THE BLOG
11/03/2011 06:20 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

Occupy Wall Street -- Ignition or Motor of Change

The Tea Party movement was a spark plug for the political right, leading to an election victory for the Republicans in 2010. Clearly, Occupy Wall Street and its far-flung branches will be a shot in the arm across the left of center. I've observed the Los Angeles encampment directly and followed national developments closely. Based on this, I've argued that the major achievement of OWS will be its rejuvenation of an army of dejected and impotent progressive political and activist groups gasping for air.

In that sense, the heated debate about whether the occupations will arrive at clear goals or explicit leaders or will gel as a long-term movement may be overblown. I believe the remarkable OWS uprisings will serve primarily as the ignition rather than the motor of societal change. And already it's possible to offer detailed documentation of the igniting effect of OWS on a sample organization on the left.

My test case is Democratic Socialists of America, DSA, which has a national convention coming up in November. As a participant in planning for the convention, I've seen up-close how rapidly the budding OWS phenomenon has influenced DSA's forward agenda. The convention has set an early full delegate plenary on the theme, "Occupy Wall Street and the Struggle for a Democratic Society." It starts with an update on the occupation movement and then small group discussions for all on how DSA can tie into the new political environment.

The leaders will push for members to get into the streets by supporting OWS protests, demonstrating at elected officials' offices against budget cuts, and joining coalitions revitalized by the occupation experience. There will be a press for members to get fired up by OWS to do things that have been stewing on a low flame. The renewed activism includes contributing to OWS' momentum.

A forum on the convention's first night, borrowing language from OWS, highlights the topic, "Equality and Jobs for the 99%." The featured speaker, Congressman John Conyers, will discuss his sweeping Full Employment and Training Act. Conyers' bill is well beyond the Washington Consensus, creating a total jobs environment for all who want to work. Passage of the bill would elate the angry throng of unemployed graduates protesting at the occupations. It would be financed entirely through a transaction tax on the Wall Street companies the protesters revile that are engaged in high-risk trading. Delegates will be asked to campaign forcefully for this measure and support Conyers' upcoming dicey re-election through a nationwide series of fundraising house parties.

DSA is beginning to take a more aggressive approach to countering the extremist conservative ideological stranglehold on the American mind, which the occupations are challenging. This involves giving the public a socially responsible alternative to the corporation-worshiping free enterprise worldview. The proposal calls for a series of regional Economic Literacy Training workshops to educate grassroots political, community, and trade union activists to talk about the basics of contemporary progressive economics. The project would include:
· Informative, eye-catching training materials;
· An Economic Literacy School to train "teachers";
· Initial regional Economic Literacy Training workshops where "teachers" train activists.
This initiative aims to equip activists to present cogent alternatives to the global neo-liberal doctrines propagated by the elite 1% and their cronies in Congress, the media, and university economics departments.

On the local level, DSA members across the country have been involved heavily in the encampments. They've taken part in the General Assemblies, joined local demands committees, supplied food, and conducted workshops on topics like Neo-liberal Causes of the Economic Crisis, and Democratizing the Economy. DSA Honorary Vice-Chair Cornel West was a prominent spirit at occupation sites in both New York and Washington D.C. He was arrested in both places.

Scholar-activist Frances Fox Piven, who is also an Honorary Vice-Chair of DSA, thinks we are "on the cusp, at the beginning of another period of social protest," similar to the civil rights era. Piven tells us to prepare for mounting political conflict. She is right.

The country will in all likelihood face a bumpy road of popular struggle with advances and reversals ahead. If DSA is any kind of harbinger, a host of left-leaning organizations--unions, activist political bodies, advocacy groups--stirred by OWS, are fastening their seat belts to join the ride in their own ways. Whether OWS itself flourishes or founders, the protests have begun to unleash the sleeping dogs of progressive activism.

The DSA convention will be held November 11-13, 2011 in Vienna, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. Visit www.dsausa.org for further information on the event.

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