“Desperation and Wild Inspired Hope”: Todd Gitlin on Why the Occupy Movement is Different From All Other Social Movements, How Initial Media Coverage Was Like a Pre-Programmed Computer Algorithm, and How Not to Judge the Movement’s Success

by Matt B. on October 21, 2011

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph. D. program in Communications at Columbia University. In 1963-64, Gitlin served as the third president of Students for a Democratic Society. Later, he helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War and the first American demonstrations against corporate aid to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Gitlin is the author of fourteen books and has written for a wide range of periodicals.

This interview took via telephone on Saturday, October 15.

MATT:  During a panel last week at Harvard’s Kennedy School, you suggested that there’s a key difference between the Occupy Movement and other social movements.  While most social movements begin with sparse public support, the Occupy Movement begins with potentially widespread support for its goal of reducing wealth inequality. Say more about this distinction and what it might mean for the Occupy Movement.

TODD:  I hadn’t realized this until I checked off the movements of my recollection, that they had started as minority uprisings – at least expressions of dissidence – in comparison to the population as a whole. So the Civil Rights Movement, which obviously was popular with black people but not with Americans overall, certainly not in the South, when it broke out. The anti-Vietnam War movement represented a small minority, maybe a little more than 10%, when it erupted. The women’s movement, it’s hard to say – possible exception there. The gay movement was certainly not a popular movement over all. I see this more as the rule than the exception.  Perhaps the major exceptions in American history were the Populist and labor movements against the robber barons in the late 19th century. But of course there were no polls, so nobody knows.

The dynamics of social movements are intricate, but it would seem that frustration and hope combine in some chemical distillation and generate an outbreak, an effusion, by people who need a collective self-expression because they’re not otherwise on the map.

In the Occupy movement, the frustration is palpable, but we have this immense oddity in the political system, which is that disgust at plutocratic rule is widespread and yet the political system blocks it from momentum, from achievement, from full-blooded political expression.

And so, it’s not that Americans, as a whole, are approving of plutocrats and their political interventions, but there has been, to date, no compelling expression of that sentiment. So, this eruption – somewhere between moment and movement, as Marshall Ganz put it – is an upsurge of this throttled majority, or even super-majority, sentiment.

MATT:  On September 19th, you wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “Protest requires hope. Hope is what’s gone.” And just a couple of weeks later, we have this latent sentiment blooming – and with it, perhaps, some real hope.

TODD:  I was talking about the poor.  One reason why the Occupiers are so white is their anarchic culture, which may seem like the luxury of the winners, but another is hopelessness of the poor, disproportionately black and brown.  On the big marches, at any rate, the emphasis is on “the 99 percent,” who are mostly not poor, and on “the middle class,” which marchers want to get into or stay in.

MATT:  You’re right to argue that there’s a widespread sentiment opposed to the wealth inequality that we see today.  How deep do you think that sentiment runs?

TODD:  My sense is that there’s something structurally extraordinary about the unemployment now, compared even with the unemployment of an equivalent statistical proportion – take 1982, when unemployment reached 10%. Still, there was a sense that it was temporary, whereas I think you would find that today, the duration of unemployment is longer and the number of families affected is greater.  In the immediate family, somebody is unemployed or underemployed, or was recently unemployed, or expects to be. I think the phenomenon of people coming home to live with their families is more widespread.

Bubbles have now been bursting for more than a decade. I think it’s become normal to experience bubbles bursting not as an oddball meteoric streak through the atmosphere but a routine feature of the functioning of the political economy. And this undermines the sense of equanimity that some people may have felt previously – that if they just sat tight for a while and gritted their teeth, they’d get through this rough patch. The rough patches have become the road.

Now combine that experience with other proto-apocalyptic feelings about global warming, about the decline of America overall, and then stir in the unpredictable but psychically powerful experience of the Arab Spring. It’s the admixture of desperation and wild inspired hope that, stirred together, make for volatility.

Enough said about how such things can be explained. If this had not erupted, we would be having a conversation about why there hadn’t been an eruption, and we would find many good reasons for that. Here we encounter the limits of prophecy.

MATT:  You touched on the palpable sense that America is in decline. One can see that reflected in the rhetoric of some of the presidential candidates. Today, their appeals to American strength feel a bit aspirational, whereas once those appeals would have functioned to remind us of who we were (or thought we were). Now they remind us of who we once were, and who we could become again.

TODD:  Yeah. I think that’s exactly right.

MATT:  Let’s talk about how the Occupy Movement is being portrayed in the media. You are not someone who has a lot of deep respect for the mainstream media’s capacity to understand something like this.

One of the features of the movement that has probably been underplayed, to its participants’ dismay, is what you call the “theory of self-organization, or direct democracy,” that’s at play in these gatherings. Say a bit about what distinguishes the Occupy demonstrations from protests with more standard political goals.

TODD:  It’s quite interesting that here we are, four weeks into this rising, and some reporters are beginning to grasp that this phenomenon has its novelties and that if they are to grasp it, they have to get the novelties.

I think early on, journalists tended to do the obvious. You send a reporter down, you pick the photogenic, colorful – who are generally marginal-looking – people, freakish-looking, and/or you ask people that you’ve picked more or less at random what they’re about and they give you disparate answers.

If I had one grape for every time I’ve read those articles, I could crush them and put them in a vat, and I’d have a very large quantity of decent wine after a few years. These are the norms. It’s remarkable how little collective memory there is within journalism of how shallowly it has approached movements before. It’s as if every social movement is ‘new’, except that the immediate story is, why is this either ‘like’ or ‘unlike’ the 60’s?

The fact that social movements are standard features of a modern society has not been absorbed. In other words, a social movement is not something that fails to be a political party or an organization or, on the other hand, a fad. Every time a social movement erupts, it’s as if there’s never been one before, and then there emerge predictable stories that might as well have been pre-programmed by computer algorithm about freakishness and incoherence and querulousness, as if the movement’s not being an incorporated organization were a failure, rather than simply a sign of what it is – of its identity. So, that’s where the Occupy coverage started.

The first break in the coverage was a case of another rather predictable moment in this brief history, namely the clumsiness and abusiveness of police – so first the pepper spray and some of these wild reactions. Murdoch’s New York Post editorialized that it would have been better if the police had used a water spray cannon. They said that after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, which was the second eruption. You can actually track it online – Nate Silver has tracked the incidence of press coverage; it bumps up.

The arrestees were non-violent and there was documentation of their non-violence. These incidents were captured on video. It was very hard to make the case that these were wild, in-the-streets loonies. And then I think something turned again. Maybe in the run up to, but certainly on the day of October 5th, when the inner movement of the occupation was joined by the outer movement consisting of reinforcements called in by more or less conventionally organized groups – unions, community organizations, MoveOn, lobbies, professional groups and so on. These latter groups turned out a lion’s share of the marchers on October 5th in New York. And then it was no longer a few hundred people in the park, but ten to fifteen thousand people who looked like the American 99%.

Quite a number of journalists have been playing catch-up since that point and have done better in exploring, with some curiosity rather than preconception, what this phenomenon is.

MATT:  About a week ago, you wrote, “The only gargantuan mistake would be to make the whole movement look like 1% and not the 99.”

Some critics have argued that the whole 99% frame is wrong-headed.  David Brooks has written that the problem with characterizing a movement in 99-vs.-1 terms is that suggests that all our social problems were created by the 1 and that the 99 are blameless – that it avoids dealing with our collective culpability for some of the problems we face.

TODD:  Well, this is a pre-programmed computer algorithm at work. If you polled the 99%, I would strongly suggest that people would acknowledge that there’s a lot of blame to go around, but the critical mass of blameworthiness would cluster at the upper end of the plutocracy, which in my view is where it belongs. Brooks disagrees.

I think Brooks thinks – and people like Brooks think – that somebody who bought a subprime mortgage and thought he could get rich quick, or somebody who is involved in flipping houses in the suburbs somewhere, is as much to blame as the lobbyists who overthrew Glass-Steagall, as the big banks that were merrily creating pyramid schemes of derivative bundles and credit-debt swaps and obligations and so on. Just as one hears over and over and over again from those that defend bankers – investment bankers, particularly, or hedge-fund operators – one hears over and over again how hard they work. There’s a banker quoted in the New York Times today to this effect.

This particular self-flattery drives me wild, because the implication is that the nurses, janitors, teachers, firemen, ironworkers, farm workers and others who are hurting don’t work hard. Underneath this falsely egalitarian distribution of blame, there is an abdication of responsibility that is the ideological accompaniment of the impunity with which those who actually made these decisions have gotten away with it. And when I say ‘made these decisions,’ I mean the game in which the ratings agencies were paid by the same people they were rating. I mean the lobbyists who either undermined regulation or inhibited the enforcement of regulation—and when I say ‘the lobbyists’ here, I’m also including those figures who were administering agencies like the SEC while all this stuff was piling high, the pyramid of debt, rising like the Tower of Babel, and the would-be sophisticates were crooning about how all the rules had changed.

Of course, whole societies are complicit in a variety of ways in collective stupidities, but there are engines driving the collective stupidities. And in this case, very specifically, we have the subprime lenders. We have the bigger lenders who got into competition with the subprime lenders or absorbed them. We have the deregulators and the lobbyists who made sure they prevailed. We have AIG and such entities. We have the whole self-dealing, mutual-flattery society, all lubricated by the cultural fetishizing of such glorious figures as bank CEOs, Robert Rubin and company, not to mention their comic sidekick, Donald Trump. So, yes, the whole culture is complicit, and now what?

MATT:  In that NYTimes piece I mentioned earlier, you ask “whether the inchoate quality of the Occupy Wall Street Movement can continue.” Obviously, there’s a tension between preserving what you call the “initial free spirit” of the uprising and an evolving alliance that might begin to demand more concrete political goals. How might this tension play itself out over the coming months?

TODD:  I’m full of uncertainties, but I do know something for sure: in the outer movement that I described – that amalgamation of unions, liberal lobby groups, community organizations, some politicians, strategists of various kinds – I can assure you that discussions are going on at this moment about how to avail themselves of this immense energy that’s been released and focus it on actual achievement…And they’re talking to some of the OWS folks about it, too.

You know, the outer movement is mindful that it would be a mistake if they barged into the encampments and presented themselves as the rescuing cavalry with their ten-point programs and their air of experience, maturity and worth. They won’t do it that way. But I know for a fact that some of them are both needy and farsighted enough. They’re needy in that they understand that groups playing at normal politics are blocked by the Republicans’ solid front.

The unions have been stifled and haven’t been able to get much out of the administration. The liberal groups are also immensely frustrated and sometimes burning with some anger because of the failure of the Obama administration to be what they wanted and expected it to be. They are not only hopeful but also, in some ways, desperate.

And so there’s been a rapid elevation of expectations, or at least a felt  imperative to rise to this occasion. I don’t know when and how it happened precisely that all those unions and other groups, MoveOn and so on, decided to throw their strength behind the October 5th march, but they got there pretty fast. They did their work. They turned out their people.

The AFL-CIO jumped on last week, sent out a call for participation in various OWS activities, and then summoned people to Zuccotti Park in the event of an actual attempt yesterday morning to evacuate them. Steelworkers sent out a cri de coeur, a battle cry of their own to their people. A great deal in the history of politics is a matter of timing, and these groups—what I’m calling the outer movement—seem to appreciate that this opportunity to stir together a diversity of elements and actually get something cooking doesn’t come along very often.

Again, you know, they may or may not succeed in finding a way to translate this energy into actionable politics. Can they agree on five points or so that could be hammered into a sort of Compact with America, in which X million people say they will only work for or donate money to candidates who subscribe to this platform? In other words, will they decide to play Grover Norquist with a pledge? Or will they decide to support local direct actions, offshoots of OWS, to defend people who are being unjustly evicted? There was a successful campaign to that effect in LA. And I was told there was an incident yesterday in Brooklyn, where a bunch of people from an offshoot of OWS went to an eviction hearing and actually disrupted the court hearing.

So forms of direct action might be one way to go, like the interventions in the 1930s to prevent evictions of unemployed people; when someone was evicted, people would gather on the street and move the furniture back in. So, there may be electoral campaigns, there may be lobbying, there may be direct action components of a response. And I also expect the encampments to go on and spread …

MATT:  Even in the winter?

TODD:  Yeah. I think there will be at least tokens. I’ve had three long conversations with OWS occupiers, inner movement people. And they are in dead earnest. For them, the way of life that’s implicit or that’s expressed in the occupation really matters. They really don’t want to go home, and their demand is existential. They want to be what they are, which is an occupation, a community, a living collective experience. And I think they will find ways. It’s just my sense of the resolve and the temperature I hear from those people. They will find some ways to sustain the form of experience that they’re involved in.


    • Jeangerard

      Columbia, as an “institution of higher learning”, could make and find space and conveniences for them to give them security and get them out of the cold weather..  Farm out housing needs creatively by using empty apartments, rent free as a public service, or low rent offered in the interests of the cause.  Work TOGETHER WITH THEM to house the entire protest indoors in order to continue the help  they are offering the entire nation, searchlng for future direction on all main points of contention and injustice.  No cooptation.  No fanaticism. Protection of Constitutional rights and support of nonviolence.  No snide media coverage. No over-intelecctualization. This is a living, growing, feeling, searching institution.  If it is provided with decent support, it can prove to be a tangible way to “restorie democracy” and stop the present systemic rot.  Gerard

    • guest

      Well said.

      A note regarding  the labor movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries against the robber barons: There were no polls but there is much documentation in print media and private correspondence of  popular support for unions. For example, in the landmark 1902 Anthracite Strike, which won the right to collective bargaining and more, popular opinion nationwide was on the side of the striking miners against the coal operators like J P Morgan. Teddy Roosevelt  intervened on the side of the strikers–a first in US history of the powerful siding with unions against plutocrats. During strikes in the anthracite coal fields farmers often donated food to the strikers and merchants extended the miners credit. The idea that striking workers were not supported by their fellow citizens in the 19th century is a narrative pushed mainly by the owners and their propagandists in the press. This is easily demonstrable with a little serious research into archival material.

    • Matt

      Interesting, Gerard.  Have the folks at OWS in Zuccotti Park approached Columbia or other institutions about this kind of support?

    • Matt

      Thanks very much, Guest.  I certainly hadn’t known much of this history about the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (My suspicion is that these are the kinds of things that Gitlin was thinking of when he suggested that the labor movement had popular support, though I certainly can’t speak for him.)  

    • guest

      You’re welcome, Matt.

      The labor history of the US is generally suppressed in that it is not widely taught in the schools; but it’s seminal to an understanding of where we are at today.

      As you know, the US is still an anti-union country with union-busting and demonization of unions ongoing. The struggle of workers for decent pay, child labor laws, safety laws etc. was more visible in the past with big business often resorting to violent means to suppress union activities. After the 1930s, again because  public opinion was with the strikers and workers, big business turned to “softer” techniques: PR  and influencing politicians to freeze and discredit unions and union activists. Their success is evident.

    • Matt

      One thing that I worry about is the vicious cycle of de-unionization. As private-sector union membership hits the mid-single digits, it’s less and less common for Americans to know someone who is in a union.  And as union membership becomes more distant from the daily experiences of American workers, it becomes more difficult for them to maintain solidarity with union struggles (and easier for them to swallow anti-union propaganda). I’m guessing that all of this makes non-union folks less and less well-disposed toward unions (at least on average).

    • guest

      I agree. And of course most US workers don’t realize unions  are  responsible for the bringing about the  safeguards that are still in place to protect workers. But I think that the OWS movement shows an awakening to the strength of people working together for the common good. That’s what it took to get the advances unions made for workers–and it was slow going over the course of decades. Perhaps unions will be reinevented, so to speak; perhaps they will evolve.  At any rate, people need to stick together  in order to change things and address the serious problems created by laissez-faire capitalism and “socialism for the rich.”    

    • Matt

      That’s one of the really interesting questions here, Guest – what unions will look like over the next couple of decades.  You use the word “reinvented” – any ideas what that might look like?

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