Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Interview of Dr Amir Elmi Keshtiban, 5th November 2021.
An article written by Amir and his colleagues in Human Resource Development Quarterly, summarizing his research also inspired this text (Keshtiban, Callahan, & Harris, 2021). Passages of this article have been paraphrased, others quoted.
On October 15th, 2011, the Occupy movement spread from New York, where it had started as Occupy Wall Street, to the city of London (Guardian, 2012). Occupy London inherited all the spontaneous, joyful, pacific, messy, egalitarian, gritty and inspiring characteristics of its illustrious cousin, and echoed its political messages [i]. That night, Occupy London settled and camped on the steps of the St Paul’s Cathedral, a highly symbolic space in London. The protest camp lasted until end January 2012, at which point the police evicted the occupiers.
Like many others, whilst resonating with the core messages of the Occupy Movement, I watched with scepticism, wondering what such a movement, without any visible leaders, no discernible organisation, no programme for the future outside of a few slogans, could ever hope to achieve. And I remember concluding that the whole enterprise looked more desperate than it would itself care to admit.
Meanwhile Amir Keshtiban was watching the same events unfold with a different mindset and with irresistible curiosity. Amir holds a PHD and research and teaching are his full-time occupations. His fields of predilection are alternative forms of organization, critical leadership studies, movement studies, and prefigurative politics. Occupy London eventually became the subject of his doctoral thesis: Leaderlessness and Leaderless Groups: The case of the Occupy London Movement (Keshtiban, 2017). I did not read the whole thesis. But I discovered its key conclusions in the aforementionned article (Keshtiban, Callahan, & Harris, 2021).
Amir had like many others before been fascinated by leaderless movements, in particular those of the arab spring, and when he saw the opportunity to see one up close, he seized it.
I found him by looking on the web for written material about leaderlessness. His thesis came up. My idea what the following: whatever its form, some manner of leadership must always manifest itself in any group of people or indeed animals, that share a common destiny. But I had no way of anchoring that conclusion. There exist thousands of books about leadership, and how to be a better leader, but I have not read anything yet that discusses whether leadership is required and why. I therefore conceived the idea of demonstrating the necessity for leadership by looking at what happened in leaderless groups.
My contention was that if there ever was a leaderless group, surely the absence of leader would mean it could not work properly, meaning it could not function and reach its goals. And I thought Amir might be able to shed some light on this. He and I eventually met online on November 5th, 2021, and our fascinating and passionate conversation inspired this article.
Three times, Amir went to visit the movement’s on the steps of Saint Paul. He stayed distant, but heard about activities happening at the Friends House at Euston [ii]. Before being able to research the movement, he needed to secure an ethical authorisation from his university (With regards in particular to his personnal safety), which came only shortly before the eviction, but still early enough to meet some Occupy participants and collect research material.
After their eviction from the Saint Paul steps, Occupy members still organized workgroups and continued to meet for a while. This was a sort of last attempt to keep the movement alive and stay in touch with each other. From December 2011 to July 2012, Amir commuted from Colchester to London and attended the meetings of the economic group, and used the contacts he made there to elaborate his research [iii].
He met and interviewed Ocuppy members and recorded these conversations which formed a first basis of material to understand the movement from inside. He then completed his research by recording the abundant digital material generated by the movement’s social media accounts and hashtags, press articles and media coverage. This research left a deep imprint on him. Recalling the experience as a defining moment he explained:
It was fascinating to see how they were occupying the steps, and the way they were able to convey messages.
He was also impressed with the courage and tenacity of the occupiers.
When I went there I was really cold, I went back with the train at 7 PM, and I knew they were going to stay there… I admired their courage and the consistency of their messages.
And finally after weeks of trial and error to establish contacts, when interviewing the people at the Friends House:
I got to a level of brotherly feeling, sensed a deep connection with them.
The research process itself was impeded at first, because the movements’ participants were strongly reluctant to express themselves about leadership. The reason invoked was that the movement itself advocated egalitarian non-hierarchical forms of organizing. It worked on a very horizontal basis, and everyone involved had more or less the possibility to contribute in whichever capacity was theirs. Some people had coordination roles that might from the outside have looked as “management” but in fact never claimed to be or were acknowledged as such.
Despite, or with, this absence of visible structure for leadership, the movement had momentum, a set of messages and defining cultural traits. Amir was most surprised by this. There was consistency in the way the members of the movement acted. This clearly denoted that the movement had a will of its own, which expressed itself clearly: “It” – the Occupy movement – wanted to be somewhere and say something.
In spite of its visible messiness, regardless of its spontaneous and emergent nature, the way the movement conducted itself had many hallmarks of a properly led enterprise. It had rituals, it had messages, it occupied a symbolic space and captured worldwide attention. And what’s more, their messages were not only relevant and interesting, they were very easy to understand. Amir therefore concluded:
The fact that no leader was identifiable did not mean that leadership was absent.
My own thoughts had wandered another path. At some point I had considered that maybe the movement had hidden leaders, who did not reveal themselves to better underline their egalitarian message. The latter would in fact have meant some form of disingenuous behaviour. But the Occupy London movement was nothing if not authentic. Why otherwise would thousands of people go out in freezing winter temperatures, and camp for three months under relentless media scrutiny and the threat of impending forceful eviction by police forces? I concluded that their claim of leaderlessness was genuine.
Eventually, the only possible conclusion is that being leader-less does not mean being leadership-less. Amir then went on to study how leadership works in organisations where the powers of decision-making, usually vested in a person or small group of people, more or less rested with the whole organisation itself. And he found a treasure trove of inventive ideas, none of which were actually new. If specific people were not meant to incarnate leadership for Occupy London, then places, symbols and spectacles would.
Occupy London settled on the steps of the St Paul’s Cathedral. Consecrated in 1240, the Cathedral is of unique historical significance for the UK [iv]. Anything that happens to or around St Paul’s Cathedral speaks to the very soul of the British.
Then there were places inside the movement itself. Maybe from the outside, and for the untrained eye, the protest camp was just that, a ramshackle and colourful gathering of temporary living quarters. Yet among the first tents erected within the camp were “first aid, “University”, a library, a cinema and recycling” (Keshtiban, Callahan, & Harris, 2021). This protest camp was in fact a small city where functional locations were meant to provide services to its citizens, and they visibly cared for culture and education. “There were also thematic groups gathering to discuss around economy, communications, health and safety, and report their thinking to the general assembly” (idem). Finally, the movement also invested many online spaces in parallel, which gave a real-time worldwide echo to their experience, and allowed the movement to continue its existence after the eviction though it took a while before the movement found a viable way to operate online.
Because no-one really was in charge of the camp itself, it had no mayor or camp manager, every inhabitant of this temporary city felt imbued with a sense of responsibility towards it.
All occupants interviewed by Amir recall the intoxicating feeling of connection they felt, the way it shaped as a community, which made free education, health services, and soup kitchen available. They recall the way it enabled people to bond across all divides of race, education or wealth.
One of the most prominent symbols of the movement was the use of the Guy Fawkes mask. This mask also known as the “Anonymous Mask” carried the meaning of an egalitarian society. It further emphasized the desire for a leaderless world, by simply putting no one above anyone else.
Because social media accounts have passwords, the knowledge of such a password constitutes a form of power (The power of restricting access). Giving free access to the account would have been detrimental as well, because then anyone, even people adverse to the movement, would have been able to post content in its name. The movement worked around this problem by using hashtags on social media. Occupy London hashtags also quickly acquired the status of symbols.
One way of looking at Occupy London would be to say that it put on a good show. But spectacles played no other function for Occupy London than a million other perfectly acceptable and even ritual spectacles play out every day in companies, government, schools, churches, and every human organisation in the world [v].
Occupy London had spectacular general assemblies on the steps of St Paul’s. It had a host of meaning making memes circulating on the web, displayed on billboards and banners all around and at the camping sites. The eviction itself, hand-filmed by participants using their phones, entered history as a spectacle of significance, that of a well-meaning egalitarian and reform-minded assembly being forcibly removed by the Police for troubling public order.
Spectacles further an organisation or movement’s goal by addressing its messages in expressive form, to recruit members, promote its goals and the meaning of its own existence. They are the bread and butter of virtually any human organisation, and play an enormous role in conveying its values, objectives and strategies.
Amir’s thesis is not for the faint hearted. It’s not one where strict mathematical deduction and rigorous calculus will lead us to a never-before-seen, yet now undeniable conclusion. It was a work of interpretation and reinterpretation, to produce a vision of how mankind works, that may find plausible evidence in the events that unfolded on the steps of St Paul’s. Thinking the journey of humanity is not exact science. It takes patience, observation, and daring.
I had initially looked at Occupy London as a hopeless attempt to change the world in one go. I suppose none of the occupants were that naïve about the chances of that succeeding. Yet they still went. Why then?
Maybe because their attempt was simply not to change the world, I mean not literally, but rather show us a dream. A dream of a more equal, engaging society, where authentic human bonding forms the basis of communities. A society that has moved away from what Michael Sandel chillingly describes as “Market Societies”, where blind belief in market logic crowds the humanness out of life. A dream of communities where basic health, food, and education are accessible, for no money, and for all, and where power is equally shared between citizens. They did not really attempt to implement their dream (Some occupiers had to go back home at night, if only because sleeping out in the cold with kids is not great), but rather successfully let us share its meaning and significance.
In so doing they also triggered our imagination, and as we all know, when humans start imagining, change is already on the march. In this sense then, by adding to a growing narrative about the end of capitalism, and the need for mankind to re-found its societies on a different approach, Occupy London did change the world.
Does it matter that the demonstrative phase of the Occupy London movement ended up with an eviction? Does that prove it was inept? On the contrary I think… the eviction demonstrated very clearly that this appealing dream of a more equal society is not a form of social organisation our world is ready to accept yet. This spectacle was the one that signed its success, that made the point very clearly…
… because I, and I suspect many others, could not help but feel sympathy for the occupiers, and a vague sentiment of sadness when forceful eviction ended up being the only way…
Amir dared looking at Occupy London as a successful movement. And so can we.
Who are we to decide that to be successful, an organisation should endure, or grow? Could a temporary form of action be considered a success if it reached its goals in expressing its messages? Should all organisations have a hierarchical structure?
In the end, Occupy London also forces us to revisit our inherited certainties (In my Gestalt jargon I would say: introjects). Leadership and leaders are not the same thing. Leadership is not one person, or even one team. It does not need to be people at all. In Amir's words:
Leadership is the way an organisation makes meaning of the world around it and choses a direction to go.
That means it’s a living process that inhabits the whole organisation, that pervades the whole group.
It seems easier when leadership is embodied by one or a small group of people at the top. It is everything but. As soon as these people stop listening to those they are supposedly leading, terrible things happen. The Netflix Documentary titled Downfall, the case against Boeing, perfectly illustrates this, the very Nemesis that Occupy London is warning us against.
So, Occupy London helps us reconsider leadership not as a thing, but as a living process which animates any group. It convincingly contends that even if the alternative is not defined yet, I, we, mankind, must not stop looking for alternative ways of organising our societies, under threat of self- destruction. And it did all of this without us having to do anything, the information was delivered to us by global media, well presented, easy to understand in a set of messages articulated around places, symbols and spectacles.
To me it said:
At the heart of every human is a yearning for equality in dignity between people and their possibility to access life’s necessities, that are food, shelter, knowledge and the arts. And that yearning is currently not compatible with the way our societies are organised.
And you… what did you hear?
About Amir Keshtiban
Amir is a senior lecturer at the University of Northumbria. He lives in Newcastle with his wife and son. Our conversations about Occupy were rich, insightful and have left a deep imprint on my soul. He is a most joyful companion, and I am proud to call him a friend.
Guardian, T. (2012, January 18). Occupy London: timeline of the St Paul's Cathedral protest camp. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/jan/18/occupy-london-timeline-protest-camp
Keshtiban, A. E. (2017). Leaderlessness and Leaderless Groups: The case of the Occupy London Movement. Essex Business School - University of Essex.
Keshtiban, A. E., Callahan, J. L., & Harris, M. (2021, October 9). Leaderlessness in social movements: Advancing space, symbols, and spectacle as modes of "Leadership". Human Resource Development Quarterly, p. 25. doi:10.1002
[i] It is worthy to note that both movement followed the Arab Spring movements which swept the arab world in 2010 and evolved in open ended national crisis or even civil war in some countries.
[ii] The Friends House is a meetings and events space for rent close to Euston. Occupy participants rented spaces there throughout the Occupy London movement and afterwards.
[iii] Whilst it had started at St Paul’s Cathedral in October 2011 and the eviction took place end January, the movement itself lasted a bit longer. It did so maybe in a less visible form than before, but with online and physical meeting places, which means that participants and witnesses of the occupation of the St Paul’s Cathedral steps were still reachable and easily findable for months after the eviction itself, in particular at the Friends House at Euston and the Nero Coffee Shop at Euston.
[iv] It has witnessed the funerals of Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill, and Baroness Thatcher, the 2002 Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. In its crypt rest many famous Britons from Ethelred the unready, who died in 1016, to Sir Alexander Fleming, to whom we owe Penicillin, who died in 1955. It was targeted by suffragettes’ terror attacks in 1913 and 1914, and survived WWII bombing. Link - Link
[v] Think of all-hands calls or investor presentations for companies, state ceremonies for countries, end-of term countdown for schools, and religious services in all places of worship…