Marshall Ganz, Obama's 2008 Organizer-in-Chief, On the Moral Urgency of Occupy Wall Street

11/14/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012
  • Matt Bieber Author of Life in the Loop: Essays on OCD. He writes about obsessions, personal and political, at

In the early 1960s, Marshall Ganz dropped out of Harvard to join the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. He then spent 16 years working with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he architected Barack Obama's organizing effort.

Matt Bieber: You've described the Occupy phenomenon as somewhere between a "moment" and a "movement." What's at stake in this distinction?

Marshall Ganz: A single protest is one thing; an ongoing series of protests that develop the organizational capacity to translate the objectives of the protest into specific outcomes is another.

The Occupation has achieved an enormous success in putting economic justice back on the agenda, in opening a more progressive flank on the -- I'm hesitating to use the word "left" because I don't know what it means anymore in this context -- a counterpoint to the Tea Party on the Republican right that has been very, very positive.

So now, the question is: how does this go? It's a bit like Earth Day. The whole lead-up to and organization of Earth Day and the way in which that surfaced the whole question of environmental concern nationally, in a way that simply hadn't happened before, became tremendously significant. But then it also translated into many battles at the state, local and national levels with various outcomes.

Movements are not neat, they're not linear, and they're not just all focused on one thing. They're raggedy in and of their nature. But what I'm hoping is that this moment will become a movement.

MB: It seems to me that there's also an inward-looking quality to Occupy. Yes, it is absolutely motivated by economic injustice, but there's also this experiential, democracy-in-action, process-oriented element to it. Is there a tension between these two aspects of Occupy?

MG: I don't think so. One of the things that distinguishes social movements from interest group mobilization and so forth is that they're transformational in two ways, or three ways, even. Social movements are cultural events, as well as economic and political events, and they involve a shift in self-understanding, community understanding, as well as expectations of political and economic institutions.

Anybody who participated in sit-down strikes in the 1930s found them to be profoundly transformational. All of a sudden, people had a voice; they had a sense of solidarity as union members. The same kind of thing certainly happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a lot of focus on creating the beloved community that went right along with transforming the world in a more beloved way.

And one of the reasons is that change requires a lot of sacrifice and a lot of risk-taking and a lot of courage and solidarity, and that doesn't result from self-interest calculus. It's a moral phenomenon. And so, how we are living and how we are acting and how we're interacting with one another is critical for that. If you look at the heart of any social movement, you'll see something quite similar.

MB: You frequently quote the organizer Saul Alinsky about the need for organizers to be "well-integrated schizoids" -- ready to polarize to mobilize and then depolarize to settle. Obviously, the Occupiers created some real tension at the outset. Is there a danger, though, that the country will get used to them, and that as a result, the Occupiers will have difficulty provoking the kinds of change they seek?

MG: Well, I don't know. I think what they've done is created a kind of moral urgency around the whole question of what we're doing to the economy and what we're doing to people as a result.

It's one thing to say, "Markets don't solve all our problems. We need strong public institutions to solve common interest needs, like health, education and so forth." It sounds very nice. What they've done is give moral urgency to that challenge. That's what's meant by polarizing; it sort of forces people to act, to take a position, to take a stand.

That's a great contribution. The question of how to sustain the moral energy is an important question that a lot of people are grappling with. But I don't know. Look at what happened in Oakland...

The Occupiers are challenging people to get off their butts... Now, where does that action go? When the cold weather comes, do they need to move inside the banks to keep warm? I don't know. I keep wondering when somebody's going to occupy the Stock Exchange. There are a lot of different directions in which this thing could evolve; social movements are more of a dance than they are a five-year strategic plan.

MB: Let's talk about direction. As you know, many of the encampments operate on a leaderless, modified consensus-based decision-making model...

MG: I don't really think of it that way. When we talk about leadership, it's important to distinguish between people, positions, and practices. If we understand leadership to be the work that a group must do in order to act in a purposeful way -- as opposed to a particular personality or a particular position -- then there's a hell of a lot of leadership being practiced in these encampments. In terms of the relational work, the strategic work, the structural work -- the norms that are established are very, very strong.

So, I don't quite think of it as leaderless. What they've done is organize leadership in a different way, and I think that's what this is an experiment in.

MB: How you think about the pros and the cons of Occupy concretizing demands into an actionable political agenda?

MG: First of all, the movement calls itself Occupy, so we have a certain tactic that defines this moment or movement -- whatever it is -- that's kind of cool, that's entered the lexicon, and everybody kind of knows what it means now. Then we have "we are the 99 percent," which is a unified slogan or description of what they're doing.

Can more of a unified focus emerge? I think that's what a lot of folks are struggling with. Does it need to? I don't know. It isn't like bringing Mubarak down; it's not that kind of a situation. There certainly are groups and organizations that have plenty of economic justice-oriented demands for better control of Wall Street...

The question of whether particular groups and organizations wind up leveraging this moment on behalf of their specific policy objectives, or whether the movement itself is able to arrive at a common focus, remains to be seen. I think it can be fruitful either way.

MB: What do you want to see happen?

MG: You know, these things are emergent. I just hope that a way is found to sustain the moral urgency, and that the opportunity is taken advantage of in whatever that means. At local levels, at state levels, at the national level, it can mean different things. I don't presume to know what that is.

MB: On Charlie Rose on Oct. 12, you described how you see the difference between the Tea Party and Occupy. You suggested that while they share anger, the Tea Party is heavily motivated by fear, whereas Occupy is motivated much more by hope. Say more.

MG: You don't have a movement unless there's some challenge going on that creates enough anxiety that people are challenged. The whole economic crisis has certainly produced that. And that, in turn, has created a lot of anger, whether it's articulated or not, about the state of affairs.

Coupling that with fear means that you turn to trying to find ways to exclude, to build walls, to protect yourself, to contract, to get rid of the other. This approach has a long tradition in American politics as a reaction to immigration, especially immigration coupled with economic crisis. It's basically a fundamentalist reaction of trying to wall out the world and protect yourself from it.

And it has particular potency in the U.S., because it means making government the bad guy and essentially trying to stop it. So, all you have to do is stop things from happening to feel like you're making progress. And our system is set up to offer all these veto points, where it's very easy to stop things.

Now, on the other side, you can respond to the anger by saying, "Oh, Lord, we need to bring in more people. We need to draw on more resources. We need to reach out and find ways people can collaborate and cooperate in order to deal with this enormous challenge that we're facing." And that builds outward.

That's the kind of energy that was in the Civil Rights Movement or the environmental movement... And so, I think it's interesting; the encampments are open and welcoming -- "Come join our space."

The thing about hope is, it's creative... and it operates in a realm of possibility. But fear can be very powerful. At least now, there are some alternatives to the politics of fear, and I think that's great.