Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Refusal of Leadership

The Occupy Wall Street protestors were expelled from Wall Street. In this blog post I want to focus less on the political meaning of this event, and more on the nature of the group dynamics the protestors created. It is readily apparent that the protestors organized themselves on the basis of a principle that we might call, “the refusal of leadership.” A YouTube of the protestors in Atlanta is striking here. ( John Lewis, a civil rights icon, came to address the protestors. The group, using a process in which  all participants repeated, sentence for sentence, what any speaker said, decided to keep to their agenda and refuse Lewis a chance to speak. Any viewer of the YouTube can hardly doubt that the protestors were serious and sincere, but the result of their group process feels extreme, if not outlandish. Why show such disrespect to someone whose moral and physical courage is beyond dispute, and whose place in the history of democratic movements is unquestioned? 

This “refusal of leadership” hobbled the protestors in many other cities as well. Their decision process was laborious and slow, and no one from the group could be authorized to speak on its behalf. This made it difficult for them to negotiate with city authorities, build alliances and produce a coherent message through which they could amplify their influence. It is more likely that while the group’s overt task was to protest, its latent or un-verbalized task, was to be a perfect group, where perfection meant that there was nary a sign of difference, since difference meant inequality.  Acknowledging Lewis threatened this task, since it meant acknowledging his unique leadership qualities.

One question is where does this principle of the “refusal of leadership” come from? The German philosopher, Hermann Keyserling, expanded the contrary principle, which he called “the leadership principle” (Führerprinzip), or the principle that some select few were born to rule and should therefore be followed. The Nazis embraced this principal as part of their ideology of governance. If “the refusal of leadership” counters this idea, then it is surely welcomed. But is that its full meaning?

I am drawn to psychodynamic thinking here. Psychoanalysts thinks of the classic battle of the generations as one in which the father is “overthrown.” This concept can be used, sometime profitably and sometimes not, as a way of understanding revolutionary moments in history. But one interpretation of OWS is that the protesters did not wish to overthrow any particular father; instead they wished to eliminate the role of the father altogether. As my colleague Howard Schwartz as argued, a society without fathers, psychologically speaking, is a society with mothers only. In such a society the primary task is to ensure that everyone feels loved for just who they are, which means of course, that everyone is equal.

If this interpretation has merit, it leads one to worry that the protestors are expressing a cultural cul-de-sac. There is little doubt that authority today must be re-worked.  The new technologies are changing the equation between individuals and institutions.  But if authority is abolished then so is agency; that is, the capacity to formulate plans, amass resources, and achieve results.  It is this lack of agency that lends a certain pathos to the video of the Atlanta protestors.

One can’t help but think about the dilemmas facing Obama as a leader. It is likely that some of the same people who occupied Wall Street and its analogues in other cities, had great expectations for Obama. They projected into him great ideas, hopes and ambitions and, had he accepted these projections, he would have been a new leader-father. Instead he recoiled, and fell back on his intellectuality, cutting himself off emotionally from his supporters. It is almost as if there is a dance between Obama and his followers. They propose that he lead them, and when he refuses, they turn inwards to create societies without fathers, effectively abandoning him. Is it too great a stretch to think that in rejecting Lewis, an African American hero, they were also rejecting Obama?

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