Leadership and the myth of apathy

Leadership and the myth of apathy

Why aren't we rising up? Whether the 'we' in question is young people, the British people, or the poor, this is a question asked an awful lot by both mainstream and leftist commentators. Austerity, job cuts, pay freezes, workfare, poverty, food banks, police brutality, political corruption - it's all the rage, so why aren't we all enraged?

There are two standard answers on the left: apathy and the lack of leadership. Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I'm a Celebrity and 'I'm alright Jack,' or they just don't have the right hero to lead them into battle. The left wing rabble rousers of the past are dead and gone and we need people to replace them and rally the workers.

The trouble is, both of these answers are wrong. Moreover, they play into a convenient myth that helps the pale, stale males of the authoritarian left sustain themselves while doing nothing at all to stop the world around us decaying into shit.

People are not apathetic

Well, sure, some are. Everyone knows at least one person who's aggressively and proudly apolitical. They "don't want none of that" if anything halfway substantial comes up in conversation, yet it always turns out that they've internalised the narratives of the right wing press on how immigrants and scroungers are to blame for everything.

These people do exist, but to tout them as an archetype for the public-at-large and that's just wrong.

There's a level of truth, as with any stereotype. But when the world's full of problems and there's no effective counter to the dominant narrative (we'll get to that) then of course you take the answers available. Even if they're racist, classist and built on a foundation of lies.

But speak to the vast majority of people, and they're not apathetic. They have opinions on political issues. A great many have a fairly solid unconscious understanding of class and their lot in life. Where they have internalised ruling class ideology, they're smart enough to realise and change their mind if you engage with them and talk to them.

This goes against the labels thrown around, particularly by crackerjack hacktivists such as Anonymous and batshit conspiracy theorists but also by some on the left, such as 'sheeple' and suggestions that everyone not already out on the streets protesting is brainwashed. In fact, they're alienated, exploited and oppressed under capitalism and this kind of activist mentality is toxic and does nothing to advance the class struggle.

So what about the supposed 'need' for leaders?

Resistance doesn't happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

But while this could be considered a type of leadership - a 'leadership of ideas,' for want of a better term - it's not leadership in the sense that most on the left mean it.

When the left's kind of leadership emerges it's easy to recognise - it involves representation by prominent spokespeople instead of empowering people to act for themselves. It involves executive power concentrated in the hands of a few. It involves a division of labour between 'activists' and 'intellectuals.' It involves a clear hierarchy with activity directed from above and disagreement of any kind condemned as 'divisive' or 'sectarian.'

By and large, people don't want this. When this kind of leadership emerges, if it fills a vacuum then it will attract people - at first. The vast majority of people will tire of being directed like pawns, treated as an expendable resource and having little to no say in decision making. This is not only why the leftist confessional sects such as the Socialist Party, SWP and so on have such a high turnover of membership, their cadres a minorrity next to their paper membership, but also why the fronts they set up lose momentum once the formulaic authoritarianism loses its novelty.

It's also why movements which have arisen in the wake of the crisis have lacked this kind of hierarchical structure. UK Uncut and Occupy being the most commonly cited examples. In the fight against the Bedroom Tax, local groups acted for themselves and built up horizontal federations while the Trot fronts seeking to capitalise on the struggle floundered on the sidelines.

But there's still a gap that needs filling. The Occupys of this world have their own flaws, the 'tyranny of structureless' meaning that invisible hierarchies tend to emerge and those who seek to 'represent' others by imposing their own views on the collective don't have to deal with formal representative democracy.

We need organisation and democracy, but it should be non-hierarchical organisation and direct democracy. Organisers should seek to give people the confidence to act for themselves, not merely to follow the organiser and keep them in their position for a long time to come. Officers should be mandated delegates with limited tenure, no executive power and the ability to be recalled by the mass. Democracy should mean making the decisions for ourselves, as in a strike ballot, rather than electing someone else to make decisions for us, as in a general election.

People as a broader whole are not apathetic, nor are they waiting for a leader. If we are led, then the destination is never freedom but a different kind of domination. If we want an uprising, then it requires hard work, patience, agitation and most importantly a desire to organise so that we can all fight for ourselves rather than being chewed up and spat out by any one of the myriad, toxic would-be leaderships that the authoritarian left has to offer.

Posted By

Phil
Apr 4 2014 20:42

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Pennoid
Apr 4 2014 22:50
Quote:
Resistance doesn't happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.

Fuck and Yes.

Spot on.

ajjohnstone
Apr 5 2014 04:57

By coincidence a couple of weeks ago i posted this "Who needs Leaders"

http://www.countercurrents.org/johnstone280314.htm

Y
Apr 5 2014 12:10

The issue is the wage system. The workers don't get it. Neither does the left. After decades of boring from within the capitalist system all workers have got to show for it are social democratic reforms which are now being steadily gnawed away by the capitalist class and their cronies in the political State.

Chilli Sauce
Apr 5 2014 13:44

Phil, this is really good. I mean, I always really enjoy your pieces, but this one was spot-on.

FWIW, I'd like to see someone expand on ideas like this:

Quote:
Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I'm a Celebrity and 'I'm alright Jack,'

to write a good, concrete blog ripping apart the immiseration theory of class struggle.

Spikymike
Apr 5 2014 13:48

As much as I agree with the thrust of the anti-leadership arguments of both Phil's blog and ajj's post on 'countercurrents' as to 'how things should be' neither really get to grips with (in fact they ignore) the historical failure of revolution and the variabillity of class and socialist/communist consciousness in different situations at different stages of capitalism's development, which must surely come down to more than the adequacy or otherwise of any 'alternative narrative' put forward by pro-revolutionary minorities who's size and influence has been just as variable as with the rest of our class over time.

This problem was addressed in a rather inconclusive way in the latter part of an MDF follow-up discussion thread and some other linked threads here:

http://libcom.org/forums/announcements/midlands-discussion-forum-workers-councils-or-parliament-27012014

Webby
Apr 5 2014 15:03

Partly I think it's a matter of terminology. 'Leaders' put in a position to direct or govern are obviously at odds with the anarchist position. I don't think that means that people can't be put in a position of trust, or that we shouldn't look for guidance from others with more experience or particular organisational abilities. I suppose what I'm saying is that I would consider individuals such as these to be leaders. As long as they have no power to control, dictate or decide and are fully accountable to those that they are acting for I see no problem.

Kureigo-San
Apr 5 2014 17:17

To add to what Webby said, there should be no problem with leadership as long as it's earned by demonstrating that they are actually doing what it is that's supposed to be getting done. 'Leaders' leaves a foul taste in most of our mouths because most of us have only ever known leaders to be leaders based on ANYTHING BUT how good they actually are at their function.

Just for instance I have absolutely no experience organising a workplace. If in some hypothetical situation a colleague had more experience than me at this, then I'd have little problem in viewing her as some kind of leader. But not in some absolutist and permanent way. She's only 'leader' insofar as she acts in my interests. So the matter seems to be one of frequent and critical assessment of those we dub 'leaders', based on what they're actually up to and how useful it is to the original goal.
Leaders as we know them are shit because they are left to it and given disproportionate trust.

Chilli Sauce
Apr 5 2014 17:11
Quote:
get to grips with (in fact they ignore) the historical failure of revolution and the variabillity of class and socialist/communist consciousness in different situations at different stages of capitalism's development

Yeah, Phil, why didn't you cover this in your blog. wink

Webby, good post. FWIW, leaders are talked about in both the IWW and the SF organiser training and we definitely get a lot of knee-jerk responses from anarchists just from the use of the term.

sometimes explode
Apr 6 2014 01:08
Chilli Sauce wrote:
FWIW, I'd like to see someone expand on ideas like this:
Quote:
Either people are too engrossed in their own little world of X Factor, I'm a Celebrity and 'I'm alright Jack,'

I think Baudrillard is a good place to go for this. Not just for why its bullshit but why it gets said. He wrote about "the masses" as the subject of these kinds of declarations. Whenever someone says that people are too absorbed in the culture industry, kept distracted and so on, Baudrillard says that this is talk about "the masses", a subject that differs from the class or "the people", insofar as it means something like 'that mass of people that this sentence refers to'. But when someone says "they just watch TV" or "the sheeple are brainwashed" and all that shit what they're talking about is this mass subject. The perfect example of the masses comes via opinion polls. What do "the masses think", well, let's do an opinion poll and find out.

Aside from the issues about the subjective accuracy of self-reporting, the problem of quantification of what people think, the issues of representation and analysis of that representation, Baudrillard thinks this is pure bullshit.Just as with his general media theory, the opinion poll is a semiotic production that has no referent: the masses doesn't exist outside of the representation of the masses via the opinion poll. In other words, sentences like "most people are absorbed by x-factor" has no truth outside of its own construction. In that sense these kinds of statements about the world aren't representations about a state of affairs but create their own subject that they then pretend they are talking about. In pretending to be talking about the masses, people are actually talking the masses into existence.

The problem with Baudrillard is where he veers into the idea of hyperconformity as resistance: the masses, thus produced, then refuse to act, remain silent, watch the screen, keep brainwashed. In one sense I think this might be a kind of attempt to reverse Tronti's formula: if the class generates the conditions to which capital must respond, and the class is thereby the true engine of capitalism, then the masses refuse to participate by responding and thereby leave capitalism stagnant and dead. In Marx's more gothic language, they refuse to feed the vampire but do so by adopting the position of passivity.

I think we could go with Baudrillard up to the idea about the production of the masses/the sheeple/ the engrossed (a name that goes back to Seneca) but say, rather than purely being simulations with no referents, these are discursive acts that attempt to induce the existence of a passive mass subject. What I mean here is that the Anonymous crowd, for instance, when they declare "the sheeple are brainwashed" are actually saying "you (the sheeple) must be brainwashed so that I can be the awakened". Everything about these statements, that don't refer to actual people or groups but to this anonymous everyone/no-one, is designed, consciously or not- it doesn't really matter- to bring that subject into concrete existence. The real problem with this isn't that it works, it rarely does, but that it is itself a very specific kind of stupidity. It is stupid and blind to the way people make use of X-Factor etc., why it is they might watch these shows.

I'm gunna be writing more up on this when I get to writing on Laing. The idea of "inducement" is something he goes into a lot, and its very compelling.

Webby
Apr 6 2014 06:10

A simple point:

When I get home from working a 10 hour day with 4 or 5 hours driving on top I'm too knackered to do anything except watch shit on TV. Brainwashed? Nope. Braindead? Very nearly.

Chilli Sauce
Apr 6 2014 10:32

That sounds like blog material to me, Webby....

Steven.
Apr 6 2014 12:04
Webby wrote:
A simple point:

When I get home from working a 10 hour day with 4 or 5 hours driving on top I'm too knackered to do anything except watch shit on TV. Brainwashed? Nope. Braindead? Very nearly.

TBH I feel the same. I mean, I don't work that much and I don't drive, but I do watch a lot of TV in my downtime. I would like to write more, and of other "productive" things like improve my foreign-language skills etc but I just don't have the energy. Also it's kind of annoying but nowadays post-Wire there is quite a lot of good TV…

Spikymike
Apr 6 2014 14:29

Chilli,

My earlier post was maybe a bit on the 'heavy' side and therefor perhaps justifying your usual sarcasm, but I was trying to draw attention to what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be some assumptions behind both contributions and mainly in response to Phil's opening paragraph rather than his correct criticism of typical left wing responses to that.

It was also part of my persistent, if rarely rewarded, attempt to link different but related discussion threads on this site. Critical discussion would ideally be the lifeblood of this site but is often reduced to mere 'chit chat' and 'soundbites' and unecessary repetition.

So in that continueing effort perhaps this (sympathetic to SolFed) related matter will be more to your liking:
http://libcom.org/library/capitalist-realism-renewed

snowflake
Apr 11 2014 11:51

'Resistance doesn't happen spontaneously. It happens when people organise, make conscious decisions and act upon them. This requires people to take the initiative, the sharing out of roles and responsibilities, and not a bit of education and agitation.'

This is key - if we do this effectively any debate about apathy or criticism of the authoritarian left becomes irrelevant. So why aren't anarchists more successful at what we do? I would point toward an aversion to formal organisation, lack of accountability and responsibility within groups, failure to plan and set strategic aims and targets, no evaluation of what campaigning methods work, tendency to work in short-term reactive campaigns. Also what has to be called sectarianism and frontism. sure we are a lot nicer to each other than the trots but the huge number of single issue campaigns run by anarchists and the range of explicitly anarchist organisations doing almost the same thing is inefficient and divisive.