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The Struggle for Leadership Within “Leaderless” Occupy
by Mark Vorpahl
Friday Feb 17th, 2012 11:17 PM
The current debate that has erupted within Occupy circles was built into this movement’s foundation. It has been sparked by much needed soul searching in the wake of a series of confrontations with the police, most notably in Oakland, that ended disastrously.
It should be news to no one that the police easily put down these efforts with gut wrenching brutality. What is surprising is that many of the Occupy participants lead these events into an inevitable military confrontation with the police, as though they could rule the day without the necessary numbers, preparation, or moral authority in the eyes of the 99 percent. Whereas Occupy had previously gained wide support from Main Street, in part, because of their non-violent tactics that relied on collectively standing strong to resist police repression, these actions appeared to be led by a different program with different tactics and a different agenda.

These developments are taking place within the context of a shrinking number of Occupy participants and sympathizers. Occupy is still strong and holds great promise. Such ebbs are natural in the evolution of any movement. However, they also pose great dangers. In the resulting isolation, impatience can take hold and it becomes easier for a relatively few adventurists to dominate proceedings without the corrective of more Main Street participants. The more the movement becomes isolated, the more the participants’ feelings of moral superiority can surge unchecked, which in turn can justify engaging in more radical tactics while condemning the remaining 99 percent for their seeming apathy.

Occupy started out as a tiny effort. The original occupation at Zuccotti Park in New York City was mainly built by members of small left groupings, without any backing from larger organizations of the 99 percent, such as the unions. However, their targeting of Wall Street and their call for mass unity provided a broad-based messaging foundation to reach out to Main Street. Without this approach Occupy would never have blossomed into the Main Street movement it became. Hundreds of thousands of people went further than they ever expected they could go in taking direct political action, including, most significantly, the unions. The mass misery created by the great recession, including the rise in the inequality in wealth, the 1percent’s hijacking of any democratic process that even appeared to provide a voice to the 99 percent, the lack of any serious political response to the loss of jobs, the cuts in education and social services while the banks got bailed out, became the talk of the day. However, even with this transformation, many in the activist core of Occupy had not yet shed the narrow political approaches and organizational prejudices that marked its birth. The contradictions of Occupy being both a marginal and Main Street movement are now re-emerging on a larger more urgent scale.

It is without doubt that the capitalist crisis is creating the conditions for a great social movement to emerge. What is at stake for Occupy is whether it will spearhead this development or be left as a predecessor of it that veered off into a dead end before realizing its promise.
Mark Vorpahl is a union steward as well as an anti-war and Latin American Solidarity activist. He can be reached at Portland [at]
The outcome will be determined by a political struggle for leadership within Occupy. Just because many within Occupy describe it as leaderless, does not make it so, even if leadership only amounts to calling a meeting, proposing an agenda for it, and suggesting a facilitator. Any social movement, any mass collective action, requires leaders, whether acknowledged or not. To counterpose leaders to the rank and file or mass of participants in movement building, as though both are not connected, is a bit like counterposing the front and back wheels of a bicycle, as though both are not necessary for the ride.

It is not difficult to see where this prejudice against leaders comes from. Both in the political arena, and within many of our own organizations, the 99 percent is for the most part dominated by unaccountable leaders who live apart from us and pursue policies against our interests. It is an easy jump to conclude that leadership, in itself, is to be avoided, that all movement building should be done on a strictly horizontal basis. This superficial thinking, however, could not be more harmful for doing what needs to be done to build a movement that can challenge the might of the economic oligarchy and both of their political parties.

What is needed is to build leadership structures where the leaders are under the firm democratic control of the rank and file and replaceable if need be. Maintaining that Occupy is leaderless only leaves its leaders invisible, unaccountable and no matter how well intended, free to push a course that will isolate the movement. Likewise, to argue for rank and file leadership within the unions, as opposed to rank and file control of the leadership, leaves the most conservative bureaucratic elements untouched, unthreatened, and free to do what they want.

Consequently, if the current debates within Occupy are not to result in a further fracturing of the movement, an accountable and transparent leadership should emerge. This leadership should be judged on its ability to create the widest possible unity among all working class and grass roots organizations, not simply build Occupy apart from them. In addition, this unity in action should be built independently of the Democrats and Republicans. While it would be folly for Occupy to insist on organizations such as the unions to break from supporting the Democrats as a precondition for uniting on the issues that are most important to the 99 percent, Occupy must insist on its own independence. In doing so, it will be demonstrating to the unions that more can be accomplished by building a social movement than building an electoral campaign for allegedly worker-friendly Wall Street politicians.

Too many within Occupy fret over being co-opted by the unions. And there are grounds for being cautious. For example, Robert Master, the Northeast political director for the Communications Workers of America, described Labor’s attraction to Occupy in these terms: “I think there are going to be tremendous opportunities for labor and the Occupy movement to work together,” Mr. Master said. “We have different roles— as labor we are much more embedded in mainstream politics. But we understand that without the pressure of more radical direct-action tactics, the debate in this country won’t change substantially.” In other words, labor wants to have a foot in both camps: in the Democratic Party which is controlled above all by the 1 percent and in Occupy, which is trying to defend the 99 percent. Contradictions are unavoidable.

Nevertheless, in the immediate present the greater danger is that Occupy will fail to maintain and increase the support it has gathered from Labor by prioritizing its own organizational interests at the expense of unity.

Occupy’s tactics must be guided by the strategic understanding that, in order to effectively pursue fundamental change, the vast majority of the 99 percent must be united. Therefore, any actions taken must be able to garner the sympathy, if not active support, of most working class people. Small-scale confrontations with, for instance, the police, are counterproductive if they do not have this support. No matter how “militant” appearing, they are as far from revolutionary as shifting into reverse gear is from shifting into overdrive in a car.

Likewise, the demands that Occupy chooses to mobilize around must be capable of building the widest possible unity. If these demands do not correspond with the consciousness of the 99 percent, they will fall on deaf ears no matter how important they might be in the minds of those proposing them. In selecting demands, we must be willing to prioritize what is most immediately important to the vast majority of working people over our own individual opinions. The demands must articulate what people feel is most important but have not yet been able to articulate for themselves. At this point in time, arguing for explicitly anti-capitalist demands when most U.S. workers’ minds are on the need for good jobs, healthcare, taxing the rich, and keeping their homes, is a waste of time.

Currently, one of the obstacles impeding the participation of Main Street today is the process of decision-making. In most Occupy formations, a 90 percent yes vote is needed to pass anything. In addition, it only takes one person to block a vote. The hope behind these measures and others is to encourage the greatest sense of collective cohesion. The reality is, however, that they enable a minority to control proceedings — like what we are trying to fight against in our own “democracy” in the U.S. — and that they unnecessarily bog down the meetings. This does not build collective cohesion as much as it turns away participants. While it is often desirable to reach consensus, this should not be treated as a principle. One person, one vote, with a simple majority to pass proposals after a full and democratic discussion, should be the standard operating procedure.

In addition to this, there are many items discussed at the General Assemblies (GA) that would be better handled by leaving details to be worked out by an elected leadership body, which in turn can work out a proposal for a vote at the next GA.

Spring is approaching and there are high expectations that Occupy will be able to emerge all the stronger from its winter slumbers. It is hoped that this article will contribute towards this end.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Konsider
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 2:34 AM
How about analysis rather than the usual authoritarian "it's this way because I say it's so" argument.
by Max
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 1:59 PM
Unions are capitalist business organizations, and we of the combative element in Occupy lose nothing by openly acknowledging this, doing an end-run around these "labor lieutenants of the capitalist calss," and relating directly to mainstream working people in common cause as exploited fellow proletarians.
by Max
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 2:05 PM
I strongly agree with this:

"...any actions taken must be able to garner the sympathy, if not active support, of most working class people. Small-scale confrontations with, for instance, the police, are counterproductive if they do not have this support. No matter how “militant” appearing, they are as far from revolutionary as shifting into reverse gear is from shifting into overdrive in a car..."

"...In selecting demands, we must be willing to prioritize what is most immediately important to the vast majority of working people over our own individual opinions..."
by rabble
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 2:20 PM
All good intention aside, there is no reason to mess with the format for reaching concensus
in General Assembly. We are all volunteers and simple majority is not compelling.
by Max
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 2:50 PM
Consensus decision making is simply dogmatic and totally unwieldly in anyhting larger than the smallest of small group settings. Decisions can and should be made by majority rule. there is nothing wrong with voting, there is somethign wrong with voting in capitalist elections held to validate the ideological illusions of capitalist democracy -- but that's an entirely different issue
by Konsider
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 6:25 PM
Whatever problems you might have of the consensus process, I fail to see how it's dogmatic. What's dogmatic is just laying out unsubstantiated assertions about the Occupation as if they were incontrovertible truths. Even if majority voting is preferable to consensus, just saying it is doesn't make it so.
by slim
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 7:30 PM
there goes Keating again, pontificating to us poor benighted, dogmatic non-mainstream working people. why isn't attachment to majority rule dogmatic? oh yeah, because Keating likes it. fuck off you impatient social democrat.
by Max
Saturday Feb 18th, 2012 9:12 PM
As will be evident to the probable total of less than twelve people who read posts like this on places like and, any and all posting that sound like they might be from Kevin Keating are dogged by a certain wannabe police snitch who signs his name here as "Slim." "Slim" is probably a certain fiftysomething, pear-shaped male alcoholic underachiever who looks like the Bob's Big Boy corporate logo would look if the Big Boy had a ponytail, granny glasses and the face of a garden gnome. "Slim" -- an intentional contradiction in terms, perhaps, like Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness? -- has now posted how unimportant stuff Keating has done and written many dozens and dozens of times. Keating's efforts are so unimportant that police snitch "slim" would have nothing to talk otherwise without running them down dozens of times in a row.

Posts that have no political content and are clearly done only to rat out others to the police should be expunged. A scene that tolerates specimens like "Slim" tolerates the wholly intolerable.

Now, back to what really matters:

1. Occupy Oakland is helping to establish a more combative dynamic in Occupy,

2. But this leaves us between the Scylla (sp?) of vulgar populism and the Charybdis (sp?) of spiky confrontations just for the hell of it, regardless of their strategic usefulness to what has to now become the main goal; catalyzing a new mass social movement of working people against capitalist America into being.

3. we are creating a minor league crisis of the state, a crisis of legitimate capitalist legal government in Oakland. We need to keep it up, but if we just keep doing the same stuff all the time we're gonna look like the Black Bloc version of a ride at Great America...
by slim
Sunday Feb 19th, 2012 1:13 AM
there he goes again, snitch-jacketing. the first refuge of the scoundrel with nothing to say. anyone who knows the way keating writes will instantly recognize his style: shallow. nothing he says is the least bit interesting to the cops - that was proven all those years ago when they busted him for wheatpasting those ridiculous anti-yuppie posters. nothing happened to him then, and nothing will happen to him in the future. he's just not at all dangerous because all he can point to are his past failures. way to go champ.
the "points" keating (or is "Max" his imaginary playmate?) makes about who he thinks i am are laughable. as if there weren't more than a few people who find every bit of advice and cheerleading coming from this failed revolutionary to be toxic. the "insults" based on physical appearance he hurls are meant to distract from the fact that he has nothing to say and has no vocabulary to say it with. he's also a failure as a comedian. this is what passes as principled political debate for him.
the combative working class he so yearns to inject the correct revolutionary consciousness into is awol in oakland as much as it is anywhere else in the u.s. meanwhile they are finding their own way to engage in confrontations, ways that have nothing in common with keating's fantasies of class revenge (or is it just him acting out against his bourgeois upbringing?). keating still thinks that because all revolutions have started with street battles, that therefore all street battles are the start of revolution. how can anyone take this toxic clown seriously any more. oh that's right, nobody does.
by anon
Sunday Feb 19th, 2012 8:36 AM
My friends and I love Occupy. All of it. Occupy gives us hope.

We are watching the many successes of Occupy - bank transfer day, marches, glitter bombings, and all.

We are also watching how the oligarchs are striking back with brute force, lies, and laws (NDAA anyone?).

Occupy makes us believe a future is possible. We whisper Occupy to each other at work and on the bus. It's dangerous to Occupy but in our hearts we are yours.

Occupy is our liferaft.

Every cardborad Occupy sign is a sign that all is not lost. We are the silent 98% of the 99%. We are watching and deeply caring as Occupy carries us forward. You have no idea how important Occupy is to us.

Please remember you are never alone. Please never give up. Never give in.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!
The post, "Hope," by Anon, is a great one. Indeed, Occupy and your post itself give me great hope as well!

Now, have I missed something, or are there plans for a meeting in the near future about getting the word out in a new and big way for this coming May 1st general strike?

My first contribution is to suggest that the practical form this general strike should take is a mass sick-out; Tues. May 1, 2012 as a call in sick to work day. This is much more intelligible to mainstream contemporary US working people. A successful mass sick-out will be a foot in the door to a more self-consciously collective effort along these lines in the future.

by A. Berkman
Sunday Feb 19th, 2012 1:58 PM
Here's the link to the Slingshot article examining last November's general strike in Oakland: