing the top one percent as the real extremists &#151 as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises &#151 by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep &#151 a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed band of radicals is growing broader and more diverse by the day.

Radicals will continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the “radicals” have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensible.

However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, you need at least a hundred people in the next tier of participation &#151 folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world, we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people &#151 folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough “next tier” of participants, it will certainly fail to effectively engage the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our aims.

If the kinds of changes we imagine are ever to be realized, it will be through the active participation of large numbers of teachers, nurses, factory workers, barbers, artists, service workers, students, military service members and veterans, religious communities, civic organizations, unions, and even allies within the existing power establishment. These participants come as they are, and the core must welcome them as such. The movement cannot afford to have a high bar for entry. The smallest of contributions must be encouraged and affirmed. If we are to keep building a popular movement, we must accommodate a continuum of levels of involvement, as well as levels of political analysis.

We’ve gotten an impressive start in a very short amount of time.

And our opponents have taken notice. They will do what they can to foment division between the radicalized core and the broader movement &#151 because they know well that the dynamic (and challenging) relationship between core and broader base is one of the biggest strengths and biggest vulnerabilities of our movement. The successful interplay between these tiers of movement participants is of critical importance. Unfortunately, our opponents tend to know this better than we do.

Too often, radicals play into our opponents divide-and-conquer strategies, by relishing in our radical identity more than we value connecting with a broader base. Too often we get stuck in a story of the righteous few.

Radicals tend to become radicals because we become disillusioned with aspects of the dominant culture. When you feel like you’re up against the culture, it’s easy then to develop an inclination to separate yourself from that culture. When we begin to become aware of the destructive impacts of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other social systems we encounter that we see perpetuating oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. We feel a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society more generally. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from the mainstream of society. With the mainstream seen as bad, we begin to look for ways to distinguish ourselves and our groups from anything mainstream. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and the mainstream, because these distinctions reinforce our radical identity. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive.

Radicals may start to adorn themselves with distinguishing features to express separation from society, and also to flag other radicals. In his book All the Power, author and community organizer Mark Anderson describes in tribal terms how this phenomenon plays out in punk subcultures:

The punk subculture has many of the hallmarks of a tribe … piercings, tattoos, more. These markers, also including hairstyle, dress, music form, even slang, help to demark the boundaries of the group, to set it off from the larger populace. In this way, appearance can even be a form of dissent, a strikingly visual way to say, “I am not a part of your corrupt world.”

Surely there are similar dynamics in play among radicals at Liberty Square and at other occupations across the country. The big danger is that radical subcultures caught in this pattern of emphasizing how different they are may over time start to even prize their own marginalization. If society is unjust, then our justice-oriented identity may be reaffirmed when we are rejected by society (or more accurately, by portions of society). If society is bad, then marginalization in society may be seen as good. We may tell each other stories of how we were ostracized in this or that group, how we’re the outcast in our family, how we were the only revolutionary in a group of liberal reformists, etc. We may start to swim in our own marginalization. This is the story of the righteous few.

In the story of the righteous few, success itself becomes suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been “watered down”. It seriously messes with radicals’ heads when some of our ideas start to become popular! We are so used to being the most radical kid on the block, and suddenly people we’ve never met are coming out of the woodwork spouting some of the lines we’ve been saying for years. It’s a bit of an identity crisis!

Here we see the importance of checking our narratives for faulty components. If we allow the story of the righteous few to hold a place in our narrative about social change, then our efforts are likely to be seriously hindered by a general mentality to separate and distinguish ourselves from society and to retreat from success. To organize effectively, this mentality has to turn 180 degrees to a mentality to connect with others, to notice commonalities, to “weave ourselves into the fabric of society” (quoting #OWS participant Beka Economopolous), and to embrace being embraced by society. For many radicals, this can be a big shift in our conceptualizations of ourselves and of our society.

The good news is, we are presently deep into the process of making that profound paradigmatic shift. The framing of the 99% itself asserts an alignment of our vision with the interests of a super-super majority of Americans. It encourages us to think of most everyone as an ally or potential ally. We even welcome “one percent defectors” who agree with our goals and stand with us.

The importance of this paradigm shift cannot be overstated. Over the past four decades radical social justice movements tended to feel like we were up against the whole culture. We began clustering into increasingly insular circles, looking to each other for support and connection, as if to hold onto our sanity in a world gone mad. In the face of “free trade” agreements, austerity, raging wars of aggression, attacks on the cultural gains made by earlier social justice movements, and many other set-backs, we often felt entirely impotent.

That’s part of what makes this moment so significant. The 99% movement has the potential to pull us out of a counter-cultural mentality and set us up to claim and contest the culture&#151our culture&#151rather than denounce, abandon, and distinguish ourselves from it. We are the 99%. We are the true moral majority.

But we have a long road ahead. The meme of the 99% can help to shift our thinking, but no meme is good enough to do all the work for us, without any conscious effort. While we continue to challenge the dominant storyline, we must also self-reflectively challenge some components of the narratives we tell ourselves about our relationship as “radicals” to society. If we want to win, we have to scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story about everyday Americans&#151about huge swaths of society&#151stepping into movement together.

The underlying economic conditions are politicizing more and more Americans by the day, creating greater potential for the emergence of a broader-based movement than we’ve seen in decades. And this moment needs the full participation and influence of radicals. Without radicals, this wave would lose its fire and settle too soon for too little.

It must be pointed out that some establishment forces in the emerging precarious alliances (all alliances are precarious!) will try to throw radicals under the bus first chance they get. But really it’s on radicals to make sure no one gets that chance. The way to do that is for radicals to get really good at making friends with a lot of people &#151 to be the life of the party. It must be abundantly clear to tentative allies and opponents alike that it would be difficult to isolate us; that there would be a broader backlash if they attacked radicals. One thing not to do is shrink away from engagement with broader constituencies and unwieldy alliances &#151 even including those who might betray us if they perceive they can get away with it. Such a retreat would make our fears self-fulfilling; would enable those who would screw us; would seal our fate as righteous martyrs whom the world was not ready for. Radicals have to ask themselves if their radical identity confines them to being eternally rejected, ostracized, and crucified &#151 that’s the story of the righteous few. The powerful are always ready to tell that story, and we must determine to not be a predictable character in their script. Serious radicals must decouple radicalism from such a martyr mentality. Serious radicals must aim to succeed. Fighting an advantaged opponent without a real intention and strategy for success is not so much fighting as it is coping. The tendency of the outgunned resister to run headlong kamikaze-style into enemy lines is the tendency of someone who wants to be righteous &#151 not of someone who seeks to affect real change.

We must ask ourselves if our intention is to bring about meaningful change, or if it is to act out righteous narratives (either as individuals or in small enlightened groups). At long last, we have an opening to build a serious broad-based movement to challenge egregious injustices and deeply entrenched power and privilege.

Ten or twenty years from now, will we look back on Occupy Wall Street and see it as a blip, as a righteous stand that was predictably short-lived? Or will we see this as the moment when America rediscovered collective action &#151 when a broad-based movement for social and economic justice was (re)born? Will we see it as little more than an interesting twist&#151a peculiar spike&#151in the otherwise predictable story of the righteous few? Or will we see it as a catalyst of a new moral majority that went on to change the course of history?

What Prevents Radicals from Acting Strategically? (part 3 of 3)

Reposted. Part Three of a three-part article from 2006, written in collaboration with Madeline Gardner. Read Part One here and Part Two here first.

Many of us, when we become disillusioned with the dominant culture, we develop an inclination to separate ourselves from it. When we begin to become aware of racism, sexism, capitalism and whatever other forms of social, economic or ecological oppression, we don’t want to be part of it. This often comes from a moral repugnance and a desire to not cooperate with injustice.

However, this desire to separate ourselves from injustice can develop into a general mentality of separation from society. In other words, when we see the dominant culture as a perpetrator of injustice, and we see society as the storehouse of the dominant culture, then our desire to separate ourselves from injustice can easily develop into a mentality of separating ourselves from society. With society seen as bad, we begin to look for ways of distinguishing ourselves and our groups from it. We begin to notice, highlight, exaggerate and develop distinctions between ourselves and society, because these distinctions support our justice-oriented narratives. The distinguishing features often go far beyond nonparticipation in those aspects of the dominant culture that we find offensive. We adorn ourselves with distinguishing features to express separation, and also to flag likeminded people and establish ourselves in–and assimilate into–oppositional subcultures.

These distinguishing features take on particular flavors in different subcultures. Activist and movement strategist Michael Albert describes student activists he encounters at college speaking engagements, “As compared to their classmates, the activists look entirely different, have different tastes and preferences, talk differently, and are largely insulated from rather than immersed in the larger population.”1

Mark Anderson describes in tribal terms the same phenomenon in punk:

The punk subculture has many of the hallmarks of a tribe…piercings, tattoos, more. These markers, also including hairstyle, dress, music form, even slang, help to demark the boundaries of the group, to set it off from the larger populace. In this way, appearance can even be a form of dissent, a strikingly visual way to say, “I am not a part of your corrupt world.”2

Many such subcultures–consciously or not–prize their own marginalization. If society is unjust, then our justice-oriented narratives are reaffirmed when we are rejected by society (or more accurately, portions of society). If society is bad, then marginalization in society is good. We tell each other stories of how we were ostracized in this or that group, how we’re the outcast in our family, how we were the only revolutionary in a group of reformists, etc. We swim in our own marginalization. This is the story of the righteous few.

One of the largest barriers to strategic thought and action in many U.S. social movements today is that, in the story of the righteous few, success itself is suspect. If a group or individual is embraced by a significant enough portion of society, it must be because they are not truly revolutionary or because their message has been “watered down,” rather than because they’ve organized or communicated their message effectively.

Here we see the importance of checking our narratives for faulty components. If we allow the story of the righteous few to hold a place in our narratives, then our social change efforts are likely to be greatly hindered by a general mentality to separate and distinguish ourselves from society and to retreat from success. To organize effectively this mentality has to turn 180 degrees to a mentality to connect with others, to notice commonalities, “to weave ourselves into the fabric of society,”3 and to embrace being embraced by society. This is a profound paradigm shift that most radicals have yet to make. It intensely challenges us because it requires nothing short of getting over ourselves.

The dominant is not all of society, and often it’s not even the majority.  Brazilian popular educator Paulo Freire comments:

Sometimes, in our uncritical understanding of the nature of the struggle, we can be led to believe that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology. But it is not. There will always be something of the dominant ideology in the cultural expressions of the people, but there is also in contradiction to it the signs of resistance – in the language, in music, in food preferences, in popular religion, in their understanding of the world.4

We often make the mistake of assuming that everyone subscribes to the dominant ideology, or even that those who seem to subscribe do so completely. However, a lack of visible resistance to a dominant ideology does not necessarily signify an enthusiastic embracing of the ideology. Submission or acquiescence to a dominant ideology is not the same as ideological alignment. For example, many people, though aware that a new Wal-mart would harm their local economy, may still refrain from participating in a grassroots campaign to stop it. A small turnout for a counter-Wal-mart protest does not necessarily mean that the entire town–or even the majority–is happy about the development. It could be that people lack faith in the feasibility of stopping something as big as Wal-mart, that the tactics or rhetoric of the campaign seem inaccessible or extreme to them, or even that they perceive a lack of strategy in the campaign (among many more possibilities). While each of these possibilities still poses a challenge to organizers, these challenges are of a different type and quality than the challenge of reaching someone who is explicitly pro-Wal-mart. By exploring alternative explanations for lack of participation, organizers can develop better strategies. But if organizers see the lack of participation as an inevitable popular embracing of Wal-mart, then they will feel–and likely be–defeated, and if they continue in their resistance, they are likely to be taking a stand more than waging a struggle; consciously or unconsciously adopting the storyline of the righteous few.

Social movements should aim to succeed. Fighting an advantaged opponent without the intention of success is not so much fighting as it is coping. The tendency of the outgunned resister to run headlong kamikaze-style into enemy lines is the tendency of someone who wants to be righteous – not of someone who seeks to affect change. We must ask ourselves if our intention is to bring about real change, or if it is to act out righteous narratives (either as individuals or in small enlightened groups).

The tendency to think “that all the everyday life of the people is a mere reproduction of the dominant ideology” is detrimental to movement building. We need to shift our mentality to one in which we actively look for forms of resistance to dominant ideologies, however subtle, and encourage these forms. While it is important to recognize the limits of often subtle and uncoordinated expressions of resistance to dominant ideologies, it is equally important to recognize the existence and value of such expressions. By encouraging such expressions we can affirm and therefore strengthen people’s anti-dominant values and identity, which can lead to a broadening of our base.

While we challenge the dominant storyline, we must also challenge some components of our own narratives. We must scrap the chapter of the righteous few, and replace it with a story of collective liberation in which, instead of setting ourselves apart, we engage in the hard work of bringing people together.

Footnotes:

  1. Michael Albert. The Trajectory of Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002).
  2. Mark Anderson. All the Power (Canada: Punk Planet Books/Akashic Books, 2004).
  3. Quoting NY activist Beka Economopoulos.
  4. Paulo Freire, Ana Maria Araujo Freire, and Donaldo P. Macedo. The Paulo Freire Reader (New York: Continuum, 1998).