Will Occupy Wall Street Be Co-opted?

occupy los angelesMuch of the recent commentary about the Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on whether or not this radical movement will be “co-opted” by the unions, or the Democratic Party, or other liberal forces. This seems to be the concern of many academic lefties and activists, who are quick to warn the Occupy Wall Street activists to avoid “co-optation” at all costs.

In other words, these lefties view “co-optation” as failure. I disagree. The success of every radical movement in American history has occurred when it is co-opted by the forces of reform. Read the 1892 Omaha Platform of the People’s Party, or the 1912 platform of the Socialist Party, or Upton Sinclair’s 1934 “End Poverty in California” platform for his campaign for governor of California, or the 1948 platform of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for President.

Many of the ideas proposed in these documents — including a progressive income tax, the 8-hour day, the direct election of Senators, old age insurance, and voting rights for African Americas — were considered radical in their day. Eventually, many aspects of these platforms were adopted by one of the two major parties, in somewhat watered-down versions. Is that a failure or a victory?

When there’s enough political pressure, the reactionary and conservative wing of the establishment tries to beat the movement back using repression. But the moderates and liberals within the establishment use the fear of disorder and radicalism to push through reforms that are modest versions of what radicals have been demanding.

The moderate wing of the establishment hopes this will knock the wind out of the sales of the movement, but if the movement views these as steppingstones to further reform, then it is not co-optation, it is a way to build on victories. That’s the story of the New Deal — pushed by protests among farmers, workers, the jobless, renters, veterans, and others — and every other era of reform in our history.

In their book, Organizing for Social Change, Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max (long-time organizer trainers at the Midwest Academy) write that organizing has three goals:

  1. Win concrete improvements in people’s lives
  2. Give people a sense of their own power
  3. Change the relations of power

We should judge the Occupy Wall Street movement on those terms. The veteran community and union organizers now talking with the Occupy Wall Street folks are trying to figure out how to keep the movement from fizzling out. They understand that they have to win victories for real people, keep a sense of urgency in the air, keep the media interested (in the reforms, not just the spectacle), get politicians to take advantage of this growing momentum to push for legislation that didn’t seem possible a month ago, and keep the leaders of America’s biggest corporations up at night worrying about this new economic justice movement that is putting the richest one percent on the defensive.

This movement eventually has to be about the 1% paying back the money it “stole” from the 99%. How?

  • Stop banks from foreclosing and evicting homeowners who were victims of predatory lending or economic hardship.
  • Reduce mortgage principle for underwater homeowners.
  • Reduce student debt
  • Raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires
  • Make banks pay for local costs/damage caused by foreclosures(similar to ACCE’s proposed California law to make banks pay20,000 per foreclosure).
  • peter dreierMake banks that got federal bail-outs spend the money helping homeowners and small businesses. (We need an accounting of where the money went and which banks are hoarding it as well as have paid huge compensation to top execs).
  • Pass a public works jobs plan that focuses on creating jobs by repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and schools

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College. His next book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, will be published next year by Nation Books.


  1. Ross S. Heckmann says

    Let us beware of any accidental equivocation in the use of the word “co-opt.”

    Co-opting in the negative sense. To retain its integrity and ultimately its viability, every social movement must remain reasonably independent, especially in terms of vision, agenda, leadership, personnel, organization, funding, governance, and control. It may borrow ideas and may accept a certain amount of assistance (especially one-time, as opposed to wthat would involve ongoing dependence); but ultimately, it must develop its own vision, its own agenda, its own leaders, its own personnel, its own organization, its own funding, its own governance. A failure to do so results in being “co-opted” in the negative sense. The movement loses its integrity (having sold out to those upon whom it is dependent) and ultimately loses its very existence (as more and more perceive that the movement has become an existing power structure’s wholly-owned subsidiary that is used more to further the agenda of the existing power structure, than the agenda of the original movement). If memory serves me and if I am not mistaken, the Populist movement of the late 19th century lost its integrity and separate existence when it allowed itself to be co-opted by the Democratic Party.

    Co-opting in the positive sense. A social movement that retains its integrity and independence may find itself growing and flourishing. Existing power structures may wish to try to head this off by co-opting part or all of the agenda of the rising social movement, and then claiming that the need for the new social movement, separately organized, is now superfluous. This is being “co-opted” in the positive sense, and increases the likelihood that part or all of the movement’s agenda will be enacted. Prof. Dreier has furnished several examples of this above.

    The Occupy movement may safely accept a certain amount of assistance but ultimately must stand on its own two feet. It must not allow itself to be co-opted in the negative sense by the Democratic Party, that desires to portray itself in the false light of caring for the 99%, as opposed to the 1% who contribute to its funding. Likewise, the Occupy movement must not allow itself to be co-opted by unions or leftist groups or anybody else. However, if the existing power structures want to co-opt the agenda that the Occupy movement ultimately develops, then so much the better.

    • Sue Collier says

      The Occupy Wallstreet has finally figured out WHERE to protest.

      Now, if they can just figure out WHAT.

      Get Obama to let us drill on our own land and become energy independent.

      The pipe line is just pushing us toward ONE-World government and one-world dictatorship.

      Stop sending our jobs out of the country due to over-regulating us and rewarding foreign entities.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *