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How the People Got Their Groove Back: What a Bunch of Farmers Can Teach a Bunch of Occupiers About How to Keep on Going

Ashley Sanders, War Is A Crime .org
Not so long ago, Americans witnessed the beginning of a mass democratic uprising. Thousands of average people, disgusted by greedy elites and corporate control of government, launched a movement that spread to almost every state in the nation. They did it to reject debt. They did it to fight foreclosures. They did it to topple a world where the 1 percent determined life for the other 99. And they did all of it against incredible odds, with a self-respect that stymied critics.

The year? 1877. The people? Dirt-poor farmers who would come to be known as Populists.

Now it’s 2011, and the People are stirring again. It’s been over two months since a few hundred dreamers pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park and stayed.

These people weren’t Populists, but they had the same complaints. They couldn’t make rent. They had no future. They lived in a nation with one price for the rich and another for the poor. And they knew that whatever anyone said that they didn’t have real democracy.

Okay, and so what? What do a bunch of century-dead farmers have to do with the Occupy movement? Well, quite a lot, actually.

You see, the Populists came within an inch of changing the entire corporate-capitalist system. They wanted a totally new world, and they had a plan to get it. But as you may have noticed, they didn’t. And now here we are, one hundred years later, occupying parks where fields once stood. We’re at a crucial phase in our movement, standing just now with the great Everything around us—everything to win or everything to lose. It’s our choice. And that’s good, because the choices we make next will echo, not just for scholars and bored kids in history class, but in the lives we do or don’t get to have. The good news is this: the Populists traveled in wagons and left us their wheels. We don’t have to reinvent them. We’re going in a new direction, but I have a feeling they can help us get there.

Occupy has done a lot of things right, and even more things beautifully. But strategy has not been our forte. That was okay at first, even good. We didn’t have one demand, because we wanted it all. So we let our anger grow, and our imagination with it. We were not partisan or monogamous to one creed. That ranging anger got 35,000 people on the Brooklyn Bridge after the Wall Street eviction, and hell if I’m not saying hallelujah. But winter is settling now, and cops are on the march. Each week we face new eviction orders, and wonder how to occupy limbo.

It’s time for a plan, then, some idea for going forward. This plan should in no way replace the rhizomatic-glorious, joyful-rip-roarious verve of the movement so far. It can occur in tandem. But we need a blueprint for the future, because strategy is the road resistance walks to freedom.

In that spirit, I sat down a few years ago and devoted myself to studying social movements of the past. I wanted to see what I could learn from them—where they went wrong, where they went right. I didn’t trust this exercise to random musings. No, like a good Type A kid, I made butcher paper lists of past movement features and mapped them onto current ones. I asked: What is the revolt of the guard for the climate movement? What’s the modern anti-corporate equivalent of the Boston Tea Party?

As I read, I learned a lot about the phases movements go through as they form, what common features they share, and what often breaks them apart.

I could name these phases myself, but it’s already been done. And no one has named them better than historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a thinking human if there ever was one and a student of the Populist movement.
(30 December 2011)

Decentralized People Power
What OWS can Learn from South Africa’s United Democratic Front

Grace Davie, Waging Nonviolence
… While some people seemed dissatisfied with the GAs, and perhaps even ready to dispense with them, others appeared intent on popularizing them even more. The discussion reminded me that this movement is growing and deepening its ties with local neighborhoods—yet as it does, it is encountering the challenge of how to accommodate new communities and support existing organizations that share its goals. While this challenge is still fairly new for OWS, it is one that has been faced and overcome by other movements before.

As a participant-observer who wants the Occupy movement to flourish, this strikes me as an appropriate moment to look back at another social movement that promoted consultation and consenus-building. In the 1980s, South Africa’s United Democratic Front (UDF) helped to end apartheid by empowering existing community-based organizations and developing the leadership capacities of local leaders, some of whom had little or no prior experience as activists. Notably, the UDF inspired and mobilized diverse affiliates without trying to impose one political framework upon them. At this particular juncture, when OWS’s New York City-based leaders appear divided over the question of how much emphasis to place on the GAs and on the general ethos of consensus-based politics, the UDF’s victories seem instructive.

Jeremy Seekings’ definitive account, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991, shows that this umbrella coalition that energized a broad swath of people by leading from behind. It gave affiliates ways to withdraw their support from apartheid and from the economic transactions that kept it in place. It knit together a wide range of civic organizations into an unprecedentedly large mass movement. And, like OWS, it promoted participation and consultation.

… the UDF is worth revisiting. For OWS, it suggests that a flexible, open, decentralized approach, one that allows extant groups to affiliate without radically altering their language or abandoning their existing decision-making processes in favor of new ones—namely, those of the GAs—can still succeed at dismantling oppressive systems.

The UDF was launched to build public opposition to hollow apartheid reforms.

… Using what Tom Lodge has called a “capacious ideological umbrella,” the UDF built a national liberation front that easily sheltered divergent groups which might otherwise never have coalesced. Meetings provided liberating spaces complete with camaraderie, rousing speeches, and forms of racial and gender equity as well as autonomous self-rule. Absent were top-down attempts to solicit agreement about what self-governance or social responsibility in South Africa ought to look like or what exactly the state should become.

Like the Occupy movement, the linkages between UDF and the labor unions varied by region and by union. Unlike the Occupy movement, however (at least thus far), the UDF successfully drew distinctive local organizations into its fold. Its sprawling tent accommodated civic organizations, street committees, black student groups, rent-payers associations, ANC supporters, Black Consciousness thinkers, socialists, social democrats, and an upwardly mobile black urban middle class. White university students also assisted the movement by printing pamphlets and making banners, even with constant police surveillance and infiltration of student of groups by the security police.
(3 January 2012)

Occupy Wall Street and Transformational Strategy

Erik Olin Wright and Jamie Stern-Weiner, New Left Project

Erik Olin Wright is Vilas Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. He is current president of the American Sociological Association and the author of many books, including Envisioning Real Utopias (selected chapters of which can be read here). He discussed with New Left Project the American Occupy movement’s character and achievements thus far, and the directions it might pursue going forward.

… I am writing now after the largest and most visible Occupy Movement encampments have been dismantled, so it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the experience of the fall of 2011. My basic impression is this: the Occupy Movement is part of a global wave of protests involving novel “technologies of protest” – Tahrir Square, the 17-day occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building in late winter 2011, the movements of the squares in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere in Europe, and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. All of these protests involved extended encampments in public spaces in which public discussions of political issues were held on a regular basis, General Assemblies to discuss strategies convened, and practical logistics of food, security and medical care were self-organized by participants. In all of these encampments the central modality of struggle was nonviolent, although occasionally in some of these violent incidents occurred. So, the first thing to note about OWS is that it is not a uniquely American event responding to special American conditions; it is part of a global wave of protests, in some ways not unlike the global wave of protests in 1968.

… there is also a crisis in the political model of liberal democracy, both in the US and in Europe. Here the critical issue is the sense of these systems becoming both less democratic and less competent – less democratic in that powerful elites, especially bound up with global finance, are increasingly able to dictate public policy; less competent in that the state’s capacity to manage the capitalist economy and meet the basic needs of people has declined. This crisis of legitimacy of both the economic and political system has fuelled the kinds of protests we have seen.

… it is important for any social movement if it wishes to have an impact over the long haul to articulate a project of transformation, but what is conventionally called a “set of demands” is only one aspect of this. “Demands” are part of a project of transformation insofar as you are acting on institutions of power and want some kind of change in the policies or practices of those institutions. But creating models of alternative institutions and ways of being are also part of formulating a project of transformation.

… The core of the task of exploring real utopias is to look for social institutions around the world that embody, however imperfectly, emancipatory ideals and thus potentially prefigure broader alternatives. We need to understand how these cases work and identify the ways in which they facilitate human flourishing, but we also need to diagnose their limitations, dilemmas and unintended consequences in order to understand ways of developing their potentials and enlarging their reach. The temptation in such research is to be a cheerleader, uncritically extolling the virtues of promising experiments. The danger is to be a cynic, seeing the flaws as the only reality and the potential as an illusion.
(6 January 2012)

Breaking Ground for a World Beyond Capitalism
The Challenge of the Era of Technological Abundance

Gar Alperovitz,
The following is an excerpt from Gar Alperovitz’s America Beyond Capitalism, recently released in paperback updated with a new forward by James Gustave Speth. It is reprinted here with kind permission of the author.

… Leaving aside the question of near- or long-term political-economic feasibility, four fundamental contentions are suggested by the evolving political-economic developments we have reviewed:

First, that there is no way to achieve movement toward greater equality without developing new institutions that hold wealth on behalf of small and large publics.

Second, that there is no way to rebuild Democracy with a big D in the system as a whole without nurturing the conditions of democracy with a small d in everyday life—including the economic institutions that allow and sustain greater stability of local community life.

Third, that there is no way to achieve democracy in a continental-scale system with a population moving toward 400 million people—and possibly a billion or beyond—without radical decentralization, ultimately in all probability to some form of regional units.

Fourth, that there is no way to achieve meaningful individual liberty in the modern era without individual economic security and greater amounts of free time—and that neither of these, in turn, is possible without a change in the ownership of wealth and the income flows it permits.

… Few predicted either the upheavals of the 1960s or the conservative revolution that followed. Major eruptions and political realignments are the rule, not the exception in U.S. history. Large numbers of working Americans; blacks and Hispanics who will become a majority as the century develops; senior citizens (and those who shortly will become seniors); women who seek practical ways to achieve thoroughgoing gender equality; liberals and conservatives alike who value family and community; environmentalists who cannot secure protections either for endangered goals or sustainable growth along current lines of development—all are finding it increasingly difficult to realize their objectives through traditional means.

A fundamental question is what may happen as various groups, each beginning with more narrowly defined interests, come to the realization that what they value most cannot be achieved without a new approach. If, as appears increasingly likely, such awareness begins to intersect with the knowledge and experience gained through the development of new strategies and ideas, new possibilities are likely to become available to politics in the coming era.

… The term “conjunktur” designates a coming together at one moment in time of diverse trends to create new, unforeseen, and often dramatic opportunities for change. A major electoral shift or political realignment is easily conceivable

… Large-order institutional restructuring, we tend to forget, is exceedingly common in the long sweep of world history. The difficulty lies in pulling ourselves out of the present moment to consider our own possibilities in broader historical perspective.
(7 January 2012)