Occupy the long view

The author strategizing in Russia. Photo via the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

What many in the Occupy movement are now searching for is a way to think collectively about strategy. I don’t know anyone who expects that a lone intellectual will emerge with The Way Forward. What are needed are tools that help diverse activists think together about strategy, and a coherent, movement-based framework that proposes a sequence of activities that put us on a path to liberation. A framework is especially helpful when it raises questions about activities that serious activists need to answer, and puts those answers in a sequence; strategy, above all, is about timing.

Yes, alternative institutions are important, but when are they crucial, and how do they link to other work? Yes, art and theater and culture-changing education are important, but should everyone be doing only that, forever? Confronting authority is necessary, but when and in what relationship to the other strategic elements, and when we get another hundred people arrested, how do we know we’re actually getting somewhere? That is, what is the stage that follows confrontation that can actually dislocate the oppressive business of the status quo?

These are the kinds of questions that I tried to address in my Living Revolution framework—recently summarized in a blog post published by Occupy St. Louis. The feedback I get from activists using the framework is that it helps make them less competitive and more confident. It’s not that everyone suddenly agrees with each other—which would be death to a movement—but that the framework provides a container in which attacks can turn into dialogue and where thought can build on thought with a real promise of coherence.

As an experiment, in a series of strategy workshops I did with anarchists and others, I asked people to write their favorite tactics on pieces of paper, then to place them on the floor in sequence from early in the social change process to late, as they might imagine them being used most powerfully.

Every single time, the placement roughly matched the sequence that the Living Revolution framework proposes:

  1. Cultural preparation
  2. Organization-building
  3. Confrontation
  4. Mass political and economic noncooperation
  5. Parallel institutions

It took me years to puzzle out that sequence by researching cutting-edge movements from around the world, and the workshop participants collectively figured it out in an hour! This makes one think that there might be a kind of “natural” developmental sequence that we’ve tapped into, just as many of the more successful movements have.

In Egypt, for example, although there was growing opposition to the oppression over a long period of time, activists disagreed about whether the primary target for change should be the economy, the dominant religion or the political regime. My information is that in 2002 a broad consensus was reached to first target the regime. That work was a part of stage one in the framework. Then, it was possible to educate more widely and to do the organizing (stage two) so that, when the textile strike of 2006 happened, an organized group could jump into the workers’ campaign both to reinforce it and build more confrontive energy and experience.

Egyptians mounted a series of stage-three activities building on the previous stages so that, when the time was right, stage four could begin in January of 2011 with simultaneous mass actions in Cairo and other places. The Egyptians succeeded in achieving the objective of stage four—dislocation on a scale that prevents the opponent from accomplishing its goals—and Mubarak resigned. (For more, see the case study at the Global Nonviolent Action Database by Zein Nakhoda and William Lawrence.)

Most participants were not united on what was to take the regime’s place; if they were, they could have then better rallied around a stage five of their own design. Even so, the unleashing of organizing energy in the spring and summer—spontaneously defending neighborhoods, providing health care and so on‚ a process still continuing on many levels of Egyptian society—gives a perceptive strategist a lively sense of the possibilities. Egypt is no longer stuck.

What I found in my historical research was that, while no one movement achieved utopia (surprise!), a number of the more successful ones developed roughly in the progression we “invented” in the workshops. And, as workshop participants always point out on further reflection, no one should expect a simple linear progression from 1 to 5 because there are so many levels and corners of a complex society that some subsets of people are just beginning stage one while others are already at stage three; the framework becomes a spiral.

Some eco-justice activists have found the framework also useful for sorting out some of their own either/or debates. Transition Towns or nonviolent direct action campaigns, for example. But a larger strategic framework shows that it’s beneficial to have both of those sets of activities, if—a big if—they are primed to be synergistic rather than competitive.

Early-20th-century Norwegian farmers and fishers built cooperatives among themselves (stage two work) that had immediate value and also strengthened their skills and solidarity for the painful period of confrontation (stage three). At the same time, their alternatives became seeds for the new society that opened up after stage four broke the political stranglehold of the 1 percent. Still today, co-ops are a vital part of the Norwegian economy, maintaining a higher level of civic participation on the part of everyday Norwegians.

For Occupy and other movements, a framework like this helps to orient and ground us. The student researchers I work with at Swarthmore knew that the journalists were incorrect who identified the Tahrir Square protests in the beginning of 2011 as “coming from nowhere.” Unfortunately, that mass-media projection of an Egyptian stage-four activity happening without the previous three stages led some in the U.S. Occupy movement to imagine that we could replicate that occupation and suddenly jump to what is in fact stage four! Some of the strategic disorientation we now find among Occupy people comes from that first big misimpression given by the mass media.

Other strategic frameworks are out there, too, like anti-nuclear strategist Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP), found in his book Doing Democracy. Bill’s and my frameworks are different in some ways but similar in that they are grounded in experience—Bill was on Dr. King’s national staff—and also in our study of how social movements actually win, when they do.

In my view, there is a very useful difference between the two models. Bill’s MAP assumes a basically viable society in which a series of reform movements can, over time, achieve major change. The Taiwanese pro-democracy movement in the 1980s translated Bill’s MAP into Mandarin and used it extensively in labor and community organizing, for instance. Taiwan, though less of a democracy at that time than the U.S. is now, was on an upward trend, and even though there were still activists being tortured, Bill’s framework was relevant to pushing for a better future. The Living Revolution framework, on the other hand, assumes a stuck or declining society with increasing institutional failure and a gathering ripeness for transformation. Depending on your analysis of what’s going on in your country, one model might be more useful than the other as you create your strategy.

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