A month after it began with a few hundred people marching on Wall Street, the #Occupy movement has grown to include tens of thousands of participants throughout the country and has captured headlines around the world. If it has not yet succeeded beyond its wildest dreams, that’s only because its participants have dreamed big: imagining a sustained popular uprising that could force fundamental changes in our political and economic system—ones that could end corporate dominance and promote real democracy.
The movement can, in fact, propel significant changes. But #OccupyWallStreet and its allied occupations still have a ways to go before realizing their potential. The two issues most pressing as they chart their next steps: solidarity and escalation.
“Co-optation” or Flattery?
Despite great success in capturing the public eye, the actual number of people camped out at the various occupations around the country remains relatively small. While there are several hundred people camping in hubs such as New York City and Los Angeles, overnight participants in smaller cities number in the dozens. What bolsters the power of these encampments is that they are representative of a much wider discontent. Far greater numbers of sympathizers turn out for mass meetings, marches, and online shows of support. And, importantly, more established political bodies—unions, advocacy organizations, and community groups representing large constituencies—have offered endorsements of the growing #Occupy effort.
As more have signed on, some activists have been wary of outside expressions of support. Particularly as Democratic Party officials (including President Obama and Vice President Biden) have said positive things about the movement, some have voiced concerns about “cooptation.” They have argued that outside liberals, “while pretending to advance the goals of the Occupy Movement,” could instead “undermine it from within.”
How big of a danger “cooptation” actually represents is a matter of dispute. In a recent interview, Chris Maisano asked veteran social movement theorist Frances Fox Piven about this issue. (Piven is author, among many other books, of the landmark Poor People’s Movements and has considered the issue of cooptation at length in her work.) I believe she struck the right tone in her response:
Maisano: [As] recent comments by even the president and vice-president have showed, a lot of the more institutionalized forces on the left like the unions and MoveOn and the Van Jones American Dream Movement are trying to latch on to the protests and turn them into what some people have called a liberal version of the Tea Party. How do you think their involvement will effect the movement? How should the activists at the core of the movement relate to them?