OWS: To Change the Country, We Just Might Have to Change Ourselves
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Why Has the Tried-and-True Failed Us, and OWS Succeeded?
We may well ask why so much progressive organizing and billions of dollars of investments in social change over the past 20 to 30 years has failed to slow down the right-wing, corporate-dominated juggernaut or catch the public's imagination. And how is it that, remarkably, what is succeeding in front of our eyes breaks what we thought were the hard and fast rules of political relevance? We had come to believe we needed the development of charismatic leaders operating within vertical organizational models, with heavy emphasis on fundraising and electoral politics. But that is changing. Reality is undergoing an adjustment.
Micah Sifry, writing on the Web site Tech President, wondered, "Did OWS succeed simply because it was non-hierarchical in method, had smart framing in tune with public anger about the economy and Wall Street, and made really effective use of social media?" If so, he asked, "Why didn't a very similar effort, called 'the Other 98 Percent' take off last year? Why didn't the US Uncut movement, a spinoff of an ongoing street protest movement in England, take off here this past winter? Why didn't Van Jones' new Rebuild the Dream movement, which was launched this summer with the backing of MoveOn, labor and the progressive netroots, take off?"
Longtime organizer Andrew Boyd described a few key elements to Sifry. One is the powerful tactic of occupation itself, with the personal commitment and determination of people on the ground to see it through. "Continuous occupation creates a human drama" and a demonstration of dedication that matters. "People await the next episode. Will the cops kick them out? Will they outlast the weather? Will they participate in the elections?" Another reason is the lack of demands. As Boyd says, it puts OWS in the morally potent "right vs wrong box," instead of in the "political calculation" box.
Still another is the authenticity of OWS. As Sifry notes,
"Occupy Wall Street isn't slick. It isn't focus-grouped. It isn't something professional activists would do…As the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto wrote more than a decade ago, we instinctively know the difference between a human voice and a corporate voice. I know it may sound strange to say this, but could the reason so many progressive social change projects fail to connect with ordinary people and move them to action be because they seem too corporate in style? Think of all those hand-scrawled signs on scraps of cardboard vs. a thousand professionally printed signs from a union shop--which is more authentic?"
But there is something simultaneously much harder to grasp and incredibly easy to digest if one is able to suspend disbelief, to stop thinking in all the ways we have been taught and trained to respond in American politics. And get ready for a wild ride.
A Generational Shift
Even though OWS involves people of a wide range of ages, there has been a fundamental generational shift. Millennials have a different view of how to do things, with values and knowledge gained from leaders across the world. They have absorbed quite naturally the fundamental approach of horizontalism -- perhaps better labeled participatory democracy -- field-tested in places like Argentina, Spain and Greece.
As Marina Sitrin, a veteran of political organizing in Argentina 10 years ago and an early OWS participant explains:
"2011 has been a year of revolutions -- uprisings -- and massive social movements -- all against an economic crisis and crisis of representation. Most all of these new movements have taken directly democratic forms, and are doing so in public spaces, from Tahrir Square in Egypt, to the plazas and parks of Spain, Greece, and increasingly the United States. The words horizontal, horizontalidad and horizontalism are being used to describe the form the movements are taking. Horizontal, as it sounds, is a level space for decision making, a place where one can look directly at the other person across from you….Horizontalism is more than just being against hierarchy...it is about creating something new together in our relationships. The means are a part of the ends. The forms of organizing manifest what we desire; it is not a question of demands, but rather a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating."