Ontologies of Organizing, Part II: Of Memes and Pressure Tactics

The #occupywallstreet protests are entering their third week, and have started to attract some real attention.  After a police brutality incident last weekend, mainstream media sources have begun paying attention.  Major unions and netroots groups have voted to support the protests, and the core of a few hundred “occupiers” show no sign of leaving Zuccotti Park anytime soon.  A particularly poignant Tumblr site, “We are the 99%,” has been aggregating stories of the genuine carnage left by our current economic mess.  Solidarity “occupations” are cropping up in dozens of cities as well.

I’ve read a couple of interesting takes on this development recently — Micah Sifry and Mark Engler are both worth a read.  Credit where credit is due, the protests are proving to have a lot more staying power than I had expected when I wrote my original post.  Mea culpa, I spoke a bit too soon.  That said, the successes of the event are of a very particular type.  They’re succeeding in spreading a meme, even while lacking a clear demand or clear target.  I think that helps further highlight the competing “ontologies of organizing” that I was discussing last time.  What I wrote then was:

“There are (at least) two ontologies of organizing.  Folks from the Micah White/culture jammer tradition believe that activism is about offering a radical critique of modern society and shining a light on corporate power.  Folks from the Marshall Ganz/community organizing tradition believe that activism is about winning tangible victories that improve people’s lives, change the balance of power, and give people a sense of their own power.”

#OccupyWallStreet has been a success in the activism-as-public-art sense.  The meme has drawn attention, spread, and become something of a touchstone for people wanting to talk about the utter collapse of the American Dream.  The images and language resonate.  The hashtag has gone viral.  That’s a meaningful achievement, one that community organizing can rarely achieve.

The ongoing problems with the action lie in the activism-as-public-process domain.  Two weeks in, they still have no specific demand.  They aren’t applying and escalating pressure on specific targets who can eventually give them what they want.  What would a tangible victory for the #occupiers look like, exactly?  It has been easy for journalists to dismiss and conservatives to caricature, because there is no clear message to maintain discipline around.

What’s more, the action itself isn’t all that large.  I stopped by yesterday in an effort to figure out what I was missing.  From a block and a half away, you’d have no idea that there’s a protest going on.  The park isn’t all that large, and ambient traffic noise means that any coordinated chants are impossible to hear.  Wall Street isn’t being occupied.  The NYSE is neither being shut down nor even inconvenienced.  In the Alinskyite mode of campaign organizing, there’s still plenty to cringe at.  Measured by their own initial benchmarks – 20,000 people, in an ongoing encampment – the action hasn’t performed well.

But that’s the point: activism-as-public-art is tremendously valuable, but ontologically distinct from activism-as-public-process.  It’s a different beast than the strategic mobilization of citizen power that we generally practice in community organizing and political advocacy campaigns.  Its success is measured in different ways.  It has a different social utility.  As such, it doesn’t really matter whether 200, 2,000, or 20,000 people are physically present in Zuccotti Park – either way, they’re not going to actually shut down the NYSE .  The purpose is to inject culturally resonant imagery into the public discourse.  The notion that “young people are rising up, occupying Wall Street itself,” is powerful, regardless of numbers.

The nice thing about cultural touchstones like this is that they can become a rallying point to organize around.  We’re already seeing it a bit, with Van Jones (from Rebuild the Dream) invoking the occupation and relating it to the organization’s mission and goals.  We’ll see more of it soon.  Groups will use the hashtag to argue for the American Jobs Act, or in campaigns to pressure Bank of America.  Yesterday the Progressive Change Campaign Committee tweeted, “BREAKING: CA Attorney General Kamala Harris rejects bank immunity! Join 75,000 @BoldProgressiveshttp://pccc.me/qxTvbk #occupywallstreet.” The lack of any clear demands by the occupiers makes #occupywallstreet a meta-brand of sorts.  And that’s a good thing.  The original occupiers won’t like it, and they’re sure to complain that more traditional, reformist organizations are diluting the message.  But it could prove to be a powerful mixture, particularly if everyone “plays nice” with one another.

#occupyWallStreet is succeeding as activism-as-public-art.  It isn’t putting specific pressure on specific, powerful targets, though.  Ontologically, that’s not what that sort of activism is attempting to do.  Now the other types of activists (the community organizers/activism-as-public-process types) will start building off of that success, using it to advance specific goals and leverage pressure on specific targets.  And that’s when things might get particularly interesting.

9 thoughts on “Ontologies of Organizing, Part II: Of Memes and Pressure Tactics

  1. It seems to me that the history of major movement in our society over the past 60 years has happened when you had both. Women burning their bras were not very different from #OccupyWallStreet. Their goal was equality which is pretty undirected. But they helped move the society so the goals could become much more concrete.

    #Teaparty is an interestingly similar case. They are angry. They are convinced that every established group should go down. And since their goals are vague and not clearly directed they can be taken over by people who have very clear goals — cutting their own taxes and destroying government. All the surveys suggest that those are not the goals of the ‘ordinary’ teaparty supporter. But without #Teaparty and the attention it has received the Koch brothers, etc. seem unlikely to have accomplished what they accomplished.

    My claim is that you do not move societies without massive public change. How that then gets worked out in practice will depend on the groups that ride those waves.

    So I am going to track the enthusiasm and you can track the organizations, and we should meet somewhere.

  2. Agreed. I’ll be curious to see what that “joining” looks like — is it a one-day solidarity march, or do they start a constant drumbeat and get their members to set up/populate ongoing occupations? Without a doubt, though, this just got even more interesting.

  3. Pingback: #OccupyWallStreet On Track Nationally to Double in Size Every Three Days | techPresident « Culture War, Class War

  4. Yep, a couple of thoughts:
    -It’s a terribly weak metric. Joining a facebook group is a pretty weak indicator of support.
    -It’s also one of the only metrics available, and that makes it interesting. We could also look at hashtag growth/retweets as a signal of viral growth, but that would also be a weak indicator. While both are weak and flawed, a little data trumps no data. So we should take it with a grain of salt, but we should still take it.
    -Better metrics will become available later – particularly participation levels at actual events. We should watch for those as they come.

    -The nice thing about regional facebook “likes” is that they leave a sedimentary residue. Those become lists that can be activated again in the future. That’s particularly valuable in this case, since rally attendees are leaving no e-mail addresses or other sediment that can allow them to engage in ongoing mobilization with one another.

    So, yeah, the movement isn’t actually going to keep doubling in size every three days. (That’s a nice, retweetable headline though!) But it is growing, and growing fast. DailyKos has been focusing on the number of occupations, rather than the number of occupiers. It’s up to 125 now. That may be even more important, since these are symbolic actions rather than actual, physical occupations (no one is shutting anything down. They’re finding spaces for ongoing rallies. The longevity and distribution is more important than their direct participant numbers.)

  5. good commentary. i agree with your basic assertions. especially the desire to see everyone ‘play nice’ with each other.
    a metabrand is also a good lens to view this through, although, i would still like to at least see a general/generic manifesto of sorts surface that people could in general rally around.

  6. Good & interesting comments…I realise you wrote this a few weeks ago, but I’m wondering if you’ve seen David Graeber’s story since then? http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/10/david-graeber-on-playing-by-the-rules-%E2%80%93-the-strange-success-of-occupy-wall-street.html#OWS
    So it turns out that Adbusters played very little part in the actual organising of OWS, and that from the anarchist perspective it seems to be based around direct action. Would you consider that organising as public art, or the other – in the sense that it changes the balance of power and gives people their own power, as you say?
    Does that change your opinion in any way?

Comments are closed.