The occupation movement that began on Wall Street and is now spreading across America is part of a tradition known in the American Revolution as the “people out of doors” – marches, demonstrations, and impromptu assemblies that historian Gordon S. Wood described as “extra-legislative action by the people” who “could find no alternative institutional expression for their demands and grievances.” The movement has provided new hope for progressive social change. But it also raises many questions about how such movements can be sustained and grow powerful while retaining the democratic impulse that inspired them in the first place.
From Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin, to Wall Street, few things are more predictable than unexpected social movements. While the new electronic social media facilitate their emergence, the history of such movements is far older than the Internet. Indeed, the startling appearance of social movements has played a crucial role in shaping modern history from the Great Upheaval of 1877, whose strikes and general strikes closed America’s railroads and more than a dozen American cities, to the Russian Revolution of 1905, to the Montgomery bus boycott, to the general strikes of Polish Solidarity. When and how such movements will arise may be unpredictable, but their patterns and dynamics can be better understood by studying their history.
More than a “Tea Party of the Left”?
Why is it possible for social movements to emerge, often at the very point that people seem most disorganized and hopeless? The answer usually lies not in the clever tactics of organizers (though they can help), but in the realization of common problems and the often surprising human capacity for self-organization in response to them. As people feel increasingly outraged at the conditions they face, they begin to mutually recognize each others’ discontent and potential readiness to act. In such contexts, an exemplary act like walking off the job or refusing to leave a segregated lunch counter — or occupying a park near Wall Street — can dramatize for large numbers of people their common situation and their ability to act in response to it. Once people recognize that, the action of a few hundred protesters can “spread by contagion” across boundaries of geography, subculture, and even nation and in a few days draw in thousands of people in hundreds of distant locations. It’s happened over and over again.
We know that social movements ranging from abolitionism to the American civil rights movement to the Women’s Liberation Movement to Polish Solidarity have had made genuine social change. But how can they have such powerful effects when they are made up of people who appear — and feel — so powerless within existing institutions and when they are opposed by such massive concentrations of power?
As the theorist of nonviolence Gene Sharp, channeling Gandhi, has made so clear, the answer lies in the fact that governments, corporations, and other powerful institutions depend on the people who cooperate or acquiesce in their power by providing labor, resources, civility, and consent. Social movements can be powerful because they embody the possibility that people may withdraw their acquiescence and consent, undermining the “pillars of support” that governments and institutions need to survive and realize their goals. Social movements can present a significant threat to those who hold power – and thereby compel them to change. As Bertolt Brecht put it in his poem “From A German War Primer,”