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Occupy Wall Street’s “Leader-full” Movement

Though all movements have their rough patches, the Occupy movement has proven resilient in its first two months. Now, on Thursday, the movement plans to celebrate and motivate with a series of actions across the country.

Unions and Occupy Wall Street protesters will be joining forces next week for a “day of action” to pressure lawmakers on jobs.

The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the Laborers’ International Union of North America will partner with Occupy Wall Street for “We are the 99 percent” rallies on Thursday. Liberal groups like and the American Dream Movement plan to participate.

Many of the events, union officials said, will be focused on urging lawmakers to pass more federal funding for infrastructure.

Actually, it doesn’t sound to me like the OWS movements will have anything to do with infrastructure. They plan to confront Wall Street and then occupy subway cars before marching in Lower Manhattan.

What’s interesting about this is that the Rebuild the Dream coalition announced these actions way back in October at the Take Back the American Dream Conference. But they’ve essentially been folded into the Occupy Wall Street activities, and under that brand. This is what resonates with Americans, and so they have to get under the umbrella.

That’s become an interesting outgrowth of OWS; they have no pretensions to leadership, and let in a leaderless world they have consolidated that leadership on the left to some extent. This mirrors the “leaderless” movements of the Arab uprising, many of which nevertheless were able to achieve their goals. In this networked age, it’s easier to go into metaphorical combat with wave upon wave of activists and organizers rather than one totemic figure who will ultimately become a target. Some of the problems that Occupy Wall Street is having right now have to do with anger over a leaderless movement becoming too suffused with leadership.

As Micah Sifry explains, the notion of “leaderless”-ness does not connote a disorganized, unformed mass, however:

No, political movements can’t be leaderless. The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in fact, leader-full. That is, the insistent avoidance of traditional top-down leadership and the reliance on face-to-face and peer-to-peer networks and working groups creates space for lots of leaders to emerge, but only ones that work as network weavers rather than charismatic bosses. Ilyse Hogue, a progressive activist who was on the staff of MoveOn for many years, recently put it this way, in one of the first uses of the term “leaderfull” that I have seen:

“We should all strive not for leaderless movements, but for leaderFULL movements. The former trends towards autocratic loudest voices dominating. In their best manifestation, the latter creates equitable space to raise up all voices, create mechanisms for group decision making and accountability, and to catalyze self-responsibility and empowerment.”

Instead of top-down hierarchies, the Occupy movements are building networked masses. There are going to be growing pains with such a formation, which goes against traditional instincts of how societies get constructed. But it has the potential to be incredibly powerful. The way that this new progressive movement, as Jeffrey Sachs calls it, can get agency is through individual initiative, though every member of the community taking part, rather than taking marching orders.

The conditions certainly exist for a breakthrough in America. Youth unemployment is at almost the same rates here as it was in Tunisia and Egypt when their revolutions started. There’s a chance for real change coming out of this movement, even if we don’t know what it will look like. But it has to become leader-full, not leaderless.

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David Dayen

David Dayen