These days, it seems like there’s another protest or action every time I turn around. I don’t know that there’s been a week in months where I didn’t end up at some sort of action or demonstration. A quick look at news-wires shows this is hardly local – the dramatic rise in popular uprisings we saw last year seems to be continuing, and once again is beginning to spread as winter releases us from its grip. In light of all this, it’s time to have a serious talk about where we’re going.

What is a “movement”?
Movements are characterized not just by what they have in common, but also in their differences. What sets movements apart from single organizations or coalition is the diversity of people and groups involved. Unlike political parties or other unified organizations, there is rarely a single viewpoint, platform or plan. Rather, the strength of movements lies in their ability to connect with vast numbers of people on many levels, unrestricted to a single style or venue. This happens through schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and religious institutions, and in each those involved come at the issues with their own perspective and critique.

Movements happen when the attention and action around an issue grows beyond immediate conflicts and into broader public questions. Because movements are able to symbolize more than just the immediate issues they fight over, and resonate with large parts of the public. Think of “black power” or “working class pride”, which soon came to mean far more than the right to sit at the front of a bus, or a few more cents an hour in wages. The ability of a movement to exert pressure on many levels – strikes, protests, legal actions, occupations etc – presents a threat that authorities cannot ignore, and can be very successful at winning concessions on many issues at once. Most of the nicer aspects of living in countries like Canada were won in this fashion – labour, feminism, civil rights – without these and others we would likely live surrounded by the conditions Dickens described. Certain organizations and individuals are often given credit for these efforts, but it’s clear from the actual events that none of these victories could have been won without countless acts of individual initiative at all levels.

Any movement harbors deep divisions over tactics, philosophy and direction. This is crucial, since one group/ideology/plan rarely represents the feelings of everyone present, or even a majority. These divisions allow diverse groups to work together by presenting options for involvement that range far beyond one political party, “mass organization” or insurgent army, as well as limiting the influence of any particular group. As a strategy, it leaves authorities in a constant state of siege without a clear target to strike back at. Any form of resistance, on its own, can be easily defeated if the state throws it’s full weight at it – this is true of strikes, marches, occupations or riots. The groups behind them can be targeted, the actions can be me with overwhelming force and supporters can be villainized in the press. When many groups work together, though, the damage compounds while the effectiveness of any single crackdown shrinks dramatically. The Civil Rights movement needed Malcolm X and the Black Panthers just as much as it did Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – if anything, they complimented each other in many ways, with a dramatic inversion of the traditional role of ‘good cop, bad cop’, a pattern seen repeated from Ireland to India. These examples, of course, are extremes, but the same dynamics play themselves out in most serious social struggles.

If there’s one word which describes the overwhelming strategy here, it’s solidarity. When centralized power negatively affects so many groups at once, the natural response is to ally against it. This works for several reasons. First, because it expands the debate beyond the narrow confines of single-issue politics into broader questions about society. Second, because it forges meaningful and effective tactical alliances which can help everyone involved. And thirdly, because it makes power the target of our actions, rather than each other.

Learning From History
What can today’s new generation of rebels and rabble-rousers learn from the movements of the past? When I look at the “Occupy movement” and others like it, I see may of the same age-old tensions presenting themselves. As northern protesters re-emerge from our winter hibernation, questions of direction are weighing heavily. Some are pushing to raise the tone and take actions into workplaces and neighbourhoods, but others are pushing toward more moderate routes – it’s an election year, after all, and we wouldn’t want to lose our champion, the great Obama. Sadly, too often, I’m seeing a lot of the same mistakes repeated as we’ve seen so many times in the past.

In the media-saturated North American arena, the Occupy Movement holds centre stage for many reasons, from the sheer level of attention it’s received to the broad and inclusive approach which relates many issues to core problems with out society. In many ways, it represents a re-branding of revolution in a very accessible form, detached from the controversial connotations of so many more established groups and movements. While this branding has been enormously successful, there hasn’t yet been a solid definition. After the initial euphoria wore off, it became clear that many participants had very different ideas about what the movement itself stood for and intended to do (which is cool), and simply expected everyone else to go along with it in the name of “unity” (which isn’t). The conflicts we’re now seeing are the result of deep-seated divisions, and how they’re mediated will decide much of whether “Occupy” can continue as an “umbrella”, or whether it will become a participant in a much broader movement.

Occupy did not invent revolution or activism. The tactics, issues and critiques are nothing new, and the echoes of struggles past resound with every step it takes. As someone who has been and continues to be involved (but speaks only for himself), we would be wise to heed the warnings of history and avoid the failures of past movements. So far, the approach has been both innovative and inspirational, but if certain participants get their way, it will go instead the way of Greenpeace and the NDP, and instead of scruffy activists protesting downtown, we’ll have workers soliciting votes and donations.

How Movements Die
When is a movement not a movement anymore? Consider the definition above. When it begins to lack diversity of participants, tactics or issues, a singular organization forms which can only really be a participant in other movements, no matter how large. Any given Communist party would be a good example of this – never totally or successfully engaging with the rest of society, even when they came to dominate. The second way a “movement” could begin to fail the definition is if it’s symbols, organizations or ideas stop characterizing dissent. Sometimes this happens as co-optation of language and symbols (“socialist”, “democracy”), or because the organizations involved have themselves become part of the establishment, like many NGOs, unions and political parties. In practice, all of these factors play a role in demolishing “movements”.

Much of Canada’s labour history happened in Hamilton. From the dawn, with the nine-hours movement rallying in what’s now Victoria Park, to the Stelco strike of 1946 which helped establish union membership in Canadian law. Sadly, like America and elsewhere where unions won this battle, it came at a cost. The large, consolidated unions like those in the AFL-CIO would be able to collect dues from paycheques and collectively bargain for pay and benefits, but at a price. These newly established labour bureaucracies were expected to reign in local direct actions like wildcat strikes and could be held responsible if they didn’t. Within a few decades this victory began to fade, with a decades-long increase in inflation-adjusted wages effectively ending in the early 1970s and showing a slight decline since. This institutionalization, which should’ve been a crowning victory for labour, soon turned out to be more of a neutering, and it’s no surprise that so many working-class people mistrust them today.

The environmental movement suffered a similar fate. I’ve known people involved in Greenpeace from the very beginning, and have always had a lot of admiration for what they did. Sadly, I’ve also known people who’ve more recently fought to unionize Greenpeace fund-raising offices. Along with others like the Sierra Club, they often now end up signing agreements with logging companies. Environmental terminology and politics have lost nearly all meaning – there’s a gas station near here which recently declared itself “green”. Perhaps most frightening, unprecedented levels of international organization at the governmental level have achieved next to nothing after decades on issues like climate change.

There are far too many others I could name. What’s most depressing is how “successful” these movements were (and are) by conventional measures in terms of numbers of participants and influence. They did everything they were supposed to, and yet achieved none of the wider goals.

Why does this happen? Because organizing in this way takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Not only does this drain resources from other areas, but a prime focus is put on control and discipline. This generally happens coming from a rationale of “gaining the support of the public” in ways that objectify the public and supporters like pawns in a giant chess game. At this point, all the “others” involved become a lot less important, and rather than a movement which has come to symbolize the struggles of the oppressed, you have struggles of the oppressed which have come to symbolize “The Movement”. At that point, to the oppressed people in question, this “movement” becomes little more than another set of bosses, who now “own” their activism.

A movement is not defined by the size of its membership, the influence it holds in parliament or the amount of funds in any group bank account. Rather, it’s made up of the links between struggling organizations, the overlap in the issues which drive them and the mass actions and the amount of faith that the public has that it’s collection of symbols, actions and theories can lead to meaningful changes in society. They are always chaotic, and always walk a delicate line between diversity and utter disorganization – but in these traits comes a kind of unpredictability which makes them incredibly effective against “orderly” centralized and powerful organizations. More importantly, such a structure helps keep the focus of our work on “resistance” and not working to create yet another institution which will need to be resisted. Movements succeed by allying people against power, not allying with power against others, or attempting to seize power for one’s own ends. Anything else, and it’s just not a movement any more.