Most people don't worry much about the theory of social movements and the science of political organizing. Indeed, most Americans combine our love of the cult of the amateur. People profess to despise "professional organizers" (aka, "professional left," "outside agitators", etc.), and one of the standard criticisms of progressive protests is that they are "really" organized by professionals. On the other hand, Americans seem to want their movements neatly prepackaged, with photogenic spokespeople all set with a mix of timely sound bites and a fully developed social development and policy package. Mind you, one kind find similar criticisms of the populist rightwing movements by liberals and progressives. But that is rather my point. Americans as a whole have an idea about how social movements work that owes much to Hollywood and our truly awful methods of teaching history than to any reality.
The reality is that social movements are often messy and lengthy affairs. Successful movements start with mass protests and exercises that demonstrate general discontent and a desire for change. Movement leaders and political leaders (for both selfish and non-selfish reasons) provide the intellectual framework and the policy framework. But even these often emerge only gradually over time. Even where movement leaders may have a clear vision, successful movements engage in a process of consensus development that keeps the movement from shattering prematurely, being bought off too early before substantive change occurs, and makes it possible for the larger population (which generally does not share the goals of the movement) to become part of the consensus.
Lessons From History
To take but one example, the Birmingham Bus Boycott campaign is now held up as one of the most important direct action campaigns of the civil rights movement. Yet few Americans trouble to learn its dynamic or history, or what flowed as a consequence. We learn it as part of a montage that compresses the lengthy post-WWII struggle for civil rights into an inevitable process that somehow involves Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and usually some sort of homage to JFK (although Johnson ended up doing much of the heavy lifting that institutionalized change, such as the Civil Rights Act). But go back and study the Birmingham Bus Boycott and you will see similarities to the current Occupy Wall St. movement in several key ways:
1. The time frame for build up is long. It took months for Birmingham to reach the dramatic climax everyone remembers of Bull Connor turning fire hoses on protesting children and the savagery that shocked the national conscience.
2. During that time, there was constant debate among the participants and the leaders of the movement over whether the tactics of non-violent confrontation were effective and at what point to declare a victory. Indeed, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders had recently suffered a defeat while trying to organize direct confrontation in Albany, regarded as a more sympathetic city for desegregation. It was Fred Shuttlesworth, who lived in Birmingham and who orchestrated the early phase of the campaign, who finally persuaded (some would say shamed) the "Atlanta crowd" of civil rights leaders to participate in Birmingham. Throughout the months of protests, there would be constant tension between the Shuttlesworth camp and the King camp on whether Shuttlesworth's tactics were too extreme (it was Shuttlesworth who insisted on using children in the later stages of the protest marches, for example). At the same time, the MLK group were also being pressured by wealthier blacks and white liberal allies to abandon the protests as a failed effort and one that would leave the movement open to charges of radicalization, prompting (they feared) backlash from mainstream American whites.
3. Most critically, the Birmingham signs were as inchoate as the Occupy Wall St. signs. As one can see from this picture, the signs were typically "End Bias," "We March for Freedom" and other slogans as specific as "We are the 99%." It was movement leaders, in negotiation with city businessmen desperate to end the marches for purely financial reasons, who negotiated the specifics.
Even then, Birmingham did not magically end all segregation in Birmingham, let alone nationally. But the Birmingham campaign reverberated throughout the civil rights movement and became the model for direct action for the next five years or so.
The Anti-Globalization Protests
Despite the dissension and difficulties I discuss above, Birmingham represented a far more organized state than the current protests. It was part of a movement that had already become effectively organized and had a recognized leadership structure capable of presenting a face of "the movement" and articulate a clear list of injustices. Today's protest movement is less coherent, but historical lessons still provide value.
Consider the "anti-globalization movement." For most Americans, the anti-globalization movement began with the "Battle of Seattle" in 1999 in response to the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting. That movement received fairly unsympathetic media treatment and was likewise chastised as being disorganized, incoherent, without platform, and a general melange of demands without a uniting message or platform.
As usual, there is some truth to the criticism. But the impact of the anti-globalization protests is far more effective than the media or most people give it credit. The protests (in Seattle and subsequently) substantially altered the nature of multilateral treaty negotiations. Developed countries that had been running the agenda and driving it in the direction of the "Washington Consensus" suddenly became conscious of the total absence of any civil society (as we call human rights orgs in the international treaty world) representation in trade and that this was causing considerable unrest. While the American government doesn't give a crap about that, most other governments do. Involvement of civil society organizations is one of the key components of European "consensus" policymaking. The utter absence of civil society from the process deprived the process of legitimacy in Europe (I know, concepts of 'legitimacy' utterly fail to register with Americans and American policy makers, which is one of several reasons for political collapse). It also gave developing nations, unhappy with the way the Washington Consensus was devolving into neo-colonialism, the moral authority to demand substantive changes in the negotiation of multilateral treaty obligations and the function of multi-lateral treaty organizations.
The result has been to substantively slow the trends of the 1990s toward Libertarian-style capitalism and privatization outside the U.S., and to create a role for civil society in most international treaty org negotiations. Another result has been the quest by American business interests to shift the action away from any place civil society might show up. Hence the rise of trade agreements (such as ACTA) which take place between nation-states and where individual nation states can exclude NGOs and avoid public scrutiny. While that still works in the U.S., the problem of legitimacy and concern over fundamental rights and due process keep screwing this up for the U.S. (it is also contributing to U.S. irrelevancy, but that is a subject for another time).
In any event, the key takeaway here is that a movement does not have to be coherent to have a significant impact. It is enough to get a lot of people angry and thus create openings for others.
Occupy Wall St.
I am hoping Occupy Wall St. ends up more organized and sustained a la Birmingham then simply creating some new opportunities and providing a vehicle for generalized protest in the manner of the anti-globalization movement (although again, the anti-globalization movement is still far more successful than its critics credit). As with many protests at this early stage, there is no central leadership. What does exist, however, is a flexible network of professional and amateur organizers which can form the core of movement leadership. There are a number of articulate spokespeople for various causes that are within the nexus of the movement (e.g., Larry Lessig for campaign finance reform/money in politics).
More importantly, this becomes -- as it was in the Battle of Seattle -- the moment where millions of people realize they are not the only ones feeling that the system has failed them and that Something Must Be Done. What that something is, and how it is to be implemented, will follow if the movement is successful.
But at this point the most important first element of the protest is being achieved, even while it is being underestimated by most and belittled and attacked by those who oppose it. It is cool to talk about populism in a way that is not anti-government. It is cool to put the blame in a "populist" movement on the financial and banking sector AND on the fact that policy is run for the benefit of these sectors to the detriment of everyone else. Until now, the populist mantle was effectively claimed by the Tea Party. While the rank and file of the Tea Party certainly express their loathing for an irresponsible financial sector, the energy is directed entirely at government. "We are the 99%" is as populist as it comes, and the fact that it is divorced from any demand other than recognition of that fact lends it power.
Since American politics, politicians, and institutions are now utterly immune to any ideas about legitimacy, it is not clear around what initiative the energy of the movement will orient itself. I suspect that eventually, the core leadership will settle on something as the thing to get behind. This could be as small as pushing for confirmation for Consumer Finance Protection Board nominee Richard Corday or as grand as a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not people. Organic movements develop something of their own energy. Unless there is a tight party structure, it is often hard to guess what will catch with the popular imagination. (This is why so many people fret about "the mob," but "the mob" is a byproduct of a frustrated body politic. Arguing against mass protest for fear of "the mob" while doing nothing to alleviate the underlying cause is rather like being opposed to cancer without wanting to deal with smoking or other health risks.)
So we will just have to see where things are going. If someone asks "but what do they want, what is their plan" etc. then they are rather missing the point at this stage. The process will need to play itself out for some time. If this untidiness troubles you, then I suggest you treat it rather like Hurricane Irene -- take what steps you need to feel secure and don't worry about the rest. If you think you an organize a better social change movement, feel free. For myself, I simply fall back on one of my standard political aphorisms.
Feld's Rule of Inevitability: Social change is impossible until after it happens, after which it will have always been inevitable.