Ontologies of Organizing – why #occupywallst was doing it wrong

This weekend was the #occupywallst protest in New York.  Micah White has another post up at The Guardian’s blog, labeling it a grand success.  Others (including myself) are not so sure.  The stated public expectation was that 20,000 protesters would arrive, form a tent city, and hold Wall St for several weeks.  Instead, a few thousand showed up, and most of those left within a day.  The police put up barricades in preparation for the coming anarchy.  Instead, they aren’t even bothering to arrest the remaining protesters (who didn’t bother to get a permit).

I spent the weekend monitoring the #occupywallst twitter stream.  There wasn’t much traffic, particularly for an action drawing support from Anonymous.  It mostly fell into two groups: (1) participants complaining about the “media blackout,” and (2) conservatives making fun of leftist caricatures.  I have a bit to say about each of these.

Regarding the “media blackout,” I’ll come right out and say it: the media didn’t cover this because it wasn’t newsworthy.  The planning and execution for this event were lackluster.  The Theory of Change was nonexistent.

Sometimes, the media actively ignores large-scale collective action.  The protesters in Wisconsin last winter had good reason to be upset — that was the largest sustained labor protest in a generation, and editorial staff decided to focus on Charlie Sheen instead.  But #occupywallst was no #wiunion.  And there’s a lesson in that.

Anarchists and radical organizers have a bit of collective amnesia with regards to the “Battle of Seattle.”  The kids in black bandanas were only a very small part of the coalition that shut down the city in October, 1999.  Their acts of childish violence against a Starbucks may have become the lasting public image of the event, but they were hardly representative.  The bulk of that anti-globalization protest was composed of labor unions, environmentalists, and other organized progressives.  All of those groups have deep traditions based in the community organizing traditions of Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez.  The real work of organizing bears little resemblance to the attention-grabbing “culture jammers.”  The real work involves “talking to one person, then talking to another person, then talking to another.”  Organizing is slow, difficult, often thankless, but deeply meaningful work.  There are “rules,” you see, even for radicals.



#Occupywallst got no coverage on MSNBC.  It got basically no coverage on DailyKos.  MoveOn, the PCCC, Rebuild the Dream, and Democracy for America all had better things to do with their time.  Adbusters’s “Our Tahrir Square” analogies quickly moved from offensive to pathetic.  The netroots and the rest of the progressive movement completely ignored this non-event.

At the end of the day, the failure of this protest animates a deep, longstanding ontological divide within the activist community.  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.*

The culture jammers are practicing activism-as-public-art.  The community organizers are practicing activism-as-public-process.  Both have their place, but we rarely spell out the differences.  And they’ll lead you in very different directions.  When culture jammers pretend to be organizers, it turns out poorly.  That’s what happened this weekend, in a nutshell.

As for the conservative hecklers… well, that was to be expected.  Conservative activists spend a lot of time obsessing over radical leftism.  They think that everyone from Paul Krugman to Barack Obama to the Sierra Club is a socialist/communist.  In truth, there are hardly any socialists left within the Left.  When actual socialists and actual communists start screaming for attention, its a bit like spotting a leprechaun.

But I’ve got one thing to say to Michelle Malkin, who referred to the protesters as “Alinskyites:”

You know nothing of [Alinsky’s] work.


#occupywallst was not in the tradition of Alinsky.  It lacked a clear target.  It did not leverage power towards a realizable goal.  It did not fit together into a broader strategic campaign aimed at forcing powerful actors to behave in keeping with the goals and interests of a community.

You want to see Alinskyites?  Go to Rebuild the Dream’s Take Back the American Dream Conference, October 3-5 in DC.  That’s where the community organizers will be.  And you’ll find both their goals, their tactics, and their rhetoric a lot harder to caricature.




*Those are the “three principles of organizing” as outlined by The Midwest Academy in Organizing for Social Change

20 thoughts on “Ontologies of Organizing – why #occupywallst was doing it wrong

  1. I spied a moment of self-awareness in the crowd when the chant-form group discussion turned introspective, begging demonstrators to consider whether they were good at public speech, how they can connect with people individually, and spread the word on the street and online. I think you’re right on, but if a core group can stick with this, they may grow through this experience, and their numbers with them.

  2. That last point is essential, I think. One of the things that often gets forgotten about #Tahrir is that the core leadership had been coordinating a series of much smaller protests since ~2006. They spent years engaging in (internet-enabled) organizing, then seized on the larger opportunity, to transformative ends.

    If the Wall St protest becomes a launching point for similar, ongoing, self-reflective learning, it can become the wellspring of a larger movement. In the process, though, they’d need to find ways of partnering with Van Jones and the Rebuild the Dream crowd.

    The bad/good news is that the underlying motivation for these protests — the winner-take-all/rich-get-richer financial system — shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. (Or as we used to say within the Sierra Student Coalition, “every problem is an organizing opportunity.”)

  3. Your critique of #occupywallst is spot on — even if I do think we should take seriously the task of understanding the apparent appeal it’s anti-capitalist/corporate message had across the web. The web and “culture jamming” is no replacement for the face-to-face organizing and relationship building of genuine grassroots organizing. The web, social networking, texting, etc. should be treated as _auxiliaries_ of grassroots organization, not substitutes for it.

    However, I disagree that the alternative is Alinskyism. I would argue that from my own experience in organizing, #occupywallst (and perhaps its shortcomings — it’s lack of organization and structure, which I think results in a lack of face-to-face organizing) are a _response_ to the Alinskyist model, which dominates in the largely staff-dependent non-profit organizations that control most social movement politics in the U.S.

    The tradition of Alinskyism – while obviously serving an important function since the 1970s in fighting against reaction, slumlords, environmental injustice, cheapskate bosses, and so on – has created a style of organizing which sought to replace active membership, grassroots democracy (the model, in various fashions, of SNCC, SDS, the BPP and so on) with a small, well-trained staff. While membership gets to volunteer, canvas, attend public meetings, protests, prepare materials, and often even speak to the media, etc. they’re often left passive in terms of setting political policy or choosing the direction of the organization. These decisions are left to staff or a board of directors. “Members,” “volunteers” or whatever a group decides to call them, for the most part don’t get to elect leadership, their board, their staff members, organizers, etc.

    Membership participation in an organization is more than a left-wing fetish for democracy, “horizontalism,” or “anti-authoritarianism.” It is fundamental component for the development the memberships politics _through practice_, a necessary component of building radical social movements capable of win substantial social reforms from society’s elites, and building the infrastructure of a movement which can ultimately fundamentally transform society, i.e. win social revolution, which I believe is necessary for winning real justice and protecting the piecemeal reforms that are won in the meantime.

    This is what Rules for Radicals and Alinsky really miss, in my opinion. The greatest reforms that have been won in the history of the U.S. have been won have been won under the threat of the radicalization of already massive social movements, e.g. movements that were embracing socialism, revolutionary militancy, “black power,” etc., or alternatively finding willing allies amongst radical elements. Consider the labor movement of the early 1910s – 30s, the suffrage movement, the CRM and the Black Power movements, the US anti-war movement and so on, all had growing radical cores or were building strong alliances with socialist movements, which worried and threatened social-political elites who made concessions to the movement in order to maintain their legitimacy and curb the threat of further radicalization and militancy.

    #occupywallst reflects the almost exact opposite of the staff heavy models that dominate in the NGOized world of social movement politics in the US–it appears virtually staffless (and organizationless, for that matter).

    The alternative isn’t Alinskyism but is something which combines the need to have a growing, radicalizing Left critique of the status-quo, organizing for immediate gains in the here-and-now, but working toward revolutionary social transformation. For this I would suggest checking out the German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg’s “Reform and Revolution” and “The Mass Strike.”

  4. first of all, i want to thank you for saying what you have said here. its important.

    one of the largest issues i have run into with progressives, especially those ‘hip’ to the internet, is the run towards quick solutions.

    no one wants to work. and work is what democracy is built upon.

    but there is work to be done. spontaneous revolt is never spontaneous once you read the history and context, the background, to what came before.

    however, i would ask, what would your post have looked like if they *had* succeeded to some greater extent than they did? perhaps not a giant tent city forever parked on Wallstreets’ doorstep, but a weekend campout maybe?

    don’t misunderstand me, i am all for what you have laid out here. my position here i think i share with you. however, when the powder keg finally does go off, its never quite how or who we would have expected it to be.

  5. Aaron,
    Really interesting response, thanks for commenting. A couple of reactions (typed via iPad, while suffering from jet lag, so please excuse brevity and likey spelling errors):

    -I think you have a good point about activism-as-art being a response to activism-as-process. I would add that it is not a *temporal* response. We don’t have alinsky-style, THEN culture-jamming style. Rather, we have both occurring simultaneously, in dialogue and tension with each other. Sometimes that tension is productive, sometimes it isn’t (usually, from my corner of the movement, it isn’t…). I note this because I dont think #occupywallst is a particularly digital phenomenon. It’s a digital *instantiation* of a historically recurring phenomenon. And we see it’s parallel in the New Organizing Institute (which I’d link to here, but… iPad. Jet lag.)

    -Then the other question I see is “does staff-heavy naturally emerge from Rules for Radicals, and does it necessarily stand in opposition to membership-driven organizing.” my preliminary answers would be “maybe, and no-but-it’s-complicated.” I think the march toward staff driven processes comes through the desire to scale up, which *is* important. Large-scale requires *some* sort of hierarchy – even open source projects like Linux and Wikipedia have an iteratively-developed leadership structure. In the march toward scale, I think a lot of Alinsky’s Rules get lost. In particular, large staff usually require stable, predictable work routines, and those can rob campaigns of the creativity and opportunism that Alinsky is urging us toward.
    On the membership question, my background comes from the Sierra Club. Thats a big, institutional environmental group, membership-led from top to bottom. We have chapters in every state, groups in every city. We also have a large staff presence. So that’s a proof-of-(co)existence, at least. But I can also testify that large staff plus membership driven produces a dynamic tension. It’s frustrating and messy and it always feels like it’s about to go horribly awry. Ken Andrews, Hahrie Han, and Marshall Ganz conducted a great study of the organization, recently published in the American Journal of Sociology (I think, cite might be incorrect though). They basically found that the organization succeeds where it fosters a set of core leadership skills among the volunteer leadership. Those skills, it seemed to me, were well in keeping with the Midwest Academy, though.

    So I agree with the dichotomy youre drawing, and it’s a useful one. But I’m not sure the latter category should be labelled Alinskyism. We might have three poles here, with the needs of scale and bureaucratic rationalism exerting their own separate pull.

    Very interesting…

  6. Fr33rang3r, thanks.

    It’s a fair question, and I’ll admit that I’ve been publicly wrong about big events before. But my early distaste for this particular protest stemmed from an unease with being able to locate an answer to this question at the outset. The best public protests leverage a particular type of power over a particular target. You ratchet up the pain until that target gives in and meets your demands.

    Let’s say that the protest had gone overwhelmingly well. 50,000 showed up, set up a tent city, and peacefully voiced a refusal to leave. Eloquent speakers greeted every camera, explaining that the 99% had had it up to here with the 1%. wall streeters were stymied.

    I still wouldn’t know who the target is, or what they would be asked to do. Congress repeal glass steagell? Supreme court repeal corporate personhood? Obama announce an executive order creating a new civilian conservation Corp? Which one? Or all of the above? And why is a wall street occupation the right form of preessure on those targets?

    Tahrir was both a “black swan” event, and also a well-crafted, excellently chosen tactic. Mubarak couldn’t turn the tanks on everyone, with the world watching, and he couldnt leave them to chat for his resignation for weeks on end. Either way, he faced tremendous pressure to resign. Thats specific, and fantastically appropriate.

    If #occupywallst plants a seed for a larger movement, one skill that movement will need to pick up is this clarity of tactical choice. Spectacle is only spectacular when it’s placed in the right scenario.


  7. “Anarchists and radical organizers have a bit of collective amnesia with regards to the “Battle of Seattle.” The kids in black bandanas were only a very small part of the coalition that shut down the city in October, 1999.”

    This is really sort of shameful for a site with pretenses of “building a healthy information ecosystem.”

    While it’s true that the contingent from Eugene who engaged in targeted ideological property destruction (as opposed to childish reactionary-ism you accuse them of…and I do not say you must agree with them but in the interest of intellectual honesty I do think it is necessary that you critically engage with what they did instead of parroting police lines about their actions)was not a majority presence, the Direct Action Network which was one of the primary on the ground organizers for the actions that shut down the city was an explicitly anarchist/anti-authoritarian organization. Also, and perhaps this is a more minor quibble but happened in November (hence the N30 Action)and not October as you wrote.

    You then go on to specifically mention labor unions, I have no idea what connection you have to any specific union, or the organized labor movement in general but it is a gross mischaracterization to suggest that anarchists and anti-authoritarians and union labor did not work together in Seattle.

    Here’s what Jeff Crosby IUE Local 201’s president had to say about his experience in Seattle:

    “The labor movement basically piggy-backed on the courage of the young environmentalists and anti-sweatshop and church activists.

    Without the Direct Action, which disrupted the WTO, the labor march would have received a 2-minute clip on the nightly news, with something like, “A bunch of inefficient union workers from the rustbelt marched for a return of the bad old days. Fortunately the WTO delegates largely ignored these bits of road kill on the way to the new economy. Although they are hopeless Luddites, it is true that something must be done for the losers in the new world economy who are too old and hidebound to run a computer.”

    Then again, without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes, people who aren’t worried about basic issues like having to earn a living. I guess the ideal mix was summed up in the now-famous sign seen in the Tuesday march: “Teamsters and turtles, together at last”.”

    There are plenty of images of “kids in black bandanas” marching hand in hand with union workers, in fact one of the most significant events in Seattle were union rank and rile breaking away from the main march route to join the activities going on downtown.

    Another key event was locals who were not part of the original organization joining the protesters in response to the brutality of Seattle PD…which for my money goes a long way to demonstrate that community involvement can happen spontaneously and is not solely to result of Alinsky’s methods.

    And speaking of Alinsky and your claims about labor, while I don’t wish to diminish Alinsky’s work in particular or his approach to within the system reform in general, the fact is organized labor’s roots go a lot further back than Alinsky and are absolutely rooted in socialism, communism, and anarchism.

    Take a look at the Haymarket Massacre, or individuals like Big Bill Haywood, or Harry Bridges one of the leaders behind the organization of the union I belong to, the ILWU, if you want to take a real look at the roots of modern organized labor.

    Large demos, whether they pan out or flounder like occupy wall street are often symbolic actions and not examples of Alinsky style community organizing, nor do they really constitute direct action; they are also not some third “other” option leading in a completely different direction as you erroneously suggest.

    These three methods are tactics which will often have different goals in different contexts but which may still be useful as isolated events or as part of larger explicitly organized or loosely confederated series of efforts.

    All three can be botched, all three can be well planned and still fail.

    It’s one thing to critique occupy wall street as a failed symbolic action, another to do as you have, to feed into the good protester, bad protester myth by imagining an oppositional dichotomy between people you consider the bad protesters like “kids in black bandanas”, or “culture jammers” and those you set up as the good protesters essentially, anyone who is aligned with Alinsky’s reformist non-socialist brand of leftism.

    The fact that you’re either willingly contributing to historical misinformation to advance your point or simply never bothered to consider whether an ad hominem description of anarchist participation in Seattle 1999 is rooted in reality or constitutes serious analysis is frankly depressing and symptomatic of attempts to divide movements by co-opting history.

    Perhaps like Alinsky you believe this is a case where the ends justify the means? For my own part I think historical facts matter, whether you agree with the ideologies of those involved in those facts or not.

  8. Brian,

    That’s an awful lot of vitriol for a one-sentence characterization. And I don’t think its entirely fair.

    The point I was *aiming* at (perhaps I missed my mark) was that, as you say “without the thousands of union members, it would have been easier to write off the young protesters as flakes.” Seattle included labor, enviros, anti-sweatshop activists, and socialists, communists, anarchists. The images of Seattle primarily consist of the socialists, communists, and anarchists. That promotes a myth – that those groups can build a mass movement on their own. And I believe one of the flaws in #occupywallst was that they tried to do so.

    It’s true that all sorts of tactics can be botched, and all three can be well planned and still fail. But it’s just as true that there is a historic tension between the two strands of activism. I was a campus environmental organizer back in those days, and was called a “corporate shill” to my face by the leader of the campus socialist group (for my decision to support Al Gore in 2000). It’s hardly “historical revisionism” to acknowledge and explore that tension.


  9. after reading more posts here, and hopefully into the future, i think that Zizek has his finger on the problem with the Left today.

    fundamentally we are divided and experiencing gross failures, because there is no overarching theory that is both simple, robust, and large enough to appeal widely.

    this is perhaps related to your excellent point concerning my question. your issue is, ‘where’s the target?’ or ‘what is the goal here?’

    if i am reading things correctly over the past decade i would say that the Left has had few unifying moments since Seattle, if any at all.

    clearly such a shared vision would help in many ways. however, in particular, when there are disagreements over ‘actions’, whether by type, target, or situation.

    of course, i am not suggesting a unifying dogma that will bring world peace and our favorite bed time story. we will always disagree, hopefully, but at least we would know that we were all aiming at the same target.

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  11. Yep, I’d agree with that analysis. I think the mobilization against the Iraq War also qualifies as uniting the entire left, but that was responsive politics rather than proactive politics.

    As to how that sort of shared vision is formulated/crafted/arises-out-of-the-ether… I’m stumped. Really. It’s something that is needed, and has happened in the past. But I don’t know how we get there. Something for us all to think around…

  12. It’s funny to hear Malkin use “Alinskyite” as a slur – I’m accustomed to hearing that imprecation from latter-day Freires on the left! (I’m absolutely not knocking Freire’s work, tho.)

    There’s an interesting phenomenon in the fact that the right so often seeks to define the left by referencing its tiny minority fringe while ignoring any significant left-of-center movements. The political value is obvious, of course, but it’s culturally interesting and certainly impedes any possibility of understanding or dialogue. (And yes, people on the left do the same thing…but the difference is that the right is arguably led by its fringe. On the left, the fringe is often outright marginalized.)

    This theme doesn’t work so well on iPhone, so that’s my excuse not re-reading/editing my post. 😉

  13. David,

    A number of the organizers for this even were active in the Seattle era and they realized that organizing this in the paltry month was not going to cut it in terms of producing a spectacular event but they also knew that since the RNC crackdown (and other forces) protest culture in the US was pretty dormant; they knew this would not lead to a Tahir like revolution (which too was based on YEARS of small movements!) but wanted to ignite an active culture that could grow over time. Even the Seattle protests took one year to organize and were based on years, over five of smaller efforts, small seeds that sprouted.

    Unfortunately we expect too much in short periods of time (in many domains not just politics). One thing is clear: they have gotten a very excited core group of people committed to this (the numbers on IRC have proliferated) and this can be the start of something exciting.

    And well now that the police decided to go ahead and arrest so many, they have made the media event/spectacle the media so loves to slurp.

  14. interestingly enough i stumbled on this advert quote for the event:

    The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people’s assemblies … we zero in on what our one demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future … and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen.

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