Commentary  Victory? Whose victory?

In analyzing the success of social movements, metrics matter

Although it is not new for two opposing groups to both claim ‘victory’ in a social struggle, I was shocked how close to home it hit me over the winter break. A friend and I were arguing about whether the Quebec student strike was in fact a ‘victory’ for the students. I assumed that, despite blistering criticism and an all-out media assault against the student federations and their so-called uncivilized tactics, the fact that the incoming PQ government had conceded to the students’ demands over a proposed tuition hike proved that the movement was successful, overcoming all odds. He lashed back with an “Are you kidding me?” glare: the students’ main demand – that of free tuition – remains a pipe dream and their unruly tactics have depleted any well of sympathy that some in society have for such a proposal. I quickly interjected: “But that was never their main demand. Their main demand was to abolish the tuition hike, and then press for free tuition.”

Marina Sitrin, a self-identified writer, lawyer, organizer, militant, and dreamer has come to the rescue (almost!) in a new book called, Occupying Language. Sitrin begins with the question: Who decides success? Is it found in public opinion polls or political campaigns? Does it manifest itself in the mainstream media or in film and television? More importantly, when does success or failure occur?

For Sitrin, those in the struggle who are fighting or organizing for something decide the success of a movement. She points out that although hundreds of parks and plazas around North America are no longer occupied, local citizen assemblies have sprung up in neighbourhoods across the United States. Certainly, one could draw the conclusion that the sudden embrace of the notion that the wealthiest in society should pay more taxes points to the endurance of some of the ideas of Occupy. Likewise, I shot back at my friend’s remarks about the student movement in Quebec, that the incredible grassroots mobilization of hundreds of thousands of students across the province will deter future governments from engaging in similar education policies.

Observing the powerful social forces from Occupy to the Quebec student strike to the current Idle No More protests on the front page of every major newspaper in Canada, I have become acutely aware that metrics matter when analyzing these movements.

It frustrates me that no consensus can be reached over these movements. All I can conclude is that it is difficult to quantify the metrics and measure success and failure. Some theorists have argued that Occupy can only be successful if it can harness institutional power, like the Tea Party has done in the United States. Activists in the Quebec student movement will argue that the students won a larger victory last year: the dignity and freedom to know that their voices matter and that they can move the political needle, either slightly or in leaps and bounds. Who is right? Sitrin concludes that it is completely naive to argue that a movement was unsuccessful because it did not meet the goals a critic has imposed on the movement. Surely, you would be hard-pressed to find a social movement that accomplished all of its goals in one fell swoop.

In the end, I’ve found my metrics for the year: never trust anybody that can whittle the success or failure of a social movement down to a bumper sticker. Recognize the weight of history by assuming that some ideas won’t fester for years to come but their influence will span generations. And the last few years have proved that we should never allow baby boomers living off 401(k) plans to dictate the terms of success.

Elliot Holzman can be reached at