Leaderless Together

Published 11/1/11
Connextions Magazine

The big topic: Occupy Wall Street. With so many opinions coursing through cyberspace, on TV and in the papers, it’s hard to get a clear sense of what’s really going on. Most of us are being truthful when we say we’re still not sure how this will all pan out. Is Occupy a protest or a movement? Do these events represent an imminent new world order? Will we be capitalist, socialist or communist? And what exactly does “corporate fascist” mean? These questions really don’t matter. What matters isn’t what Occupy means to the dysfunctional world that created it, but rather what the people who make up the movement mean to each other.

What started as a brainstorming session at an anti-consumerism magazine, transformed into a worldwide movement in a matter of months. The Canadian Adbusters team had little to do with the idea post-conception. Occupy has since picked up where various world revolutions left off and sparking new protests in cities destined to join its legacy. Whatever this movement is, it’s clear that Occupy Wall Street is a small part of what the world is trying to say.

Most of the confusion around the movement comes from an apparent lack of leadership, which isn’t exactly a bad thing. On “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Former New York Governor David Paterson said:

The reason that I think this is happening is that nobody has protested anything in this country for 30 years, so the problem is that we forgot how to do it. Let’s just remember there was a ragtag protest that started at my alma mater, Columbia University, in the mid-60s. Within a year it forced the President of the United States not to run for re-election because of the opposition nationally to the Vietnam War. So the style may not be perfected, but the substance is there, the complaints are real.

Paterson did a lot for gays and lesbians when he used his political authority to fight for marriage equality in New York. His efforts paved the way for victory this year.

Douglas Rushkoff, the original “hacktivist” and one of my personal heroes, didn’t mischaracterize Occupy when he described it as “the first true Internet-era movement.” What he meant was that, much like the Internet itself, the movement has no defined endpoint, no spokesman or leader to speak of, and an undetermined checklist of social improvements to be made—the “list of demands” most big media journalists keep squawking about. The question is, do we need one?

Haters hate when they can’t understand or contain, so it’s no surprise when the lies and proverbial laughter descend from the screen. To me, a “movement with no end” is as good a counter force as any for a “war with no end,” and remaining leaderless only protects us against being co-opted by groups that might sell us out later—pretty much how Republicans handled the Tea Party.

Most social movements start out a bit disorganized. Being denied equality isn’t exactly like planning the marketing campaign for a summer blockbuster, which is most-likely why big media still tries to play it cool when really it looks more like a chicken running with its head cut off. Gay activists know what it’s like to be labeled “disorganized” by a largely dismissive status quo. The gay movement is still thought to be leaderless by haters who would rather steal some steam from progress than give us a head nod to lasting so long on our own. But let’s not believe everything we hear or read without researching first.

Where other movements stake their claim by dwelling on differences, Occupy brings attention to how we are all alike—through good times and bad. Along with countering exclusion, Occupy’s no-end-in-sight dynamic forces us to consider sustainability. Our habits are clearly in need of change. Don’t fear. If you’re scared or unsure of the fact that we still have no leader, you can look forward to developing your own individual leadership skills as we reach a unified and collective consensus of where this movement should go.