When Occupy first blew up, the most tiresome, empty-headed critique was that one question, over and over. “Who are their leaders? What is their concrete agenda?”
Exactly the wrong question, I realized after maybe a week of thinking on it myself. I never participated in an Occupy movement as a member. I was a visitor, happy to see that we still had space for rebellion. And I knew from my experience that the space itself was the point.
It was a movement to bring people together, exchange ideas and philosophies, and make a space where rebellion was possible. The point was to assert the possibility of rebellion in the West.
Never forget what I mean when I talk about the West: the lands and cultures of globalizing colonial empire, that started in the 1500s. It’s an entire set of cultures and institutions that have been shaped by the desire to justify worldwide conquest.
Can you transform a culture so radically in a single generation, a single place, a single organization led by one person? We make statues of individual people – Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh. We celebrate what they achieved, and how they inspired people. We call them leaders.
They changed laws and governments. But it takes more than the organization of just one social movement to transform the moralities of a population of millions. The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not end racism in America.
Imagine the force you'd need to transform a culture that had been developing for hundreds of years, to have a totally different character. Turning a concept of virtue as conquest and superiority all over the West into mutual inclusion and equality. That task is way beyond the work of one generation, let alone one person. One leader.
That was the ontological point of Antonio Negri’s concept of assembly, which he writes about with Michael Hardt in the book called Assembly. An assembly is a social force that can grow in power and longevity enough to transform the morality of an entire culture.
Even when the institutions of that culture – police, security forces, spy agencies, churches, governments, laws, schools – turn against such a social force, that force has the potential to overthrow and revolutionize those institutions.
Does it always, every time? Oh hell no! Individual political movements are crushed, but the force itself can survive as a story, an idea, a few books that still sell really well. The single biggest corporation in the world sees no need to censor Marx from the online store. They sell everything just shy of the Turner Diaries too.
So ideas continue in all directions, in favour of a lot of different moralities. Moralities of conquest and freedom are always in conflict. An assembly, in its loosest form, is a morality – the concepts that channel our desires into action, action that crafts our desires.
One of Negri and Hardt’s tasks in Assembly was working out how to channel that resilient social power of the mass movement in thought and action. Leaders, it’s said, are needed to formulate strategy. Generals overlooking the map. And the ordinary people of their organizations are the soldiers. Leadership meant plotting from a position detached from the action.
That’s a dualist way of thinking about the nature of political and social movements. It separates action from thought.
Assembly merges them. So when you think about social movements as self-directed, leaders aren’t your generals. They become figureheads, spokespeople who follow the moral directions that are developed among the ordinary people.
Regular activists develop strategies for outreach and conversation (and moral conversion) specific to the needs of their own territories. Who knows a place better than the people who live there?
Certainly not some egomaniac game show host. Certainly not some over-insulated multi-millionaire career political party leader.
I’m talking in that last example about Hillary Clinton. I now have one more Festivus grievance against her as a politician, and that’s her new advocacy for caving to the white nationalist movement on immigration in the hopes that they’ll leave the rest of us alone.
Clinton’s 21st century update of appeasement ran in the Guardian last week. It’s appeasement by focus group. Having identified what message encourages the most enthusiasm from the supporters of nationalist parties, she says that we can win their votes by also becoming nationalist parties.
It’s an absurd, ridiculous, and frankly stupid idea. Do you really think that someone who hates Hillary Clinton as much as a dedicated anti-immigration Republican would vote for her? Even if she personally suffocated a four-year-old Honduran girl with tear gas, he’d call it a false flag. Just like the Sandy Hook massacre and the moon landing.
Even beyond this, the real problem with Clinton’s approach in that Guardian article is that she thinks that her DC focus groups can tell people what to think so that they will vote for who they want to. The ones who pay for the focus groups.
That’s not how you lead a democratic movement. Here’s how.
You don’t. The movement is the leader – ordinary people percolating ideas through society that change our culture’s entire morality, one social network node at a time.