An Occupier’s Thoughts On Leadership and Authority

We’ve all heard it a million times since mid-September: “Occupy is a leaderless movement.”  But what does that mean, really?  According to our friend Wikipedia, a “leaderless movement” means:

Leaderless resistance, or phantom cell structure, is a political resistance strategy in which small, independent groups (covert cells), including individuals (solo cells), challenge an established adversary such as a government. Leaderless resistance can encompass anything from non-violent disruption and civil disobedience to bombingsassassinations and other violent agitation. Leaderless cells lack bidirectional, vertical command links and operate without hierarchal command.[1] While it lacks a central command, the concept does not necessarily imply lack of cooperation.Wikipedia

Using this definition, is Occupy really a leaderless movement?  In a sense, yes: we have no central command center, no ruling elite, no authority figure from which to take direction.  But is this really “leaderless”?

I see leaders all the time within my local Occupy movement.  I see brave individuals bottom-lining tasks, taking initiative to make widespread change, and helping others learn how to best fight the establishment system.  I see leaders teaching everything from non-violent direct action tactics to tai chi to the philosophies of different political and economic ideologies.  Leaders are all over the place in Occupy; rather than saying we’re leaderless, I think we’re best described as a movement full of leaders.  What the Occupy movement lacks isn’t leaders, but authority figures.  From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of AUTHORITY

(1): a citation (as from a book or file) used in defense or support (2): the source from which the citation is drawn (1): a conclusive statement or set of statements (as an official decision of a court) (2): a decision taken as a precedent (3)testimony c: an individual cited or appealed to as an expert
a: power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behaviorb: freedom granted by one in authorityright
a: persons in command; specificallygovernment b: a governmental agency or corporation to administer a revenue-producing public enterprise <the transit authority>
a : groundswarrant <had excellent authority for believing the claim> b : convincing force <lent authority to the performance>



The concept of “authority” is a frequently-discussed and debated one among Occupiers, especially in light of abuse experienced at the hands of the police and other law enforcement — the epitome of authority in the eyes of most.  And, as many Occupiers self-identify as anarchists, the concept of authority is especially relevant.  Anarchy, as Wikipedia defines the term, and as most self-identified anarchists (that I’ve spoken with) understand it, is

Anarchy (from Greek: ἀναρχίᾱ anarchíā), has more than one definition. In the United States, the term “anarchy” typically is meant to refer to a society without a publicly enforced government or violently enforced political authority. When used in this sense, anarchy may or may not be intended to imply political disorder or lawlessness within a society.

Outside of the US, and by most individuals that self-identify as anarchists, it implies a system of governance, mostly theoretical at a nation state level although there are a few successful historical examples, that goes to lengths to avoid the use of coercion, violence, force and authority, while still producing a productive and desirable society.


While it would be inaccurate to say that most Occupiers identify as anarchists (such a claim is unlikely to be empirically proven), opposition to illegitimate authority in terms of coercion and force are recurring themes within the movement, and anarchist philosophy is often credited as being somewhat of a backbone of the formation of the movement, despite being a scapegoat for the majority of the actions the public views as problematic.

While the concept of authority — at least, of the illegitimate sort — is one that many Occupiers eye warily, the concept of leadership shouldn’t be.  We’re all leaders, and we all should be; with leadership — non-authoritative, generous, and productive leadership — we all become better equipped to handle the challenges we face in fighting for a better world.

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