What would an indestructible social movement look like? By now the routine is familiar: as soon as a social movement arises, gaining sudden popularity, it is only a matter of time before leadership rifts emerge, or the members get demoralized, and so striking a lethal blow to a promising organization. The rise and fall of self-organized movements, especially those considered as Leftist, and who draw power from the multitude, hyphenate the last fifty years of world history. All over the world, there have been a myriad of movements, whose instrument has been protests and resistance, but all of which have vanished as soon as they gain influence. Although such organizations might succeed in drawing attention to injustices, or even to projecting an image of an ideal society, they have been less durable. It is this impermanence that shadow all efforts in self-organization, and so persist as an urgent challenge for both current and future social movements.
For the past fifteen weeks, or so, Street Riders NYC, comprising of thousands of cycling activists, has been taking over streets, in what has so far been peaceful protests, but have also witnessed a gratuitous attack. In the first week of September, a motorist plowed through a group of riders in Manhattan. Though Street riders NYC emerged in the aftermath of widespread protests against police brutality, as well as systemic racial injustice, it has considerably become a phenomenon in itself. More than anything, rides through the neighborhoods of New York, apart from projecting a message of solidarity, have been spectacles. The rides can be more than a mile long, diverging the traffic, and constantly pursued by hovering police helicopters. Whenever a procession of Street Riders swarms into a residential neighborhood, singing slogans and bedecked in placards, cheering spectators line the sidewalks and peek through windows. They all stand in awe. The rides have been consistent, appearing every other without fail, and quite discursive, maintaining relevance, leaping from one social theme to another. But still the overarching question is whether or not such horizontal assembly—the circuit of cooperation that binds such movement—would remain relevant even when some of the demands are met?
Such a question is unavoidable, especially today, in our time, with the rise of nationalist, white-supremacist, right-wing, and anti-migration politics. It is an interesting time to live. While migration, the circulation of human population toward the more lucrative sites, for example, is not new, the resistance towards such natural progression of human societies demands equally impassionate voices. It is this role that social movements occupy. Yet the right-wing movements often appear to outlive the more radical social movements fighting against injustice and inequality. For instance, such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan in the United States have maintained relevance, gripping public attention, for more than a century. Most social movements, except as evident in the case of a few post-revolutionary societies, where there are whispers of draconian laws, are often short-lived.
In reflecting on the longevity of such organizations as Street Riders NYC, the question of sustainability, of enabling continuity and a space for solidarity, beyond the current social turbulence, is paramount. The fight for social and racial equality, for instance, has existed for decades, with each generation contributing motivated leaders, but the solutions are yet to be final. Each generation appears to overlap with the one before it. Of some of the social movements in New York, of the late decade, some tactics employed by the Street Riders NYC that reflect and even extend those applied by the defunct Occupy Wall Street, an organization defined by the Washington Post as “a laboratory for participatory democracy.” The peak of Occupy Wall Street was in late 2011, instigated by internet activism, by an Adbusters poster of a ballerina balancing on the monumental Charging Bull (a sculpture synonymous with Wall Street), and which led to hundreds of activists pitching tents in Zuccotti Park, in proximity to New York’s Stock Exchange—considered by many as the heart of capitalism. Occupy Wall Street was a leaderless organization agitating for income equality, but it was also ephemeral, fading away without instituting a permanent change.
But Occupy Wall Street was outstanding for its experimental assembly structures, including splitting up the participants into small groups, who then sat around in a circle sharing and exploring thoughts. Still, the most ingenious tactic of self-organization was what can be defined as the human microphone, in which the participants echoed speeches made by a main participant, creating an impression of concession and a horizontal assembly. The participating multitudes appeared to cooperate without clearly defined rules, operating under the assumption that all participants are motivated enough. Almost as if the absence of a concrete constitution, suggested an absolute trust among those involved, capturing the pedestal upon which self-organization thrives. No doubt Occupy Wall Street Movement thrived, as long as it remained relevant, but without a leadership it swiftly collapsed. Though the cooperation by the multitudes enabled decision-making, decentralizing power, it resulted into an inaction.
Nothing is unnatural, strange, or mysterious about horizontal assembly, for, at the root, is the pursuit for social production. Social production and reproduction, the act of forging sustainable social values and networks, is incremental. It is not only a function of the activism’s instrument of mobilization, but also requires equally concerted efforts in education, cultural production, and social entrepreneurship. If those engaged in self-organization envision a future, an ideal society in which real change is possible, it is then only plausible that such change occurs in an equally transformational context. Acting under the conviction that such self-organized movements can inspire permanent social transformations, is quite unrealistic, as isolated changes can be easily undone. For instance, once the events that inspire such social movements fade out, new regimes, basking under popular support, are more likely to rescind some of the reforms.
Let’s now reflect on social entrepreneurship, as a prominent factor in the array of elements that enable horizontal assembly, and so essential to social production. One has to only observe the operations of current and previous social movements to infer the place of social entrepreneurship. During the Occupy Wall Street campaigns, the core of the activities involved cultural production, as this movement arose in the background of socially conscious art. An instance of social entrepreneurship during the Occupy Wall Street was an outdoor community library, from which participants could pick texts and share knowledge. Similar social entrepreneurship methods have been extended, evolved, in the organization of Street Rider NYC’s protests, whereby the multitudes volunteer, raise funds, and contribute essentials, drinks, and legal and technical support. It is such aspiration of managing the common, of making the essential materials accessible to all, and to support the collective goal, that crystallizes into what I refer to as social entrepreneurship.
In addition, horizontal assembly, the decentralization of power in self-organized movements, signifies a usurpation of representative democracy. Horizontal assembly transfers the responsibility to the multitude, eliminating or discouraging any form of representation—of an individual acting on behalf of the collective. There is no central leadership in horizontal assembly. Everyone involved has the possibility of being a leader at a particular moment, achieved by being responsible and “doing the right thing.” It is even possible that all acts of horizontal assembly not only involve democratic performativity, because of the spectacle created, but also a clash of minorities. Surely, both the protesters and those in power are minorities. Social movements are spectacles in themselves, grabbing the public attention, and often inspired by actions of the motivated few, who are protesting or resisting actions by those in power, and with a knowledge that power is insecure and would protect itself, if necessary, with violence. “The contempt with which the powerful,” writes Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “hold the travails of rebels and protesters does not mask the dread that the movements will proceed from resistance to insurrection—and thus the fear of losing control.” 1
The sooner we realize that without a decision-making mechanism social movements are bound to fail, we will encounter the main challenge of self-organization and horizontal assembly, and what the relevance of leadership is. But leadership has been vilified, and nearly all resistance movements have had leadership as the object of their rage. The struggle can be deduced as a contest between the ruling minority and the agitating minority. Beyond the leadership question, it is the conviction that such movements are not mere performances, mere spectacles, that fade away with time. It might be too soon to write about the current social movements with perspective, as the dynamics are still unfolding, but even at this point we must pose question on endurance of such movements, the possibilities of igniting an irreversible process of social production and reproduction, and of constructing permanent change in attitude. Otherwise, the script will inevitably repeat itself: inspiring social movements here today and tomorrow gone.