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The Power of Occupy Wall Street Is Not Just What They're Doing, But How They're Doing It

After major crises at hierarchical institutions from Penn State to the Catholic Church, it's time to give the Occupy movement's horizontal structure a chance.
 
 
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Waste your summer prayin' in vain for a savior to rise from these streets 
Well I'm no hero girl that's understood...” --
Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

“I know some members say the groups are leaderless. But I have trouble believing this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I’d push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them,”  Jerry Ceppos,  journalism dean at Louisiana State University recently told the  New York Times' public editor,  Arthur S. Brisbane.

Brisbane was attempting to answer the question “Who is Occupy Wall Street?” It's a question that continues to confound observers of the movement. Reporters, politicians and others used to traditional, top-down, hierarchical movements (or even grassroots movements that are easily boiled down, in history books, to the actions of a single charismatic leader like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) simply cannot seem to wrap their heads around the movement's commitment to “horizontalism,” a form of organization that doesn't recognize one leader, but rather emphasizes the value of each participant equally.

Great men are how we tell our history. Great men, and very occasionally great women, individual accomplishment and heroism. History isn't so different from Twitter's trending topics, acknowledging spikes more so than slow builds and rewarding celebrity more than quiet hard work. Or, for that matter, the biases of the mainstream media and editors like Brisbane and Ceppos, authorities in their field who only understand the world through other authority figures. It's why the US only understands the civil rights movement in terms of the life of MLK, rather than the quiet work of nameless hundreds who trained in nonviolent techniques and were beaten and fire-hosed and attacked by dogs without their names making it into history books.

The way Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement worldwide are structured is drawn from another way of thinking. Marina Sitrin, an early participant in the Occupy movement in New York and the author of the book  Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina,  describes horizontalism thus:

“Horizontal, as it sounds, is a level space for decision making, a place where one can look directly at the other person across from you, and discuss things that matter most to all of us – we decide the agenda. Horizontalism is more than just being against hierarchy, or people having power over others – it is about creating something new together in our relationships. The means are a part of the ends. The forms of organizing manifest what we desire; it is not a question of demands, but rather a manifestation of an alternative way of being and relating.”

Horizontalism and consensus might seem complicated, especially after watching the houses of Congress descend into a battle of egos and wills. Trying to get a simple majority of the Senate, let alone the 60-vote supermajority that is essentially required for every vote now that the filibuster is routinely abused, to agree on anything is a near-impossible task, so how would 95 percent consensus ever work?

But the fact is that thousands of people can come to agreement on complicated issues. Witness the reported vote of  1720 to three (with six “unsure”) at the University of California-Davis over a student general strike this week in the wake of the pepper-spraying of unarmed students by a university cop. And some of that perhaps comes from the fact that they are not playing power games, jockeying for higher position (and more fundraising dollars), or making grandstanding speeches. The people's mic, the Occupy protesters' amplification system, actually contributes to the horizontal structure by cutting down on the ability of any one person to hold court for too long. Any speech requires the consent of those participating in the people's mic, and they can revoke it at any time by simply not choosing to repeat those words.