Strategic Frames of the Occupy Movement

I’ve been watching the Occupy Movement from a distance these last several months, intentionally standing back so that I might observe the larger web of patterns shaping its unfolding path. In the early weeks of the movement, I wrote about the swarm behavior through which OWS grew quickly — seemingly out of nowhere — from a small group of activists in New York City to its global presence in thousands of locales. Then I stepped back and waited to see what the future might hold for the movement.

And now, as we enter the new year, I would like to share how I see the changing landscape of strategic action as informed by my knowledge of political frames and complex pattern formation. The ideas presented below are meant to help shed light on the underlying forces of change that have given Occupy its core strengths up till now and to prepare change makers around the world for larger impacts in 2012 and beyond.

A Quick Primer on Political Frames

Before discussing the political frames that gave Occupy its strength, it will be helpful to be sure we are all on the same page about what they are and how they function in society. Briefly stated, semantic frames are the conceptual structures that allow us to make sense of the world around us. They are:

  1. Physically wired into our brains as patterns of neural connectivity;
  2. Emergent patterns that arise when our bodies interact with the world around us;
  3. The roles, relationships, and inferential logic of human thought.

In everyday terms, a semantic frame is the intuitive logic that shapes what we understand the world to be moment-by-moment. They tell us what is real and knowable and how to behave appropriately in social settings.

An example from everyday life is the frame of despair. We can all relate to the deep anguish experienced when in a state of despair. Yet we may not be aware that it makes sense to us as a kind of spatial logic, built on the conceptual metaphor of An Emotion Is A Spatial Container. We tend to see it as something we reside in for a period of time, then come out of later when conditions have changed. This logic allows us to treat our emotional experience as a place we reside in for a fixed period of time. The frame is part of our bodily experience. And it allows us to make sense of what is happening around us.

Of course, there are many semantic frames of relevance to students of politics and culture. A vitally important example analyzed by the linguist who brought frame analysis to the political world, George Lakoff, is the use of military language to describe the invasion of Iraq as an unending war. Despite the fact that the “Iraq War” only lasted a few weeks (culminating in the capture of Baghdad in early 2003), our political leaders and media figures continued to deploy a frame of war to characterize what would more accurately be described as an ongoing occupation. Note how the logic of occupation is profoundly different from that of war:

  • During an occupation the use of military tactics to resolve issues tends to fail. Diplomacy and political solutions are what is needed to resolve conflict;
  • During an occupation the death of civilians is an unacceptable loss of innocent lives. Civilian deaths are seen as unavoidable “collateral damage” during a war;
  • During an occupation the role of politicians is to be humanitarian leaders, elevating human security in the region impacted by conflict. Politicians become military leaders during times of war and often seek consolidation of war powers that restrict civil liberties at home and abroad.

The selection of a war frame goes much deeper than the choice of words. Expectations are shaped by the choice of frames, with consequential impacts on the actions of those involved.

So when we talk about the strategic frames at play in the Occupy Movement, we are honing in on the competing interpretations of reality that shape large-scale societal behavior. Frames arise in response to intense emotional experiences as we seek to comprehend them. And they influence how events unfold as we live out the comprehensions evoked by them.

Conceptual Landscape for the Occupy Movement

With this view of frames in mind, let’s see what the Occupy Movement has created in the last few months. Obvious to casual observers are the two slogans of the movement — We Are The 99% and Occupy Wall Street. I’ll begin with them and then share some subtleties of the environment from which they sprang.

Language of the 99% draws a line in the sand. It divides our social world into the haves and the have-nots. The conceptual structure is simple enough — one container with the minimal number of elements juxtaposed against another with the maximal inequality relative to the total amount. If there are 100 dollar bills, the most unequal distribution that leaves both parties with something in their hands is $99 for one and $1 for the other. The emotional significance of this arises from the logic of extreme inequality implied by this juxtaposition. If one group has almost everything, the other is left with nearly nothing.

This is the emotional logic that has encouraged the mainstream media to talk more about wealth inequality and social justice since Occupy began. The 99% frame evokes a maximal inequality that resonates deeply with the lived experiences of working-class people in the US and around the world. I’ll come back to the significance of this lived experience in a moment.

The power of the Occupy frame is two-fold: (1) It is a verb that represents action taken by one who has power to influence the world, and (2) it demarcates an abstract spatial location that is scalable. The significance of the first feature should be clear — to feel one’s personal empowerment by taking action and claiming a space is deeply moving. One who can stake a claim to space has power. And that power gives them a sense of control over their destiny. This is the underlying motivator for collective action that has captured the imaginations (and bodies!) of protestors around the world, from Tahrir Square to Zuccoti Park.

The second feature is what allowed OWS to go viral and spread across the globe. The demarcation of abstract space, when overlaid on top of real-world physical locations, is a recipe for unconstrained growth. More simply, it is the act of claiming a space that offers a feeling of empowerment. While one physical location was claimed in a New York City Park, the concept of occupation could be generically applied to all physical spaces. This is why protestors in other cities were inclined to claim the OWS brand and stake out their own turf. And, just as the emotional experience of despair is conceptualized as an abstract space, the Occupy frame allows anyone and everyone to claim cultural turf by occupying democracy, love, citizenship, compassion, freedom, politics, and more.

The broad flexibility of the Occupy frame gives it a fractal nature. It applies equally well from the small scale (Occupy Oakland) to the very large (Occupy Humanity). In mathematical terms, the concept is “scale free” and nonlinear. It can grow to fill any cultural container because its conceptual core is abstractable and pliable.

Taken together, these two frames offer a conduit for emotions to flow and actions to congeal. They are the linguistic building blocks that convey a deep sense of injustice along with clear notions about what can be done about them — namely to reclaim public space and take back the political discourse on behalf of the citizenry.

Backdrop For Emergence of A Global Movement

The foundational frames of 99% and Occupy help us understand why the movement has spread so far so quickly. Yet they do little to convey why it is that the wave of global change is happening now. To understand this we’ll need to dig deeper into the lived experience I alluded to above.

Several additional frames have been at play in the lived experiences of people. They are the cultural soup from which the bubbling broth of transition has risen. Critical to the movement have been the following (and likely quite a few more):

Global Convergence of Social Movements

Going back at least to the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, there has been an increasingly recognizable convergence of environmental and social justice issues with critiques of corporate dominance over mainstream culture. The convergence involves many distinct social movements that have grown together, slowly at first, and then rapidly accelerating in the last decade.

Rise of the Arab Spring

A compelling story emerged in the early part of 2011 as populist movements exploded onto public consciousness in what is now referred to as the Arab Spring. One dictatorship after another fell as activists brought the power of social media to non-violent organizing in countries long known for abuses of power by those in charge. This created a feeling of momentum for OWS when it first appeared on the scene.

Ascension of the Prosumer

Consumer culture itself has become a catalyst for social innovation through the subversion of blind consumption. Recent years have seen the rise of a new mode of interaction with cultural media as consumers began to produce what they choose to consume. Everything from Wikipedia to YouTube, American Idol and the blogosphere, all capturing the spirit of co-creation that has emboldened the younger generation to create its own cultural artifacts — including the social movements springing forth from its collective consciousness.

Bursting the Bubble of Hope

The historic campaign of Barack Obama brought with it a meteoric rise of hope and empowerment for those who participated in the first ever prosumer political campaign. Yet this was followed shortly after by a bursting of the bubble as global financial markets collapsed and the machinery of national government proved impotent to address systemic threats, especially those of a global nature.

Loss of Confidence in Authority

Public confidence in authoritative institutions — especially large banks, big companies, and national governments — has been dropping precipitously for years. As a whole, we no longer believe in centralized power structures and are moving away from them in every area of public life. This trend has decoupled the populace from political parties, dominant market ideologies, and the enchantments of extreme opulence that no longer seem graspable. The symbolic meanings that rose with a sense of legitimacy for these cultural artifacts have been tarnished beyond repair by corrupt leaders and manipulative media voices. As we stopped looking to these sources for leadership, a vacuum appeared that the Occupy Movement moved into and filled.

Breakdown of Life Stories

One set of frames doesn’t displace another unless the former no longer provides a robust sense of meaning. The younger generation was fed a life story that worked well for their parents, but doesn’t make any sense for their own lives. The story I’m referring to is the narrative arc with distinct stages — get an education, choose a career, get married, buy a house, raise children, then retire. The global economy has many dysfunctional structures in it that make this story untenable. And thus the key ingredient of revolution was cultivated as educated youth were not able to make the institutions of society work for them.

Taken together, this backdrop of life experience has made the status quo into a quagmire of malaise in which people could not see themselves. They began to search for new and more robust forms of meaning, only to realize that the game has been rigged against them. So when talk of the 99% sprang forth there were plenty of ways it could speak to the discomforts people felt in their daily lives.

Looking Forward to 2012

As we look to the future nothing is certain. The Horizon of Ignorance remains impenetrable, yet strategic actions remain to be taken. I recommend that leaders in the movement consider the following as you prepare for your next steps:

  1. Weigh the pros and cons of operating within existing political systems. Don’t simply join with an established political party and hope that change will come from within. Here in the U.S. we have a number of structural forms of corruption that make elections a questionable path toward renewal.
  2. Seek out structural changes that last beyond your years. If indeed the political and economic levers are broken (which I’ve become convinced they are), it will be necessary to create new rules for the game. Whether this is a Constitutional Convention to alter the political DNA of government or new legal structures for corporations that include environmental and community impacts, it will be new structures (perhaps built on top of the old) that offer a possibility for different governing dynamics to emerge.
  3. Use language to evoke progress. Just as the linguistic frames of Occupy have tapped into deep feelings of unrest, there is a need to consciously introspect about the words you use to articulate your vision of a better world. The existence of semantic frames tells us that language shapes what we take to be real, so choose wisely and strategically.
  4. Focus on the lived experience. You’ve already been doing this with your General Assemblies as a way to experience grassroots democracy firsthand. Look for other ways to activate a sense of shared responsibility and empowerment that encourage more people to get involved in the process.
  5. Create prototypes for the new economy. If you’re not already aware of it, take time to learn about the exploding social sector where terms like social benefit company and social entrepreneur are revealing a middle road between false dichotomies. It is in this realm of rapid innovation where new business models, community organizing principles, and social technologies are being prototyped for the new economy.
  6. Learn about the governing dynamics of economic systems. You’ll need to see the changes that are happening around you in order to understand exactly how the old systems are broken and participate in the design of their replacements. (I’ve written a short primer here that will help get you started.)
  7. Think bigger than you are now. You’ve come this far when few believed it possible. The early 21st Century is in some respects ahistoric in that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of rapid change and dealing with new challenges that go well beyond the complexity of anything that has come before. This is the time for audacious visions!

I hope this overview is insightful for you and that it inspires you to get involved (if you haven’t already) and to be emboldened to do more.

In solidarity,

Joe Brewer
Seattle, WA