Sep 3, 2014

The Iron Law of Ochlocracy (part 2)

A bit tongue-in-cheekily, about a week and a half ago, I coined a neologism - the Iron Law of Ocholcracy - to describe a dynamic which contemporary Marxist theorist, Michael Hardt, outlined in his recent talk at European Graduate School.  Hardt was speculating about two main topics, both having to do with a perceived dearth of emergent and identifiable leadership among recent leftist "leaderless movements."

One of these is the question why leaders aren't emerging -- a question that he noted could be answered partly by the abilities of external forces to eliminate or co-opt apparent "leaders", but whose deeper answer he sought in the very workings, ideals, and ideologies of the groups and movements.  Another is whether this constitutes a real problem or not -- is it a bad thing or a good thing, all told, even when taking into account concerns of effectiveness and continuity, to seemingly dispense with leadership and all that it entails?

I'm not going to worry so much here about the second question.  I'm not even really a "fellow traveler" with Hardt and the sorts of movements he has a stake in -- at best, my views and ideals connect with them at tangents (and those sentiments and commitments of my own are best reserved for other posts).  Suffice it to say, Hardt does not think that leaders are entirely unnecessary or undesirable, but he positions himself staunchly against -- for one striking example -- Slavoj Zizek's insistence that if the non-party, non-governmental, democratic Left wants to actually get anything done, they'd better find themselves a real leader, an Iron Lady, a Master of their own

Why then, turning back to the first question, are leaders not developing within these responsive, democratic, from outside the proverbial beltway movements of the left?  Occupy Wall Street (and to a lesser extent, its spin-off Occupies) is the example Hardt acknowledges will be most familiar (in the sense not that they know about it, but have actually learned something about it over time) to an American audience, so I'll use that as an example here.

One characteristic of such movements is that, although ground can be prepared for them (often by those doing the oppression and exploitation against which they mobilize), and although some coordination is needed in their inception and continuance, they can be characterized as responsive (I don't say merely reactive)-- they arise as "events" (to invoke that much-beloved-and-bandied-about category of recent continental philosophy).  They do involve agency, though from the start not the kind of top-down, leader-follower, vanguard-masses guided, channeled agency of earlier movements -- rather an agency that is multiple, "polyphonic". . .  (dare one even say in some sense agonistic?)

Eventually though, leadership under one guise or another ought to emerge, right?  Isn't that what Robert Michels predicted, in his pretty-reliable Iron Law of Oligarchy?  After all, not everything can be done by consensus.  Plans have to be made and laid, services have to be secured and provided-for. . . and most importantly, any such groups or movements sooner or later have to engage with the agencies of the outside world, the media, civil society, government, even other citizens, and all of those will expect there to be someone who can actually and articulately speak for what this new conglomerate stands for, what they way, what they are for and against.

So, what happens to the leaders -- again, let's set aside nascent leadership being targeted by external forces, and let's also set aside the outsider-becomes-insider kind of selling-out, moving-in-and-on-up that gets called by the much more mundane term "co-opting" (which perhaps has one of its best aural representations in the song One by One)?  That's all old stories, perhaps even perennial ones -- what, instead, one must ask, happens to the leaders, done to them from within?

Hardt's analysis is that it's the very ideology of strong participational democracy, against hierarchy, against reimposition of power relations, against replication of what one is revolting against, that militates against any leadership being able to consolidate itself once it momentarily emerges.  One example he used -- and there are as many variations on this as there are movements -- was the practice of "trashing" among feminists, whereby rising leaders would seemingly generate their own counter-responses.

 Interestingly, while he acknowledged that the human passions -- envy, for example -- might play some isolated role in some cases, he displaces the more cogent explanation for why this would occur to the "structural" -- which I'm willing to go along with, provided we see this "structure" as largely determined by the ideologies of such movements (though I do tend to see more of an interplay between affectivity or the "passions of the human soul," ideology, and agency than he perhaps does -- which doubtless qualifies me as a certain sort of conservative, since, e.g. the writers of the The Federalist Papers, or more applicably in my case, Aristotle, saw these matters in a similar light).

Let's say that his analysis is on-point though.  Whatever the ultimate or even intermediate explanations, there is a dynamic within these "leaderless movements" that works to keep them leaderless.  Is that what I mean by the Iron Law of Ochlocracy?  Not quite. . . there's more to it, and here I do show my old-fashioned stripes, since as I listened to him, three thinkers came to my mind, particularly at their points of confluence -- Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill.

Mill and de Tocqueville sometimes get grouped together under the seemingly oxymoronic rubric of "conservative liberal" -- which doesn't mean the same thing as "classical liberal," let alone "neo-liberal."  The kind of conservatism, if we want to call it that, identifiable as a common theme in these two thinkers is one which, if not by name, certainly by its content, hearkens back to Aristotle, and particularly to his ethico-political works (the Politics, the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics, and the Rhetoric).

One of Aristotle's central insights is the interconnection between activities and practices, goals and values, rationality, affectivity, and habit.  We become adept at something, and come to understand it, only gradually, not necessarily through mechanical, thoughtless repetition, but certainly in a way that does involve doing and choosing similar actions, thoughtfully engaging new situations through developed patterns -- and leadership, which we can understand most broadly as the activity signified by the Greek verb archein ("to rule," "to determine") is no exception. 

To develop as a good leader, one who will use rule not only for the benefit of oneself or a narrow group with whom one identifies, but also the broader community, including those with whom one disagrees, even on fundamental values, does require -- he points out -- an experience of being ruled.  But it just as much involves successively learning how to rule, how to order, how to prioritize, how to enact justice, by taking on active roles, exercising power or authority.

One of the problems with societies in which power-relations predominate as the governing paradigm is precisely that this process of developing-leadership, dependent on recognition of others and other values beyond power (or pleasure) alone, is effectively ruled out (pun intended).  This is why, for example, Aristotle faults "barbarians" for confusing women with slaves (much more to be said about that, of course) -- and why the Mill one might assume from On Liberty would be for maximal freedom everywhere will say in Considerations on Representative Government that some societies are not yet ready for anything beyond despotic rule and relations (again, we can fault some of his factual assumptions, but let's focus on the point).

I realize that I'm entirely side-stepping the role and importance of developing a capacity for self-rule these thinkers continually emphasize -- but what seems to me more relevant is the point that good leadership, understood not in the abstract, but as involved in actual, concrete, human agents, requires that those agents have and take the opportunity to engage in some leadership (usually while themselves being led, to be sure) at lower levels of responsibility.  The fact that they provided particularly good settings for this -- and to a wide variety of people -- was precisely one of the reasons why de Tocqueville praised typically American "intermediate" institutions or associations.

So, to bring this to a close, I'd like to suggest that the lack of emergent leadership in some of these radical, responsive, even populist leftist movements is self-reinforcing.  Keep people from exercising leadership at lower levels, prevent nascent leaders from developing from lower position to higher position -- because of a consistent desire to avoid the negative aspects of leadership, and you rule out the possibility of the gradually developed, admittedly always contingent, embodiment of leadership's positive possibilities.  That's how the Iron Law of Ochlocracy functions.

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