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"Occupy Wall Street" May Join Long List of Failed Social Movements

"Occupy Wall Street" May Join Long List of Failed Social Movements

UC Riverside regulatory reform expert John Cioffi offers insights into how the protestors should proceed to become a transformative movement.

(October 12, 2011)

John Cioffi

John Cioffi

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – As the Occupy Wall Street protest enters its fourth week, UC Riverside political science professor John W. Cioffi says the movement’s appearance should come as no surprise.

“Movements like the one we are seeing today usually arise two to three years after the beginning of a severe political economic crisis, as people realize that the situation is ‘the new normal’ and overcome their initial disorientation,” he says. “We're right on schedule. The crisis we are in is deep and likely to get deeper with no politically viable way to escape it.”

These conditions, like those during the 1930s, spawn transformative movements. But there is no guarantee that a social movement will succeed in becoming a real political or economic force, says Cioffi, associate professor of political science and an expert on legal and regulatory reform.

Occupy Wall is a bona fide social movement, he says, “unlike the corporate-sponsored ‘tea party’ conservatives. But this presents practical challenges that most – if not all – social movements share.”

“Any social movement worthy of the name is inclusive, participatory, and emerges in large part from the ground up – not the top down. The ‘movement’ does not articulate specific, concrete political or policy demands; it is incapable of doing so. During their formation, movements have weak and unclear (if any) institutional structures and leadership. They are seldom, if ever, organized in ways that allow for effective deliberation or authoritative statements of goals. Participants in a social movement usually lack policy expertise, and as a group they have an array of potentially conflicting interests, priorities, and targets of protest.”

Movements effectively resolve their internal disorganization and conflicts by voicing goals and motivations in terms of broad ideals like "justice," "fairness," "freedom," "democracy" and "equality," Cioffi says. Vague appeals to widely shared values avoids disagreements over more specific definitions or policy proposals. More specific demands crystallize against the background of these broad moral or ideological claims.

“Premature specific statements of goals and demands can kill a movement by alienating its own base,” he contends. “Calls on the ‘occupation’ movement to state its demands may well be a strategy by opponents to attack it by fostering internal conflict or by setting it up to be mocked as irresponsibly naive or dangerously radical.

“However, for a social movement to perpetuate itself and effect change, it must develop or affiliate with a leadership and organizational structure able to wield power, develop specific demands, and fashion them into a coherent programmatic agenda – all without losing the enthusiasm of the base. This is a transformation that few movements can manage, and it often requires some portion of the political or economic elite to ally themselves with the cause.”

It is unclear if the Occupy Wall Street movement can clear this hurdle to join the ranks of historically important and transformative movements like the abolition, labor, suffrage, civil rights, and religious rights movements of the past, he says.

“The movement has no deep-pocketed backers as does the ‘tea party,’ nor is there any prospect that it will generate its own resources like the labor movement of the 1930s, and it has at most a tenuous connection to existing elites, unlike the abolition movement or contemporary religious right. That makes its self-organization even more important as a source of influence and power. At present, the ‘occupation’ movement appears to endorse participatory democracy and rule by consensus, threatening to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s New Left and leave it among the long list of failed movements.”



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