By Chris Maisano of Democratic Socialists of America and the Jacobin editorial board
At the height of Occupy Wall Street’s efflorescence, when the enragés who took up residence in Zuccotti Park succeeded in raising the battle standard of the 99% for the entire world to see, I sat down for an interview with Frances Fox Piven to help make sense of what was unfolding before us. Although I thought I knew more than my fair share about the theory and practice of social movements in the U.S., as a child of the End of History, I had never really been part of one. I was born in the early 1980s, during the dreadful dawn of “Morning in America,” so aside from my days as an undergraduate global trade summit-hopper I learned almost everything I know about this stuff from books. The occupation of Zuccotti Park went on for days, days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. It looked as if an honest-to-goodness social movement was breaking out in this country for the first time in my life. To be sure, I was elated. But to my surprise, that elation was often overcome by a sense of foreboding. I looked at all of the silliness that accompanied the encampments and feared that the movement (I still hesitate to use that phrase) would self-destruct before it made even a small dent in the power of the 1%.
As is her wont, Piven was effusive in her praise for the protests. But she also reminded me and anyone who read the interview that when it comes to assessing the strength and development of social movements, it’s best to not get caught up in the exigencies of the moment and to take the long view instead. All the great movements in history, she reminded us, do not progress in a linear fashion, ever onward and upward until the final battle has been won. They grow and develop unevenly, moving by fits and starts, hitting peaks and valleys along the way. They may produce moments of collective euphoria, as in those first few weeks in Zuccotti Park, but they also inevitably bring with them periods of discouragement and demobilization.
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