US – Protest Politics – Occupy as a Modern-Day SDS – Organisers, Troops and Intellectuals – 8 April 2012

I found an online copy of Kirkpatrick Sale’s terrific book about Students for a Democratic Society – which should be required reading for anyone who feels that the route of protest politics (Wisconsin and/or Occupy) is the route for them.

I’m struck by how much Sale’s book presents a picture of SDS that looks almost entirely like today’s Occupy movement…with the same problems described here as well. In the following passage, taken from page 235 of the online version, Sale quotes SDS leader Carl Davidson about what the main groupings within the movement looked like.

“The bulk of the membership, about 85-90%, is made up of what I call the
‘SHOCK TROOPS.’ They are usually the younger members, freshmen and
sophomores, rapidly moving into the hippy, Bobby Dylan syndrome. Having
been completely turned off by the American system of compulsory
miseducation, they are staunchly anti-intellectual and rarely read anything
unless it comes from the underground press syndicate. They are morally
outraged about the war, cops, racism, poverty, their parents, the middle
class, and authority figures in general. They have a sense that all those things
are connected somehow and that money has something to do with it. They
long for community and feel their own isolation acutely, which is probably
why they stick with SDS.
The second SDS type makes up about 5-10% of the chapter’s membership.
These are the ‘SUPERINTELLECTUALS.’ Most are graduate students in the
Social Sciences or Humanities; a few are married. They spell out grand
strategies for the chapter’s activities, but will rarely sit behind the literature
tables. They talk a lot about power structure research, the need for analysis,
and are turned on by the REP prospectus. They join most of the
demonstrations, but rarely help make the picket signs. Without a doubt
some of the most brilliant young people in America today.
The third ideal type within SDS, the final 5%, are what I call the
‘ORGANIZERS.’ These are the people that keep the chapters going. An
increasing number are dropping out of school, but staying near the University
community. Many more would probably drop out if it weren’t for 2-S and the
draft. They do the bureaucratic shitwork (reserving rooms, setting up tables,
ordering literature, etc.) or see that it gets done. They are constantly trying
to involve new people or reinvolve old people in the chapter’s activities.
There is not much political analysis here. Most of the organizer’s projects are
experimental, spur-of-the-moment decisions. Their politics tend to be
erratic, changing whenever they finally get a chance to read a new book.
They are the people who try to attend the regional and national conferences.”

Change one or two words here and there, and it’s pretty much a description of Occupy, don’t you think?

The “shock troops” are Occupy’s bread-and-butter – people with a vague sense that a whole bunch of things are bad and connected to each other, and who long for community with one another. (In Occupy’s case, in fact, that need for community seems to be greater than any perceived need to be on message about anything.) They are generally well-meaning, but tend to drop out when things get hairy. In the days of SDS, they demonstrated this by dropping out of the movement en masse when a group of rogue Maoist organisers took over its elected leadership. At this point, nothing similar has happened with Occupy, but it’s not hard to imagine it, especially since the popularity of Occupy at this point seems to be centred around how vague it is. Once the movement commits itself to actually doing something, the dynamics of the group will either head towards greater commitment to real social change, or greater commitment to ideological nonsense. If Occupy, like SDS, chooses ideological nonsense, expect it to disintegrate.

The “organisers” are certainly visible with Occupy as well. They are, as they were in the days of SDS, very likely to be experimental with their politics (to see it charitably) or unread in history (to see it probably more realistically). You tell them people have done what they are doing before and it didn’t work…and they will bite your head off. “We’re actually doing something,” they will say. (Great, but if we’re going to do something, could it be something that doesn’t have a poor track record? How is it disloyal to point that out?) They also do have a tendency to be burned out by all the work they are doing, which makes them a little bit hair-trigger when it comes to dealing with others – especially critics. They are regarded with reverence by the troops, which is why criticising them is usually something that catapults one into the doghouse with the mass of the movement’s supporters. (This is something I’ve been finding out occasionally – when I criticised the organisers of the no-free-speech-for-Anne-Coulter people at the University of Ottawa, all I managed to accomplish is to get people to side more with the organisers. Similarly, my criticisms of Occupy organisers for saying and doing outrageous things have been met with a couple more choruses of “at least they’re doing something.”) My experience is, if you have conversations about the same topic with the troops, with no organiser present, the troops might concede your sincerity and good will – but with the organiser present, you will come off as the devil to them. If you want to be a good-natured critic rather than a lightning rod, perhaps that’s something to be aware of. (Not that I always follow my own advice on this matter. I managed to get into an exchange with an Occupy organiser type yesterday that put the lightning rod back on top of my head.)

Though perhaps I exempt myself from being one of the “superintellectuals” by taking a critical view of Occupy instead of an assertively supportive one, the criticisms leveled at the intellectuals both back in the SDS days and with respect to today’s Occupy certainly seem like the ones repeatedly made of me…in both cases, the thing people want to know is “why don’t you make picket signs and sit behind the literature tables?” Of course, I did things like that when I was younger, which is part of why I’m loathe to do them now – people with critical minds are often not welcome to be the public face of a somewhat less-than-critical movement. The other people sitting at the literature table will let you know that. Also, let’s face it, a lot of this kind of criticism is self-fulfilling once you do identify yourself as a potential critic. Todd Gitlin, who was national president of SDS, is now a sociologist who has written extensively and somewhat critically about protest movements. Those who are of a less-than-critical bent still ignore his writings, the way they would ignore the writings of those who spent lots less time making picket signs and behind literature tables than he did. It’s just a slam, nothing more. It’s like calling someone a “nerd” or “Poindexter” because they are intelligent and potentially have your number. The people who say this couldn’t care less how much organising you’ve done.

Anyway, I read this bit from Sale’s book years ago, and one of the things I observed back then is that this division into three groups is somewhat reminiscent of the executive-legislative-judicial division in government. There is a part of government that does things (executive), a part that votes on things (legislative) and a part that judges things (judicial). Montesquieu argued that it was best that those three functions of government check and balance each other. Well, so too with social movements. The part that does things (the organisers), the part that votes on things (the troops) and the part that judges things (the intellecuals) should check and balance each other.

Of course, this is where social movements tend to be different than government, because typically, social movements come to be dominated by their organisers, who eventually lose their troops because of the stupid and domineering decisions they make. The intellectuals typically support those movements in their infancy, but act as canaries in the coal mine early on, and eventually persuade more people when a movement is losing its actual progressive potential that the time has come to jump ship.

At least that’s my take on it. That’s why I’m assertive about my role as a critic. Any movement worth anyone’s support will be able to show why it deserves that support. The ones with the thin-skinned “don’t question me” organisers, on the other hand? Well, have a look at what happened to SDS in 1970 and get back to me about what happens to movements like that…

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