The Iron Law of Ochlocracy (part 1)

This last week, with the exception of the night of my birthday, I've been attending a nightly series of stimulating lectures -- one of the benefits of being accorded Visiting Scholar status at European Graduate school this year -- one of which was delivered by Michael Hardt, probably best known outside of progressive and revolutionary academic circles for his collaborative work, Empire (with Antonio Negri).

Hardt used the lecture as an opportunity to set out a project he has been working on, but has not yet consolidated into a fully polished form.  The central question or problem was that of leadership among non-party, often-marginal, but revolutionary and radically democratic "leaderless movements," Occupy being the one most familiar to us Americans, but comprising a number of different, usually rather transient, and only occasionally effective movements worldwide over the last two decades or so. 

There were a number of key questions intertwined in his analyses and explored during the discussions, a central one being:  do these leaderless movements need some sort of leadership?  Along with leadership, on the positive side of the balance, goes the effectiveness which becomes possible for organizations that have some direction -- and following along with this, the possibility of continuity.  It's also important, even if some individuals and groups may have progressed so far that they no longer have psychological needs for some sort of representation (and that's a hypothesis I find pretty unlikely, but then, I'm not a progressive!), that in dealing with other groups, and in locating themselves within civil society and the broader culture, that there be some sort of "face," someone who can reliably speak for the group and its members, a node through which interaction and negotiations with other entities can occur.

So, why are there no leaders?  Hardt asked. It's not as if there weren't leaders in past revolutionary, progressive, even reform movements. . . . Some, like Lenin, even provide a theory that attempts to explain precisely why leadership remains necessary.  Is it that anyone who rises to an acknowledged status as a leader is targeted by the forces of the Right, of reaction, of repression, of pragmatic business as usual, etc. -- you know, the "bad guys" of the narratives of the Left?  We might add to this the possibility of potential leaders being sold out by those not so far to the Left as them.  Are leaders co-opted, brought into the systems of self-reproducing repression, exploitation, ideological mystification, transformed into well-paid turncoats who occupy the social space of the revolutionary, keeping out any new talent?

Those things do occur, but as Hardt pointed out, what militates perhaps even more against the development of leadership in these kinds of movements are their very understandings and aspirations for that all-too-protean ideal (my assessment there, not his), "democracy."  The ways in which the members of these movements tend to conceive of "democracy," as well as a number of other related values or good things, tends to eliminate candidates for any real leadership, in the very process of their becoming leaders.  How? (and Why?)

Leadership of any sort involves there being a ruling and a being-ruled (even if it might be exchanged between those involved taking turns, as Aristotle suggests as a model).  It involves someone determining matters, making choices for others, speaking for them, settling meanings and policies -- and that's at its most stripped-down and most innocuous -- and even that is objectionable to many people.  It introduces, or reproduces, the establishment of hierarchies or even bureaucracies, the exercise or imposition of power, exploitation, subjection. . .  Even if would-be-leaders express the best intentions, they arouse the suspicions that this conceals a will-to-power, a libido domini, an ideological blindness to effects of their position and power -- and if there are "structural" issues or factors at work, maybe even if they really have the best intentions, leadership by its own nature will turn out to be anti-democratic, counter-revolutionary, non-progressive.

There's much more to be said about Hardt's views on how all of this works -- the dynamics in play -- with which I found myself in only partial agreement.  I'll do that in a follow-up post.  To bring this to a close, though, I'd like to propose a neologism, one in some respects not only analogous to but also a reversal of the "iron law of oligarchy" forged by the social theorist Robert Michels, in his classic study, Political Parties.  Michels argued that in all institutions and groups -- even those deliberately oriented and organized along democratic, participatory, inclusive lines -- end up being governed and determined by an elite, by a leadership.  This can be open, obvious, intended, or it can occur contrary to intentions and expectations -- but it will occur.

What I see Hardt describing is in reality a much more circumscribed phenomenon -- it doesn't apply to groups or movements which actually do already have, and often don't have any problem with having leaders (and going beyond them, an institution or expectation of leadership).  It does, however, apply to those newer "leaderless," intentionally participatory, radical or revolutionary movements, mainly on the Left.  Perhaps there is a predictable regularity, stemming from the interpenetration of contemporary democratic, anti-elitist ideology with the workings of human passions as well as with the shapes and structures leadership not only imposes but requires.

If this is so, we can expect these sorts and instances of "leaderless movements" will remain precisely so -- and thereby lack the effectiveness and continuity (perhaps even the broader cultural, civil-societal, and political relevance) provided at least in part by existing and exercising leadership.  Potential leaders will arise, and be on one pretext or another cut down to size, leveled away, precisely because their movement into an elite status becomes registered as incompatible with the central aspirations and avowed values of the "multitude," the crowd of individuals, in the convenient parlance of classical Greek political discourse, the ochlos.

So, I propose we coin a term to describe this -- an "iron law of ochlocracy."