Nov 28, 2011

What makes a "movement"?

Tonight I saw Chris Hedges speak about Occupy Wall Street and his recent books. Although I agree with many of his views, his polemics made me a little crazy - but they did crystallize something I've been thinking about for a few weeks.

Is Occupy Wall Street a movement? Hedges certainly think so, and many others agree. The coiners of the OWS meme even called it "the greatest social-justice movement to emerge in the United States since the civil rights era." But as much as I agree with the basic principles of OWS, I have to say that I don't think it's a movement - not yet.

Historians have painstakingly demonstrated how much time, effort, and organizing it takes to build a sustained social or political movement. For many years now, historians have documented the "long civil rights movement," showing that activists, organizers, and lawyers spent decades laying the groundwork for the explosion of activism that finally made it into the nation's public consciousness between 1955 and 1965. Similarly, scholars like Dorothy Sue Cobble and Nancy Hewitt have shown how the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s grew out of decades of sustained, if quieter, organizing and activism. Analysts of the New Right have shown that organizing began in the early 1960s but did not result in political change for a decade or more - and it found eventual success because the movement's organizers and activists kept at it.

Moreover, these historians have shown how much organizing it takes to build a successful movement - the hard, unglamorous, slow stuff of talking to people about their concerns, developing strategies, undertaking  efforts that fail many times before they succeed, building organizations and coalitions, developing support, identifying goals, and on and on. This stuff takes years or decades, not weeks or months, to successfully achieve lasting change - and even then, that change is often incomplete.

I hope that OWS develops into a sustained movement that definitively changes our country's political conversation and, most importantly, public policies. But we're not there yet, so celebrating the success of the movement seems premature. We are certainly talking more now about economic inequality than we have in years - but for us to still be having those conversations years from now, OWS needs to take the long, slow, movement-building view.

Recommended reading:
Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women's Movement
Nancy Hewitt, ed., No Permanent Waves
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," (Journal of American History)
John Dittmer, Local People
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors

1 comment:

  1. How would you define a "movement"? Good to have the blog back!