Movements Making Noise
Movements are powerful when they threaten to disrupt major institutions. Think of society as a complex tangle of cooperative relations that we call “institutions.” Capitalists invest in plants and machinery, workers run these machines, warehouse workers distribute the products, salespeople contract to sell them, and so on. All of these activities must go forward for the economy to work. Similarly, for cities to work, people have to walk the streets, or drive their autos or ride the subways, and for these systems to function, people also have to cooperate, to obey the rules and fulfill their appointed roles.
Most of the time, all of the contributors to these institutions do what they’re supposed to do. But this cooperation does not eliminate the conflict between those who boss and those who (usually) obey, those who get more and those who get less—maybe much less. When institutionalized and cooperative activities become contentious, the basic relationship of cooperation can become the locus of conflict. People can and do withdraw cooperation, or in the formulation of Gene Sharp, they refuse. They refuse, that is, to perform their normal rule-bound roles in institutional life. They strike—against the factories, or the schools, or the traffic system, or the warehouse contractors, or Walmart. It is the actuality or threat of this mass refusal and the disorder it threatens that constitutes the distinctive power of protest movements.
Occupy seems to be reaching for this kind of power with the idea for a campaign it calls Strike Debt. At its core, the idea is simple, and it is very much a strike. Occupy thinks that just as bosses are dependent on workers, so are lenders dependent on borrowers. If workers walk out, the enterprise stops. If borrowers refuse to pay their debts, the lenders could be in real trouble. Each side depends on the other. The millions of underwater mortgage holders, of student debtors and credit card holders, need the bank loans—but so do the banks need those borrowers, and they especially need them to cooperate by paying their monthly charges. Otherwise, the capital that the banks list on their books begins to drain away.
The scale of the disruption contemplated by Strike Debt explains why the simple idea has such frightening implications. Just because mass default on debts would cause chaos in the powerful financial sector and beyond, there are multiple barriers in place that would have to be overcome or circumvented, from the shame our culture heaps on debtors, to the reprisals available in bad credit ratings and wage garnishments, to the full weight of the forces of law and order that can be deployed against those who organize the action.
So there are large risks to the idea, and without strategies to circumvent or lower those risks, the Strike Debt campaign may not happen. Still, the great movements that succeeded in changing history also confronted the threat of reprisals, the more so when their refusals targeted powerful antagonists. The sit-down strikers of the 1930s are a pre-eminent example. They not only defied fundamental laws governing property relations, but the factories they occupied were owned by the most powerful corporations in America. The sit-downers won—not everything the workers wanted, but more than could otherwise have been imagined.
One more observation about the protest movements of our time. Most of the movements of the past seem to have been fueled by simple grievances, or at least the participants were quieted by responses to such grievances—by wage increases, for example, or protection of the right to vote. Maybe all great movements also have a strong utopian streak, but the utopian—and anarchistic—themes in contemporary movements stand out. Occupy doesn’t issue demands because it doesn’t want to dicker, because it doesn’t believe in dickering for half a loaf. It sees itself as a movement creating a new society. And we hear echoes of this hope again and again in many other contemporary movements.
If we step back and contemplate the quandaries in which we find ourselves, this utopianism may be something we should treasure. After all, the climate change scientists make clear that the world really is at risk of going to hell. To save ourselves, we need more than jobs or higher wages or more progressive taxes. We need to reimagine our collective life so that it doesn’t depend on producing more and more stuff for more and more people, which is what most of our ideas of progress have usually been about. I don’t know whether it is possible to expunge our obsession with economic growth, but if it is, I suspect that only a cultural transformation fueled by the utopianism of contemporary movements can do it.
Also in This Forum
Aura Bogado: “Dreamers Fight Deportations”
Mark Hertsgaard: “Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama”
Laura Flanders: “Demanding Women”
Kristen Gwynne: “Who Will Legalize Pot Next?”
John Nichols: “The Election Reform Moment?”