Gandhi once said of growing movements of social protestation, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The trajectory of the ever-evolving and growing Occupy Wall Street movement follows the same pattern almost to a “T,” with slight variation.
Now, apply that model to the most recent public relations and marketing ploys of organizations like MoveOn.org, the ascendant “Reclaim the American Dream Movement” and the general segment of society author and journalist Chris Hedges calls the “Liberal Class” in his most recent book titled “The Death of the Liberal Class” (of which the former two are both a part).
In so doing, one can observe a perfect case study of the liberal class in action, in four distinct acts, with one exception: “then they fight you” can be replaced with “then they attempt to co-opt your movement.”
Act One – Getting Ignored: In the early planning stages of Occupy Wall Street, few eyes were on those working behind the scenes to make this vision a reality. With little funding backing their cause, the activists calling for this action, to those even paying any attention to them at all (few and far between), seemed quixotic or at the very least, overly optimistic. This was the case even to those highly sympathetic to the cause and its accompanying ideology.
How in the world does a rag-tag bunch of activists take on the financial power center of the world that calls the shots politically in statehouses around the country, on a federal level and around the world? Because the task was such a monumental undertaking, these activists were essentially ignored all throughout the planning stages and into the opening days of the occupation itself.
The liberal class, predictably, was nowhere to be seen in the planning stages of Occupy Wall Street, wholeheartedly ignoring the fact, or simply not even knowing the fact, that this occupation was in the works.
Act Two – Getting Laughed at: Once it was seen that, while not yet a movement, the people occupying Wall Street had, at the very least, legitimate grievances, the liberal class resorted to scornful tactics like mockery of the type of people in the movement – ad hominem attacks, if you will.
The scorn was well-depicted by liberal environmental blogger, Grist's David Roberts, who tweeted, “I've been reading about #occupywallstreet for the last hour or two & it's just horrific. Practically designed to discredit leftist protest.” It was also on perfect display with liberal blogger David Atkins, who mockingly tweeted, “If you want to #occupywallstreet, 1) shave 2) wear some decent clothes 3) coordinate signs about inequality 4) get a media spokesperson.” The diatribe proceeded for multiple tweets, Atkins having listed ten points.
In a post titled, “What's behind the scorn for the Wall Street protests?” Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald aptly explained their behavior and tactics, writing, “Any entity that declares itself an adversary of prevailing institutional power is going to be viewed with hostility by establishment-serving institutions and their loyalists. That's just the nature of protests that take place outside approved channels, an inevitable by-product of disruptive dissent: those who are most vested in safeguarding and legitimizing establishment prerogatives … are going to be hostile to those challenges. As the virtually universal disdain in these same circles for WikiLeaks (and, before that, for the Iraq War protests) demonstrated: the more effectively adversarial it is, the more establishment hostility it's going to provoke.”
The liberal class, though, quickly realized that Occupy Wall Street was gaining traction, with leaders of the left like Francis Fox Piven, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Cornel West and Joseph Stiglitz joining the cause in solidarity, and its leaders realized that it must co-opt the movement while time is still on its side.
Act Three – Co-Option: With Occupy Wall Street off the ground, but its longevity still in flux, MoveOn.org and its cousin, the Center For American Progress, and Van Jones' Reclaim the American Dream Movement, were nowhere to be found. Instead, they were busy planning the Take Back The American Dream Conference, which took place from October 3 through October 5.
“Taking back the American Dream,” Jones said in an interview appearing on AlterNet, will be a three-step process.
First, the planned November 17 “Rising Tide of Protest,” a protest, led by the Reclaim the American Dream Movement, will be held in a network of cities throughout the United States. As FireDogLake's David Dayen explained, “[The] November 17 protests announced by the American Dream Movement … [are] a one-day protest across multiple cities across the country that organizers hope will be a massive activation of their supporters.”
Second, an amalgamation of coordinated house meetings and online teach-ins. “We're going to try to get a million leaders in America online and talking with each other. And that's going to be a major piece,” said Jones.
Third and most importantly to an organization “powered by,” (aka a project of) MoveOn.org, which among other things, is an organization that raises campaign money for Democratic Party candidates, Jones said the 2012 elections are a vital piece of the puzzle. “And then there's a third piece and it's new – and it seems to have escaped people's notice – and that's that we've said we're going to run 2012 people for office in 2012. Now, that's a big deal,” Jones stated.
“We're talking about U.S. senators who want to run as American Dream candidates – soon to be announced. We've reached out to the House Democratic Caucus; there are House members who want to run as American Dream candidates,” he continued.
What this translates to, in layman's terms, is the very process of co-opting a growing movement of democratic resistance and trying to replace it with a sales pitch to go out in 2012 and vote Democrat. Jones and the Democratic Party operations in disguise, namely the likes of MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, are taking a page out of the Dick Armey and Koch brothers' Tea Party co-option playbook with this one.
Indeed, many forget that before the Tea Party was an Astroturf movement funded by Armey and the Koch brothers, it was an enraged grassroots movement, led mostly by Ron Paul libertarians. Then it got co-opted and now it is a rotten pawn of corporate elites.
If Occupy Wall Street organizers are not careful, this could also be their destiny.
Act Four – Win or Be Co-Opted? That Is the Question: Occupy Wall Street, now three weeks into the occupation, now finds itself in a pivotal moment. Will the nonpartisan, anti-establishment movement allow itself to be co-opted by the Democratic Party serving powers that be, i.e. by the MoveOn.orgs and Center for American Progresses of the world, or will it remain a strong, left, independent force that grows with each passing day and strikes fear into what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills calls the power elite?
One thing is for certain – the liberal class is working overtime to co-opt a burgeoning social justice movement.
Exhibit A: On October 5, Day 19 of Occupy Wall Street, MoveOn.org sent out an email calling on clicktivists (as opposed to activists) to “Join the Virtual March on Wall Street.” “The 99% are both an inspiration and a call that needs to be answered. So we're answering it today, in a nationwide Virtual March on Wall Street to support their demand for an economy that serves the many, not the few … Join in the virtual march by doing what hundreds have done spontaneously across the web: Take your picture holding a sign that tells your story, along with the words 'I am the 99%,'” wrote Daniel Mintz of MoveOn.org.
John Stauber is a longtime critic of organizations like MoveOn.org and Center for American Progress, and founder and former executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy as well as co-author of “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You,” a book that exposes how corporations and vested interests work to co-opt movements for change. In an interview, he stated, “Don't be fooled. This will primarily be an effort to co-opt the language and energy to salvage Obama and the Dem Party. This is how you co-opt movements. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not leader oriented. Van Jones will become the voice of this in the mainstream,”
“The same thing happened to anti-war in 2007. MoveOn.org was, to the mainstream, the voice of that movement,” Stauber continued. “It is easy to read between the lines. For one thing, there is no criticism of Obama in the 'Reclaim the Dream' messaging and marketing. No one with a national reputation is going to do anything to undermine his re-election efforts. There is huge money in supporting Obama and nothing but pain and punishment in not – both desperation and self interest are driving this at this point in time.”
As Stauber alluded to, one only has to look a few years down the memory hole to see that, as William Faulkner wrote in “Requiem for a Nun,” “The past is never dead. It's not even past!”
In an article about how the Democratic Party, teaming up with MoveOn.org and other like-minded apparatchiks, viewed the Iraq war as a “gift” to wield for electoral purposes in the 2006 elections, Stauber wrote, “And how have the Democrats treated their gift now that they control Congress? The Democratic House and Senate have continued to fund the war while posturing against it …”
Later, in that same piece, Stauber juxtaposed the operatives with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), an organization that is against imperialistic foreign policy no matter who is in office, writing, “[IVAW] are not the concoction of a liberal think tank or PR firm; they have very little funding; they are not avoiding criticism of Democrats; and they are not playing political games trying to bank-shot Democratic candidates into the White House and Congress in 2008. They are in open non-violent revolt against US foreign policy, criticizing politicians of all stripes who would exploit the war for political gain.”
Fast forward five years and a nearly parallel situation exists. An independent and democratic economic justice movement, ground zero of which exists at the power center of economic injustice, namely Wall Street, has now spread to every corner of the country in some form or fashion within the framework of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Democratic Party vultures are waiting to swoop in, steal the thunder and then make sure the focus is on electing Democrats, who are just as much to blame as Republicans for the ascendancy of Wall Street. If anything, they are even more to blame for the pacification role they play in co-opting the overwhelming swath of the left time and time again, no matter what horrible policies they pass.
Will Occupy Wall Street of 2011 be a repeat of the Iraq war of 2006? Similar forces are at bay, that is for certain.
It will all depend on activists deciding whether they choose to be used as a “gift,” or if they choose to remain independent of the forces of co-option.
Act four, to say the least, should be interesting.