What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.
What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.
Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information. The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.
The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.
Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.
What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.
I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.