Ask Not Who’s Co-Opting You, Ask Whom You Can Co-Opt
Something rather unusual is happening today: all around the country, people are getting trained to do nonviolent direct action. The 99% Spring — see Jake Olzen’s recent report for background — is an effort put on by a wide range of left and progressive and issue-based groups, from SEIU to the Ruckus Society and more, to train 100,000 people this week in the tactics of protest. Meanwhile, however, there’s a lot of anxiety running around the Occupy movement’s organizer email lists and in articles being published about the trainings in Occupy-friendly outlets, from CounterPunch to Adbusters. The fear is of course that the movement and its “99%” meme are being co-opted.
This is not the first time co-option has been an issue. I’ve warned about it myself here, here and here. Remember when Jay-Z started an Occupy fashion line? Or when Occupiers had to shut down the filming of a Law and Order episode that used actors to depict them? The 99% Spring, though, is a little different. Who’s co-opting whom, here? And what’s at stake?
The logic of a civil resistance movement is always to co-opt the existing structures of the society around it, to radicalize them, to drive them away from the status quo and into doing something truly revolutionary. And it is precisely by co-opting these institutions that the movement is generally able to build enough capacity to make real change. One could find examples in any such movement, but in the spirit of spring, let’s consider Egypt.
Mubarak didn’t fall just because thousands of people were camped out in Tahrir Square; he fell because those thousands of people inspired Egyptian unions to stop working, to grind the economy to a halt. These were organizations that for years had been more or less loyal to the regime, raising their grievances cautiously so as to continue existing under Mubarak’s rule. But the movement threw them over the edge, and they turned a mere protest into a crisis.
At the same time, Egypt also offers an example of much more one-sided co-option: the people’s overwhelming trust of their military in the streets and during the eventual coup has meant that democracy and an end to the police state is still over the horizon. But are MoveOn.org and its allies more like the Egyptian military, or the unions? I’d wager that they can be co-opted. They are already starting to be. From what I gather, there are those in their leadership who want this to happen.
In plenty of situations, the Occupy movement has known to stay on the offensive when it comes to co-option, not the defensive. The planning process for May Day in New York is a great example of that. By getting labor and community organizers in on the ground floor, and demanding that they follow Occupy rules, Occupiers have managed to draw these rigidly hierarchical institutions into an anarchist-style spokescouncil meeting format, and they’ve ensured that a massive march of labor and immigrant groups will coincide with the movement’s agitation for a general strike.
As for the 99% Spring. Of course these organizations and their Democratic Party allies would love to take advantage of the movement for their own ends — which include everything from reelecting Barack Obama to victories on environmental and labor issues. Who can blame them for trying? But it’s not like they were training 100,000 in nonviolent direct action last year, or in 2008, or on behalf of John Kerry. They’re doing it because the Wisconsin Uprising, and Tar Sands Action, and Occupy Wall Street all changed their sense of what is politically possible in this country, and they want to get in on it however they can.
Maybe it would be different if the Occupy movement itself were training 100,000 people in direct action right now, too. But it’s not. Tens of thousands people who’ve never done activism or civil disobedience are taking baby steps toward doing so, and Occupy can count that as a big victory — which it needs right now, since many of the occupations themselves have dwindled and most Americans seem to think that the movement is over.
Rather than arguing about whether the 99% Spring is co-option or not — spoiler alert: it is — Occupiers can be strategizing about how to co-opt it back even more. How can all these newly-trained troops be mobilized into Occupying? What specific actions can they be drawn into to practice what they’ve learned? How can people in the movement further turn these people’s attention to structures of oppression, rather than to stump speeches and delegates?
These are questions that call for creativity — which fortunately the movement, if it still in fact has its mojo, shouldn’t have a problem delivering. If the movement really does have something better to offer than the liberal and reformist bloc, now’s the time to prove it.