Occupy Wall Street Movement
The Leaderless structure of the Wall Street Movement was the Best
Social movements have always been an effective, collective means of guiding or creating social change through long-term engagements (Calhoun 26). The most prominent of these in the recent past was the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS). In this, on 17 September 2011, a group comprising of several hundreds of protesters got into the Zuccotti Park, a space adjacent to Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district of New York, setting camp and launching a protest movement which in two months, managed to grow internationally and gain full attention from authorities around the world (Rubdy & Said 209). The movement was however leaderless, and had a highly participative decision-making process instead (Gautney par.13). Considering the often theorized importance of leadership in human activity, it would therefore be interesting to know whether the leaderless structure was a good idea. This paper critically discusses the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its organizational elements, and argues that its leaderless structure was the best after all.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement
The OWS was a people-power movement. It took the form of marches and occupation of unpermitted places, and provided a voice to the issues of systemic social and economic divisions especially in the US (Pickerill & Krinsky 2). OWS arose from the issue of representation, where politicians opted to represent the interests of Wall Street investors and bankers at the expense of the citizenry. It raised several concerns that affect America’s future, ranging from an ever growing disparity in wealth, limited social mobility and jobs and an unresponsive government. Approximately 100 to 200 people spent their nights sleeping in the Zuccotti Park, with hundreds more joining in the day until mid-November when the police finally evicted them (Rubdy 209). Calhoun observes that the choice of occupation helped in the making and limiting of the movement. Assemblies of people are usually at the core of most protests around the world, as the crowds represent the people. However in the case of Zucotti Park and the other occupations that followed it, the gatherings mainly adopted symbolism as a tactic. The sociability of strangers was turned into a centralized, organised and lasting evocation of the members (33).
The protest was largely successful, although its effects faded after the eviction. According to Rubdy, its mobilization was majorly done through social media, and was made easier because it was within the background of a major economic downturn occasioned by the Global Economic Crisis, with governments trying bail-outs for collapsing banks, and the effects negatively affecting civilians. The movement’s starting location was also appropriate because it was indeed related to the activities of Wall Street and its infamous excesses. Soon afterwards, its protests spread across more than 100 cities within the United States, and further to more than 1,500 others globally (209). After its spread across the country, there was adoption of “We are the 99 percent,” as its slogan, implying that the United States is under the control of a small 1% elite which has the most economic, political and social influence (Pickerill & Krinsky 3). The slogan ended up becoming a ‘national shorthand for the income disparities” (Rehmann 300).
The Movement’s Leaderless Structure
The movement had, right from its beginnings, opted to be a leaderless movement, as those who were in its otherwise leadership roles avoided any chance of being tempted to claim authority through the organisation for their own benefit (Rieger & Kwok 81). At the OWS, there was no leader with any long-standing assignment, because every protestor was considered to be a leader in essence. Every occupation city came up with its own organisational practices. Whether on the ground or online, participants in the different circumstances were united by one powerful, simple rallying point, the belief that they were part of the 99% which was fed up with corruption and greed of the 1% (Gautney par.12). The choice of this approach to structure is confirmed by Calhoun, who observes that one of the reasons why it took long to break the occupation at Zuccotti Park was the absence of centralized leadership, therefore negotiating departure from their camps was difficult (33).
There was the absence of a hierarchical structure in the movement. In New York for instance, the movement was organised by the General Assembly (GA) which convened hundreds of participants at a squat-site located in the Zuccotti Park. There were daily meetings led by facilitators, none of whom was permanent. The position would be rotated regularly, and anyone was free to be trained in facilitation. There was the establishment of working groups to deal with specific issues for instance outreach, food, legal matters, medical services or security issues, and these were totally inclusive and open to everyone. These would report to the GA from time to time. There were no hierarchical instructions but instead consensus processes where anyone could join in. A proposer would field a question and justify its relevance, then get it into a group discussion, after which voting was done by hand-signals, and changes made until a 90% approval was achieved (Gautney par.13).
Possible Strengths of a Leaderless Movement
There is therefore the obvious advantage that decisions that are arrived at by members will definitely be fully representative of the people’s will, meaning that they will be more satisfying to everyone as compared to those arrived at by elected leaders. In the case of OWS, the arrangement seemed quite democratic because as earlier noted, if an idea was raised and a majority of participants felt it was not good, then it was shelved, with working groups being formed to deal with particular tasks or issues.
The leaderless structure offered a more vibrant democratic environment. According to Barker, the OWS and its kinds of movement are an expression of the reemergence of direct democracy, and therefore a positive feature in promoting self-expression (46).
There is greater intellectual stimulation in interactions when the movement is leaderless. The collective processes get more people thinking in trying to arrive at suggestions or solutions. This leads to the unleashing of creativity than if the role was left to leaders alone or had to be presented simply for approval by the people (Schermerhorn 86). In a leaderless setup therefore, there is greater likelihood of approaches being better informed and of high quality. The fact that the entire organisation is seemingly amorphous further helps in its quicker growth because the implication is that growth and spreading of the movement is likely to be viral and not from one centre where the authority is supposed to be mostly found.
Being a leaderless movement makes decision-making more thorough. One notable advantage of such a structure is for instance that it encourages a slower and therefore better thought out process of problem solving and conflict resolution. There is further the likelihood of greater efficiency in decision-making because the task becomes the responsibility of many people, and this has in the past proven to be in the long-run a more effective structure (Rieger & Kwok 81). In relation to this, the leaderless setting is therefore likely to ensure the availability of more information. This is because the decision-making processes are attended to by many people, so that if one participant happens to lack certain expertise or facts, it can be acquired from another person. With this, there is provision of a larger number of perspectives on matters.
A leaderless movement is not easy to destroy, and this is an important aspect because interest groups are likely to try and detract its activities. This is because even if the system manages to identify the individuals that it feels could be the brains behind the trouble being created and thereafter try or succeed to destroy them, the movement is not likely to be stopped from functioning (Barker 45). For instance the kind of organisational setup at OWS would be helpful because it provides protection against legal suits. This is because it makes it difficult to sue individuals, as a result of which possible tarnishing of personal records was avoided. When there is no individual leader, no individual will be available to be scrutinized or attacked as a way of slowing down the movement’s agitation.
The kind of leaderless movement framework like the OWS will be able to ensure greater loyalty, commitment and participation in its activities. Participants are likely to own and understand the decisions of the movement more, because of having listened to relevant arguments raised both in opposition to and in support of the thoughts that they arrive at. Because of this, there is the likelihood of more cohesion and commitment, and therefore motivation for ensuring that the agenda being pursued is achieved (DuBrin 168).
Possible Weaknesses of a Leaderless Movement
Being leaderless presents its complications too. First, there is the possibility that in the course of interactions, certain participants may end up dominating discussions. In case this happens, the eventual effect will be quite similar to when decisions are made by individuals. In such a case, there is the risk that the dominant will not be holding the most valid views, or they may be outright unsound. In addition, even when their opinions could be good, convening the gatherings ends up being a long, unnecessary process (Schermerhorn 88).
A major disadvantage of a leaderless movement is that it does not provide any opportunities for quick fixes and solutions in the course of protests. Rieger & Kwok explain that in addition, it ends up lowering expectations relating to efficiency, yet such expectations comprise a very deeply embedded feature in the nature of the capitalist framework within which the movement has to operate (81). Related to this, a leaderless movement might never be in a good position to have a clear articulation of a movement’s demands, therefore the momentum to stay long enough. In the case of OWS for example, Pickerill & Krinsky explain that there were a number of challenges that were encountered in the course of the movement’s action. For example, it sought the collaboration of labour unions and workers. This was difficult, and even when it succeeded in Oakland for instance, the cooperation collapsed because of complaints relating to the issues being demanded, the kind of tactics to be used, and most importantly, the necessity of leadership (4).
Even though there may be attempts to reach consensus, absence of leadership is still likely to lead to groupthink. This is mainly because of the pressure that exists to avoid disagreements. According to Schermerhorn, there are situations where participants opt not to object or disagree with what is being discussed because they are not willing to break the existing, positive team spirit. They may want to try and remain cordial while giving unified thoughts, and this could lead to complacency, overconfidence and too much willingness to take risks. In such a situation, creativity will be stifled (87). Leadership does not simply involve attracting followers and therefore creating a social movement. Rather, it is about facilitating talk and participation, so that participants are able to share stories, construct meaning socially and examine new ideas. The leader therefore provides the organisational tactics for enabling participants to create collective identities and act collectively at different levels.
From the descriptions provided, the OWS movement was able to achieve a lot, especially during the initial two month’s when the Zuccotti Park occupation lasted because the occupation offered a kind of leadership. Being evicted marked the loss of major organisational functions that were not handled by any other body within its structure. According to Davies et al., the occupation had all along been a statement and also a centre for management visibility and messaging during the protest. It enabled recruitment and in the absence of the convenience provided by the occupation, the entire movement suffered a great blow when it ended. The occupation at Zuccotti Park offered a kind of organisational structure for the movement. When the protesters were finally evicted, the organisational functions of the movement were lost. Eventually, the networked, decentralized logic that drove the movement proved to be ineffective in the long-run. The networked structures that organised the protests grew decreasingly resilient as days went by (79-80). Nevertheless, the movement was able to show everyone that protest and free speech are present and possible even without leadership figureheads.
It may be concluded that any organic movement which represents the grassroots indeed needs to have a leadership and established structures so as to have a lasting quality. This does not imply having an individual who will be doing everything for their self-aggrandisement. Leadership should not necessarily be about an individual, but rather a clear message that everyone is capable of agreeing on something and that moral persuasion remains at play. Being leaderless does not necessarily mean being disorganised. It is possible for it to be tightly organised, as in the case of OWS, with the only difference being that the organisation will not be in a hierarchical manner as is the case elsewhere. The arguments for a leaderless movement are therefore generally stronger.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement is a good example of a recent, successful international-scale social movement. It comprised of marches and occupation of spaces, in protest of rising socio-economic inequalities and the abandonment of civilian interests in favour of corporate ones by the political class. The movement was leaderless, with decision-making taking the form of direct democracy and task groups. This approach is advantageous as it ensures greater democracy, refinement of decision-making processes, insulation from sabotage by the system and increasing of participant motivation. Its weaknesses however include possible domination of debates by individuals, delay of problem resolution and a greater likelihood of group think. It is however notable that with proper organisation, the shortcomings can be managed and leadership does not have to come from individuals, therefore a leaderless structure can work well in a social movement.
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