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Why the 99% Can't Be Co-opted

Occupy Wall Street draws strength from its reach.

Protesters at "Occupy Wall Street" camp, Liberty Square
Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe


A month after it began with a few hundred people marching on Wall Street, the #Occupy movement has grown to include tens of thousands of participants throughout the country and has captured headlines  around the world. If it has not yet succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, that’s only because its participants have dreamed big: imagining a sustained popular uprising that could force fundamental changes in our political and economic system—ones that could end corporate dominance and promote real democracy.

The movement can, in fact, propel significant changes. But #OccupyWallStreet and its allied occupations still have a ways to go before realizing their potential. The two issues most pressing as they chart their next steps: solidarity and escalation.

“Co-optation” or Flattery?

Despite great success in capturing the public eye, the actual number of people camped out at the various occupations around the country remains relatively small. While there are several hundred people camping in hubs such as New York City and Los Angeles, overnight participants in smaller cities number in the dozens. What bolsters the power of these encampments is that they are representative of a much wider discontent. Far greater numbers of sympathizers turn out for mass meetings, marches, and  online shows of support. And, importantly, more established political bodies—unions, advocacy organizations, and community groups representing large constituencies—have offered endorsements of the growing #Occupy effort.

As more have signed on, some activists have been wary of outside expressions of support. Particularly as Democratic Party officials (including  President Obama and Vice President Biden) have said positive things about the movement, some have voiced concerns about “ cooptation.” They have  argued that outside liberals, “while pretending to advance the goals of the Occupy Movement,” could instead “undermine it from within.”

How big of a danger “cooptation”  actually represents is a matter of dispute. In a recent interviewChris Maisano asked veteran social movement theorist Frances Fox Piven about this issue. (Piven is author, among many other books, of the landmark  Poor People’s Movements  and has considered the issue of cooptation at length in her work.) I believe she struck the right tone in her  response:


Maisano: [As] recent comments by even the president and vice-president have showed, a lot of the more institutionalized forces on the left like the unions and MoveOn and the Van Jones American Dream Movement are trying to latch on to the protests and turn them into what some people have called a liberal version of the Tea Party. How do you think their involvement will effect the movement? How should the activists at the core of the movement relate to them?

Piven: They should be friendly. They should ask them to do things; they should give them assignments. And not adopt the insignia of these groups as their own. In other words they should maintain considerable autonomy, but nevertheless they should treat these groups as allies, as they treated the unions as allies. But they shouldn’t ever let unions tell them what to do, they shouldn’t let Van Jones tell them what to do. Partly because they seem to know better, really.

So I don’t think that’s their biggest problem, how to deal with their erstwhile supporters.

The danger of cooptation should be put in context. There have been some clearly opportunistic instances of Democrats trying to capitalize on the movement, such as the none-too-radical Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attempting to  build its mailing list through a “I Stand with #OccupyWallStreet” petition. But is it really possible that the Democratic Party would somehow swoop in and “take control” of the #Occupy movement? It doesn’t seem like even a remote possibility.

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