There is a good conversation to have on just how leaderless the Occupy movement is. It is more networked and decentralized, but, of course, not perfectly so. Structures and hierarchies always emerge. Unfortunately, this important conversation is derailed when some try to create fictional leaders for a movement that, for the most part, does not have them. Articles like, for instance, John Heilemann’s New York Magazine expose on Occupy, again and again force leader-language on the movement. And they do so unsuccessfully.
The traditional media wants to tell a traditional story, and this is why they get Occupy so terribly wrong. It is easier to describe a movement of leaders, of charismatic personalities and of specific ideas, messages and demands. The media momentum favors retelling the type of story they have told before.
But the reality for Occupy is much more complicated. Yes, the movement is not completely leaderless. Participation and efficaciousness are not evenly distributed across the 99%. For instance, the term “occupy” was not arrived to by some consensus but instead the creation of Adbusters. However, the magazine has claimed that they “have no interest in a continuing leadership role.” Instead, the magazine’s role has been aesthetic: to come up with good memes.
While pure leaderlessness may not be possible or even wanted for Occupy, the bigger story is that it is more decentralized than previous political movements. The high degree to which Occupy is leaderless continues to be a defining characteristic in how the movement operates.
I think we have a good idea of what Occupy-with-leaders might look like: the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. And much of the movement which supported Obama-the-candidate with vigor has become disappointed with Obama-the-president. The energy has drained from him towards something new. And it may not be coincidence that it is a movement not driven by a grand, charismatic leader-of-leaders, but instead an Occupation that is largely the opposite. Occupy evades easy dismissal of specific demands not universally made and easy take-downs of leaders that do not exist.
That is, unless the media attempts to create leaders where they do not exist.
The strategy is simple: without a head, neck and throat to dig into, one must create the figure easy to attack. Here, Fox News calls an occupier who spoke to TMZ about Miley Cyrus a “leader of the movement.” Using the term “leader” cuts straight to the heart of Occupy by implicitly saying a fundamental premise of the movement is false. Or take this article that claims leftists academics are the leaders of the movement. Many more examples, usually from the right, could be given.
In a profile of the Occupy movement in The New York Magazeine, John Heilemann says,
“The people plotting these maneuvers are the leaders of OWS. Now, you may have heard that Occupy is a leaderless uprising. Its participants, and even the leaders themselves, are at pains to make this claim. But having spent the past month immersed in their world, I can report that a cadre of prime movers—strategists, tacticians, and logisticians; media gurus, technologists, and grand theorists—has emerged as essential to guiding OWS.”
The argument is clear: Occupy has leaders, but claims to be leaderless. Heilemann makes important insights, specifically the way that hierarchies always emerge, what is sometimes called the “iron law of oligarchy.” However, the point that some are marginally more influential does not refute the ways in which Occupy remains so radically decentralized. It only shows how a more decentralized movement does not achieve impossibly pure leaderless perfection.
I understand that writing an expose is easier and more compelling when you have human-interest characters, and all the better if you get to call them “leaders” and “prime movers.” How exciting to unveil hidden leaders thought to be non-existent! This unmasking makes for compelling fiction.
The individuals identified by Heilemann do seem to have more influence within the movement than the average protester. However, the so-called leaders in the article attempt to make Occupy about clear goals and are instead trumped by the consensus of a crowd that supported a “glorification of…vagueness.” The “leaders” wanted clear demands, the decentralized crowd did not. Demands were not given and “leaders” they were not.
In another instance, Heilemann states that many people could step up and fill the leader void, “if only the rank and file will permit it.” But if these folks are leaders, then there should be no void to fill. If the rank-and-file are making the final decisions, don’t we have a model closer resembling leaderlessness?
Ultimately, Heilemann’s portrayal of Occupy as being leader-driven but dishonestly claiming leaderlessness is unsatisfying. Moving forward, media need to allow themselves to be confused by a purposefully vague movement. Over time, one victory of the Occupy movement will be the way it forces the creation of new space, new thoughts and new language. And this is an important victory for any progressive movement.