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Politics

Social Movements Expert Examines Occupy Austin

Occupy Austin protestors spent a second day outside city hall today to express their grievances about issues ranging from socioeconomic stratification to the role of money in the political process. Demonstrators say they plan to keep people there around the clock until December.

Given that Austin is anchored by a major academic institution, we thought an academic perspective might be in order. We contacted Michael P. Young, a social movements scholar in the department of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

KUT News: You were down at the event yesterday. What are your observations of this emerging social movement? Would you call it that?

Michael Young: Yes, I think it is an emerging social movement. It struck me that what I saw yesterday seems to accord with a lot of what we know is happening with Occupy Wall Street. And things are percolating in Portland and LA and Washington. So yeah, I would call it an emerging movement.

KUT News: You have studied all sorts of social movements. What patterns or trends have you noticed with this one?

Young: I think the thing that’s remarkable about this movement is that it does not appear to be organized by established groups. You have young people, anarchists with a small “a”, a number of socialists of various hues, moving a very amorphous collective action with some very strong grievances and with a very open democratic process that they’re trying to do on the fly in these occupied spaces.  

That’s interesting because I think maybe two months ago, we heard a lot in the mainstream press about, “Where is the left?” Where was the organized left and its response to the terrible economic conditions?

A number of people said that organized labor and other established groups would have to do this. It seems the occupiers have stepped into the fold, and they’ve done so without a lot of organizational support, with new media.

It’s very fluid. I think they want it to be fluid. They want the open process. So it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen. But it does have momentum, which is exciting.

KUT News: And it appears to be fueled by technology.

Young: Definitely fueled by technology. As a social movements scholar, I think about ten years ago, right before [anti-globalization protests in] Seattle in 1999, a lot of people thought that we knew how these things happened and what was necessary to be in place. But I think anyone who tells you that now is delusional or lying.

I think these things are emergent in the sense of being very unpredictable. The Arab Spring shows that. It’s very hard to know what the outcome is and the strength of these movements because they are unfolding.

The Occupy Wall Street started very small and gained momentum slowly and without a lot of established support. It seems now that it’s gaining momentum. I think MoveOn.org endorsed it. Unions showed up on Wednesday in New York in large numbers, which swelled the ranks.

But in Austin, there seemed to be some organized labor presence, very small. A few of the sort of already printed placards of health workers, I think. But for the most part in Austin, as it was at the beginning in New York, it’s a very amorphous network of radicals.

KUT News: It’s interesting because, as you mentioned, this is pretty much a leftist movement, but it did not originate from established liberal groups like MoveOn.org or organized labor. It came from a relatively unorganized association of individuals brought together by social media.

Young: The social media and the internet is obviously a big part of this story. The thing that will take longer to figure out is the hidden networks of activists that have been developing, I really think since Seattle in 1999. I think then we saw them emerge.

Just in Austin, if you think about various places where these networks have been built, and then can be activated at moments like this. Like bookstores like Monkey Wrench Books, and the Rhizome Collective here in Austin, and the Third Coast Activist Resource Center.

These are places where an anti-corporation and an anti-capitalist sensibility has been articulated and developed, where young people have very strong resistance to leadership, to organizational structures, a true anarchist sensibility. And they are increasingly networked by social media.

That’s a robust network, a hidden network of activism, that then when a moment comes, and with the help of the internet, can actually emerge and with surprising strength.

How it sustains itself once it does emerge and creates this momentum. That, I don’t think we know.

But I think one of the reasons we had a hard time predicting this is that it’s hard to see these networks, and it’s also hard to predict how social media can activate them.

Our older series of social movements were based on more formal organizations and tracking resources and so forth. This is much more difficult.

KUT News: It sounds like you see this as an extension of the anti-globalization movement of the late-90s.

Young: I’m sure there would be disagreement among scholars about this, but I think it is. It looks that way to me.