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The Citizen

Marshall Ganz on the Moral Urgency of Occupy Wall Street

By Matt Bieber, News Writer, MPP/MDiv ‘13

In the early 1960′s, Marshall Ganz dropped out of Harvard to join the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He then spent 16 years working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers before returning to Harvard to finish his BA and earn a  Ph.D. in sociology. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he architected Barack Obama’s organizing effort.

Ganz teaches organizing, moral leadership, and public narrative at Harvard Kennedy School.  In 2010, he published Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Worker Movement.

MATT BIEBER: You’ve described the Occupy phenomenon as somewhere between a ‘moment’ and a ‘movement.’ This isn’t just a semantic distinction for you – there’s really something at stake. What is it exactly?

MARSHALL GANZ: A single protest is one thing; an ongoing series of protests that develop the organizational capacity to translate the objectives of the protest into specific outcomes is another.Marshall Ganz

I think that the Occupation has achieved an enormous success in putting economic justice back on the agenda, in opening a more progressive flank on the —I’m hesitating to use the word “left” because I don’t know what it means anymore in this context—a counterpoint to the Tea Party on the Republican right that has been very, very positive.

So now, the question is: How does this go? In other words, if the Montgomery Bus Boycott had just happened and that’d been the end of it, or maybe that’s not even a good – If it had been a March on Washington and that was it…

But actually those metaphors aren’t that good. It’s more like Earth Day, I guess. The whole lead-up to Earth Day and the organization of Earth Day and the way in which that surfaced the whole question of environmental concern nationally, in a way that simply hadn’t happened before, became tremendously significant. But then it also translated into many battles at the state, local and national levels, to translate it into various forms of outcomes.

You know, movements are not neat, they’re not linear, and they’re not just all focused on one thing. They’re raggedy in and of their nature. But what I’m hoping is that this moment will become a movement.

BIEBER:         Perhaps unlike Montgomery or the March on Washington, it seems to me that there’s an inward-looking quality to Occupy. Yes, it is absolutely motivated by economic injustice, as you described. But there’s also this experiential, democracy-in-action, process-oriented element to it. Is there a tension between these two aspects of Occupy?

GANZ:             I don’t actually think so. One of the things that distinguishes social movements from interest group mobilization and so forth is that they’re transformational in two ways, or three ways even: One, social movements are cultural events, as well as economic and political events, and they involve a shift in self-understanding, community understanding, as well as expectations of political and economic institutions.

Anybody who participated in sit-down strikes in the 1930s found them to be profoundly transformational. All of a sudden, people had a voice; they had a sense of solidarity as union members. The same kind of thing certainly happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a lot of focus on creating the beloved community that went right along with transforming the world in a more beloved way.

And one of the reasons is that change requires a lot of sacrifice and a lot of risk-taking and a lot of courage and solidarity, and that doesn’t result from self-interest calculus. It’s a moral phenomenon. And so, how we are living and how we are acting and how we’re interacting with one another is critical for that, and I think if you look at the heart of any social movement, you’ll see something quite similar.

BIEBER:         You frequently quote the organizer Saul Alinsky about the need for organizers to be well-integrated schizoids – ready to polarize to mobilize and then depolarize to settle. Obviously, the Occupiers created some real tension in southern Manhattan at the outset. Is there a danger, though, that the encampments will become assimilated into the national landscape – that we’ll get used to them, and that as a result, the Occupiers will have difficulty provoking the kinds of change they seek?

GANZ:             Well, I don’t know. I think what they’ve done is created a kind of moral urgency around the whole question of what we’re doing to the economy and what we’re doing to people as a result – what we let happen to our economy and the control of that economy.

It’s one thing to say, “Markets don’t solve all our problems. We need strong public institutions to solve common interest needs, like health, education and so forth.” It sounds very nice. What they’ve done is give moral urgency to that challenge. That’s what’s meant by polarizing. It sort of forces people to act, to take a position, to take a stand.

When students did a sit-in in the president’s office at Harvard in 2001, people kind of agreed that Harvard ought to pay a living wage, but nobody was doing anything about it. By sitting in the office, they brought moral urgency to the question. Same thing when students sat in lunch counters in the South.

So the Occupiers have brought moral urgency to this thing, to the extent that it begins to line up people clearly in opposition to the right and in opposition to the neoliberal framework that’s been so dominant in shaping our policy. That’s a great contribution. The question of how to sustain the moral energy is an important question, I think, that a lot of people are grappling with. But I don’t know. Look at what happened in Oakland…

The Occupiers are challenging people to get off their butts. There are people living down there, committing their time and bodies and energy to confronting the country with this challenge. And there are all the people that have gone down to show solidarity, and the people that it’s called to take positions to shift the debate. Now, that is discourse, but it’s also the foundation of organization. I mean, you get people acting in different ways. And they’ve gotten people acting in different ways. A whole number of these occupations all over the country is a whole lot of action in a different way.

Now, the question is where does that action go? I mean, I don’t know. When the cold weather comes, do they need to move inside the banks to keep warm? I don’t know. I keep wondering when somebody’s going to occupy the Stock Exchange. There are a lot of different directions in which this thing could evolve; social movements are more of a dance than they are a five-year strategic plan.

BIEBER:         Let’s talk about the question of direction. As you know, many of the encampments operate on a leaderless, modified consensus-based decision-making model.

GANZ:             See, I don’t really think of it that way. When we talk about leadership, it’s important to distinguish between people, positions, and practices. If we understand leadership to be the work that a group must do in order to act in a purposeful way – as opposed to a particular personality or a particular position – then there’s a hell of a lot of leadership being practiced in these encampments. In terms of the relational work, the strategic work, the structural work – the norms that are established are very, very strong.

So, I don’t quite think of it as leaderless, any more than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra that has made beautiful music for years without a conductor is leaderless. What they’ve done is organize leadership in a different way, and I think that’s what this is an experiment in.

BIEBER:         But it seems to me that the kind of leadership that’s been developed is very, very good for organizing communal life in, say, a 33,000-square-foot park, but isn’t quite as good for establishing strategic direction or reaching out more broadly.

GANZ:             I think it’s structure that we’re talking about, and they’ve developed an effective structure within which to exercise leadership there within that domain. Now, the question is, can they/will they/do they want to develop the kind of structure that allows greater coordination and focus? It’s a good question. I certainly think it’s one that they’re struggling with and there are groups within that are struggling with… I mean, I think they’re pulling off a coordinated day of activity coming up, right?

BIEBER:         I think so.

GANZ:             So I think they are groping towards that. It’s about developing a structure that allows them to continue to practice that kind of leadership. You know, the Civil Rights Movement had a multiplicity of organizations, each of which was structured quite differently. I mean, the Urban League was structured really differently than the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Yet, each participated in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which was a contentious but nevertheless really important body at the national level in which people were aware of what each other were doing, without any claims on it. And then occasionally they would decide on a common focus, like the March on Washington in ’63. Structures can evolve or be evolved.

BIEBER:         Right. What many of the encampments do have in common, though, is a consensus or modified consensus-based model for decision-making in the general assemblies. As I recall, you’re not a huge fan of that form of decision-making. In your class on organizing, you teach Jo Freeman’s essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness and talk about the way that power always exists, whether or not it’s acknowledged. Given that, and given the way many of the encampments’ decision-making processes are organized, how likely is it that a broader strategic agenda will actually emerge?

GANZ:             I don’t know. Again, this isn’t a structureless group; I mean, there are structures in place, and they are evolving. I am a fan of Jo Freeman’s article very much, but this is not a structureless scene. But they haven’t developed structures to do the kind of thing that we’re talking about – in other words, they haven’t developed some national coordinating body structure. They may or may not, I don’t know.

I’m skeptical of consensus just to the extent that it inhibits action. But, you know, where you have a group of people that are highly motivated and share norms and are committed to work together in certain ways and will put in the time that it takes to do that well, you know, it may work for them.

BIEBER:         Given where Occupy is right now, how you think about the pros and the cons of concretizing demands into an actionable political agenda?

GANZ:             Well, a couple of things: First of all, the movement calls itself Occupy, so we have a certain tactic that defines this moment or movement – whatever it is – that’s kind of cool, that’s entered the lexicon, and everybody kind of knows what it means now. Then we have “We are the 99%,” which is a unified slogan or description of what they’re doing, which has also emerged from this.

Can more of a unified focus emerge? I think that’s what a lot of folks are struggling with. Does it need to? I don’t know. It isn’t like bringing Mubarak down; it’s not that kind of a situation. There certainly are groups and organizations that have plenty of economic justice-oriented demands for better control of Wall Street, for the whole financial industry… you know, there’s tons of stuff out there.

So, the question of whether particular groups and organizations wind up leveraging this moment on behalf of their specific policy objectives, or whether the movement itself is able to arrive at a common focus, remains to be seen. I think it can be fruitful either way.

BIEBER:         What do you want to see happen?

GANZ:             It’s really hard to say. You know, these things are emergent. I just hope that a way is found to sustain the moral urgency. I think that’s really important. I hope that the opportunity is taken advantage of in whatever that means. At local levels, at state levels, at the national level, it can mean a lot of different things. I certainly don’t presume to know what that is.

I do think that the articulation of an alternative to the dominant neoliberal view of how things are supposed to be is really important. If this action could rehabilitate real debate over economic policy, that would be a really good thing – if people acquired, reacquired the confidence to argue economics.

You know, economics has sort of turned into this form of Latin spoken only by the priesthood, who consistently get things wrong but remain very, very powerful. There’s something wrong with that.

BIEBER:         On Charlie Rose the other week, you described how you see the difference between the Tea Party and Occupy. You suggested that while they share anger, the Tea Party is heavily motivated by fear, whereas Occupy is motivated much more by hope. Say more about that distinction.

GANZ:             You don’t have a movement unless there’s some challenge going on that creates enough anxiety that people are challenged. The whole economic crisis has certainly produced that. And that, in turn, has created a lot of anger, whether it’s articulated or not, about the state of affairs.

Coupling that with fear means that you turn to trying to find ways to exclude, to build walls, to protect yourself, to contract, to get rid of the other. This approach has a long tradition in American politics as a reaction to immigration, especially immigration coupled with economic crisis. It’s basically a fundamentalist reaction of trying to wall out the world and protect yourself from it.

And it has particular potency in the US, because it means making government the bad guy and essentially trying to stop it. So, all you have to do is stop things from happening to feel like you’re making progress. “I’m stopping this, I’m stopping that, I’m stopping the other.” And our system is set up to offer all these veto points, where it’s very easy to stop things.

Now, on the other side, you can respond to the anger by saying, “Oh, Lord, we need to bring in more people. We need to draw on more resources. We need to reach out and find ways people can collaborate and cooperate in order to deal with this enormous challenge that we’re facing.” And that builds outward.

That’s the kind of energy that was in the Civil Rights Movement or the environmental movement, as opposed to some of the right-wing movements, which are all about walling yourself off. And so, I think it’s interesting; the encampments are open and welcoming – “Come join our space.”

The thing about hope is, it’s creative, and you see that creativity in these tactics all the time and it operates in a realm of possibility. But fear can be very powerful. But at least now, there are some alternatives to the politics of fear, and I think that’s great.

BIEBER:         That creativity has expressed itself in lots of different ways.  I worry, though, about the media’s tendency to focus on the ‘freakish’ stuff – the folks in Viking costumes and the drum circles and all of the activity that can make the Occupiers look like ‘the other.’

Do you worry at all that – however legitimate those expressions might be on their own terms – they’ll make it more difficult for Occupy to connect with a large portion of the country?  That folks will see that and say, “That’s not me.”

GANZ:             Well, the Tea Party certainly was able to share in freakishness as well, so I wouldn’t limit that. Yeah, of course, there are always folks around who see the world in perhaps a little more unusual fashion than others. What is kind of cool is how much tolerance there has been in this whole thing – the whole focus is not on the strange person who’s doing some strange thing, but it has really been on the legitimacy of the grievance. And that is quite remarkable.

I think Todd Gitlin has pointed out that majorities don’t usually drive social movements. But this action feels like it has wide, wide support, much more than civil rights did in the beginning, and much more than environmental stuff in the beginning. I mean, we look back at those movements—or the women’s movement, for that matter—and we say, “Oh, well, that’s all mainstream.” But, boy, when they started, it was not. I mean, it was ‘tree-huggers’ and it was all the denunciation of women’s liberation stuff. The sit-ins were not thought of as a noble thing by many people. So, all these movements started in a very controversial and challenging fashion. What’s really interesting about this one is how wide the support it seems to have is.