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Matthis Chiroux

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The Wisdom and Power of a Leaderless Resistance

Posted: 10/31/11 06:13 PM ET

Have you ever been asked what a leader is to you? Of course you have; we're obsessed with the worship of these few. But the Occupy movement has no place for them, which the mainstream media just can't understand.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that a movement with no leaders is just a mob or a rabble. But conventional wisdom has failed the 99%. We've watched it entrap our older loved ones into lifetimes of servitude only to have their benefits shrivel up and their retirements gambled away...

A leaderless resistance is a wise resistance and a powerful resistance for so many unconventional reasons. To understand why, one must first ask ourselves, can people be trusted to do and think as they will?

I've never been able to precisely define what a leader is to me and what qualities they possess, but I've always understood what it meant in terms of social stratification. There can only be a few leaders, and the mass of us must be followers.

This arrangement has been at play for so long, it's become common sense to us. Even when aliens show up in the movies, they know we have a leader, and they want to be taken to him! And our leader usually is a him, and he's usually white and straight.

But nested comfortably within our progressive circles, we say, "No! Our leaders can be women! And they can be black! And they can be queer!" And this slowly may come to fruition, but in our clamor for an equal-looking system, we have failed to ask if our system...of leaders and followers...can even be equal or truly democratic.

The 99% are sick of being told to get in line and "follow me," and the Occupy movement's organizational structure reflects that. It is decentralized, individually autonomous and requires no stamp of approval to act on its behalf. While there have been specialized working groups formed to perform essential tasks, they are limited in their scope and authority. Decisions that significantly affect the whole movement are collectively made during general assemblies, which one needs no credentials or even experience to participate in. Individuals don't need permission to take up positions, organize actions, start new occupations or otherwise act on their personal convictions.

While trying to promote a similar framework of organizing with others in the anti-war veterans movement, we found that many equated local and individual autonomy within a movement to a "total loss of control." We would hear, "well, what if somebody does something violent or unpopular?" Oh how I wish, even just once, we'd have heard, "what if somebody does something spontaneous and brilliant?"

The fear of being infiltrated or lead astray was so great, it seemed logical to many to centralize control, especially over our message and who should be delivering it. Being veterans, organizing things according to military hierarchy seemed natural to many but repulsive to others. Those of us who did not like the military, had no respect for the flag, saw our system as parasitic and wanted a different world felt effectively pushed to the margins.

Those of us left with some sway were in very odd positions. Being a leader in a movement I saw as plagued with too much leadership and not enough initiative on the ground, I tried simply to be an example of revolt. If anything, I hoped to use my position to assert new ideas and radical tactics. I tried to promote individual autonomy while myself pushing the bounds of acceptable dialogue to create a new cognitive space from which to organize; one not in service to a flag or a political party or a specific ideology, but exclusively to the values they all claim to monopolize.

While this approach made me stand out, ironically, as a leader, it also 'learned' me a powerful lesson: leaders are targets, and certain interests in this country know little ethical restraint when striking at them to strike at the movements and ideas behind them.

To be a leader on the left in the U.S. is to invite incredibly harsh scrutiny, and oftentimes harassment. From the state, from the populace, from the opposition and sometimes even from those you thought to be your friends. To stick one's head up in a movement now-a-days is to beg that it get beaten down. Part of this 'whack-a-mole' practice is broader human tradition. Part is a matter of intent.

Movement breakers throughout history have known to destroy a traditional movement, one must seek out the leaders and destroy them. Be it by bullet or bull-shit, if the leadership can be silenced or discredited, the movement may be disbursed.

COINTELPRO, America's most famous federal movement-breaking mafia, knew this when it operated from 1956 to 1971, subjecting mostly leftist movement leaders to public smear campaigns, harassment, violence (including sexual violence) and undue legal scrutiny. In doing so, they helped stagnate more than a few of the great movements that coalesced in America during the 1960s.

This program was exposed by citizen action, and at its worst is known to have authorized the assassinations of multiple American citizens, as well is responsible for the deaths of countless others during botched police raids conducted at the behest of the FBI. While COINTELPRO officially ended as a government program in 1971, we can readily observe that both government institutions and private conservative enterprises still continue to utilize COINTELPRO framework against many targets on the political left.

Perhaps the most effective weapon at their disposal today is the strategic use of character defamation. Through the defamation of a symbolic movement figurehead, they can defecate on an entire movement, thus rendering it impotent if the base equivocates to abandon the accused.

It is in this context that Occupy's refusal to submit to a vertical leadership structure can be seen as not just an expression of horizontal political ideology, but is in fact a move of innovative strategic brilliance. If an individually autonomous movement can be constructed, with no leaders to become targets for the opposition to latch on to, the established means of movement breaking in this country can be rendered virtually inert.

Not to say we have nothing to be on guard against, but the opposition to Occupy, both governmental and private, have been presented few individual targets to symbolically discredit. Rather, they are forced to make generalizations about the whole group, and any time one does such a thing they immediately risk sounding like a bigot!

With no leadership structure to dismantle, the message of the Occupy movement stands poised to self-perpetuate, impervious to traditional routes of attack. The greatest tradition in movement breaking of all time, wanton violence, could still be used against us, but as the establishment learned once again last Tuesday in Oakland, sometimes using violence to clear an intersection can fill it twice as fast.

What is to come of our struggles is a story yet unwritten. We cannot honestly say we will win. What we can say is it doesn't matter. Simply to struggle changes to world, and we learn from the struggle and continue to fight more effectively for the change we seek. Perhaps Occupy will not be the revolution, perhaps it will; who's to say. At very least, it's an opening number, and gives us a model to act on.

We've proven that people can organize themselves and impact the public dialogue without leaders. We've continued emboldening individuals who would traditionally have become leaders while preventing them from becoming targets for sacrificial slaughter, thus we have also better insulated the movement from attack. We've shown that you don't have to appeal to the system or articulate specific demands to affect the system. We've learned not to be subverted by electoral politics in a quest for influence, but to subvert electoral politics by offering the people something better and fundamentally more equal.

By bearing witness to a different way of sharing power amongst the people, we spark within ourselves imaginations made dull by the soar progress of society and the state. But we also spark within the 1% a fear that change is coming. If the current social order in this country continues its descent into totalitarianism, people will look to that which we've created here for guidance struggling forward into the future. If at last there is no more freedom of any kind, leaderless resistance will be the only form of resistance left to the 99%.