Do we need leaders when our most pressing task is to collapse with as much, or as little, grace as we can muster? Do we need to maintain the fiction that leaders are necessary?
Movements require leaders to galvanize the masses and run herd on them. Movements are mechanisms to chain us to ideologies, not ways to discover and then deal with conditions affecting our lives. The manifestations of public outrage today are not movements. They are made up of people fed-up with being chained to the agendas of others. Their lack of leaders is not a “growing pain” or a “stage” to be outgrown. Their power comes from the alignment of a multitude of individuals who have each reached some point at which they chose to refuse to accept their continued exploitation.
To willfully accept a new crop of exploiters eager to fill the “vacuum” would be a loss. To see new leaders as “saviors” would be a defeat of what is most telling in these moments. To succumb to such an imposition while maintaining a memory of what had happened and maintaining their defiance for another day would not be a loss or a defeat. Their refusal is against exploitation itself, not a particular regime. Their victory comes from their refusal to accept a fresh harness. It’s imposition is not their defeat, just a set-back.
In a time of collapse the expected measure of a “positive” outcome needs total revision. A new “successful” leadership means a re-imposition of the collective fantasy that leadership brings with it beneficial control over our conditions. This is a dangerous fantasy. It only brings a temporary and costly delay to our inevitable collapse. It only extends our over-reach and makes the fall that much harder.
The genius of these rebellions is that they are made up of a gathering of self-motivated individuals and not an aggregation of atomized alienated ciphers into a “mass.” This is a recognition at some level that any agglomeration is more susceptible to the shocks of collapse than are smaller organic communities. To act on this realization does not require building a movement or organizing an opposition. All it asks of us is a refusal to participate in our own exploitation.
Collapse is the mother-of-all wars-of-attrition! But it throws the notion on its head. Smaller, intrinsically sound units of conviviality will outlast any larger aggregation. Its people will have more opportunities to grapple with the intractability of our predicaments in a mature and enwisening manner while those who maintain the fiction of leadership, control, and unending growth will remain infantilized and incapable of bending to straightened circumstances.
History has seen moments like these before; the peasant revolts throughout the Middle Ages; even the dissolution of empire, later empire-builders took a “right” of primogeniture to classify as “Dark Ages,” was probably filled with such moments when people refused to obey and simply got on with their lives. The telling difference today is that what Berger characterizes as “the unity of the world” or which we might more pragmatically see as our global fragility brought on by our having reached the edge of so many tipping-points, leaves little room for the exploiters to go off and find “virgin” lands and “heathen Savages” to rebuild their stores of power before returning to subjugate their own people. While the “unity of the world” demands “the end of exploitation” the collapse of our world may well insure it. The question is whether this will happen with more or less grace.
An experienced stunt-man or a drunk is more likely to survive a bad fall or crash than someone rigidly maintaining an active denial of what is happening to them. We have the same set of options as we face collapse. We either learn to fall gracefully, or let ourselves go in a frenzy of Dionysian release, or we remain rigidly in thrall to our belief in command and control, leadership and masses, wishes over hope.
The trump card that’s always worked for the exploiters before has been their ability to combine violence with reassurance in a way that opens up a space for doubt that they may actually be right. That without their “help” we will fall into “barbarism.” Riding the external force provided by collapse, we have a unique opportunity to call their bluff. What it requires of us is the nerve to ask of all positions, “What if you’re wrong?” Ideally we should all be asking this of ourselves, in the spirit of unknowing that Kathryn Schultz labels a new enlightenment. This isn’t out of some spiritual commandment to humility, but from the utility of such a perspective. In a world of limitless uncertainty the practice of Negative Capability is the surest path to finding traction with our predicaments.
So, if we ask this of ourselves and of our erstwhile “protectors,” what do we find? If I am wrong in thinking that we face a collapse and that cultivating kindness, humility, a sense of my own vulnerability, and of the need to stop our exploitation of the world and each other, what is the result? I will live in a state of reduced material comfort and will have done little to affect anyone else’s lives in any appreciable way. If they are wrong in thinking that only the imposition of their wills over others and the continued exploitation of the world and all within it is necessary to maintain the status-quo, then they will have wrought heinous destruction on an unprecedented scale while the status-quo continues to crumble into a state of universal impoverishment.
Leadership is a talisman or fetish for the lullaby of certainty. One of its tenets has been its monopoly on the “expertise” to “manage” “risk-control.” Each of these assertions has shown itself to be false. Together the rationale they provided should no longer have any power over us. We pay for our allegiance by our continued exploitation and by the aggregation and maintenance of power in the hands of those who have an unhealthy predatory view of the world and everything in it. What do we get in return? A fantasy, a house-of-cards, a series of Ponzi schemes of ever greater size and overweening gall. Collapse gives us a chance to end this dysfunctional relationship. It only asks of us to accept our disillusionment. Accept it or ride with it in a dizzy but profound sense of release. It does all the hard work, as the powers beyond our grasp have always done. Our greatest chances for the greatest loss come from holding-on to notions, models, schemas that insist on this fantasy of control.
To those who continue to insist we need leaders, ask not only cui-bono?; but, “What if you’re wrong?”