An Open Letter to a Leaderless Movement

March 8, 2012


Photo courtesy of Rusty Ray, Big 3 News

Dear Occupy,

You have my attention. You have been arrested enough, evicted enough, pepper-sprayed enough, and have threatened to levitate enough skyscrapers for me–a born and practiced skeptic–to listen. Americans have been made well-aware the past four months that something is going on–practically everyone at least recognizes the significance of the “99%”–but there are so many different things going on that a vast majority of people still don’t know what Occupy wants. What I want is to clear things up, and I want you to help me with that. All I ask is that you send one person.

Yes, I understand that the Occupy movement is based on the ideal of consensus and not hierarchy, so I’ll even grant you the courtesy of not referring to this person as your leader. But just once, I ask that you pick one person to collect all of your ideas and goals, and present them to me in a clear, discernible way. I believe this is completely fair to you, fair to me, and fair to the “99%” (which also includes me) who does not understand what you are.

As it becomes clear that conditions are favorable for a great social movement to emerge, we need a clear explanation of how a leaderless movement can take advantage. How can it work? What has it achieved? Can it be sustained? These are not rhetorical questions. Anthropologist David Graeber, one of your most ardent supporters, argues that, “When 2,000 people make a decision jointly, it is an example of direct action, or direct democracy. It makes you feel different to go to a meeting where your opinions are really respected”.

I argue that it is easier for you to get consensus when you are only talking to people who already agree with you. For instance, if fifty of me showed up at a general assembly, it wouldn’t be as easy to say that you are speaking for the “99%”, because it would be less likely that my opinion would be “really respected”. But it works well for you that people like me generally stay away.

Adding to that, I worry that the lack of any central leadership will separate you even further from the people you claim to speak for. Cass Sunstein writes that, “When like-minded people are participating in ‘iterated polarization games’—when they meet regularly, without sustained exposure to competing views—extreme movements are all the more likely”. I understand that an extreme leader could take you to the same end, but a reasonable person, who decides to take ownership of your purpose, can keep your actions from getting out of hand.

We are already beginning to see what happens when protesters acting under your name can’t agree on how to use the power and recognition you’ve gained, however strong or weak it may be. There is struggle over who gets the right to say they represent the “99%”. In Philadelphia, there is disagreement over who gets to decide what happens under the Occupy moniker. We know from this that at least one person within the movement sees the need for leadership.

I want to ask if it is good for the Occupy name to be used for so many branches and areas of protest. I think it is fair to say that the more splintered the movement it becomes, the weaker the original message becomes. The “1%” seem to be able to “divide and conquer” without actually having to do the work of dividing.

I can read all day (in fact, I’ve been reading all week) about everything Occupy wants and what it stands for. I can also read dozens of opinions that hold that the leaderless system can never work (I’ve done that, too). I could even read arguments stating that Occupy is not, in fact, aimless–that even without a leader, the occupiers can be on the same page. The author of the article includes eleven points on which occupiers generally agree. To me, eleven is in and of itself rather aimless–kind of a shotgun blast of rhetoric.

So I need someone to clear all of this up for me. For us, I mean. Your efforts and potential goals can be far-reaching and beneficial to our country and possibly the world. But what we need is for someone, or even a few people, to step forward and own it. And if they can’t do that, at least tell us why they can’t. Show us why your way is better. I feel like if you give a little, you’ll get a lot, and not just in this forum. And hey, maybe you’ll pull a few practiced skeptics over to your side.

By Ian Sheffield

History, Theory & Response