Occupy's 'starfish' protest power

By Giles Fraser
February 28, 2012

An article about Occupy written before the eviction on 28 February 2012.

Take me to your leader," are the first words of any colonising power. No wonder Occupy is so frustrating to those who would negotiate it into some sort of containable or controllable shape. Outside St Paul's, decisions are made by a consensus of the twice-daily general assembly, basically a gathering of whoever turns up. It is, as it were, politics without the politicians. Direct democracy rather than representative democracy.

For those who think in terms of traditional protest movements, this can be seen at best as well-meaning chaos, and at worst as the sort of chaos that can be readily manipulated by charismatic individuals who refuse all the responsibility of leadership while continually shaping the outcome of the decision-making process. At least with traditional models of political leadership, those who are appointed or elected can be called upon to give an account of themselves.

A related criticism is that this radically inclusive process is not well suited to the production of practical proposals. Some think the issue is bankers' pay; some the transparency of the City of London Corporation; some the very existence of capitalism. Those who would dismiss Occupy's significance point out that agreement seems impossible to come by. What can you expect from a bunch of anarchists, after all?

But all this completely misses the point. For it is precisely because Occupy is self-consciously leaderless and maddeningly amorphous that it has so much potential to regenerate the public conversation. Writing about the rise of leaderless organisations, the Stanford MBAs Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom have coined a useful distinction between the starfish and the spider. The great survival advantage of the starfish is that is has a decentralised nervous system. If you cut off the spider's head, it dies. Even if you cut off its leg, it's done for. In contrast, cut a leg off the starfish and it regenerates; indeed, the severed limb can grow a new body. Like the starfish, the power of Occupy is that is has no centralised nervous system.

All of which is a bit of a nightmare for those who would seek to build a relationship with or get any sort of agreement from protest movements like Occupy and UK Uncut. There is no one to phone up or cut a friendly deal with – the traditional modus operandi of the establishment. Similarly there is no recognisable face for the media to use as a spokesperson, and thus no opportunity of equating a leader with a movement, or attacking those in leadership as a means of attacking the movement itself.

Which is why Occupy does not conform to many expectations of what a protest movement ought to look like, particularly concerning leadership. It's a bit like comparing the Encyclopedia Britannica with Wikipedia. Ideas generated from many of the more active members of the St Paul's camp are often pushed away, almost disowned. This is a self-emptying model of political action that is acutely aware that the generation of activity – concerts, lectures, discussions – can create a centrifugal force round a set of individuals, turning them into de facto leaders.

Occupy will survive as long as these people keep refusing leadership. For while mainstream politics continues to be dominated by a narrowing discussion of personalities, and overly centralised on the office of a particular political leader, Occupy points in the other direction. It is ideas based, driven along by a deeply felt conviction that most people have been badly served by the current construction of global capitalism.

Policy wonks and political anoraks will tear their hair out at the non-specific vagueness of all this. But Occupy does not have a specific agenda for change. It does not march under a single banner. Rather, it begins further back: with the idea that lasting change is only possible if more people are sucked into the conversation, more of us educate each other as to the workings and effects of a dysfunctional economy. This is now happening in 95 cities all over the world.

To use the language of Brafman and Beckstrom, Occupy functions as a "catalyst". Those who want leaders to deal with are going to be frustrated. It's all about the issues. Remember the total non-event that was Tony Blair's Big Conversation? Well, this is how you do it properly.

Also: 'The protesters removed from the steps of St Paul's could have helped the cathedral find a compelling new narrative' - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/31/occupy-eviction-st-p...


(c) Giles Fraser is a former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral. He is currently helping out on the leader writer's desk at the Guardian newspaper. This article is adapted from one first published on 12 December 2011, and is reproduced with acknowledgments and thanks. http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/gilesfraser

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