When the Next Crisis Comes, Which Movements Will Seize the Opportunity?

Protest as part of Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. (Photo: OccupyWallStreet.net)

When the Next Crisis Comes, Which Movements Will Seize the Opportunity?

You, too, could be caught in a situation where people are ready for an alternative, yet your group has none to offer.

It's understandable. We who work for change seem years away from convincing a critical mass of people that it is both stupid and wrong to have a school-to-prison pipeline, or a rate of carbon emissions killing hundreds of thousands of people, or a "national security strategy" that mainly breeds insecurity.

You, too, could be caught in a situation where people are ready for an alternative, yet your group has none to offer.

It's understandable. We who work for change seem years away from convincing a critical mass of people that it is both stupid and wrong to have a school-to-prison pipeline, or a rate of carbon emissions killing hundreds of thousands of people, or a "national security strategy" that mainly breeds insecurity.

Historic change does not always have the gradual-then-accelerating curve shown by the LGBTQ movement. At times, a system goes into crisis. In 2007-2008 financial sectors in many countries skidded toward the cliff; Iceland's even went over the cliff. Crisis equals opportunity, for those who are ready to use it.

I asked a Washington, D.C., friend who works among progressive Democrats what he heard after the Wall Street disaster. Did people in his circle discuss organizing the strong, grassroots anger into a push for major reform? He knew of none. As it turned out, that anger was organized by the right and became the Tea Party. Polls show that even today many people identifying as Tea Party members express hostility to Wall Street.

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All this missed opportunity should be seen in the context of Barack Obama's presidency, since it was he who said, during his candidacy, that the Swedish solution to its own banking crisis had been correct: Seize the banks rather than bail them out. (In a recent New Yorker article on Greece, former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said President Obama told him that the U.S. bailout was against his personal politics.)

Presidents do what they do, given the existing power realities they face. The lesson for us in the United States is: In 2009 we lacked a powerful movement that had a vision, and was willing to mobilize direct action on behalf of that vision.

The crisis might come around again. According to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, "The biggest banks are collectively much larger than they were before the crisis, and they continue to engage in dangerous practices that could once again crash our economy."

Even Republican Sen. John McCain wants to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act because of what he calls "a culture of dangerous greed and excessive risk-taking." Glass-Steagall was passed after the Great Depression to separate banking functions, but repealed by President Bill Clinton, setting the stage for more mischief. Bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act has no chance of passing Congress. After all, since 2008 even more U.S. wealth has shifted to the super-rich. The role of housing in the crisis has also meant shifting more wealth from black people to white people. For those who own the political parties, the prospect of another crash is not so bad.

Individual senators like Elizabeth Warren cannot express the fuller vision of economic justice that they may hold privately, given the constrictions of U.S. electoral politics, just as the young Sen. Obama who believed in the Swedish banking solution could not implement that policy once he became president. Politicians in our system are limited.

Social movements have far more freedom, although they may not use it. The labor movement has had the most experience standing up to the economic elite. By 2009, however, labor had lost so often, and was so habituated to being on the defensive, that it had lost its capacity for vision.

Unlike the working class, middle class people are generally not in the trenches of the class war. Even so, they often fail to use their schooled-up brains to generate visions that can be fought for when a crisis arrives. It's easier for them to root for the Elizabeth Warrens than to think for themselves and imagine alternatives that are more fundamental than those a politician can advocate.

One example of our vision failure was the General Motors crisis, an opportunity for environmentalists to push for the motor company to convert to making windmills, solar, geothermal and other hardware for renewable energy. The entire auto industry massively converted for World War II, rolling out tanks instead of cars. Large-scale conversions can be done. People also knew that General Motors was a corporation in decline. Why weren't we ready with a vision for GM's crisis so we could fight for it? Had we been ready, our ally in the White House, clearly blocked on major climate change legislation, would have an alternative to the GM bailout he duly executed.

This same question exists for the gun control movement, for Black Lives Matters, and for all the groups that know that a crisis will come related to their issue.

When crisis comes, who is ready with what vision?

Occupy Wall Street meets the 1968 Paris Spring

The U.S. finally generated a left-wing direct action movement against Wall Street's "dangerous greed," in 2011. In a recent interview about his book "The End of Protest," Micah White argues that the Occupy Wall Street's protest model should not be repeated. While I agree with that point, I disagree with several others -- especially White's assumption that the Occupy movement represented the best that mass protest can do.

The Occupy movement showed little sign of having learned from careful analysis of previous movements' experience. One source the Occupy initiators could have learned from to increase their power is the student-initiated campaign that sparked a 10-million-strong mass insurgency in President Charles de Gaulle's France.

I did interviews to bolster my study of the 1968 French movement, which challenged the economic elite far more than Occupy did. De Gaulle reportedly doubted that his army in France would carry out sufficient repression to maintain his and the 1 percent's power. He checked with generals of the French army of occupation in Germany to see whether the French troops there would be reliable if they returned to France to repress the movement. I shared several key lessons from France relevant to Occupy in earlier editions of my book, "Toward a Living Revolution." The campaign is also in the Global Nonviolent Action Database. For this article, the most important lesson is the French movement's lack of a coherent picture of a just society.

Because the students and workers were largely united against the unjust status quo, the sector in play was the large French middle class. A reasonable question for small business, middle managers and professional people was: "What will be our role in the new society that this movement wants to create?" Students held all-night assemblies in theaters to come up with a vision that could answer that, and many other, questions. Understandably, they failed to unite on an instant vision.

At the same time, the movement added to its occupations, strikes and other nonviolent tactics the unnecessary ornaments of revolutionary tradition: street-fighting with police, barricades aflame with cars seized at random from the streets. Without a vision for reassurance, the middle classes were left to make their judgments based on the incendiary evidence. Of course, they sided with de Gaulle.

Contrast May-June of 1968 with that of the Swedes and Norwegians who created their vision over years through wide discussion including study groups, often led by university students and experiments like coops. With the crisis of the Great Depression, the movement took the opportunity for maximum disruption. When workers and farmers with middle class allies made those societies ungovernable by the economic elite, everyone knew the movement's vision.

Nonviolent mass action opened the space for democracy. Democratic socialists could then implement what we now envy as the Nordic model, which facilitates more equality and individual freedom than most of us have in the United States or any other country I know.

Dancing with history

The Occupy movement was visionless and often resistant to making, or sticking to, positive demands. It also remained small, considering the size of the United States. The movement was unready for the heavy lifting of forcing structural change.

Still, the movement did respond to a crisis and people brought their passion to the streets. The good news is that we can relate to history with more than one dance. When vision-led mass insurgency is not available, we can in the meantime get ready by breaking off a specific piece of vision and wage a campaign to win that piece.

Such a campaign doesn't often result in a power shift, true, but if waged well the campaign builds skills and may result in a meaningful victory. Further, if campaigners are willing to invest in community, they can build a culture of resistance and the solidarity that supports courage. Micah White calls for a diminishing of fear among activists. Healthy campaigns help participants learn how to handle fear.

However, in addition to campaigning, I would add another building block: Try empowering the visionaries you know to do homework. We'll need their vision work -- in concert with wide discussion -- for the next crisis.

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