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Occupy The Progressive Movement: Why Occupy Should Embrace "Co-Optation"

An Occupy organizer asks: When established groups show up wanting to help, then who's really co-opting whom?
 
 
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Photo Credit: David Shankbone

 

Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an "outsider" force.

Good problem to have

In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats—including the White House—started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told  the New York Times in early October that "Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012."

The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed.  Salon's Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts "to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America]." Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven't had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we've finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically  shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.  

How often is a genuinely grassroots social justice movement in a position where it's framing the national narrative, and where the major political parties are reacting to us? Having this kind of leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

So, in political struggle, when powerful forces want to co-opt your momentum, that means you have leverage, and that's a good problem for a grassroots movement to have. Serious movement strategy conversations about the threat of co-option should start with this happy realization. Yes, wariness of establishment and "moderate" forces is certainly warranted. But generalized fears of co-option can have a paralyzing effect on our ability to activate a broad spectrum of allies — especially if we uncritically lump together and dismiss every national organization, labor union, community organization, etc., that engages in any electoral work or even legislative work.

Even if you concede that establishment forces want to co-opt a more radical agenda — well, so what? What does that even mean? It means that different groups and institutions have different agendas, and they're always looking for ways to further those agendas. NEWSFLASH: We all have this in common! We all have agendas, and we're partial to our agenda over others' agendas. It is certainly true that more established institutions tend to command more resources than dynamic new configurations like Occupy Wall Street — and that established groups tend to get stuck in their ways, and even to sometimes actively resist more radical accelerations of change. This is part of the terrain that we have to map and understand. But we should do this with an eye to finding and cultivating allies within institutions — not to dismiss the institutions wholesale.

 
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