Grassroots groups that organize primarily in working class and communities of color such as National Peoples Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped lead the 99% Spring process. Despite this, the terms of the debate have almost exclusively centered on the participation and limits of MoveOn.org (as a symbol and stand-in for more moderate liberals, the institutional left, and the nonprofit industrial complex). “Are the liberals co-opting Occupy?” or “Is Occupy co-opting the liberals?” There is indeed a historical precedent of radical peoples’ movements becoming de-fanged by the status quo. And yet, too often, the historic limits of the Left in the United States has been connected to its internal tendency towards sectarianism and the politics of purity. At this moment, our own circular firing squads may be a deeper threat to the viability of our movements than “outside” groups.
It is precisely because of our long-term work with radical grassroots movements that both of us dove into helping organize 99% Spring. We were each involved in writing the curriculum and designing the trainings. We were challenged by, and learned a lot from, the process. Our organizations (the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Ruckus Society) are both movement groups that support frontline communities speaking and acting for themselves, and we were both part of the left wing of the 99% Spring alliance.
We are living in an incredible time. Occupy has helped us all re-imagine political vision and strategy. 99% Spring was a bold effort with a lot of success, real limitations, and some mistakes. We want to share our experiences from the heart of 99% Spring project to help our movements think more clearly about alliances, and some of the challenges that our political moment presents us.
At a Crossroads
We are at a crossroads as a movement. Many have been slogging away in the trenches for years, pushing against the political winds and doing the slow work of organizing to build popular power within communities hit hardest by the economic and ecological crises. It was hard work, and it moved slowly. Last fall, Occupy exploded on the scene and challenged many of our assumptions about what was possible. By offering both an inspiring political tactic (“occupy”) and a unifying frame (“We are the 99%”), the Occupy movement was able to tap into the mass anger about the crisis that had been brewing for years. Occupy showed that it was possible to have an explicitly radical message, to engage in confrontational action and still speak to millions of people in this country. It became acceptable to talk about economic inequality, corporate greed and capitalism, and that changed the context for all of our work in important ways. It was a humbling moment for many long-term organizers. It also helped reveal some of the shortcomings of the institutional left.
But now what? Like all movements, we have challenges. Most physical occupations have been evicted by the police, removing the ongoing public spaces that made us visible, and the ongoing police confrontations aren’t tapping into organic mass anger in the same way. Many of our internal challenges make it difficult to do the big-picture strategic thinking we need to envision the next steps. This offers us all a moment of experimentation and innovation. In order to engage it, we need to seriously reflect on our circumstance.
Our friend Matt Smucker with Beyond the Choir puts it this way in “A Practical Guide to Co-option”:
Remember that Occupy Wall Street kicked off with a well timed call-to-action, a ripe target, some planning, and a lot of crazy luck. As a result, OWS has understandably had more of a culture of mobilizing than of organizing. It’s been a little like a group of folks who don’t know about farming who arrive at a farm at harvest time. There’s delicious food everywhere, and all they have to do is pick, pluck, and gather it. And eat it! “Wow,” one of them exclaims, “farming is awesome! Why would we waste our time cultivating the soil? This food is delicious! I want to eat it all the time! This is working very well. We should just keep doing this — all the time!”
Many have put a tremendous amount of work into ‘cultivating soil’ through the process of building working groups, general assemblies, and the mechanics of direct-democracy – especially in New York, and we do not want to discount this. Yet still the tone and attitude of our movement in many parts of the country still relies on the “harvest” mentality. When we focus on the harvest without planting more seeds, we suddenly feel in competition with one another for the remaining food. This understandably leads to antagonism to anyone else eating at the table who we perceive to be politically different from ourselves.
But centering the conversation on whether or not liberals are co-opting radicals can promote an ideology: an unspoken belief that “the masses” are ready for revolution, if it weren’t for these misleading moderate organizations getting in the way. While its true that our organizing can be undercut by those who do not share our objectives (both of us have experienced this tremendous frustration), it is deeply out of touch to imagine that moderate groups are therefore our main enemy. Our enemy is existing power structures promoted by the 1% and the Right Wing groups who prop them up.
Sectarianism distracts our movement from the real key questions that we need to grapple with:
– What are the potentials and the pitfalls of this political moment, and what has changed since last fall?
– How do we continue to connect with the millions of people who were touched by the movement last fall, and how do we continue to grow that base?
– What is it ultimately going to take to win in this country of hundreds of millions of people who agree that our society isn’t working, but have wildly divergent ideas about what the problems (and solutions) are?
Building broad alliances is a crucial part of answering these strategy questions.
What Is Co-optation Anyway?
We don’t see many concerned aboutformal co-optation: that is, the concern isn’t that 99% Spring was trying to take over the actual operations of the Occupy movement or to buy off some section of its (non)leadership. Instead the concern is that moderate forces will take up the “99%” frame and adopt some of the direct action methodologies that galvanized mass support at the end of last year. The resulting fear is that they will then take the steam out of the mass support for the direct action taken by the more radical edges of the movement by providing a more acceptable outlet for the organic anger that Occupy was able to tap into in the past.
This is a reasonable concern that has received an unreasonable amount of attention.
Who was 99% Spring? What was the relationship building potential?
Involvement of communities of color.
The first mistake of the co-optation debate is its near-exclusive focus on MoveOn’s participation in the alliance. It’s true that MoveOn has been clearly involved from the beginning, along with other groups who have not traditionally used mass direct action as a tool for systemic change. It’s also true that 99% Spring would not have happened without the leadership of National Peoples Action, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, and others who serve low income communities and communities of color. Training hosts included participation from UNITY alliance members Grassroots Global Justice, Right to the City Alliance, and more. They represent immigrant workers and other low-wage workers, African American communities, foreclosed homeowners and tenants, people on welfare and public housing residents. Many in the Occupy movement have reflected on the need to make sure that its mass public action needs to be connected to these communities, not just for the purposes of “diversity” but to anchor struggles within communities that are on the frontlines of our economic, political, and ecological crises.
The “left wing” of 99% Spring.
These organizations are not ‘moderate’ and should not be dismissed because they are non-profits; these are grassroots organizations which share Occupy’s transformative political visions. A serious debate about the value of a project like 99% Spring would not be focused exclusively by the MoveOn “elephant in the room;” it would have talked genuinely about the breadth of this coalition and the political concerns that it aimed to elevate – going after a range of power structures in the 1% that have kept many in our society locked out of the mainstream.
Positioning 99% Spring as an NGO watered-down version of Occupy yields a conclusion that the movement has nothing to learn from the project. The resulting abstentionism meant the movement lost this opportunity to learn about the dynamics of forming coalitions and to build in-person relationships with the working class and people of color base of many convening groups through the 99% Spring process. Alliances like these are full of contradictions, but we need to approach those contradictions as exciting challenges to be navigated rather than as problems to be avoided.
Was the intent of 99% Spring to co-opt?
Our movements cannot afford the arrogance of judging an entire alliance on the most (perceived) politically disagreeable actions of a couple members. The logic of the “MoveOn front group” argument is that because MoveOn’s web tools were used, and that they often engage in partisan electoral work, they are secretly the puppet-master behind this broad alliance of 60 organizations, and they will nefariously use the organic energy of people’s movements to funnel people into the Democratic Party. The implication is that the other groups in the alliance were either “duped” or are in on the conspiracy. Narratives like this can catch hold in movements only when they become primarily interested in being the “righteous few” – battling society from the margins, rather than working to influence it. This was characterized by a “campaign” launched by AdBusters against Rainforest Action Network and Ruckus Society to convince these groups to “come back” to Occupy, as if choosing to engage in an alliance meant a betrayal of our “side.”
“But some of those groups support the Democrats!”
Let’s set the record straight. It is true that MoveOn’s membership, some unions and the New Organizing Institute, have done a great deal of electoral work in the past, and many of them will work to help get Obama re-elected in November. For now, lets put aside the important discussion of whether or not engaging in electoral work to some extent will be a necessary part of a radical process in this country (we think it will). We want to point out that – not only was electoral work not promoted through the national 99% Spring process (a big deal for some groups) – but electoral work is not all of what these organizations do. They are not monolithic, and they are in a process of political opening and change (some of which was inspired or accelerated by the Occupy movement). Occupy isn’t monolithic either; the experience in Zucotti or Oscar Grant Plaza does not reflect the experience across the country. The goal of mass movements is not to make every group think and organize like us, but rather to shift the balance of forces in our country further to our side; the interest in mass nonviolent direct action from mainstream groups is an indicator of success.
Spectrum of Allies.
A key lesson from the movements that came before us is that when we shift the “spectrum of allies,” we can pull the support out from under our opposition. Our goal is to get neutral groups to become passive allies, and to get passive allies to become active ones. We’re trying to influence society and pull lots of different “social blocs” in our direction. Each step is a success. When anchored in clear transformative vision and principles, a diverse movement builds a thriving society.
Might there be groups this year doing electoral work using the 99% frame? Probably. Is that “allowed”? Who gets to decide? This only represents a danger to directly-democratic and horizontal movements if it’s the only thing that happens. Critiques of electoral work are reasonable and useful – but only if we don’t let them distract us from our real work, instead of complaining from the sidelines. The real question is not what these organizations do between now and November. The real question is what they will do after November. Are nonprofits learning real lessons from the experience of Occupy, both in how to collaborate with grassroots groups without dominating, and in how to build popular power?
Why did moderate groups support 99% Spring?
A large cross-section of the more moderate edge of the progressive movement – including MoveOn members and unions – are now clear that “politics as usual” no longer work, even to achieve moderate gains or to stop right-wing attacks. They are increasingly clear that an Obama re-election will mean nothing if there is not consistent direct action pressure in the streets after his re-election. The unions who were actively engaged in the 99% Spring process were not there to stump for the Democratic Party, but because they have realized that they cannot function only through the limits of the National Labor Relations Act and that they need to activate their rank-and-file to engage in the kinds of direct action that sparked the modern labor movement in the first place. That is why they invested in the 99% Spring. This is a good thing. These historical developments – that are reflective of deeper political and economic transformations )like the decay of the social welfare state) – open up immense political potential for the radical left. If we can figure out how to engage strategically and productively within these processes of re-thinking and re-alignment within the broader progressive movement, we can leave the political margins where we have contained ourselves for too long and learn to actually lead in broad alliances.
We ally with groups when we share strategy