Does it make any difference if a populist movement is planned or rises spontaneously? What do the origins and structure of the Occupy Movement tell us about its potential for success – when compared to the 1968 May Revolution in Paris*?
In France 1968, the uprising began when the university reacted to student group decisions. But then everything reversed. The organization of the movement developed, step by step, as a reaction to events (largely violent) controlled by the government. This single condition may be the most important difference between the May Revolution in Paris and Occupy Wall Street.
Although there have been many surprises during the months of OWS –including the amazing and electrifying surprise of its spread all over the country as the common currency for a powerful cause—Occupy’s structure and actions developed as a philosophically deliberate construct. Adbusters, an anti-consumerism magazine based in Vancouver, British Columbia, lit the match. But Kalle Lasn, Adbusters’ legendary co-founder, is the first to disclaim control of the movement. From the summer of 2011, participants have thrown energy and exuberance into modelling a vision of direct and open democracy for the larger society.
In France, the government officials in authority literally created the crisis, setting in motion the spontaneous explosion of the populist movement. Hundreds of small groups formed spontaneously, one such portrayed in my novel, A Time to Cast Away Stones, as the “Revolutionary Action Committee” Janet Magill and her boarding house friends join. Once the students captured the Sorbonne, they met in classrooms and hallways, while the central drama played out at the Assemblées Générales. These plenary sessions were staged every night in the Sorbonne’s giant amphitheatre, just as they are in Zuccotti Park and in other Occupy venues in New York and around the country. At this point, the two movements converge—briefly. The two-tiered structure appears the same.
But what happened next made all the difference. By careful design, nothing is decided at OWS’s General Assemblies (GAs). By their insistence on the direct democracy format and facilitator role, all types of ideas are heard. Extreme causes are championed. Anti-this and pro-that. But because of the consensus needed, these extreme viewpoints cannot pass through to action at a GA. This does not, however, mean that there is no action. Occupy has “affinity” or “unaffiliated” groups and more official “working groups.” These smaller groups translate what they learn at GAs into action. As they have always done, groups stage events and marches, pressure lawmakers, and push for change.
In 1968, Parisian students were caught in an exhilarating moment (only a few weeks, start to finish!). With each victory, they boldly escalated their demands. The most strident groups could not be satisfied with less than toppling of the president and the entire capitalist system. Other groups—like Janet’s in A Time to Cast Away Stones—realized that in doing this, they would be usurping the very state power that they despised.
OWS is more sustainable than the May Revolution because it was initiated and organized to allow for (1) the maximum level of direct democracy, (2) the mutual care of a community that encourages responsible behavior, and (3) a peer response to corruption and violence. These are the tenets that brought forth huge numbers of citizens and politicians, who even today, continue to speak the language of the 99 percent.
* The 1968 May Revolution was the first student-worker-middle class alliance and “revolution” in an advanced, Western, capitalist democracy. Over ten million French citizens were involved in a general strike, tens of thousands battled the police and the French army. For details, visit http://www.elisefmiller.com.
**Elise Frances Miller’s novel, A Time to Cast Away Stones (Sand Hill Review Press), is set during the 1968 Berkeley antiwar protests and French May Revolution*. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or order it from your local bookstore.