Occupy Wall Street – The Bad, The Good and the Uncertain – Part 3

Part 3 – The Uncertain

(previously: The Bad)
(previously: The Good)

Strangely enough I want to start with certainties. Knowing what I know about Occupy Wall Street should help me to know what I don’t know. So what am I reasonably certain about?

I am certain that America is approaching the status of Police State, if it has not already become one. The militarization of the police is a fait accompli. As my musician friend – who has been living in L.A. for the past 6 years – says, “In LA the cops will taser a soccer mom if she steps over the line. It is Zero Tolerance everywhere and at all times, and every police force in America is following the LAPD’s example.” Dissent is tolerated but only under near-martial conditions. Mass arrests of innocent people are becoming commonplace, like the 700 arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. Meanwhile Bradley Manning rots naked in solitary for all eternity without charges or access to legal representation, and American prisons house over 25% of all the prisoners in the entire world.

The counter-attack has not yet begun. (see Police State, above). In other words, so long as nothing of value to the powers that be is actually threatened in any meaningful way, they can just sit back and make plans for the day it is. If it ever is at all. They are choosing the time and place of their response. It will come but only when they are ready and only if it is actually needed.

The revolution will not be American. In Chile a million students March. In Egypt and Tunisia and beyond they overthrow governments. The future of all this global activism is entirely uncertain, but I personally believe the most important moves will emerge from elsewhere. Occupy Wall Street serves its purpose as a valuable symbol but the future lies far, far away. Where is anybody’s guess.

Obama is a lost cause. Sadly, no more need be said on this topic.

The demands being put forward by the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street are inadequate. They are progressive but do not in any way address the systemic underpinnings of the problems we face as global citizens. They do not address environmental issues at all, for example. Nor do they seek to build alliances with non-Americans. The real answer lies in creating new systems not in trying to tweak broken and corrupt ones, especially through legislative initiatives that will almost certainly be undermined and watered-down long before they ever get turned into law. No, if the Occupy Wall Street movement offers any real hope it is the possibility of actions that restructure society at a more fundamental level, not by fixing the injust and unsustainable old but by creating the just and sustainable new.

And this brings me at last to the great uncertainties of Occupy Wall Street:

Can leaderlessness prevail over a police state? In their desire to overthrow the status quo, and inspired by the decentralized experience of digital culture, OWS protesters have  embraced the notion of leaderlessness as a progressive step. Yet throughout history all healthy communities have had leaders. Historically, in every conflict, the absence of leadership results in the following severe vulnerabilities, among others:

  1. failure to identify optimal goals
  2. failure to identify and capitalize on strategic opportunities
  3. failure to build and leverage strategic alliances

Being at Zucotti Park reminds me of those times when I have jammed with inexperienced musicians who don’t understand the rules of successful collective improvisation. Who don’t know that in free jazz, for example, every player is equal but leadership is tangible and explicit at all times. That creation is not an abdication of individual leadership but a complete commitment to individual leadership within a shared, iterative community that includes very specific goals. Whereas the oral community at Zucatti Park is promoting a communalism based on everybody leading by not leading, which is a very different thing, and in music at least results in some very incoherent and stunted improvisations. No revolt in history has succeeded without committed leadership or – at the very least – a very specific target that unifies all efforts towards a common goal. So this lack of leadership is a huge question mark for me.

But if no revolt has succeeded without leadership in the past, what about the future? Can distributed leadership be more efficient than centralized leadership in the digital age? Another way of putting this is: can leadership be crowdsourced?

On the one hand the answer is undoubtedly yes. So, for example, out of the leaderless peer-to-peer march through New York on Saturday emerges – entirely randomly – a temporary leader named Sgt. Shamar Thomas who inspires further action and commitment. And as Olbermann points out, this is the way it has been throughout the movement to date. And this is an important aspect of leadership. But it is only half of the leadership equation.

In my opinion leadership provides two key services. The first of these is inspiration, someone to rally around. And I think it is clear that in the digital age that aspect of leadership can be crowdsourced. But the second aspect is more difficult to crowdsource, and that is strategic guidance and vision. That is what Ghandi and Lenin and Mao and Mick Jagger and Alfred Hitchcock and Steve Jobs and Vandana Shiva and Jeannette Armstrong and countless other leaders all bring to the table, and it is why they make an impact. They see things that others don’t and that includes opportunities and strategies and goals and specific means towards specific ends. In the OWS model of leaderlessness where can these necessary elements be found? Can they too be crowdsourced?

Maybe. But we haven’t really seen it happening yet. We haven’t seen strategic innovations, we haven’t seen new ideas or new tools, or not enough of them anyway. We also have not seen leadership from the most militant or progressive digitalists, and I am not sure why. Where are the online actions to accompany the oral actions in the material world? These could be the equivalent of digital sit-ins by hackers or they could be (more usefully perhaps) new models of social organization. I know that some of this is happening but there needs to be much more effort to link together the oral and digital spheres so as to counteract the literate hegemony that Wall Street represents.

But the question remains: can strategic leadership be crowdsourced? If it can, where and how is it being done? If it is not, what can leaderless resistance hope to accomplish?

That is surely the greatest uncertainty of all…

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