Some essential reading on the Occupy movement is Ned Reskinoff’s “From an Occupation to a Movement,” in which he opines on the future of the occupation after OWS’s eviction from Zucotti Park. It’s a great piece, and my favorite part is when he discusses the consensus model that OWS operates with:
It’s also less democratic than it looks. Doing away with formal leadership structures doesn’t do away with hierarchy, it just makes it harder to see. Differences in knowledge, expertise, experience, charisma, and dumb luck create informal hierarchies that can be just as coercive as formal hierarchies (if not more so), but lack clear institutional boundaries. Behold the disproportionate power wielded by Occupy Wall Street’s opaque Finance Committee, or the unofficial network of “ad hoc leaders” profiled here. When people say that Occupy, is “not leaderless, but full of leaders,” this is what they really mean.
Because these leadership structures go mostly unacknowledged, there’s no formal process for improving them. And because they’re based on the same informal hierarchies we find in the world at large, they often have the some old privilege-based power dynamics. But to their credit, most of the occupation’s unofficial leaders seem to be aware of this, and they have been taking steps to correct the problem. As Sarah Seltzer reports in The Nation, Occupy has taken steps to privilege traditionally marginalized voices in the General Assembly. Even more promising was the recent adoption of the Spokes Council model, described here.
This is a point that can’t be made often enough. Democracy and hierarchy are not necessarily in conflict, and any movement that’s going to achieve something needs to accept hierarchy and leadership in some form. These qualities don’t automatically turn the movement into a fascist tyranny, and without them, movements lack the discipline to act as a coherent whole and to develop and execute strategy. Hopefully we’ve reached a moment when the Occupy movement can accept this reality. If it wants to transition from complaining about the system to changing it, then it must do so first.