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On #OWS, Co-optation, and the Growth Phases of a Social Movement, Beka Economopoulos

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Here’s the thing: our messaging, our strategy, and our tactics must change based on the external landscape. When we become embraced by the Democratic Party and its allies, we must go further than what makes them comfortable.

This piece is reposted from Not An Alternative.

Part 1: On #OWS, co-optation, and the growth phases of social movements

Here’s the thing: our messaging, our strategy, and our tactics must change based on the external landscape. When we become embraced by the Democratic Party and its allies, we must go further than what makes them comfortable. That’s if we want to win more than concessions and easy reforms (that currently exist within the realm of possibility), and achieve game-changing substantive/structural reforms (that currently live in the realm of impossibility), that we didn’t imagine we ever could see in our lifetimes).

We should aim for nothing less — why aim for closing up shop soon when we have no idea what we’re capable of?

Phase 1 = vanguard moves in, initiates occupation, largely dismissed, but staying power piques curiosity, and police misconduct/violence draws attention and wins sympathy.

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Phase 2 = vanguards in other cities recognize potential, initiate occupations. At the same time, initial occupation gathers steam, grows, large membership orgs endorse and give legitimacy that wasn’t present before, now the mainstream media start to change tune. Focus of coverage is human interest story of life in the park; and what do they want?

Phase 3 = mainstream media interest explodes, NGOs, labor, community, and establishment orgs engage supporters, connect existing campaigns to #occupy frame, amplify visibility and suggestion of social movement. Democratic leadership embrace movement, as do party-related and electorally focused orgs. Media coverage attributes power to movement, queries whether it’s a Tea Party for the left, whether it will gain electoral power and legislative victories.

Phase 4 = ?

We currently find ourselves in Phase 3. Senior members of the White House administration, and the President himself, have expressed support for OWS. Democracy for America, a Howard Dean initiated group just sent an email blast to more than a million members tonight selling yard signs that say “We Are the 99%” with co-branded urls: and OWS is embraced by the establishment as a means to amplify existing agendae.

Bloomberg gives tacit “permission” for our occupation, effectively rendering it non-threatening and normalizing it. Result is rise in media coverage of occupation as nuisance to neighbors.

This is a natural and necessary phase. So now what?

We’re in this for the long haul. There are no “solutions” that can be presented quickly to make us go away. And so there will be moments where our presence is no longer an uncomfortable and unknown variable, but rather is normalized and integrated. It’s in those moments that we have to push the envelop, pry open the space of possibility even farther. We go as far as we can to destabilize, but maintain momentum. And when that’s the new “normal” then we go farther. That’s how change happens, how we shift the terrain and the terms of the game.

From an actions perspective, that means getting tactical, and mobile, activating the rest of the city, executing higher-risk actions, civil disobedience and arrests.

From a media perspective, we have to get ahead of the game. We no longer need to legitimize. Or articulate the problem. Both are clearly established. So, given this new moment how can we use media strategically?

We must draw a line, disavow the Democrats explicitly, make our messaging a little uncomfortable. Yes, perhaps, split the support, lest we not be co-opted. This will be painful, internally, as it won’t always achieve comfortable consensus. But to hold this space and expand the realm of possibility, we have to go farther than others are ready to go. It’s how this started and we can’t be too shy to be bold.

Part 2: Responses

On Oct 12, 2011, at 8:17 AM, Bailey Xxxxxx (name stricken) wrote:

It would seem that one of the most obvious ways to create the dividing line between OWS and groups like the DFA is to point out that they’re seeking to profit off the movement. (AKA business as usual) I haven’t seen anything saying that they’ll be giving back any of that $14 to OWS or better yet, to any groups working with the disadvantaged.

I think if we just pointed this out, and highlighted the other orgs like MoveOn who are riding the wave without actually doing any heavy lifting, people are going to key into that. If we go further and force them to answer why they thought it was ok to profiteer off a campaign going after greed, that would be an interesting moment.

The moment you blanketly say we hate democrats, that becomes a divisive message and not really what everyone seems to be working at here. However, forcing the establishment democrats to answer why their go-to reaction was profiteering, that has some credibility.


On Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 9:44 AM, Will Xxxxx wrote:

+1001 (to Bailey’s post)

Sent from my iPhone

Part 3: Emphasis on democracy and pluralism (99%) VS. neoliberalism and capitalism

Actually, many mainstream orgs, including MoveOn, have been doing heavy lifting to support this thing, and they truly don’t want to co-opt the movement. But the reality is the movement has gone mainstream now, and it will get sucked in to establishment politics.

Astra Taylor, journalist and filmmaker said it concisely: “the Democrats would benefit from nothing more than the whole social and political playing field tilting left — but that ain’t gonna happen if they co-opt OWS! let them benefit inadvertently but that’s it…we must push further”.

I don’t think saying publicly “DFA and other groups are profiting from the movement without giving back” gets us where we need to go. Quite the opposite: that’s an invitation for more mainstream participation at the same time that internally we’re watering our message down (being descriptive and reactive and celebrating OWS as being about a diversity of voices, democratic process, empowering the 99%), without maintaining the radical orientation this started with.

This occupation was initiated by, and remains largely organized by anti-capitalists. We don’t need to say the “c” word, or the “n” word (neoliberalism – the agenda of the past 40 years: privatization, deregulation, financialization, and globalization, which has led to the concentration of wealth, corruption of the political process, and accelerated the destruction of all we hold dear.). But file in the back of our heads that after the 2008 economic crash, even mainstream media headlines did go there. And outlets like the Wall Street Journal / Market Watch, Crains, IBT, and other finance industry rags are going there now.

We can use softer, gentler terms: the free market, etc. But if we want accountability, regulation and restructuring of Wall Street and the finance industry we need to figure this out, and it has to play a much bigger role in OWS messaging. And an impending Eurozone crash if Greece defaults could result in a major economic crash here in the US, potentially soon. So there is an opening to push further.

This isn’t a denunciation of establishment orgs, there are good people within them and they all want to see this succeed. But they can’t lead us there. Now that we’re in a new phase (of media coverage, of participation), we owe it to everyone to radicalize our message, go beyond what these groups can publicly say.

The Tea Party and radical right have always played this role. They make the establishment right uncomfortable, they divide and provoke, and they’ve been winning. The center moved to the right, and the republican party tows a much harder line, wielding greater influence in D.C. than they did before.

OWS needs to tow a harder line. Being more explicit about the finance industry, making clear that we’re not calling for easy reforms, that both parties are the problem, our political process is poisoned by the influence of money, that this is an international movement, that Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Italy, Spain and the UK are all popular uprisings, like ours, in response to the economic crisis, the cutting of social safety nets, budget cuts and privatization. That our economic system is broken. And we’ll settle for nothing less than fundamental and structural change.

I just ask that we be as radical as the mainstream finance publications that understand this movement better than the rest of the mainstream press. Start saying what they are saying.

Enough focus on democracy. Talk about capitalism (/insert euphemism here).