“Horizontal” Organizing and Occupy Wall Street

Photo Credit: Kathleen Horan

NEW YORK (Frameshop) – WYNC leads, this morning, with an interesting post about Occupy Wall Street (OWS) by reporter Kathleen Horan.  The article is valuable because it offers a description of the signature anarchist organizing techniques at work in OWS.  Curiously, terms like direct action, horizontalism, leaderless structure, block,  are presented without once using the word “anarchist” by way of establishing a broader context for the reader. Nonetheless, the article is well worth reading and suggests, by virtue of having been written, that a small part of the mainstream media has shifted from casting aspersions on OWS in order to lay down a baseline description.  Besides a bunch of people discussing direct actions without a leader, what is “horizontal” organizing and why is it so important for OWS?

Mountains of literature has been produced in an effort to define horizontal organization, but perhaps the most important place to start is with a question: Why choose a horizontal approach to organizing–why does a group like OWS choose this approach at all?

To answer this question, we need to pick up the term “authoritarianism” and the related concept “hierarchy” or “top down” structure.

OWS, in other words, is not just opposed to a system that produces and benefits from criminally unjust disparities in wealth–a system OWS names “Wall Street”–but at a deeper level are opposed to the coercive, destructive, hierarchical authoritarianism inherent in such a system.  Even if reforms are put in practice, if the authoritarianism of the system is left in place, the suppression of freedom that lies at the heart of economic injustice will, ultimately, reproduce itself anew.

Thus, rather than begin by presenting a list of demands to the authoritarian system responsible for producing and defending global economic injustice, OWS chose instead to start anew as if they were already free of that system.

For OWS, acting as if one were already free of an unjust system took the form of a direct action to occupy or seize central urban spaces and use them as launching grounds for permanent places for indicting government and the financial sector. This initial act by OWS is summed up perfectly by David Graeber in Direct Action: An Ethnography (pp. 202-203)

In its essence direct action is the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free.

If direct action is the “insistence…on acting as if one is already free,” one cannot plan that action using the same top-down organizing structures hardwired into the authoritarian system of injustice.

To escape the problem of reproducing authoritarianism in the planning phase of carrying out direct action against Wall Street, OWS chose horizontal organizing.  And they did so following a long tradition of anarchist organizers making the same decision, most recently the organizers involved in the various direct under the rubric People’s Global Action, which began a series of direct actions against Neoliberalism in 1997.

The context for horizontal organizing is (a) much larger than OWS, (b) was brought to OWS by people who have practiced it predominantly since the 1990s in the context of a global movement against global injustice, and (c) places the core organizers of OWS firmly within the tradition of anarchist movements.

Here it is crucial to introduce a distinguish between OWS “leaders”–which the movement explicitly rejects–and members of OWS who, by virtue of their experiences in the global movement against Neoliberalism, brought to OWS extensive familiarity with horizontal organizing. The working group has experienced members who choose not to identify themselves as leaders, but who have been responsible for teaching new members the basics of horizontal organizing.

Perhaps more importantly, the fact that the working groups with their horizontal meeting style have for the first time in the history of anarchism become visible through press coverage to the general public–is a change introduced by OWS whose significance cannot be overstated.

The broadcast version of Kathleen Horan’s WNYC piece captures the tension between public and private inherent in OWS horizontal organizing thus far.

Horan shows up to the direct action meetings, listens for a while, but is in some cases asked to leave the meeting after her participation is blocked.

Indeed, as Graeber points out in the introduction to Direct Action, while anarchist organizers have participated in horizontal organizing for decades, its existence and details were virtually unknown outside of anarchist activist circles.

OWS has made done more in two months to spread awareness of horizontal organizing than 150 years of anarchist scholarship, magazines, and collectives. And yet, most of this awareness is spreading without any discussion of the anarchist context.

The discussion of horizontal organizing in the press has allowed the public to see, for starters, that OWS as a social and political movement did not begin with the first people appearing in Zuccotti Park.  Rather, by discussing OWS and its roots in earlier and ongoing organizing efforts in the anti-neoliberal movement, we can begin to see how far OWS as a social, political, and cultural phenomenon extends behind the confines of a few public squares.

The lasting power of OWS–the strength of the movement–is the way the occupations have brought exponentially more people into the value and experience of horizontal organizing.  And now that thousands of new people have experienced horizontally organized planning sessions, they can become the next generation of people who show up to meetings with enough experience to explain the process to new participants.

When seen in this light, all the questions about whether or not OWS can survive when it suddenly becomes to cold to sleep outside or when cops finally use enough force to clear the square–these questions are miss the point completely.

Neither cold weather nor the crack of a nightstick can diminish the enthusiasm and idealism OWS participants have experienced as a result of their first experiences with horizontal organizing.

Even if the initial direct actions are crushed, even if masses of people are arrested, thousands of new people have been brought inside a set of practices that require little more than a handful of people and a shared space.

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