Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leaderless Movements and Democracy

Just wanted to post two OpEds I wrote for the Washington Post about the leaderless aspect of OWS and issues related to the elections and democracy.
Let me know what you think!!!


1 comment:

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

These are both really useful commentaries--thanks! I was especially interested in the first one, about the history of leaderless movements, in part because that has been one of the features of OWS that has apparently been the hardest for the mainstream media to grasp.

I know that in a short op-ed one can't possibly mention everything. So I wanted to point to two other historical precedents for such leaderless movements, both of which I think are relevant here. I think knowing something about them can usefully supplement Professor Gautney's wonderful historical note in her Op-Ed.

One is less a social movement than a religious one, and that's Quakerism. It's important to think about, I believe, partly just because it's interesting to remember that the conjunction between non-violence and anti-hierarchical structures--both of which seem crucial to the beliefs of OWS--has both secular and religious histories. It's also important because it was an influence on some of the other movements Professor Gautney mentioned, including feminist consciousness-raising and civil rights. Not the only influence--not even the only religious influence--but an important and sometimes forgotten one.

The other precedent I think worth mentioning is the movement against nuclear power of the mid-to-late 1970s, notably the movement in the Northeast that tried to prevent a nuke from being built in Seabrook, New Hampshire. This is a somewhat self-interested mention, since I was heavily involved in 1979-81 (the first of those years was my freshman year in college, and my grades suffered because I spent more time at meetings than in classes, and after that I left school for a year to devote more time to such activism). The Clamshell Alliance and its spinoff, the Coalition for Direct Action at Seabrook (CDAS), worked entirely through leaderless processes grounded in Quakerism and an form of anarchism that traced its history back to the Spanish Civil War. We had meetings that looked a lot like OWS's General Assemblies, consensus-based decision-making, and a visceral aversion to leaders. The amazing thing was that the non-hierarchical structures worked well enough that an inexperienced 17-year-old (yours truly) could co-chair (or, as we said "facilitate," since "chairing" sounded too much like leadership) one of the most heated meetings of the entire movement, with hundreds of passionate and articulate people attending and debating the meaning of nonviolence and strategies for shutting down construction of the nuke, and the meeting wasn't an absolute disaster (though, like most such meetings, it was very long).

I bring this up not to reminisce, but because this movement is also an often-neglected precedent for later activism. And not just a precedent, but a direct influence. Several people who were very active at Seabrook were central to organizing the 1999 protests in Seattle, parts of which took on the "affinity group" model that CDAS used. And a quick google search revealed a blog in which someone involved in planning Occupy DC explicitly compared what they were planning to what she did at Seabrook in 1979....shortly before the Occupy actions began, and which resulted in comments debating the value of that precedent. ( Oh, and the slogan for the events in October 1979 and May 1980: "Occupy Seabrook."

All this is to echo what I think was Professor Gautney's point: OWS has some aspects that are really new and innovative, but it's also part of a long history of radical democratic dissent in the U.S. and the world.