Is Occupy’s Horizontal Leadership Like Laying Down on the Job?

Horizontal Leadership? Occupy SEC protest, June, 2012

The concept of horizontal, non-hierarchical leadership, cherished by the Occupy Movement, was an ideal much less fulfilled during the 1968 May Revolution* in France.  We’ve traveled from the plugged in speakers of the 1960s to the human mic, OWS 2011, but is that necessarily a good thing?

Across the Atlantic, those who rose to speak at meetings and rallies during the May Revolution strove for consensus decision-making and shared and non-hierarchical leadership. “Horizontal” refers to a leadership ethic in which nobody is any higher up than anyone else, nobody can give orders, make unilateral decisions, nor enjoy greater status. Now we recognize that what were the best of unachieved intentions during the May Revolution are a commonly-held ethic, struggled for at all levels of organization in the national Occupy Movement (read their Statement of Autonomy.

As part of my job as communications coordinator at San Diego State University, I participated in annual Student Leadership and Emerging Leaders Conferences. A t-shirt we did for one of those events reminds students not to get too puffed up with their roles as officers of clubs and organizations. Leaders are nothing without their followers, and “followership” was actually a workshop offered. In my workshops on publicizing campus groups and their activities (there were over 300 at SDSU!), I tried to reflect that theme.

France, 1968. General Assemblies and the hundreds of small groups, eventually called Revolutionary Action Committees, were led by natural, acknowledged leaders like the fictional character in A Time to Cast Away Stones,** Remi Guitry. While attending a rally with his Action Committee, Remi deals with disgruntled students unable to see the speakers on the podium. “Never mind. Shut up all of you.” Remi was laughing…“What does it matter if we can see?” he shouted…. “He is a person like you or me, a valuable voice. The ideas are important, not the personality…”At group meetings, Remi made it his business to act as an inspirational leader and facilitator, encouraging everyone to speak and be heard.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit speaks at a rally, May 1968.

But on a higher level, the May Revolution had several leaders whose names were on everyone’s lips. These men (all men!) spoke at rallies reaching thousands upwards to half a million people. Each represented groups and were largely respected for stepping forward to lead. In A Time to Cast Away Stones, we hear from several real-life leaders, including Dany Cohn-Bendit who has gone on to Green Party leadership in the European Union.

Once the French radical students’ cause became popular, aspiring politicians, especially communists and socialists, sought to speak for them. Ambition had them playing to both sides. Where hierarchical leadership persisted, where Cohn-Bendit and other known leaders shied away from political responsibility or aspiration, the movement had no real power. Everyone talked and listened, but it was only higher up where leaders used their names and power to block or effect change. And by the end of May, it was to crush the movement and block real change.

Occupy Wall Street, 2011-12. At meetings of “affinity” groups or the more official “working groups,” ranging from yoga to accounting (listed on the OWS website), even “natural leaders” who step forward are meant to rotate through or share those roles. When decisions are made by, say, the Direct Action Working Group, the goal is that everyone knows they are welcome, and decisions are by consensus. Facilitators almost always begin by asking the group, “I ask for your permission/consensus to facilitate.” In any open group, there will always be people who disrupt try to take over. The problem of hierarchy is re-hashed constantly. In small groups, at GAs, and in bars in the middle of the night.  On the higher level, at large Occupy rallies, people were surprised, in the beginning, when some speakers used only their first names or their group affiliations. Even union leaders are not, as in 1968 Paris, leaders of the movement, nor do they represent it. They merely support it, like all other participants.

Hope! Occupiers must stand up for visible, accountable leaders who are listening to them.

President Obama and Democrats generally have been pushed to the left on the issues raised by Occupy. Many are cynical about the specter of co-option. I say, no reason to be cynical! The Occupiers have forced the hand of these political liberals (a noble term, ill-used!), whose policies have crept to the right for twenty years, often for same plutocratic reasons as Republicans.

This is a point to be savored! The Occupiers’ power is in their multiple messages, their capture of the media’s imagination, and their spread throughout the cities and towns of the nation.

But it’s yet to be determined whether this nameless, often faceless horizontal leadership will hit a snag where accountability is concerned. Is horizontal leadership, then, just another way of laying down on the job? Is it an abdication of responsibility for actions? A  leader should listen carefully to his followers, give them credit and share the limelight – but at the end of the day, he or she will stand up and be counted.

A horizontal leader stands on his own two feet if he works with his group to elect those with the power to achieve what he is after.

If Occupiers have no named leaders, their consensus must form around the politicians who inspire themor even their individual policies or speeches. They can stand up, and give noisy and visible support to people with power.

The politicians who are listening have power, but what is more important, they have names. Visibility. And therefore, accountability. On the left and center, they ARE co-opting the movement. The question is, what will they do with it if they are the only ones with the visibility, the voice and the power?

* The 1968 May Revolution was the first student-worker-middle class alliance and “revolution” in an advanced, Western, capitalist democracy. Over ten million French citizens were involved in a general strike, tens of thousands battled the police and the French army. For details, visit

**Elise Frances Miller’s novel, A Time to Cast Away Stones, is set during the 1968 Berkeley antiwar protests and French May Revolution. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or order from your local bookstore.  




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