Ontologies of Organizing, Part V: What Does Failure Look Like?

Today is the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.  It has inspired reflective posts around the web, inquiring about the impacts, successes, setbacks, and future of the Occupy movement.  Rebecca Solnit’s post at Alternet is particularly good.  She argues that Occupy has already succeeded in changing the national conversation about economic justice.  She also argues that Occupy has not ended, and that successful social movements build slowly.

Or, as MLK put it, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

One year ago, a bunch of activists showed up near Wall Street.  They settled in Zuccotti Park.  They captured the nations attention.  If you squinted hard enough, you probably noticed a slight bend in the arc of history.  It was an inspiring time.

It is hard to call those months of public protest anything but a success.  It was a powerful moment in our history.  #OWS did not end with the breakup of the Zuccotti occupation, but it did recede from view.  There have been other occupations in other places.  There have been other actions.  But the public’s attention has drifted away.  Today, on the anniversary, there are a scant few stories about Occupy, even in mainstream-progressive media.  Nothing on the DailyKos frontpage.  Nothing on TheAtlantic.com.  One small article buried in the HuffingtonPost frontpage.  Attention has turned to the Presidential race, to the Senate, to the middle east, to the Chicago Teachers Strike.

Solnit is right to caution against declaring Occupy over.  She is right that there have been victories.  And she is right that, in the long, slow march of social movement progress, early assessments of success can be almost impossible to gauge.

I want to ask a different question though.  I offer this as an ally, and I offer it because critical self-reflection is necessary for any successful social movement: what does failure look like?

The constant refrain I hear from Occupiers today is that the movement is ongoing.  There are still meetings, there are still actions.  They reject questions of “did you succeed” as fundamentally missing the point.  They’re probably right about that.  But meanwhile, the national conversation has moved elsewhere.  The Wall Street protest today apparently numbered in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands.  As an outside observer, it sure does look to me as though the moment has passed.  And that impression matters, because much of the power of #OWS last fall lay in its ability to engage the broader attentive public.  Lose the public and you’re just a bunch of people playing drums in a park.

Any successful movement has to develop a culture of asking tough questions internally.  “What are we trying to achieve?”  “How did we do?”  “What is our theory of change?”  Just showing up isn’t enough.  The movement is either growing or fading.  It is either building or decaying.  Every failed social movement had people who kept on showing up too.

Today, on the 1-year anniversary of #OWS, the remaining occupiers should rightly celebrate what they’ve accomplished.  Then tomorrow, I hope they’ll have an honest internal conversation about what failure looks like.  And then they should reorient themselves accordingly.  The cause is no less dire, no less relevant today than it was a year ago.  The way forward only appears through recognition of mistakes as well as triumphs.