[By Jeremy Brecher; Original published in TIDAL: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy]
The 1% possesses the lion’s share of the world’s wealth; they dominate the world’s political systems; they command armies of heavily armed cops and soldiers; their views are propagated by another army of media and academic flacks. Yet we know that social movements and popular upheavals ranging from abolitionism to the American civil rights movement, from the Women’s Liberation Movement to Polish Solidarity, from the Latin American democratization movements to Occupy Wall Street have changed societies. 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?
There’s a big hint in Bertolt Brecht’s From A German War Primer:
General, your tank is a strong vehicle.
It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people.
But it has one fault: it needs a driver.
The power of the general, however great it may appear, depends on that driver. More generally, those who dominate can do so only because others support or acquiesce in their domination. It is the activity of people – going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property – that continually re-creates the power of the powerful.
This dependence is captured in the labor movement anthem Solidarity Forever:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
That dependence of the 1% on the 99% can be parlayed into power through the formation of a collective subject or actor, most often in the case of labor struggles to form a union:
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.
After closely following the massive strikes, general strikes, street battles, peasant revolts, and military mutinies of the Russian Revolution of 1905 that forced the Czar to grant a constitution, Mohandas (not yet dubbed “Mahatma”) Gandhi concluded, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” Shortly thereafter he launched his first civil disobedience campaign, proclaiming “We too can resort to the Russian remedy against tyranny.”
In 1905 Rosa Luxemburg was also watching the Russian Revolution. In her great book The Mass Strike she emphasized how wrongheaded it was to think of such a period of upheaval as a simple sequence of events following a single pattern or as a progression from small, local, “economic” struggles to large, national, “political” ones:
“Its use, its effects, its reasons for coming about are in a constant state of flux. . . . political and economic strikes, united and partial strikes, defensive strikes and combat strikes, general strikes of individual sections of industry and general strikes of entire cities, peaceful wage strikes and street battles, uprisings with barricades — all run together and run along side each other, get in each other’s way, overlap each other; a perpetually moving and changing sea of phenomena.”
We should learn from Rosa Luxemburg that the self-organization of the 99% takes diverse forms and often combines different forms and/or shifts rapidly among them.
Occupy Wall Street has been lectured ad nauseam by self-proclaimed experts on social movements that it needs a specific list of demands “like the civil rights movement.” This is a travesty of civil rights history. While civil rights campaigns made plenty of specific demands (“serve black patrons at the Woolworth’s lunch counter”), it actually contested the whole edifice of American civilization. Its core objective (hardly a “demand” that could be fulfilled by anybody) was to abolish white supremacy in the United States –an institution that preceded the birth of the nation and was embedded in the warp and woof of every institution and locality. To achieve racial equality, the civil rights movement “demanded” a transformation of the American class structure that would abolish poverty, end imperialist adventures like Vietnam, and redirect social resources from military to human needs. Like the mass strike as analyzed by Rosa Luxemburg, the civil rights movement was driven by the dialectic between transformational aspirations and concrete, realizable objectives that began to realize them in the here and now.
OWS has similarly managed to combine highly specific demands (renegotiate a homeowner’s mortgage; end stop-and-frisk), broad social reforms (free higher education for all), and visionary objectives like a world no longer dominated by the 1%. While such a range of objectives can from time to time “get in each other’s way,” in the long run they support each other. The specific objectives are partial embodiments of the wider goals; the wider aspirations help inspire and justify the sacrifices participants must make day to day.
How the potential “power of the powerless” can actually be utilized depends on the specific character of what Gene Sharp calls the “pillars of support” for domination. For example, in the civil rights era many Southern businessmen swung from “massive resistance” to encouraging acquiescence in desegregation because they feared the reactions of Northern business investment to racist violence. The Kennedy Administration moved to support civil rights, albeit tepidly, in part from its fear of foreign disapproval of US racism, especially in newly independent African countries courted by the Soviet Union. Democratic Party politicians were highly dependent on large black voting blocs in Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago, but their support was jeopardized when Democrats in the South perpetrated and Democrats in the White House and Congress tolerated highly visible racial oppression. While the civil rights movement was a direct confrontation with the evil of segregation, it actually drew much of its power from the “indirect strategy” of putting pressure on the forces whose acquiescence made it possible for segregation to persist.
The threat to power holders may be a specific and targeted withdrawal of cooperation. For example, in the anti-sweatshop movement, student protestors made clear that their campuses would be subject to sit-ins and other forms of disruption until their universities agreed to ban the use of their schools’ logos on products made in sweatshops. A campaign to define refusal to pay debts as a form of civil disobedience against an immoral and oppressive system could well pose a serious threat to financial institutions – and thereby force major changes in private and public debt policy.
In addition to such targeted threats, the withdrawal of cooperation may generate fear of a more general social breakdown, what is often characterized as “social unrest.” For example, in the late 1990s, under heavy pressure from the World Bank, the Bolivian government sold off the public water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba, to a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation, which promptly doubled the price of water for people’s homes. Early in 2000, the people of Cochabamba rebelled, shutting down the city with general strikes and blockades. The government declared a state of siege and a young protester was shot and killed. Word spread worldwide from the remote Bolivian highlands via the Internet. Hundreds of e-mail messages poured into Bechtel from all over the world demanding that it leave Cochabamba. In the midst of local and global protests, the Bolivian government, which had said that Bechtel must not leave, suddenly reversed itself and signed an accord that included every demand of the protestors. There is little doubt that it did so out of fears of social unrest.
The result was the self-organization of a previously powerless population of indigenous people and the poor. That was manifest in the subsequent election of one of the world’s most radical governments. But it also reflected in the fact that Bolivians have to a considerable extent continued to be self-organized. Rather than disbanding the movement and turning their collective power over to the new regime, they appear to have retained the ability to contest the practices and decisions of “their” leaders, to consent or to again withdraw their cooperation. Retaining the capacity of a popular movement to act even when its representatives hold state authority may provide a way to challenge the cooptation and corruption that so often follows what at first appears to be empowerment through the political process.
So our self-liberation is contingent on our utilizing the dependence of domination on the cooperation of the 99%. That means challenging specific forms and cases of domination in ways that also embody a challenge to domination as a whole. It means finding effective ways to undermine the pillars of support for domination in those specific instances. It means disobeying power holders in ways that inspire growing solidarity among the 99% all over the world. It means retaining our power to act collectively and to withdraw our cooperation even from those who purport to represent our interests. And it means constantly transforming our own praxis — to learn from our experience, to adapt to changing circumstances, and to push forward the dialectic between concrete actions we can take today and the radical transformation that is necessary to establish a just and sustainable world.