The future of the Occupy Movement

Jules Lobel writes: The Occupy Movement, which has already been hugely successful in thrusting issues of inequality and corporate power into the public discourse, faces a critical juncture. As many of the larger encampments in New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are shut down by the police, activists have been searching for the tactics to move beyond Occupation to Phase 2 of the movement. Some say that the movement now should evolve into the political arena, supporting policy ideas, running candidates for office, and putting pressure on politicians and corporations. Similarly, others argue that the next step is to develop a specific list of demands, which presumably could further policy initiatives and protests.

A different tactical response is to create what essentially would be a non-violent guerrilla movement in American cities. For example, Kalle Lasn, the Adbuster magazine publisher and originator of the Wall Street encampment idea, reportedly urged a new “swarming strategy of surprise attacks against business as usual.” The Chicago occupiers have resolved to have an event a day throughout the winter, such as defending foreclosed homes, sit-ins, banner drops, building parks, providing supplies to the homeless, or guerrilla theater and art. In the same vein, longtime social movement scholar and activist Francis Fox Piven foresaw some time ago that the movement would develop new phases, utilizing “other forms of disruptive protests that are punchier than occupying a square,” or “rolling occupations of public space.”

While determining the tactics of the next phase is critical to keeping the movement alive over the next weeks and months, the broader strategic goal is that of developing a truly long-term movement to transform society – measured not in seasons, but years or even decades. That task is one of sustainability. How can the Occupy Movement (OWS) develop the organizational, cultural and institutional forms to sustain a long term movement, yet also maintain its dynamism, horizontalism, direct democracy, creativity, militancy and transformative vision? No American social or political movement of the 20th century has been able to do so.

The 1960s Civil Rights and 30s CIO trade union movements initially had much of the militancy, creativity and direct democracy now exhibited by OWS. They utilized street protests, sit-ins, factory occupations, and boycotts. SNCC and some of the radical CIO unions practiced direct, participatory democracy. Their movements changed American society and resulted in lasting, meaningful reforms – which if OWS succeeds in emulating would be a remarkable achievement.

But those movements failed to achieve many activists’ goal of an egalitarian society. Perhaps more importantly, they were unsuccessful in sustaining their creativity, dynamism, militancy and vision in some non-bureaucratic forms or institutions that could continue the long-term fight to transform an unjust society into a just one. They seized the radical moment and achieved important reforms, but failed to sustain their transformative vision. Can OWS avoid that fate over the long haul?

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