John Robb on Real Open Source Leadership at #OccupyWallStreet

In the context of the importance of this social movement, we republish John Robb‘s analysis (nearly) in toto.

Below, see also the analysis of Fast Company of the leadership dynamics at #ows.

1. John Robb

“Occupy Atlanta blocked a local Congressman from speaking at their general assembly. Essentially, the general assembly’s rules require consensus to pass any resolution or to allow anybody to speak. Nothing else will do. So, when the Congressman (a veteran of civil rights marches and used to taking a leadership role) asked to speak, one member of the assembly crossed his arms in strenuous opposition. He didn’t like the idea of people attempting to lead the movement. It worked. The Congressman was denied an opportunity to speak, and the assembly rolled on, leaderless.

Fluid, constrained leadership is an important part of open source protest. Fluid in that there are no fixed positions. Constrained in that it is limited to managing a single function. There isn’t any overarching leadership.

So far, we’ve seen fluid, constrained leadership with the Occupy movement. The folks that successfully accomplished the movement’s plausible promise have faded into the woodwork, as they were supposed to do. However, the movement isn’t out of the woods yet: there isn’t any shortage of people on the sidelines anxious to take control of the movement.

Fortunately, the Occupy movement is organized in a way that makes taking control difficult.

Here are some of them:

* Consensus decision making (blocks leadership as per the above).

* Geographic Decentralization. Not many people in any one location.

* No hierarchy or bureaucracy. A coup de tat requires a bureaucratic hierarchy. To sieze control, all you need to do get the bureaucracy to accept your orders. If it does, you are now in control. Occupy doesn’t have a bureaucracy to sieze control of.

* No behind the scenes space. Everything is out in the open/transparent. How do you cut a deal in a smoke filled room when there isn’t one?

* Lots more here… any more and I’d have to write a pamphlet e-book on it. ;->

Real Open Source Leadership

It’s important to understand that open source movements do have leaders. But these leaders operate differently than the leaders we are used to seeing. To understand this better, here’s something that I wrote up about the Egyptian open source protest back in January. It applies to the Occupy movement as well:

Open source protests are composed of people with very different views of the world brought together by a single achievable idea. In Egypt’s case, that’s the removal of Mubarak. Unfortunately, as a result of this diversity of views, open source protests are messy. Nobody is formally in charge.

However, this DOESN’T mean they aren’t any leaders in the protest. In fact, there are lots. The extent that anyone is a leader in a open protest like Egypt’s is based on:

Does the leader provide ways to move the protest forward, towards completing its goal?

Do they provide good innovations and great examples of what to do?

How closely does the leader’s stay to the protest’s goal? If that is what they focus on, they gain stature. IF their goals begin to grow and become more detailed (ideological), they lose support.

Do leaders coach or command? If they coach, they gain support. If they command, they lose it. If they attempt to seize control, the protest will turn on them.

What this means is that leaders can emerge in Egypt’s protest. They offer the chance to break the stalemate brought on by Mubarak’s survival strategy.

So. when does an open source protest reject a leader?

When a leader attempts to fork the protest, by trying to lead it towards an agenda or policy or politics only they care about, they should be ignored/rejected/blocked.”

2. By Neal Ungerleider in Fast Company:

“The backbone of Occupy Wall Street’s decision-making process is the New York City General Assembly a parliament-like organization that describes itself as an “open, participatory and horizontally organized process” and which anyone can join. The General Assembly has its roots in New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts (NYABC), a loose collection of labor activists, left-wing lifers, students, and academics who organized a tent city a few blocks away from City Hall called Bloombergville in protest against city budget cuts that got relatively little media coverage. NYABC has close ties to the city’s labor unions (the organization obtained meeting space from DC37, New York’s massively powerful municipal workers union) and to the substrate of activism that stayed strong in the city; the organization’s media representative, Doug Singsen, is an influential figure in the movement to prevent budget cuts to New York’s public universities.

Teaming up with the amorphous collectives of Adbusters, Anonymous, and Day of Rage (another organizing group) was the perfect solution for the budget cut activists who formed the nucleus of the General Assembly. The fact that the American economy is in a wretched state, with millions of Americans suddenly excluded from the job market and trading houses seemingly being rewarded for inventing reckless financial instruments, has meant that the time is ripe for a broad-based protest movements. The worldwide collectives who publicized the movement guaranteed media attention and a steady stream of migrants to the new tent city/carnival/protest movement.

Meanwhile, the nucleus of protesters who formed the General Assembly were able to provide the boots on the ground to do the grunt work. Due to the General Assembly’s open nature, it quickly swelled with new attendees to Occupy Wall Street. The General Assembly is currently an open-access democrat’s dream; the collective posts full minutes and detailed meeting information online.

The decision-making process behind Occupy Wall Street itself was convoluted. After Adbusters launched the original call for the protest, the first General Assembly was held on July 2. At that time, a small seed group that included prominent anthropologist David Graeber led efforts within the assembly to drastically retool the protest. Adbusters’ original plans called for the protest to start on a Saturday (when Wall Street is nearly empty and media coverage is at a minimum) and also made the protest dangerously liable to hijacking by fringe organizations whose messages would be unpalatable to the general public.

One of Occupy Wall Street’s greatest strengths is the collective’s agile use of social media and (in the past week) crowdsourced knowledge of how to handle mainstream media attention. Veterans of the long-lasting Independent Media Center [19] have helped operate a press center that puts out a print publication, the awesomely named Occupy Wall Street Journal [20], which has turned into a cult item among New York tourists. Occupy Wall Street has already raised over $50,000 in publishing costs via Kickstarter. Jed Brandt [21], a far-left-wing activist and “revolutionary journalist,” played a key role in fundraising. Occupy Wall Street and their many sympathizers–especially the super-web-savvy Anonymous collective–seem to have successfully retooled the Egypt/Tunisia model of social media revolt for the American public (something this reporter originally doubted. Occupy Wall Street even has an official spokesperson of sorts, 23-year-old Patrick Bruner).

Media expert Clay Shirky tells Fast Company that Tahrir Square set an important precedent:

– It’s a strategy Richard Kim calls “the alchemy of negativity,” and it is common to most populist political movements, from the American and French revolutions to the occupants of Syntagma Square and Zuccotti Park. If it were possible, within the context of the current government, to formulate and advance a coherent set of demands, there would be no need for the protest in the first place. However, when certain ideas like treating the creators of the financial meltdown as criminals instead of saviors are outside contemporary elite discourse, those ideas instead get expressed in whatever space is available outside the mainstream. And in 2011, a key part of that space is online.”

The Occupy Wall Street collective relies on a vast network of sympathizers to help fund the considerable costs of keeping the protest going. An impressive logistics system has arisen at Zuccotti Park that includes a kitchen (fueled by donations), clean water distribution, a lending library, day care, children’s activities, and getting clean clothes to protesters who stay overnight.

Many donations for Occupy Wall Street are funneled through Kickstarter and a site called WePay, which has made a niche practice out of fundraising for Occupy Wall Street and its satellite demonstrations nationwide. WePay CEO Bill Clerico tells Fast Company that “in the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement, organizers needed a simple, easy solution that allowed them to spread the word, rally supporters, and get donations without any hassles like frozen accounts or inaccessible funds.”

Using smaller sites such as WePay and Kickstarter was a decision undoubtedly influenced by PayPal’s infamous decision to cut off WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, the regular members of the General Assembly are basking in their success. Genius media stunts such as silly as a rumor that the band Radiohead were playing the encampment to the much more serious recent Brooklyn Bridge takeover coupled with the arguably brutal and disproportionately violent behavior of the New York Police Department have grabbed mainstream media attention. And the arc of the media coverage has been changing. While earlier reports treated the protesters as a motley crew of freaks and fringe figures, coverage in influential sources such as CNN, MSNBC, and (especially) the New York Daily News has become positively glowing. The core message of the Occupy Wall Street protesters–an end to corporate greed and financial wrecklessnes–has struck a nerve with massive swaths of the American public. Influential labor unions such as the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, the Communications Workers of America, and the massively powerful local chapter of the United Federation of Teachers, the NYSUT, have all thrown their weight behind the protests.”

3. From an interview by Al Jazeera:

“AJE: How does the group decide to move forward with anything specific? What is the group‘s decision-making process?

ET: The way it’s set up is that there are general assemblies twice a day. Anyone can make a proposal, an announcement, or their point, and things are decided through consensus … rather than it just being an elected group of leaders who get to decide things together in their closed little bubble.

A big task is translating ourselves and making it more accessible to people who don’t really understand what it means to make decisions horizontally – which means that there’s no single leader or single people who have control and tell everyone what to do.

MS: I disagree. I’m hesitant to say that it’s non-hierarchical, that there’s no leadership, because I do really think that there’s a core of people – the media and press team – who are doing a lot of the organising and shaping the public image. Me and some other folks have encountered resistance on their [the leadership’s] part to incorporate other ideas into the work and to think critically about what’s going on.

We tried to talk to one of the media folks about the problem of there not being people of colour, and the problem of people of colour not necessarily feeling comfortable participating, and there was resistance on their part to acknowledge that. They deflect criticisms by saying, ‘if anybody want’s to get involved they can get involved. If they want to be represented, they just come and they can do it too.’ I think it’s denying the real power dynamics that are at play now. I’m not sure if that’s a way for the leadership to deflect responsibility, or if they really don’t think that they’re excercising power in the movement.”

4. Key players in the Occupy Wall Street Movement

1// Adbusters

Canada’s Adbusters collective has made anti-consumerism hip through a glossy magazine and a wealth of stylish web materials; the organization co-issued the original Occupy Wall Street call to arms.

2// Anonymous

The loosely organized Anonymous collective, who co-issued Occupy Wall Street’s original call to arms, are “legion” and have risen from their 4chan roots to become one of the internet’s most impressive activist organizations.

3// Jed Brandt

Brandt, a veteran communist-leaning journalist from New York, spearheaded the Occupy Wall Street Journal’s $50,000 fundraising drive on Kickstarter.

4// Patrick Bruner

Occupy Wall Street’s pointman for media has become a regular presence in the mainstream media.

5// Day of Rage

Aiming to “reclaim democracy,” the Day of Rage collective were one of the co-organizers of Occupy Wall Street.

6// DC 37

New York’s largest municipal employees union has thrown its weight behind Occupy Wall Street, guaranteeing massive local turnout of day-tripping city employees to protests.

7// David Graeber

Graeber, a prominent anthropologist and anarchist activist, played a key part in helping formulate the tactics that made Occupy Wall Street so successful.

8// Richard Ianucci

Ianucci, the president of the powerful New York State United Teachers union, was responsible for much of the turnout to Wednesday’s megamarch.

9// New York City General Assembly

The actual “leaders” of Occupy Wall Street, the General Assembly are a collective who make the decisions that make the large protest flow.

1 Comment John Robb on Real Open Source Leadership at #OccupyWallStreet

  1. AvatarDave Harrison

    It was Isaiah Berlin who attempted to convince us that there are “Two Concepts of Liberty.” If you can convince people that their only choices are “freedom from” and “freedom to” when the truth is that “freedom with” is the solution, then you can successfully co-opt their free will through the simple implementation of behavioral economics.

    At the same time if you can keep it loose, yet manage the crowd through what the International Monetary Fund refers to as their “Enhanced & Consolidated Multilateral Surveillance Network”, you’re good to go.

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