[Last update: 28 December 2001]

Who Owns the Movement?

by Michael Albert

Or: Since No One Owns the Movement,
How Do We Have A Multi-Issue, Multi-Tactic Movement,
Mutually Respectful and with Constituency Identities Preserved

10 Dec 1999

Seattle raised lots of questions. Many are not controversial for serious advocates of social change. What's wrong with the WTO? It serves private profit rather than protecting community, the poor, labor, and the environment. What do we want instead of the WTO? Equitable international cooperation that protects the environment while more effectively meeting human needs.

Some are controversial and need further attention, in my view. How can peaceful marchers, those who engage in illegal civil disobedience, and those who engage in illegal acts of destroying corporate property coexist without turning on each other and detracting from the power of each other's efforts? How do we develop a broad movement that has many components in which no one component thinks it has a right to own the movement, but, instead, even with significant differences, room is opened for diverse modes of dissent, none supported by everyone, but all given room to function? How do different constituencies with different views about tactics and strategy, all belong to one large movement, none stifled in their aspirations and experiments, yet none encroaching on the rest by their choices? Indeed, how do we place this type mutual space and respect at the center of our movement efforts?

Imagine in Seattle there was a group, let's call them the creative revolutionaries, and that these folks felt that in the act of conveying dissent it is important to communicate to elites the trajectory of development of a movement. They felt that marching is good but that it gains an edge from civil disobedience that foreshadows a threatened breakdown of repressive laws. And they felt that civil disobedience is good but that it gains an edge from the specter of active and even aggressive disobedience and insurrection that foreshadows a threatened breakdown of reticence to fight back. So this constituency is for a multi-tactic, multi-issue strategy. They understand that social change is complex, that winning immediate victories depends on raising unendurable social costs to elites (costs embodied in the threat that the conditions of their privilege will unravel if their policies don't succumb to pressure), and that communities of dissidents have different priorities, needs, and inclinations which can collectively reinforce their overall impact. The creative revolutionaries are also, however, aware that they are far from a majority of the left. And they also know that others whose work they very much respect, do not agree with them in all tactical and strategic matters, and want to be able to carry out their preferred agendas without being usurped by choices about militancy or by behaviors imposed on them from without. So the creative revolutionaries communicate with others organizing for Seattle, convey that they intend to use more militant tactics, and request negotiations regarding how they can do this without usurping the agendas of others.

We can now imagine that this meeting occurs and comes up with a plan. Or we can imagine (and this would be a serious mistake, in my view) that others dismiss the creative revolutionaries and refuse to incorporate them in planning and working out mutually beneficial options. In either event, suppose the creative revolutionaries decide they are going to ``up the ante'' and ``raise the social cost for elites'' and ``teach by their practice about other modes of resistance'' by focusing a campaign and subsequent direct actions on some institution -- maybe a branch office of Boeing, say, or perhaps the Chamber of Commerce. So they begin educating to convey the links between this focused institution and the broad issues of the WTO, and during the events in Seattle they have a demonstration at this focused institution, pass out and otherwise provide clear political education material about it, and do their preferred direct action. They choose their site so it isn't right next to the main large demonstration but well away from it, clearly separate, and not encroaching. The creative revolutionaries also spend a lot of time helping with the larger scale events, providing some of their most creative and energetic moments. They are active as well in the civil disobedience, and provide it with much of its best spirit and confidence, helping also with defense of partners unprepared for police attack when that situation develops in the main demonstration.

I think these hypothetical creative revolutionaries, following such a course, would be fantastically exemplary. But I fear that some of the critics of the people who trashed in Seattle, in contrast, would find even these hypothetical creative revolutionaries unworthy, maybe even worse for their additional organization and coherence, then the folks who did some window breaking in Seattle. They wouldn't want this type activity to occur. They would feel the movement should somehow curtail it from happening or condemn it if it did. This would be a serious problem for the left, in my view, both in judgment and process.

Social struggle is not and will never be perfectly choreographed, of course. But if we work at it a bit, we can have broad values and norms that we collectively accept about its process and content, that are congenial to diversity yet respectful of each component. The foremost post-Seattle question is what are such values and norms?

One norm that makes very good sense to me is one that I think also holds for the society that we wish to build. To the extent we can manage it, people should have impact on decisions in proportion as the events being decided affect them. Thus first, if tens of thousands of people come to a demonstration expecting certain tactics because that is the event's prior decision and promotion, it would be wrong for a relatively few folks to unilaterally transform the events without all those many others having a say in what is affecting them. But second, it would also be wrong even for a large majority to come to the conclusion that it owns ``all demo space.'' For example, the WTO doesn't come to town often. It doesn't make any more sense to say that a large mass of protestors can dictate all ways that anyone can organize against the WTO when it does surface then to say that a large mass of the population of Seattle or the U.S. can dictate whether there is a demonstration at all. None who think a majority of the left has the right to ``outlaw'' direct action think in turn that a majority of the residents of Seattle or the U.S. have the right to outlaw all dissent, I suspect. This is inconsistent. The solution is that really, neither majority has such rights, morally or structurally. In Seattle, in fact, there was gigantic complexity because the interests of people all over the world were at stake. The whole point is that the WTO is deciding the lives and futures of millions upon millions of people from behind closed doors (and in the interests of only a few). It is process and content that are wrong, not only content. But then fair and just norms ought to apply to our activities too. One-person one-vote of all those present, or even of everyone remotely connected, is sometimes but not always optimal decision-making. But trying to assess how all people are impacted so they can have a say in proportion to the affects on them is virtually always wise, though in many cases in a society as horribly organized as ours, very difficult. We must do the best we can.

Other norms make sense too. Diversity makes sense, meaning welcoming and trying to create room for many different approaches not just as peoples right, but in recognition that what one doesn't agree with at the moment could in the long run prove superior, and that an exciting mix is better, almost always, than a boring homogeneity (another obvious lesson of the vast array of styles and constituencies marching and doing civil disobedience in Seattle). Solidarity makes sense as well, meaning not just being civil to one another, but literally caring about and thinking about the well being and conditions that we all encounter and the views we all espouse and their mutual interrelations and effects.

Constituencies from Seattle are arguing that to rule out direct action and property damage by fiat as if these can never be valid, (a) weakens movement options because what is being excluded is valuable, (b) conflicts with real participatory democracy, and (c) undermines both diversity and solidarity. And I think they are correct. I also agree with many of their other feelings, such as the logic of resistance summarized for the hypothetical creative revolutionaries above. And finally, I also think just in terms of interpersonal relations and creating a congenial and welcoming movement, that the dissidents raising these issues are correct that some individuals -- understandably upset about the trashing -- are acting as if they think they can somehow dictate to others and that others can only be fools or vandals if they disagree about that, and that these folks are, in this respect, being quite arrogant. Listen up ``my generation.'' We can't have it both ways. If we could be in some instances more astute than many folks older and more experienced than us when we were young, those who are young now can also be more astute than we are now. But far more importantly, age may or may not bring with it wisdom and youth may or may not bring with it innovation, but to rebut a view whether it is offered by a seasoned veteran or a raw rookie requires arguments, not name calling.

If someone who trashed in Seattle says that anyone who is critical of that must be trying to restrain activism and is soft on corporations or an agent of the CIA or must believe only in non-violence to the exclusion of any possible other approach -- then they are wrong. Case in point, I am critical of the trashing that occurred, but I want to expand activism, replace corporations, am not paid by the CIA, and am not non-violent and advocate many variations of direct action. On the other hand, if someone who opposed the trashing says it was wrong because damaging property is always wrong and because only a vandal or a fool would break a window, and that anyone rejecting that claim isn't serious about social change and doesn't deserve respect -- then they are wrong too. Case in point, I would break a window in various contexts and much more, and I am no vandal and no fool, and I am serious about social change, and I do deserve respect.

So let's notice that underneath the proximate events and in some instances unduly aroused feelings lie important and truly difficult issues about conducting large-scale movements democratically, mutually respectfully, and yet with diverse constituencies of different sizes and viewpoints.

So what does all this lead us to? The past aside, what's the important upshot for the future?

Imagine that the broad WTO and progressive and left communities decide to have major demonstrations at the presidential conventions -- which could, I suspect, be a very good idea. We are talking about the anti-WTO movement, the anti-corporate movement, greens, the Mumia and prison movements, anti-sweat shop movements, anti-racist movements, the women's movement, the queer movements, and so on and so forth. How do we do it and come out the other side stronger in every way?

One scenario says that the groups with the most money and therefore the most outreach during the organizing phases (or worse yet, even the donors themselves) get to decree what tactics are allowed and what tactics aren't, who is welcome and who isn't, even which slogans are permitted and which are not. This would be nearly as self-defeating for developing a serious movement as if we let the still larger constituency of those who don't want dissidence at all make all the decisions, causing us all to have to go home. I fear that some people in our bigger movement groups, however, and especially leading them, might opt for this approach as at many times in the past, if they had the option and as long as they wound up in the driver's seat. But this would be just about the opposite of democracy, diversity, and solidarity in action.

A second scenario says that we create broad umbrella coalitions around some laundry list of mutually agreed demands, slogans, actions, and so on. This is better then the ``money talks the rest of us walk'' option, certainly but it is far from ideal. It yields us a least common denominator approach which is better than merely obeying a totally unilateral line, but which doesn't tap the power of our potential for diversity and solidarity, much less embody the norms of participatory self management.

Indeed, I think criticism of the above two approaches is exactly what many of the radicals at Seattle are quite reasonably offering by pointing out that while having many other virtues, these options don't respect diversity, aren't really democratic, don't create solidarity, and don't, as well, mine the full resources at our disposal for impacting social change. And the critics are right.

So a third scenario is that we create a project/process that is the greatest common sum of its components, rather than being the imposition of a few people's priorities or the least common denominator of everyone's. We work to allow ``different strokes for different folks'' in a way that permits each constituency to act on its ideals and logic, but without diminishing or confusing the actions of others much less usurping the zones others occupy. When constituencies need their own separate space, so be it, When efforts can occur in the same space, in conjunction, that's good.

I greatly prefer the third approach because I think it can not only create a movement that is most congenial, open, and democratic, but also because it is most likely to yield the best mix of tactics and focuses we could plausibly hope for. I know others will have doubts about the best mix emerging, but I hope they will at least realize that without a process more or less like this, discordant tensions will do far more damage than the inclusion of some tactic or focus you may find wanting.

Yes -- I know -- the broad rubric still can't be that anything goes, even with this flexible structure. There is still the problem of ruling out insanity, police provocation, and the like, should these rear their head. But I am betting that on this score too, following approach three will so utterly isolate out-of-touch elements as to make their overall lack of rights to partake as respected partners obvious to all, even while incorporating the widest array and most exciting assemblage and most powerful combination of forces possible.

Real participatory democracy isn't easy, particularly when we are operating inside grotesquely authoritarian and regimented domains, each of us bent out of shape by ``society's pliers'' and not yet collectively sharing as many views and values as one might have hoped for by the year 2000. But real participatory democracy is nonetheless, even with all its dangers and difficulties, by far the best chance we have to effectively utilize our talents, commitments, and energies on behalf of ending the WTO, freeing Mumia Abu Jamal, ending violence against women, curtailing corporate power, and winning other immediate gains, all on the road to movements that can also get to the heart of matters.


Back to Resources
Back to ProgressiveAustin main page
Back to Austin Against War main page

Contact this site