The Labor of Protest: A Comment on Walker and the Occupy Movement

Many of us are watching with rapt attention as events in Oakland, Atlanta, and many other cities unfold. The police actions in NYC at the outset of the movement, and now the use of tear gas by police (and the serious injury inflicted on a Marine veteran) all play into the movement dynamics in very interesting ways. Readers will want to visit our sister blog, Sociological Images, for a very interesting story by Gwen Sharp, who presents a provocative graph charting what seems to be a dialectical relation between police repression and media coverage, in keeping with social movement theory. And yesterday, many national newspapers were reporting that many cities (New York, Oakland) were beginning to back off, perhaps sensing the tactical disadvantages that repression involves.

The position that Ed Walker takes here, though (see post, Oct 25 below), is of particular concern to those of us who are interested in the internal social organization of the movement. I was myself just recently involved in a demonstration by Occupy Boston, and was impressed with the organizational skills and tactical expertise of movement participants. The organizational logic they employ stems from anarcho-syndicalist tradition that has been sustained globally (in Latin American and Western Europe). Quite invisible to many of us until now, this tradition has quickly surfaced and been used quite effectively. For now.

And that is the question, of course: that of the durability of the movement.  Here’s my position. While writing a chapter dealing with the question of precarious work, I had occasion to read about the vibrant EuroMayDay movement that arose between 2001 and 2005. This movement received little attention in the mainstream media, but it was really quite explosive. It emerged rapidly, spread across a dozen cities throughout Western Europe, used social media very skillfully, and used an imaginative rhetorical construct to describe itself. Participants represented themselves as members of the “Precariat,” who therefore had a date with history. The movement arose in response to economic adversity (permanent precarity, it seemed), and in opposition to draconian labor laws that were proposed by conservative policy makers in France, Italy and Spain.

These movements were enormously creative, and surely had an effect –in France, they fended off right-wing efforts. But they proved remarkably ephemeral.  They made waves, generated much energy, pointed to important issues, and then rapidly faded from the scene.  (Click here for Chris Bodnar’s study of this phenomenon. Or wait for my discussion of this phenomenon, due out in a month of so.

The anarcho-syndicalist tradition poses questions that are all too familiar to us. They harken back not only to Robert Michels, but also to historic debates within the international socialist movement. How can the creative energy of spontaneous, anti-hierarchical movements be sustained and coordinated across a national landscape? How can “spontaneity” (grass roots enthusiasm) and “consciousness” (political leadership) conjoin themselves? In our age, the temptation is to assume that Facebook and Twitter can conjure up new answers to these questions. Perhaps I’m more pessimistic than Ed, but I fear that unless the OWS movement finds a way to engage, or speak to, established political institutions, it will meet the same fate as did the precariat.

Further sources on these matters:

Readers seeking some background on the anarcho-syndicalist tradition can perhaps consult this paper by the super smart anthropologist David Graeber (which deals mainly with the anti-corporate globalization movement) or this story on Graeber’s role in the OWS movement. (It’s worth pointing out that Graeber has a new book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years that is getting rave reviews. See also this commentary by Hart and Negri on the OWS movement. Thanks to Andrea Hill and Tammi Arford, movement participants and serious scholars both, for their tutorials on much of this work. Look for their contributions soon.

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