More than once upon a time, mass protest movements have arisen in this country. In some of these, I have been privileged to witness and take part. If you believe there might be something to learn from experience, read on and judge for yourself. In three sections, I describe my personal experience and the collective impact as I saw it, and suggest lessons to be learned today.
CREDIT CHECK. In the Sixties, I found my voice. (For those who didn’t witness them firsthand, “the Sixties” refers not to a decade, but to an era that began around 1963 and ended in the late 1970s, when the tide turned toward Ronald Reagan.) I was involved in anti-war and civil rights protests. I worked for years as a draft counselor (helping young men to navigate the Selective Service System regulations, and sometimes, to become conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam). I was a visual artist then, so I designed many posters and flyers for movement events and groups.
This work with groups—many of them collectives of one sort of another—showed me that I had a knack for organizing and leadership. I paid attention to the way things were done, and my attention turned to organizing my fellow artists to promote artists’ rights and livelihood, to demand accountability from cultural institutions, and to use our gifts in the service of democracy.
My artistic focus morphed from painting and drawing into writing, and my professional work morphed along with it, leading to a few decades of consulting, mostly with cultural organizations. (I’ve continued to be involved in other forms of activism too, notably, my presidency of The Shalom Center.) Along the way, I learned a great deal about people in groups, the many ways they thrive, the many ways they commit slow suicide. I don’t do as much organizational development nowadays—I concentrate more on writing and speaking—but from time to time, I’m asked for advice, and generally happy to give it.
Sometimes, like now, I give it without being asked.
WHAT HAPPENED. Throughout the Sixties, one epiphany led to another. The civil rights movement of the south, focusing on the systematic racism and oppression meted out to African Americans, triggered powerful echoes of awakening and activism among just about every group that had been deprived of a fair share of the American dream: Asian Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians (“GLBT” is more recent), people with disabilities, and even the earth and the other life forms sharing it. There was a mass awakening to the gap between our national mythology of freedom and justice for all and the majority’s lived reality—not the 99%, perhaps, but most of us.
The women’s movement supplied a slogan that infused activists’ every waking breath: The personal is political. This meant that who did the dishes wasn’t a simple matter of heeding the expectations inherited along with gender, wasn’t merely a ground for domestic dispute. It was a political choice, with a long tail of meanings. Women looked at our roles in progressive political movements and countercultural groups, for instance, and saw that for all the brave speaking-truth-to-power about the abuses of government and capital, the habit of treating women as second-class contaminated the alternatives we wanted to create. It was clear that racism was threaded through every inch of life’s tapestry. “The personal is political” meant that all the social arrangements and relationships we might formerly have taken for granted must come under scrutiny, and be found wanting.
This profound truth—that things were very wrong in our social operating system, that basic programming changes were needed—was at once liberating and oppressive. It threw open our windows on the world: received wisdom poured out, and fresh air poured in. That was exhilarating, and although we didn’t create heaven on earth—far, far, far from it—many things improved as a result of our consciousness-raising and activism. There is much more space for flexibility in social roles and arrangements, which equals much more scope for the exercise of freedom, humanity’s birthright.
But turning up the volume on self-scrutiny also had its downside. Some people adopted practices such as “crit/self-crit,” a process of denunciation and confession derived from Chinese communes, which quickly devolved into power games inside the collectives that used it. Anyone who lived through it and hears that phrase again will have at least one nightmare flashback, I am certain. Even without such formal practices, if every action and gesture, no matter how small, was seen as a specimen of political meaning, then every action and gesture—no matter how small—had to be dissected under the microscope of communal dialogue
The result was an incredible amount of time—my mental image is of an enormous mouth sucking hours as a vaccuum-cleaner sucks dust—invested in the how of our work, in process rather than its results. Protest movements are by definition oppositional: they have the most energy and traction when they are trying to stop something, and we were trying to stop many things: war, racism, sexism, exploitation. Inside of our groups, we wanted to stop white people from exercising privilege by virtue of race, men from hoarding power by virtue of gender, and absolutely everyone from taking any action that would reproduce the messed-up world we were inheriting from older generations.
Remarkably often, that translated into hours-long debates over which color of paper or slogan to use on a flyer, even over how to decide the terms of debate. Minute questions were freighted with a truckload of political symbolism. Everyone was entitled to an equal say in all things, regardless of level of investment or expertise. The person who’d just walked in was invited to enter into these debates alongside those who’d dedicated many years to activism, building proven skills. And the newbie with a compelling air of certainty or a masterful command of the correct jargon was just as likely to sway the outcome as someone who knew more about the subject and the stakes. Since new people were arriving all the time, every decision was perpetually open to reconsideration, and all it took to trigger fresh scrutiny was a single denunciation.
Well, you can see how entropy worked there, right? The more energy invested in processing and reprocessing the power relations detected in even the smallest word or gesture, the less was available to consider what might be done to connect with those who didn’t already partake of our values, or to make the fruits of our labor shine brightly enough to be seen through the descending gloom of reaction. It was pretty easy to decimate movements that had focused too much attention on the inward. I’m not saying that’s the only thing that made us vulnerable, but it was significant.
LESSONS LEARNED. Just about everyone I know wants the tremendous, inspiring mass mobilizations of Occupy to lead to systemic social change. As in the Sixties, many injustices have converged at the nexus of protest. Back in the day, the lens was inequality grounded in race, gender, and so on; today, it’s inequality stemming from economic privilege and power. Whatever the lens, though, injustice is holographic: concentrate long enough on the causes and effects of one instance, and you will be led to all the others. Just so, useful lessons about power and process cross the boundaries between issues and groups:
Focusing hardest on what you want to prevent often prevents effective action. As in the Sixties, defense plays a strong role in shaping the groups carrying out this work. There has been much media exposure of the systems Occupiers have used to prevent the accumulation of power in a few individuals’ hands, their elaborate forms of consensus and rich vocabulary of hand-signals employed to determine tactics and allocate resources. The vulnerabilities created by shaping actions with the prime directive of avoiding something are familiar: a ratio of process to product that erodes energy and obscures the path between protesting and exercising democratic power to make change. Back in the day, it was time spent in meetings; obviously, that is still an issue. But just as often now, it’s having to expose every question, no matter how tiny, to an email blast to everyone who might have an opinion. After a while, people stop answering the emails (or even reading them), and e-entropy prevails.
The law of irony: eschewing power leads to its abuse. I hear the same story over and over again from young activists: in a defensive mode, where people are keen to prevent anyone accumulating power, power can easily be usurped by a charming and clever person who knows how to sound politically correct. Often, it’s just a matter of “last one standing”: bide your time, outlast everyone whose patience is exhausted with a meeting that never ends or an e-exchange that explodes like feather from a burst pillow, and your voice carries extra weight. Even if 99% of the people involved in a group prioritize prevention of the undesirable over all other things, one shrewd individual who doesn’t share that scruple can manipulate outcomes.
To activate change, embrace democratic power. What we lacked in the Sixties was a way to understand how our fastidious distaste for power, grounded in very real abuses by government and other enclaves of constituted authority, was hurting us. We drew on the words of admired activists and theorists to understand how power moved in the world through official institutions and unofficial networks of privilege. We knew we didn’t want to be like them. But no one taught us how to turn the lens on ourselves, how to assess our own alternatives. It look hindsight to enable that.
My prescription? Be smarter than us, and learn from our experience. Release your grip on the fear of power, and begin to see understanding and deploying power as an asset to democracy and a necessary step in social transformation. Forms of democratic decision-making have evolved that allow for all voices, yet recognize differentials in investment and experience; that rely on consensus within a system of working agreements, thus keeping the requirement of total unanimity from blocking necessary and widely supported decisions; and that maintain a healthy balance between processing internal democracy and practicing it out in the world.
There are ways to call out abuse of privilege or power without dismissing the whole subject as toxic. “No” is not an adequate program for positive social change. If the era of one leader is over, train a million leaders. Pick a powerful message to begin balancing opposition with proposition, knowing that the whole landscape of issues is connected, then link them in a vision of what is to be done.
The opposition to economic justice and freedom of expression is global, increasingly well-trained and well-networked, with police forces learning from military experts how to suppress public dissent. Escalation of violence against Occupy protesters is growing. There is good reason to think that a very large proportion of the U.S. electorate has by now been made aware of some of the perils of corporate domination and the polarization of wealth. If that awareness could now embrace promising solutions (such as taking private money out of public elections, fairly distributing the tax burden, cutting wasteful military spending, and investing more in education and less in prisons), speaking as powerfully with the voices of a million leaders about what should happen as it has about what is wrong…then we will see what legitimate power looks like.
Whatever I’ve learned from experience about how to practice democracy while pursuing social change, I’m happy to share. And I’m very sure I’m not the only one.
I thought about concluding with a Sixties political anthem, but there is something so evocative of the period about the tune I chose. Before the information revolution, time was a much more spacious thing, dear readers. Take your average day and subtract email, web-surfing, cellphones, texting, and tweeting, and you’ll have an inkling of where I got all that time for endless collective meetings (and a surplus for creating macrame plant-holders). Perhaps this song will give you a hint of that feeling: Jackson Browne, “Something Fine.”