Grass roots movements are the soil from which advocacy eventually grows. As I write this, it’s not clear if the current wave of “Occupy Wall Street” groups will continue expanding to new cities, or if the arrests in NYC, Boston, and elsewhere have capped its growth.
For all my admiration of the Occupy movement, for all my hope that it grows and spreads, I have no illusions that it will amount to much in the short term. The movement is appealingly non-specific, although energized by enormous creativity and personal sacrifice. At the same time, I have no doubt that it is the most important progressive political event of the past several years; the first major opening in left-of-center political space since post-Obama election disappointment sucked the life out of the remnants of the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, women’s, youth culture, and other movements that energized his campaign. It may be incoherent and ephemeral, but it is a significant crack in the ground underneath the marauding right-wing forces.
A true mass movement is amorphous, surprising, and uncontrolled. It combines the deeply personal with the largest global. It is a festive outpouring of popular feeling and creativity, combining hundreds of distinct threads of belief and demands into a temporarily beautiful flag that an unanticipatedly broad swath of the population begins to wave. It exemplifies the collective self-organization of mutual support that anarchists dream about. But its strengths are its undoing. I sincerely hope the current Occupy Wall Street movement continues to grow. But at some point its lack of organization and focus, its existence at the fringe of most people’s daily lives no matter how supportive they may be, its inability to strategically formulate specific demands and negotiate acceptable compromises – not to mention the approaching winter – will cause it to lose steam.
No matter. Now that the thick air of hopeless inertia has been dissipated, this upsurge will be followed by others. As one of the early signs at Liberty Plaza in New York said, “The Beginning Is Near!” The Occupy phenomena will energize other organizing efforts, such as the New Bottom Line coalition of unions, community groups, and progressive religious fighting the banking industry’s efforts to evict the homeowners they previously exploited. Eventually, existing or new Advocacy groups will pick up the themes and translate them into well-defined goals, drawing on the participatory energy to give muscle to their own negotiations with decision-makers. Politicians will shift their rhetoric and votes to accommodate the new constituency. Artists will incorporate the look and feel of the movement into their work, and advertisers will use the images and words to attract customers. What will be lost is the communal nature of the fun, the inclusiveness, the spontaneity, the individualized combination of personal and political, the open-ended promise of possible better futures.
These loses may be sad and their loss grieved, but they are inevitable. Those of my generation who were fortunate enough to be involved with the movements of the 1960s and 1970s – civil rights (and the successor liberation) movements, anti-war (and the more complicated anti-imperialist) movements, the counter-culture (and more problematic sexual liberation) movements, the women’s and gay liberation movements, the anti-nuclear and deep ecology movements – know that they transformed us both personally and politically. For many of us, it was a permanent change that has shaped the course of our lives ever since.
But the dissipation of a movement’s personal transformative power is an inherent aspect of its growth, an unavoidable part of the process that moves dreams from hope to reality. Movements, like waves, grow then subside as they hit the shore-line of the real world. The nature of the post-upsurge reality – the degree to which it reflects the aspirations of the original movement – depends on the strength of that movement and the skill of the allied Advocates. And their success depends on their ability to create sustainable organizations and win institutional reforms.
(This is Part I, discussing Movements and Movement Building. Part II, to be posted in two weeks, will discuss Institutional Reform and Organizational Development.)
The Tectonic Plates Underlying Social Change
Advocacy is about trying to create a better world for ourselves, our children, and the rest of the world. We mobilize and educate people. We build organizations. We lobby for government reform.
It’s an endless fight. The world is full of injustice and practices destructive to people and the planet. But just because a bad situation exists doesn’t mean that change will occur. Inertia rules human society as much as the physical world. Current conditions tend to maintain themselves. Those who benefit from a situation use their relative advantages to stay in control. For most of history, in most societies, domination by the rich and powerful is the norm, not the exception. Suffering and mistreatment have never been absent from daily life.
And yet change always comes, as recent world headlines make clear. Sometimes for the better. Often involving tireless efforts by people inspired by hopes for a better life in this world, or perhaps the next. But why does it happen sometimes and not at others?
At the deepest level, change happens when the larger context evolves in ways that make it impossible for the old patterns to continue. It could be an outside force such as war or draught, or it could be some fundamental tension in the society’s internal structural dynamics that spawns irresolvable conflict among elite interests or makes it impossible for the governing institutions to meet people’s basic needs and expectations (perhaps because of a significant financial crisis!). In either case, if the rulers are not able to adapt quickly enough, if they appear to have lost the “mantle of heaven,” there is an opportunity for new forces to arise.
However, even a beckoning context is not enough to make change happen. The opportunity must be seized. The tree in the forest does not fall, no matter how rotten, until it is pushed. The old establishment may have fractured, but each faction will be looking for new allies whose needs can be satisfied in ways that allow (at least some of) the old elite to retain their position and privileges, that allow society’s institutions to continue creating hierarchies – even if some newcomers are now allowed in. One of the amazing strengths of the United States is how our size, wealth, and diversity has created a uniquely multi-faceted network of elites flexible enough to adapt to changing contexts, work around internal conflicts, and build more inclusive alliances – even if the side effects were sometimes brutal.
Freedom Always Has Boundaries
Human history is constrained by circumstances, the way the shape of each of those nesting Russian dolls is widely variable but only within the boundaries of the next-larger doll surrounding it. So world climate and international power relations set the parameters for national economic development and domestic political dynamics, which set the parameters for local prosperity and family well-being, and so on down to which aspects of our personality are able to develop and which shrivel.
But history is not deterministic. People are endlessly creative, able to break through at least some of the doll shells confining them and find more room. And, in most cases, the energy and inspiration required to make those breakthroughs possible, that position us to seize transformative opportunities, comes from mass movements. Mass movements set the stage for change, not only for the macro-level restructurings but for the smaller reforms as well.
However, mass movements are not enough. They set the stage but do not speak the lines. Voice comes from the presence of strong and sustainable advocacy organizations. And the story moves forward through effective campaigns for institutional reform. All three – movement building, institutional reform, and organizational development – are aspects of advocacy, of organizing for change. But while good leadership is vital for success in each of them, and they significantly overlap (success in one contributing to success in the others), each requires a different set of strategies and skills.
Movements are complex phenomena. On one level, they are an anarchistic self-mobilized explosion of people inspired by some unpredictable occurrence, doing their own thing in ways that reinforce a common theme or effect — usually occurring among sectors of the population best positioned to take action, rather than sectors with the heaviest needs. The Counter Culture of the late 1960s and early ’70s saw itself as this kind of spontaneous, bottom-up process. Similarly, the more recent spread of food activism, from CSAs to “localvorism,” is at its core another example of what we now call “viral” growth. Significant democratic change seldom occurs without this type of decentralized activity since “people power” is primarily exercised through the disruption of “business as usual” in ways that society’s elites are not able to control. These days, given the GOP’s strategy of simply refusing to allow a Democratic-led government to operate, it is likely that progressive action can only come from the outside via grass roots movements.
For all their seeming spontaneity, mass movements only arise when changes in the underlying structure of society precipitate the right combination of hope, anger, leaders, supporters, resources, and political space. The Civil Rights Movement was only possible because of the transformation of Southern agriculture, which pushed African-Americans and their ministers out of their imprisoning share-cropper peonage into less controllable urban neighborhoods and empowering (even if low-level) paid jobs.
And at the same time, once started, the growth of mass movements is a deliberate creation, carefully seeded and fertilized. They grow beyond the initial mobilization only when good leadership has adequate resources, as well as a lot of luck, and are able to catalyze the complex forces and events of everyday life into the coherent patterns that give rise to upwelling of popular feeling and mass action. The current growth of right wing politics was fertilized with several decades of expensive investment in think tanks, student organizations, media, training of people to run in local elections, political contributions, and experimentation with various issues and alliances to see which were able to attract an audience.
Successful mass movements combine all three elements. For all the money spent by right wing billionaires and churches, the ultra-conservative religious fringe was a minor player until the political environment changed after 9/11 made us vulnerable to fear-based appeals and the political establishment’s inability to manage the economy led people to look for alternatives. And it was the bottom-up creativity of people that initially attracted a mass following to the Tea Party banner.
Trusting Ourselves To The Wind
As we’ve known since ancient Greece, luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity. Progressives lack the kinds of resources available to the far Right. But we can prepare the soil in preparation for a changing climate. On the scale we can afford, we need to step up our educational efforts. We need to involve more people in our campaigns. We need to do more leadership development. We need to do deeper analysis about how the structure of our world and society are changing to anticipate the next waves of potential unrest.
But I sometimes worry that too many of today’s advocacy leaders don’t have the experience of my generation, the experience of the 1960s and 70s when we lived through the last major upsurge of progressive politics. Few of us are – or ever were – anarchists, which turns out to be a bad basis for organizational development and institutional reform. But what we did learn from that cultural/political tendency is that you build movements by creating tools that people can use by themselves, often in ways you had not anticipated. We learned that letting go of control is the first step towards increasing your influence. Despite the enormous risks of undermining yourself by doing (or having someone else do) the wrong thing, movements fizzle if the core worries too much about maintaining control, or even oversight. What’s important is creating momentum, which then creates its own tailwind, pulling even more people into action, which changes the way they see the world and (hopefully) makes them even more supportive of your vision. You’ve got to let go to grow.
At one point in my life, I decided to try Hang Gliding. My first experience was being strapped into a rather flimsy-looking two-person contraption while standing on a 25-foot long wooden ramp that was cantilevered out from a very, very high cliff. The pilot looked at me and said, “Once we start running, we can’t slow down or stop. You have to trust me, and trust that this will be good, or else we can’t go one. Do you understand?” I nodded. We ran. And it was absolutely fabulous.
This is Part I, discussing Movements and Movement Building. Part II, to be posted in two weeks, will discuss Institutional Reform and Organizational Development.
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