In the future, everyone will be powerful for 15 minutes (February 2012)

For reasons I’ll come back to another day, I’ve been working a lot with theatre and democracy lately. So it seems timely to republish this essay, first written for Despatches from the Invisible Revolution, a book of reflections on the events of 2011 that I edited with Keith Kahn Harris. Another of the contributors, Andrew Taggart, observed that the most striking thing about the book was the speed with which it came about, barely three months from conception to publication. I’m not sure how well our reflections have stood the test of time, but I continue to come across people trying to figure out the same questions. (For example, the immediate prompt to dig this out today was this interview with Astra Taylor, where she makes a similar point about why consensus decision-making might work better for a Quaker meeting than an Occupy General Assembly.)

1.

Rioters smash the windows of banks, the drum beats towards war with Iran, protests fuelled by social media take over the streets of another capital city. As 2011 reached its endgame, the cinematic surface of Mike Bartlett’s play, 13, could have been taken from the next day’s headlines. Into its dark, refractive world, where everyone seems to be having the same bad dream, comes an unkempt young man named John, whose friends had given him up for dead. He takes to giving sermons in the park, pulling at the materialist threads of a fraying society. Someone films him and posts it on YouTube, and soon his message is spreading, sparking a movement whose aim is not just to stop the war, but to start… something better.

If the positive vision of the movement John finds himself leading was left undefined, this gave it a certain symmetry with the Occupy encampment across the river, at the steps of St Paul’s. In each case, the desire for change struggled to find a clear articulation, while cohabiting uneasily with matters of belief. As the play builds towards its conclusion, John meets his antagonist in the form of a polemically atheist and pro-war establishment figure – part Richard Dawkins, part Christopher Hitchens. Then his downfall comes when one of his followers acts on her interpretation of his message, with murderous consequences.

Bartlett seems to be using theatre as a form of public thinking: not simply to present an argument, but to make the process of thinking public. ‘In the moment of writing,’ he told an interviewer, ‘I genuinely changed what I thought.

I wonder if this willingness to rethink out loud, to voice our uncertainties, might be emblematic of a generational shift which leaves the winner-takes-all polemic of Hitchens or Dawkins looking suddenly old-fashioned: an intellectual Maginot Line, built for a kind of war we no longer fight? Among those whose thinking holds my attention, there is a fluidity to the way ideas emerge, flowing in and out of the projects, actions and movements with which we become involved. Careful thinking is valued, but being right is less important than contributing to the unfolding of the conversation, and discovering something you hadn’t seen. This reflects the habit of publishing our conversations in real time, thinking aloud in written form, sharing our ideas in progress through blogs and Twitter exchanges that weave into our face-to-face encounters, and formal publications that crystallise out of the wider conversation.

The interweaving of social media with the fabric of our lives is reflected in the writing and staging of 13. Its lines are punctuated with the sounds of mobile devices. Even the prime minister monitors developments on her iPad. Yet Bartlett himself is not on Twitter, and perhaps this explains the point at which the play stumbled for me. Among all the resonances of 2011, and the skill with which the production conjured the sensation of ‘continuous partial attention’, what felt out of place was the idea that a movement grown over social networks could be critically dependent on the rise and fall of a single leader. For those of us immersed in the network, a different mode of leadership and power has been emerging, and this was the year when it began to matter on a geopolitical scale.

2.

If I felt a twinge of anachronism that night at the National Theatre, the same condition returned more sharply a few days later, when NESTA and The Observer launched their hunt for ‘Britain’s New Radicals’ – and this time, my discomfort was intensified because the feature was accompanied by a large photograph of myself and my collaborator, Mitchell Jacobs, and a profile of our work as Spacemakers.

The main article, by NESTA’s Chief Executive, Geoff Mulgan, was awkwardly over the top. He seemed to be arguing that people like us should get the kind of recognition currently given to celebrities. He invoked the names of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, observing that they had received ‘brickbats, not bouquets’, and connected this to society’s churlishness in failing to value ‘the healthily unreasonable change-makers’ within their own lifetime. Never mind that it might be in the nature of things for the genuinely radical to be at odds with the mainstream of their day, or that it might be a little weird for a search for a new generation of radicals to be led by a man who had been Tony Blair’s Director of Policy, or that Spacemakers is hardly the most radical thing I have had a hand in. Besides all of this, what struck me was how out of touch it seemed to talk about radical change in 2011 as if it could usefully be represented by turning the spotlight on a handful of individuals.

The defining feature of the movements which shook the world over the past year was the absence of a Gandhi or an MLK. There were huge numbers of courageous individuals, heroic acts, and voices that at times seemed to speak for a generation, but even the most visible of these looked small in proportion to the events which we were witnessing. In a networked revolution, the charismatic leader is largely obsolete.

The closest you could find to an exception would be Julian Assange of WikiLeaks: here, at least, was a figurehead the old-school media could recognise, and paint as a villain or a hero. Yet even as the leakage of US Embassy cables continued to work its way through the engine room of global politics, Assange had already ceased to matter. Whatever the eventual outcome of his legal entanglements, the momentum he had been riding has moved elsewhere. The kinds of loose voluntary collaboration which can take on extraordinary agency in a networked environment are equally quick to melt away. This represents a change in the dynamics of power and leadership: within the familiar organisational structures of corporations, trades unions, governments, schools and workplaces, over-sized egos and delusional behaviour might endure for years at the highest levels; in the new collective forms which ride the network, such failures of self-awareness are swiftly fatal. Key members of the WikiLeaks team took their talents and ideals elsewhere; new projects such as OpenLeaks sprang up to pursue its original goals, while the next wave of networked freedom fighters wore their anonymity on their sleeve. Meanwhile, those who stuck with Assange were, for the most part, a cadre of ageing celebrity Marxists who had mistaken him for a Che or Fidel for the information age.

3.

While the spectacle of Julian Assange suggests the demise of an obsolete mode of radical leadership, Occupy Wall Street brought another model for handling power into view. In the encampments that sprang up at Zuccotti Park, outside St Paul’s and elsewhere, the focus of activity was the General Assembly: a daily meeting held according to a process of ‘consensus-based decision-making’. For many around the Occupy movement, this process stands for an alternative to the power structures which have presided over deepening economic inequality and the dominance of an amoral, crisis-ridden financial system.

Since the emergence of Occupy, the most common criticism has been of its refusal to produce a set of demands. For me, this misses the point: the best experiences I have had as a visitor to Occupy camps were of conversations, usually involving curious fellow visitors as well as committed Occupiers. There is a deep social good in the existence of hospitable spaces in the heart of our cities in which these conversations can come about: spaces that are not structured to the requirements of production or consumption, but to the possibility of coming together and talking about the mess the world is in, how we got here, and what we might be able to do next. If there is life in such a conversation, new possibilities for action are likely to emerge from it and be put into practice by groups of people who choose freely to combine their efforts. There is a great difference, though, between the flavour of a living conversation, and that of the consensus-based meeting; and the point at which Occupy feels weakest to me is when I hear people speaking as if such meetings are prefigurative of the world which this movement seeks to bring about.

For a first-time participant, the immediately striking feature of a consensus meeting is the hand signals. (Most famously, the ‘twinkles’ of agreement: hands upraised, palms forwards, fingers waggling, in a kind of silent applause.) Beyond these, there is a process whose promise is of an alternative to the drawn swords of parliamentary debate, but also to the closed doors of top-down power, formal or informal. As David Graeber describes it:

The point of consensus process is to allow a group to decide on a common course of action. Instead of voting proposals up and down, proposals are worked and reworked, scotched or reinvented, there is a process of compromise and synthesis, until one ends up with something everyone can live with. When it comes to the final stage, actually ‘finding consensus’, there are two levels of possible objection: one can ‘stand aside’, which is to say ‘I don’t like this and won’t participate but I wouldn’t stop anyone else from doing it’, or ‘block’, which has the effect of a veto. One can only block if one feels a proposal is in violation of the fundamental principles or reasons for being of a group.

Many people met this process for the first time as they were swept up in the extraordinary wave of networked social movements which rolled around the world in 2011, so it is worth noting that the technique was not born out of the new possibilities of the network. In its current form, it originated in the feminist movement of the 1970s, while among the Quakers, similar practices go back to the 17th century. And these roots prompt a couple of thoughts, for me, about the gap which I have experienced between the promise and the reality of the process. It is not my intention to attack consensus: it represents a desire for a more human, hospitable and inclusive approach to the exercise of power, and I share that desire. However, I do want to question the faith which I see people putting in it, and invite others to engage thoughtfully in such questioning. Because I remain unconvinced that this is truly a living, generative mode for handling the dangers and possibilities of power, adequate to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and capable of leading us towards better ways of living and working together.

My first thought is that the strength of the consensus process in its original contexts may be closely related to the specific character of those contexts. There is a commitment to discernment amongst Quakers, an attentiveness to oneself and one’s neighbours which grows out of regularly spending time together in silence and is reflected in their formal name: the Religious Society of Friends. One of the great gifts of the feminist movement has been its insistence on the intimate connections between the personal and the political; when taken seriously, this leads to a similar quality of attentiveness to how we feel and how we treat each other. I do not mean to put either Quakerism or feminism on a pedestal, and it is worth revisiting the latter’s influential self-critiques, such as The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Still, it seems to me that there is something vital in both examples: when we come together with the courage to take ownership of our feelings and desires – neither to deny them, nor to reduce ourselves to them – this can be the ground for powerfully effective collaboration. Meanwhile, in the absence of such attentiveness, there is a constant likelihood that our attempts to act for a good which is greater than our own self-interest become a covert route to the satisfaction of unmet desires. In this way, our meetings may become a vehicle for those who seek gratification in the sound of their own voice, regardless of their listeners; while our quest for consensus may turn out to have to do with a search for shared identity and a feeling of belonging, regardless of the relevance to any practical work. Under these conditions, an emphasis on the transformative potential of a particular process may be actively unhelpful: according it a sacramental function of incarnating the new world, while the life is draining from the vision that brought us together.

If the success of consensus depends on conditions which are not described within the process (indeed, which are not capable of being described as a process), my second thought concerns its failures: might these be critical in a new way, within the networked context in which the movements of 2011 took life? This follows from the argument I made in relation to Assange: that certain pathological dynamics of power, which could endure for decades in a world of solid organisations, may be swiftly fatal in a world of fluid networks. If individual leaders who lack self-awareness are likely to find themselves suddenly without followers, collective processes which lack emotional honesty or effectiveness are just as likely to find themselves rapidly losing participants. They may survive as zombie groups, made up of those interested in playing a game which has little to do with their stated reason for existence; but meanwhile, as with Wikileaks, the momentum will move elsewhere and take new forms. Compared to the wild fluidity with which ideas emerge, spread or vanish within the network, there is something anachronistic about a process – however non-hierarchical – in which an entire gathering must always listen to one voice at a time. Perhaps the consensus process will turn out to be as obsolescent as the charismatic leader: cultural forms for handling power in an age when people could be expected to tolerate levels of boredom and self-deception against which we are now more likely to vote with our feet?

These are strong claims that I am making about how networks may transform the dynamics of power, and I mean to develop them elsewhere. For now, let me just add that I am not heralding some networked Age of Aquarius: rather, in the ways that people are making use of these technologies, I see glimpses of an escape from certain particular deformations in the way that life has been organised in industrial societies. With luck, we may be reinventing customs and practices which resemble some of the better ways in which people have lived together in other times and places, while holding on to some of what we have gained; if so, this will surely happen by accident and improvisation, not design and planning, and against an alarming backdrop of social, economic and ecological upheaval.

4.

Future historians may argue over whether the Age of Networked Disruption began when Al Qaeda took centre stage in world events in September 2001, or when WikiLeaks followed it in November 2010. But they will probably agree that 2011 was the year in which its fuller implications made themselves felt. From our nearer vantage point, we now see the extraordinary power of people connected in networks to surprise and disrupt older power structures. What is harder to make out is the nature of the structures through which power may be held and exercised effectively and legitimately in the eyes of a network.

Yet within the story of Occupy itself, we may find the traces of a new mode of power and leadership, one which corresponds to the experience of those who have been immersed in the social possibilities of networked technologies. For this leaderless movement has nonetheless benefited from moments of leadership from individuals able to hold the respect and imagination of its participants for a time. In the first instance, the idea to Occupy Wall Street did not emerge from a consensus process: it came out of a conversation between two friends and collaborators, Kalle Lasn and Micah White, the editors of Adbusters magazine. Other names recur in accounts of how their idea was taken up and turned into reality by activists in New York. Of course, this partly reflects the media’s desire for an Assange-like figure on which to hang their narratives; yet it also points to the emergence of a humbler form of leadership within environments in which many of the characteristics of industrial-era leadership have been rejected. I suggest that is worth developing a vocabulary for naming and reflecting on these emerging forms of leadership, rather than insisting on a language of leaderlessness which may obscure what is going on.*

As a small contribution towards such a process, let me name two qualities which seem intrinsic to what we might call ‘networked leadership’.

The first is that it works by invitation, rather than compulsion. (I owe the word ‘invitation’ here to Andrew Taggart, who commented on a draft of this text: ‘I speak often in terms of invitations because these cut across Musts/Oughts on one side and Whatever You Like on the other side.’) Lasn and White float the idea of Occupy Wall Street to the network. They are able to draw on a following built up over more than two decades of producing Adbusters, but this only makes it somewhat easier for their idea to get heard, it does not guarantee that anyone will act on it.

The second quality is that leadership in such an environment is transient, rather than structural.(There are echoes, here, of Zygmunt Bauman’s account of Liquid Modernity. However, my interpretation of the fluid quality of the networked environment is rather more hopeful.) As the Occupy meme spreads through the network, others take the lead on turning it into reality. Its originators step back and do not claim any special authority or control over the movement – nor could they do so. Their earlier role means their voices will be listened to by many, but no more than that.

In these moves of invitation and handing-on, there is something close to the way that one takes the lead in a dance or an improvisation. (By contrast, leadership within the kinds of organisation we have known more often resembles a wrestling match or an orchestrated performance.) Power is held lightly and provisionally. Whether such a style of holding power can handle all that history has to throw at it – this is, I guess, a vital question for the years ahead.

In trying to anticipate the answer, we can look for earlier parallels. The phenomenon of networked leadership in the movements born in 2011 resembles the experience of the Free Software community and of others working with the new social possibilities of the network, and the lessons which they have drawn from it. For example, Gupta’s Law of Network Politics, which states: ‘In a networked environment, the person who knows what to do next is in charge.’ This captures the reality and the limitations of leadership within networks, as well as the advantage the network has over the organisation. ‘Hierarchies using the network experience dissonance at the point where the feed coming off the network proposes a better plan than the feed coming off the hierarchy.’ Knowing what to do next is not simply about inspiration in the moment, any more than the art of improvisation is simply making it up as you go along; in both cases, there is generally a long back story.

Another parallel to the transformation of leadership comes in the experience of professional musicians who have embraced the network. The solo bass player Steve Lawson writes about the way in which the relationship between performers and their audience is being transformed by two-way interaction through social media, and the possibility that this is leading to ‘the death of global super-stardom’, an industrial-era model that was intrinsically pathological:

Michael [Jackson] was rightly celebrated for his musical contribution, but his fame and its destructive influence on his life was out of all proportion to that… Fame is the downside to success, and the way it removes the consequences from one’s actions means that people like MJ who desperately needed help to recover from his screwed up childhood-in-the-spotlight never got it.

The network makes it possible, in Lawson’s terms, for the binary division between ‘idols’ and ‘friends’ to open up into a plurality of possible relationships, with the result that life as a ‘small, mobile, self-contained indie artist’ like himself becomes both more viable and more enjoyable. He writes of the experience of a tour of the United States, playing gigs in the front rooms of people he had met through social media, and the mutually-rewarding encounters to which this led:

What we had was a shared sense that meeting someone we’d read about, watched on screen and had communicated with was exciting, valuable and something noteworthy. They were, to us, very special people to meet. They could’ve blown it by being proper freaky unpleasant weirdos (as could we) but we were as impressed with them… as we’d hoped to be. And they, in their gratitude and excitement, hosted house concerts, brought their friends and family along to the shows we did, got excited about it, and helped us to take our music to an audience who were happy to become part of that story, and spend some money to be there!

The music industry first felt the disruptive force of the network in 1999, when its business model was knocked sideways by Napster. There were times in 2011 when it felt like politics was reaching its ‘Napster moment’. Musicians like Lawson have spent over a decade working out what kinds of relationship between performer and audience are possible and desirable in a networked world, and finding ways to make a living on these terms. The parallels between fame and power, performance and leadership, are not exact; still, in their example, there may be clues towards the further evolution of the limited, transient and proliferating forms of leadership which characterise today’s radical movements.

Whatever else, when Lawson jokes that the new relationship he has found with his audience must be ‘Celebrity 2.0’, he is describing a kind of recognition which is more appropriate to the networked age than the old-fashioned celebrity to which Geoff Mulgan proposes promoting a hand-picked selection of radicals.

The old and new forms of celebrity coexist uneasily right now, while the waves of the network rise and fall against the continued power of old-style organisations, institutions and governments. None of us can say quite how all this will unfold, but in attempting to narrate its unfinished story – and recognising the power which such narrations may have – perhaps it is possible to offer a lead of sorts; an invitation to certain possibilities present within this moment of deep uncertainty.

 

* For deep reflection and insight into the different kinds of power, drawing on the experience of activism, see Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). I am also indebted to conversations with Alastair McIntosh and to a draft of his unpublished Spiritual Activism Handbook which I read in 2004.

 

First published February 2012.

Photograph: ’13 at the National Theatre, London’, Marc Brenner

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