Horizontal

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

“Stamp [the facilitator] jumped up and down. Her voice was hoarse from three hours of yelling. ‘Everyone is beautiful!’ she shouted. ‘Everyone is awesome!’

That’s some hard core facilitation.  I am struck, profoundly affected by, what is happening in our country.  I am inspired.  I am moved.  I have a deep sense of resonance.

“[T]he point of Occupy Wall Street is not its platform so much as its form: people sit down and hash things out instead of passing their complaints on to Washington. ‘We are our demands,’ as the slogan goes.”

This blog post really is a big fat quote from Pre-Occupied, what I found to be an excellent New Yorker piece by Mattathias Schwartz. But I am quoting selectively.  I am pointing to that which speaks to form, and to process, to this paradigm shift, to the hopes that it brings and to some of the obstacles before us.  Here is how I think of it – it’s not perfect, but neither is what we have.  We are stuck.  Let’s figure something else out.  Let’s step boldly into not knowing.  Let’s feel our way into what’s next.

Those who were around at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movementtalk about the old “vertical” left versus  the new “horizontal” one.  By “vertical,” they mean hierarchy and its trappings—leaders, demands, and issue-    specific rallies. They mean social change as laid out by Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams  from My Father,” where outside organizers spur communities to action. “Horizontal” means leaderless—like the 1999 W.T.O. protests in Seattle, the Arab Spring, and even the Tea Party. Anyone can show up at a general assembly and claim a piece of the movement. This lets people feel important immediately, and gives them implicit permission to take action. It also gives a disproportionate amount of power to people [who just want to dissent].

One influence that is often cited by the movement is open-source software, such as Linux, an operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS but doesn’t have an owner or a chief engineer. A programmer named Linus Torvalds came up with the idea. Thousands of unpaid amateurs joined him and then eventually organized into work groups. Some coders have more influence than others, but anyone can modify the software and no one can sell it. According to Justine Tunney, who continues to help run OccupyWallSt.org, “There is leadership in the sense of deference, just as people defer to Linus Torvalds. But the moment people stop respecting Torvalds, they can fork it”—meaning copy what’s been built and use it to build something else.

At times, horizontalism can feel like utopian theater. Its greatest invention is the “people’s mic,” which starts when someone shouts, “Mic check!” Then the crowd shouts, “Mic check!,” and then phrases (phrases!) are transmitted (are transmitted!) through mass chanting (through mass chanting!). In the same way that poker ritualizes capitalism and North Korea’s mass games ritualized totalitarianism, the people’s mic ritualizes horizontal-ism. The problem, though, comes when multiple people try to summon the mike simultaneously. Then it can feel a lot like anarchy.

The politics of the occupation run parallel to the mainstream left—the people’s mike was used to shout down Michele Bachmann and Governor Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, in early November. But, in the end, the point of Occupy Wall Street is not its platform so much as its form: people sit down and hash things out instead of passing their complaints on to Washington. “We are our demands,” as the slogan goes. And horizontal-ism seems made for this moment. It relies on people forming loose connections quickly—something that modern technology excels at.

No matter what happens next, the movement’s center is likely to shift from the N.Y.C.G.A., just as it shifted from Adbusters, and form somewhere else, around some other circle of people, ideas, and plans. “This could be the greatest thing that I work on in my life,” Justine Tunney, of OccupyWallSt.org, said. “But the movement will have other Web sites. Over the coming weeks and months, as other occupations become more prominent, ours will slowly become irrelevant.” She sounded as though the irrelevance of her project were both inevitable and desirable. “We can’t hold on to any of that authority,” she continued. “We don’t want to.”

What are you learning from all this?

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  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    I hear the call for horizontal forms of expression and action. And, part of me still bristles at the description of that as “leaderless.” My observations and experiences with Occupy Boston suggest that there’s a lot of leadership being exercised–some very explicitly, some more by way of who shows up and moves things forward. Decisions do get made. Things do get done. I think that’s a good thing, mostly. I think leadership is necessary–humble, servant-oriented, open minded, welcoming, and willing to do what needs to be done. Leadership that is about making it easy for people to work together toward common ends. Leadership that is about building “power with” others, not exercising “power over” others.

    Likewise, I bristle a bit at the suggestion that these efforts at horizontal action necessarily mean an end to hierarchy. It’s the goal, but not always the reality. In my limited experiences, I’ve seen hints of hierarchy here and there. At the recent Occupy Boston Summit, for instance, some campers (folks who live at Dewey Square) expressed were grumpy (and worse) about the number of “other folks” who were participating and supporting the event. It smacked a little bit of “the campers are the real occupiers and everyone else is somehow less authentic or less committed, and should not have the same kind of voice in this space.” I have heard and read stories recounted of folks operating out of privilege, behaving as if others (e.g., women, people of color) were somehow less than.

    My guess is that given the challenges of the human condition, we will forever struggle against forms of hierarchy. It’s a worthy struggle. I just want to be real about how much work there is to do on these issues, even inside a movement that’s trying hard to do and be something different.

  • Gibrán says:

    Thank you Cynthia – always good to bring reality into account. There is something different about #occupy with important lessons to be drawn by those of us who believe in (r)evolution . This is true regardless of the gap between reality and aspiration – so what is that difference? And how do we move with it?

  • Charlie Jones says:

    Gibran, nice piece. Cynthia – excellent comment.

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