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What kind of movement questions do we need to be asking

October 9, 2011
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"How do the protests measure up to past movements in American history?"

This is the question Justin Elliott of Salon chose to focus on in a recent interview with Gary Gerstle, professor of American history at Vanderbilt and a scholar of social movements. If the purpose of the interview was to get a better understanding of the #OWS phenomenon, I think the question was poorly framed and the interview quite shallow. Worse,if Marshall McLuhan were around it would label it 'reav-view mirror' thinking.

I mean no disrespect by being so blunt. I respect, appreciate, and support what Justin is doing, but I just want to get to the point. And that point, I think, will be useful to Justin.

Poorly framed for a few reasons. One, it blocks out some fundamental questions: Is the #OWS phenomenon a protest, or is something else emerging here? Maybe a new kind of action emerging from the collective sensibilities of folks tooled for the 21st century. Another: if it is folks getting traction in order to become a coherent mass protest movement, is that wise or not. A third: can there be a mass movement of a new kind, for something other than protesting what isn't right or fair or just?

I think these are far more relevant questions for this moment.

Regarding the shallowness of the interview:

First, I think the Populist movement conducted by the Farmer's Alliance in the late 19th century cannot be subsumed into one of the past "protest" movements. It was an awesome mass movement networked from the ground up into state networks, regional networks, and a national network. It involved 40,000 organizers and spread into 40+ states that went so far as to create a third political party-the People's Party-that roused the bankers and Republicans to destroy it. They designed a democratic financial system that a conservative economist studied and declared it to be completely viable as a national finance system. This project deserves in depth study because their successes and failures--which were serious--can tell us so much about organizing a bottom-up national movement. Yet only one historian has given it the kind of attention it deserves: Lawrence Goodwyn in The Populist Movement (short version) and Democratic Promise (long version). The introduction to the short version is at . It's profound and inspiring.

Second, in the middle of the interview Gerstle lays out three questions. These may be good for young historians to explore, but this is an activist moment. Right now we need to be engaged in dialog that can drive strategic questions such as:

  • What do we need to know to organize effective collective groups grounded in democratic solidarity?
  • How can people learn to relate face-to-face to sustain such face-to-face groups?
  • How do we extend such democratic solidarity to organization-to-organization solidarity, region-to-region?
  • How do we keep this solidarity deep as we go broader with it?
  • How do we integrate social media tools and platforms so that they support solidarity at all levels?
  • How can we organize so that we can explore these issues and experiment with methods and practices over the next few decades?
We don't need to come up with answers to these questions, just some informed, penetrating and imaginative responses to them with no worry about being right or wrong. Responses that will drive creative dialog. In moments like these we are at risk of a) looking in the rear-view mirrors and b) projecting un-reflected assumptions we don't know that we have and can't recognize as projections.


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