We’re all leaders

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a totally new way of doing things. Instead of appealing to representatives and “chains of commands” in hierarchies, it offers us a chance to contribute our ideas on an equal footing with others. This is why it has no “list of demands” — it’s a replacement of the current system’s decision-making process, with outcomes to be determined, via grassroots democracy, as we go along. While not the same as the interlocking “system” of talking-stick circles I talked about in an earlier post, it’s a process with — potentially — similar virtues.

As an article on “Leaderless Movements” by Heather Gautney, professor of sociology at Fordham University, in yesterday’s Washington Post explains, this “represents a real praxis, and has a real history.

In the 1960s and 70s, feminists convened consciousness-raising meetings aimed at politicizing the various forms of women’s oppression that were occurring in private. Feminist consciousness-raising eschewed formal leadership because each woman’s experience and opinion had to be valued equally. Consciousness-raising was also the heart and soul of gay rights activism. Coming-out stories were shared in a non-coercive, leaderless environment that empowered gay men and women to fight for their rights and leave a life of sexual secrecy behind. Both of these movements had enormous impacts on American life. Gay rights liberated our sexuality, and feminism fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other as men and women. All this, without a centralized leadership.

Fast-forward to the late 1990s when protest networks emerged around the world in opposition to the World Bank, WTO and G-8. This time uneven development, world poverty, and environmental concerns took center stage.” Against the current form of economic globalization, the protesters advocated “free flows of information as opposed to patenting, free movement of people as opposed to policed immigration, and [truly] free trade. Alter-globalization networks created a movement of movements, not led or controlled by any one of them. In the United States, anarchist-inspired spokescouncils convened hundreds of these groups to organize protest actions, conferences, and community work. At the meetings, each group would position a single member upfront in the inner circle, while the rest sat behind, like a human wheel with spokes. There were no leaders with long-standing assignments because every participant was, in essence, a leader. In lieu of a party line, this amalgamation of movements operated according to sets of core, procedural principles – called Principles of Unity – that reflected their anti-authoritarian, anti-discriminatory orientation.

The Occupy movement operates similarly, with each locale establishing its own set of organizational practices. Locales, and the virtual Occupy communities in cyberspace, are federated according to a simple yet powerful point of unity: ‘The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%’ – a reference to the statistic that the top 1% of households in the United States owns between 30 to 40% of privately held wealth.

Occupy Wall Street’s organizational presence is the New York General Assembly or ‘GA,’ which convenes numbers in the high hundreds at its squat-site in Zuccotti Park. Daily GA meetings are led by facilitators who rotate on a regular basis, with facilitation training open to all. Specific issues, such as food, medical, legal, outreach, and security are handled by working groups – also open and inclusive – that report back to the GA. Instead of issuing top-down directives, Occupy groups use a consensus process in which anyone can join in the decision-making and propose an idea. Proposers must field questions, justify the hows and whys of their ideas, and engage a large-scale group discussion. Votes are then cast via a system of hand signals, and proposals are revised until a nine-tenths majority approves. Embedded in this consensus process is the ethical assumption that decision-making isn’t about converting other people to one’s way of thinking, but about compromise. It can get messy, but efficiency isn’t the measuring stick of success here — democracy is.

Similar to the feminist and alter-globalization movements, these groups want to avoid replicating the authoritarian structures of the institutions they oppose, so they’re prefiguring within their own organization the free society they seek to create. They also want to demonstrate against the corrupt and hypocritical culture in mainstream politics and Wall Street by operating with integrity. The Occupy movement is a laboratory for participatory democracy, a massive crash course in leadership training. Most of these activists have a particular issue, problem or political idea that’s meaningful to them, on which they’ve developed expert knowledge. Occupy is both a concrete and virtual space for connecting these issues and expertise without any one position or issue taking precedence. Implicit in this structure is a rejection of the ‘I know what’s good for you’ form of leadership in which lawmakers fail to consider the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent. The people no longer trust their leaders and think we can do better.

We are all leaders.”


Heather Gautney is the author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era.

About (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers

I'm an artist and student of history, living in Eugene, OR. On the upside of 70 and retired from a jack-of-all-trades "career," I walk, do yoga, and hang out with my teenage grandkids. I believe we can make this world better for them and the young and innocent everywhere, if we connect with each other and create peaceful, cooperative communities as independent of big corporations and corporate-dominated governments as possible.

Posted on October 12, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Maggie! Right on!
    This movement is almost impossible to understand by those who are entrenched in a “power over” mentality. Some will begin to “see the light” some day and join us (I hope), but is suspect many will feel threatened and there may be a severe “push back.”
    However, I suspect that this will be the movement that simply replaces, by sheer numbers, the current paradigm. People instinctively know that there is a better way to do things and they are simply living it out through this movement — what a shining example.
    Thanks for pointing these things out so beautifully.

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