I recently took part in an online open forum for thought leaders. While we were discussing a wide range of topics, including the economic and social impact of previous crises, somebody came out and said, “You know, when this is all over we’re probably going to have another #Occupy movement.”
It was an apt observation. #Occupy, after all, was a reaction to the Great Recession and it’s reasonable to expect that once we get the Coronavirus under control many will demand serious changes to be made. However we should remember that #Occupy was a massive failure that achieved little if anything at all.
Clearly, our government has failed us, but it goes far beyond that. Markets have also failed us. Technology and globalization have failed us. Perhaps most of all, we have failed ourselves. Collectively we have failed to make good choices as a society. So we need to learn the lessons of #Occupy. It’s not enough to get angry and make noise, we need to build a better future.
Going Beyond Grievance
On September 17, 2011, #Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park, in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan. Declaring, “We are the 99%,” they captured the attention of the nation and then the world, eventually growing to encompass protests in 951 cities across 82 countries.
The protesters were angry and rightly so. A global economic elite had bilked us out of trillions and then gotten off scot-free. However, despite all of the self righteous indignation, they offered no alternate vision of how they wanted things to be. Instead, they became mired in grievance, pointing to problems but offering no solution.
Compare that to the Serbian youth movement called Otpor. Like #Occupy, they had a deep sense of grievance, namely that their country was ruled by a ruthless dictator, Slobodan Milošević and their country was mired in war, poverty and chaos. It was, by nearly all accounts, a hopeless situation.
But unlike #Occupy, Otpor offered a clear alternative vision they called the “Declaration for the Future of Serbia,” which laid out three clear principles: civil rights, peace with neighbors and European values, such as economic liberalization and the rule of law. These principles laid the foundation for an enormously powerful movement that swept Milošević from power.
We all have things we don’t like and it is natural to want them to change. Yet unless we can actually offer a clear vision of what that change should look like, we can’t expect anything else than more of the same.
Being Explicit — And Disciplined — About Values
Creating a clear vision for change is absolutely essential, but it’s only a first step. You also need to be clear and explicit about your values. While a vision for the future represents possibility, values represent constraints. Values make clear that we not only want certain things, but we’re also willing to incur certain costs.
For example, throughout his life, Nelson Mandela was accused of being a Communist, an anarchist, an extremist and worse. Yet when confronted with these accusations, he would always say that no one had to guess what he believed or what he was fighting for, because it was all written down in 1955 in a document called the Freedom Charter.
Importantly, the Freedom Charter wasn’t just an expression of Mandela’s values or that of his organization, the African National Congress (ANC). It was the product of a multiracial coalition that joined together to create a true sense of shared purpose. Mandela would later say that the Freedom Charter would have been different if the ANC had developed it alone, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.
#Occupy, of course, was never clear or explicit about its values and never sought to constrain itself in any way. Perhaps not surprisingly, its activists were often seen as undisciplined and vulgar. In a similar vein, the modern Women’s March movement also ran into problems because it wasn’t clear and explicit about its values.
Make no mistake. Change is always built on a foundation of shared values and common purpose. If you aren’t able to communicate clearly about what you believe and what you value, you can’t expect others to join you.
Designing Tactics To Influence Institutions
In October 2011, at the height of the protests, the civil rights legend, Congressman John Lewis showed up at an #Occupy rally in Atlanta and asked to speak. He was refused. Some attributed the snub to racism among the privileged white protestors. Others faulted Lewis himself, who didn’t understand the complex rules of the rally.
The protester who blocked Lewis, however, described a different motivation. For him, Lewis’s great crime was that he was part of the “two-party system” and therefore unworthy of trust. “Any organization that upholds the legitimacy of the two-party system simply buttresses interests opposed to those of everyday people,” the man said.
This is, of course, total nonsense. Every regime or status quo depends on institutions to support them. That’s why a key part of any transformation strategy is to mobilize people to influence the institutions that can bring change about. One major reason that #Occupy failed was that it mobilized people to do no more than sleep in a park and snarl out occasional epithets.
Now consider Martin Luther King Jr., who was able to bring considerable influence to bear on the US political system, just as Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston did with the US legal system and Nelson Mandela did with international institutions. These men had at least as much reason to be skeptical as any #Occupy protester, but understood that it is institutions that have the power to make change real.
That’s what made them effective and allowed them to prevail. As Martin Luther King Jr. himself put it, “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”
Building Change That Lasts
Change is hard. As I explained in Cascades, even legendary leaders like Gandhi, King and Mandela had painful failures along the way. Today, the Coronavirus epidemic has made clear that we need to significantly transform our society on multiple fronts, including healthcare, climate, emergency management and fiscal policy.
What makes this crisis especially maddening is that it was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen and ignored. While the epidemic gathered steam, our officials dithered and some even minimized the crisis. While they could have been procuring supplies and developing tests, they encouraged people to invest in the stock market. There’s no question that massive incompetence has played an outsized role and we have a right to be angry.
However, we should also learn the lessons of #Occupy. Anger will get us nowhere. Real change, change that lasts, is always built on common ground. That means going beyond grievance and creating a positive vision for the future, being disciplined and communicating clearly, and mobilizing people to influence institutions.
Most of all, we have to want to make a difference more than we want to make a point. You never create change by preaching to the choir. You have to go out and mix with the heathens, hear out their concerns and, to whatever extent possible, build a sense of shared purpose. That’s how you build a better future;
As the global activist Srdja Popović put it to me, you know that you’re successful when it becomes difficult to explain the previous order, because it comes to be seen as almost unbelievable.
Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto