Bill McKibben: Movements Without Leaders

Yves here. The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is ten days away. Brace yourself for the reminisces, most of which will be genuine, heartfelt, and insightful, while others which will treat the occasion as an opportunity for brand identification.

McKibben, a well-known and effective climate change activist, raises the question of leadership in movements to promote social change. He argues that the charismatic chieftain is out, and the model now is that of distributed leadership, with lower level “leaders” being more critical to movement success than ever before (I could cynically point out that this is also the Wall Street model, where “producers” enjoy more autonomy, power, and P&L impact than managers below the C-level do in comparably sized industrial companies).

McKibben is enthusiastic about this approach and depicts it as successful. Unfortunately, it appears more accurate to say the jury is still out. Decentralized, multi-nodal opposition did work in the war against Vietnam and with Otpor in Serbia. But other movements that looked leaderless, like the concerted and successful campaign to move the US to the right, has a clearly articulated game plan (the Powell memo), existing relationships among the originally comparatively small number of extreme-right-wingers, and ample funding. By contrast, despite McKibben pointing to some battles won on the climate change front, the activists are losing that war badly, just as concerted international opposition (and more in the US than domestic reporting would lead you to believe) failed to halt the war in Iraq. The leaderless Arab Spring, which similarly seemed to represent a new democratic impulse, has led instead to a shoring up of some elements of traditional power structures and repression. In Spain, similarly, the indignados movement provided a spark of hope that Spanish politicians would be forced to negotiate better terms with the austerity-mad Trokia, but from what I can tell, the movement has had little impact (although it may well be effective locally in providing social services and self help).

The problem with non-corporate loose organizations is how to maintain consistency of vision, messaging, and tactics. One of the complaints about Occupy Wall Street was its lack of a message, which struck me as a straw man (isn’t being opposed to predatory banking and excess wealth accumulation by the 1% a clear position?). Even in its short life as a national movement, Occupy Wall Street also suffered from divisions over tactics, with a black bloc favoring violence while the majority of demonstrators were firmly opposed to that approach.

And if you’ve been involved in any of the OWS groups, the process of achieving agreement, even with some streamlining of processes, is painfully slow and can easily be hijacked by aggressive special interest groups. It can drive out busy and high functioning people who simply don’t have the time to participate in protracted debates. There’s also a huge problem in accountability: of getting specific people to take ownership of pieces of initiatives and bring them through to completion. But perhaps this reflects my dislike of politicking rather than the weakness of this sort of approach per se. As always, reader insights very much appreciated!

By Bill McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, and the author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Cross posted from TomDispatch

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King.  There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.

A Movement for a New Planet

We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.

When we started five years ago, we dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw everyone to a central place — the Mall in Washington, D.C. — for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the same — about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.

Part of me, though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d grown up watching — or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a leader.  In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, reflects on that growing sense of identity.

However, in recent months — and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your mind after your book is in type — I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders less and less.  It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.

For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.

In the last few weeks, for instance, helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves.  We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.

From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio — Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them.  I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.

Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years.  It was their combined witness that got the ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been describing.

The big environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information, while keeping track of straying members of Congress.  Among them were the National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on the Mall in Washington.

Organizations and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without complaining about how late we were.  Then there were the ranchers and farmers of Nebraska, who roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us.  One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.

Non-experts quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow through it.  CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company), as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people pledged to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.

And then there was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd after another, and the labor unions — nurses and transit workers, for instance — who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers’ union which would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent grandparents’ march from Camp David to the White House.  Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas, which have organized epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the pipeline.

The Indigenous Environmental Network has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia, just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of the European Union.

We don’t know if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built — his is the ultimate decision — based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.

What the Elders Said

This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas.

The cause couldn’t be more compelling.  There’s never been a clearer threat to survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this disaster.

That’s why it’s such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate struggle.  When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.

Expansion by geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, and its allies trained 500 young people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.

This sort of planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation.  When, for instance, the big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been poisoned by tar sands mining.

Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.

Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.

Yet figures like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined.  They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if they were well-regarded critics on review pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the “biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.

When you have that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the cause.

These elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the most useful work I’ve done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via Twitter or write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently to a group of grandparents who had just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp David. A young man demanded to know why I wasn’t backing sabotage of oil company equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by our movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were doing genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their construction schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my estimation wrecking bulldozers would play into their hands.

But maybe he was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive.

The Coming of the Leaderless Movement

We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands.  You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at  When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.

The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing.  Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because that’s what the world mostly is.

Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce such powerful ideas and initiatives.  We need to stop thinking of them as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.

We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself nothing new.  In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new opportunities.

More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the gay rights movement into a new phase.

But Dan Choi doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases.  There are plenty of others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.

The ultimate in leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the U.S. (and other areas of the world) in 2011-2012.  It, in turn, took cues from the Arab Spring, which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor, who exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s around the planet.

Occupy was exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic practice.  Those of us who are used to New England town meetings recognized its Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur one day a year.  Not that many people had the stomach for the endless discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many cases, the crowds began to dwindle even without police repression — only to surge back when there was a clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after that superstorm hit the East coast).

All around the Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of democracy in action.  As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often engaged as facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic and dramatically effective.  It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably necessary one.

How to Save the Earth

Communities (and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of hierarchy, even if it’s an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we’ll need in a time of increased climate stress — communities that place a premium on resiliency and adaptability, dramatically decentralized but deeply linked.

And it’s already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California, where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents.  When a section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message essentially requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local environmental justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight against the plant.

Like the other oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around the world.  The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to continue to cover up the horrors it’s responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in Ecuador. And of course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar recklessness when it comes to our home planet.  Their reserves of oil and gas are already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of the way past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged to prevent, which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming — and yet they are now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of “unconventional” fossil fuels to burn. 

In addition, as the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two weeks before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing would shake the status quo.

And so our movement — global, national, and most of all local. Released from a paddy wagon after the Richmond protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees waiting to be booked, I saw lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of the Chevron equation.  Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in the construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal Plant, who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids who can breathe more easily in far less polluted air.

I continue to hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds.  They all make up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it. These are people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same general direction; and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at all, save profiting from the suffering of the planet.

I’m sure much of this thinking is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t.  I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front of a movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience.

What I do sense, however, is that it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador — to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake the world in record time. 

That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them.  It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.  

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  1. Maju

    A thoughtful meditation, thanks Yves.

    When you say that “I could cynically point out that this is also the Wall Street model, where “producers” enjoy more autonomy…” makes good sense because, after all, we exist in a socio-economic-cultural context. In “The Politics of Subversion”, Toni Negri claims that this loss of faith in leaders actually reflects the transition from highly hierarchical and disciplinary Fordism to the more decentralized Toyotism, both of which he relates to Marx’ forecasts in his posthumous manuscripts: the Formal and the Real subsumption of Work into Capital, which also have other implications, including the impossibility of the Stalinist system to survive without never-performed deep reforms. The central motif is anyhow the loss of respect for authority, and therefore the loss of power of authority itself: certain “anarchism” within the ultimate form of Capitalism (but also complete ideological success of Capitalism in many senses). This phase would have been going since c. 1968, a date he picks because of the “springs” of that time, which were full of anti-authority rebelliousness, expressing a radical change in the way we all think. Characters like Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler of De Gaulle (or even Gandhi, I guess) are now impossible because nobody really would take them seriously enough, unlike what happened before. This has pros and cons but is in any case the sign of the time.

    If we are to follow Deleuze and Guattari in “Anti-Oedipus”, a masterwork of the transition to this Toyotist era (already decades old in fact) we can understand that Capital is a corrupting force that decodifies without creating anything of its own in the social realm. In this senses it has two polarities: the schizoid decodifying vector and the paranoid recodifying reaction (drag), which is nevertheless always defeated because it only draws from the past, a past that is quickly erased and corrupted by Capitalism itself.

    The real issue is how to go beyond this moral desert that Capital leaves at its wake. In many senses this is something positive because goes beyond what the most ambitious Maoist cultural revolution could imagine, but it also leaves Humankind naked and distructured. The only thing that survives is a naked Humankind in a totally transformed environment, so different from the Paleolithic reality we evolved for.

    In this sense I have been thinking that the novel ideas that are sometimes attributed to Capitalism such as human rights, democracy and such, are in fact not its product but the product of Naked Humankind, devoid of all the old Medieval values. If, as D&G say, Capitalism cannot create anything other than economic flows, then these must be creations of the thin red line, of the popular class struggle within Capitalism that exists since the time of the Sans Coulottes. As D&G suggest, Capitalism incorporates ideas and structures from other realities, mostly from the Ancien Regime, which it rots until they fall dead… but it seems to me that also from the new antagonist forces conformed within it.

    If so these institutions (human rights, democracy, etc.) actually should prefigure to some extent the way out of this late Capitalist nightmare. But, of course, they are only part of the solution: in key things like private property, Capitalism can make no concessions or it would risk its own unlife.

  2. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

    In these natives movements, I see some hope with DIY communications systems: smoke signals, carrier pigeons, banging on drums, that kind of thing.

  3. from Mexico

    Bill McKibben says:

    But the promise of this moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the flow.


    It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry.

    A hierarchy-free world has long been the dream of both right and left libertarians. Adam Smith dreamed of a politics-free economic sphere, and Thomas Jefferson wanted to keep the power of the government, and especially the central government, to a miniumum.

    More extreme expressions of these impulses are found in the writings of Engles, who imagined a state with “no soldiers, no gendarmes, no policemen, prefects or judges, no prisons, laws or lawsuits.” More recently the “Computer Utopians” or “California Utopians” have picked up the gauntlet. These are the movements which, according to Adam Curtis’s latest endeavor, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, informed the wave of financial deregulaiton which took place over the past 40 years.

    For those who haven’t seen Curtis’s documentary, I highly recommend it. It can be seen on the internet here:

    Curtis believes a hierarchy-free political and economic order amounts to little more than Utopian vision, and invariably ushers in a political order that is the very opposite of what it aspires to be.

    1. from Mexico

      The trailer to Curtis’s documentary was great, and sums up the subtext of the film:

      But the machines brought with them another idea, that we are all components in systems, nodes in a global network. We dreamed the systems could stabilise themselves through feedback and create a perfect balance in nature’s ecosystems and in human society and in capitalism without politics and the old hierarchies of power. But power hasn’t gone away. It never does.

      1. David Lentini

        What’s interesting about Curtis’s comment is that humanity has demonstrated a strange sort of “reverse-anthropromorphism” in which we view ourselves and our cultures in terms of the machines we create. In the 19th Century, we viewed ourselves in terms of mechanical devices; in the 20th Century, as systems and computing machines; in the 21st as netowrks. A key point of the Enlightenment was to throw off a view of humans that was driven by Biblical stories and accept mankind as part of nature. But within 50 years, we simply moved our vision to our own creations, turing our machines and technologies into gods ever since.

    2. MRW

      Excellent comment and observation, from Mexico. Curtis’ film is just the thing to watch to counter McKibben’s disingenuous nonsense.

      Independent Vancouver researcher and former UN employee, Vivian Krause, an acknowledged genius at sousing out financial documents, uncovered the source of McKibben’s financing from inception and it was not as he represents it.

      Back in 2007, the 1Sky Education Fund had starting revenues of US$1.6-million. Of that, US$1.3-million was from the Rockefeller Family Fund. In 2008, 1Sky received a further US$920,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as well as US$900,000 from the Schumann Center, tax returns show. What this means is that from the get-go, McKibben’s campaign was bankrolled by the Rockefellers and the Schuman Center.

      Bill McKibben has been a director of 1Sky since it began, so one would think that he was aware of the organization’s finances. And yet, to hear McKibben tell the story, he started the climate movement and the protests against Keystone XL with nothing more than a few students and “almost no money.”

      In a 2010 article by McKibben, posted on at least 10 websites, he writes, “Last year, with almost no money, our scruffy little outfit,, managed to organize what Foreign Policy called the ‘largest ever co-ordinated global rally of any kind’ on any issue.” In another article that McKibben penned for Tikkun magazine, he says that he built the climate movement with seven graduate students at Middlebury College and “no money or organization.” During the fall of 2012, in interviews with Jed Lipinski and Grand Valley University, McKibben again told the story of starting with seven students and “almost no money.” But that’s not what tax returns indicate.

      1Sky began in 2008. In its first year, 1Sky reported expenditures of US$2.6-million, tax returns show. Of that, US$2.2-million was payroll, including US$1.2-million for consultants. In 2009, 1Sky’s campaign director, Gillian Caldwell, a lawyer by training, was paid US$203,620 through the Rockefeller Family Fund. A salary of more than US$200,000 is hardly typical of a “scruffy little outfit.”

      During 2011, the most recent year for which tax returns are publicly available, again had a US$2-million payroll, including US$622,000 for consultants. spent US$1.2-million on grassroots fieldwork, partnership with other organizations and media coverage, and US$356,000 to recruit participants through emails, blogs and social networking.

      The next time McKibben pens an article or gives a speech, he should acknowledge the US$10-million that his campaigns have received from the Rockefellers, the Schumann Center and other sources.

      Krause is an interesting researcher. She, like most Vancouverites, is a climate and wildlife hawk. But this single mother is also a truth hawk, sits at her kitchen table with documents, pays for all research herself, and gets her articles published by various Canadian outlets.

      Since you’re outside the US, from Mexico, you might be interested in this half-hour local Vancouver interview with her early this summer. She found another thrust to the highly financed US charities supposedly doing good work for the climate.

        1. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

          Good catch! Excerpt of Vivian Kraus analysis: “Almost all of the U.S. foundations that fund Canadian ENGOs are members of the San Francisco-based Consultative Group for Biological Diversity (CGBD), an umbrella organization created in 1987 by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency of the U.S. State Department.”

        2. jrs

          But so? I actually think that all the other natural resources that will be destroyed by oil (water obviously, salmon, ecosystems etc.) will be worth more than oil in the long run even just from the local perspective. So the oil companies fund preservation because they think whoever buys into it is a dupe. But in my view it’s actually the oil companies that are stupid, sure they know about short term profits, that’s all they know about. The win from letting one’s country, province, whatever be exploited for fossil fuel is a very short term one IMO.

        1. jrs

          Good article. I think that is the main criticism of McKibben, that he’s ineffectual. That he focuses on the trees and ignores the forrest. So we’ll have pipelines for tarsands flowing real soon regardless of whether the northern part is approved. Kabuki nominated for word of the decade.

          I don’t know that his ineffectualism is really about leaders or leaderless, a protest directed at the wrong target is ineffectual if it’s being led by anarchists or the green reincarnation of MLK (although frankly I would put more hope on the former as at least being more distruptive).

          I can’t keep track of who is funding whom anymore, so can I just do brass tacks: is the protest at least directed at the right target? (these would be the right targets: broadly cutting greenhouse gas emissions. narrowly: stop tarsands) If not well then I might suspect corruption … or other forms of blindness I guess?

        2. wendy davis

          Exactly. Same author, similar sentiments from February. We had a lively (ahem) three-day conversation at My.Firedoglake over a post I did based on his take. ‘Just make nice with Obama, and make him do it’. Meh.

          Turns out he was right, and the next day’s general protest was a bust. But note the signs they were holding.

          Green capitalism: a gift to the MOTUs, disastrous for the planet and the peasants, especially in the global south.

      1. CagewasBrahms

        Always interesting to follow the money. Krause’s main point, that Canadian environmental groups are being dupes for accepting money from American foundations whose ulterior motive is long term energy security for the USA in the form of blocking exports of Canadian oil now with physical barriers, i.e. “environmentally protected ” forests and waters that will be punched through with pipelines etc when the time comes to fulfill US need, may be an astute observation. But, 1. So what, the future is just that, the future. And  2. Non of these players is pure as the driven snow

        The problem with leaders is that they imply a we, as in “We have a leader”. This we is contrastive, as Steven Lukes point out in Moral Relativism, it picks out an us as opposed to others. Very quickly we leave cognitive relativism where we attempt to determine what we can know factually about the world–Nietzsche’s perspectivism–and become embroiled in moral relativism which is just a food fight.

      2. subunit

        Krause advocates for maximum exploitation of the tar sands. Describing her as a “climate hawk” is a joke. She is an operative for Canadian oil majors.

        1. MRW

          No, she isn’t. You can read her articles on her preserved blog, Fair Questions, or ask her yourself on Twitter: @fairquestions. You didn’t watch her 1/2 hr interview. You’re winging it.

  4. Kevin Smith

    Reading this excellent piece it occurred to me over and over again that the DHS/NSA will carefully study this piece, and give Mr. McKibben and his book the scrutiny which they so richly deserve.

    Dealing with “leaderless threats” is, I am sure, a major area for study, and a revenue stream for the beltway bandits/

    1. jrs

      Sure but they’re even better at dealing with leader driven threats right? Looking for the leaders of Occupy so they can know who to assasinate, beyond being scary as heck, that one always cracks me up.

  5. Moneta

    Last year, when reading The History of Nearly Everything, I realized just how few scientists/investors have gotten due credit throughout history. Most of the time, the credit has gone to scientist who were well-connected to the finance world a few decades after the real discovery date.

    It made me realize that if you want to make money you go into finance or trade. Getting rewarded for anything else is a gift… if you do anything else, it is really a vocation. This also made me think about the evolution of ideas and movements.

    I have always had trouble “admiring” people in general because it is my belief (a form of determinism, I have read all kinds of theories but none correspond to my thoughts) that we fall into our positions depending on our genetics and environment. We tend to attribute more control than we actually have. And more often than not, the admired leaders have no intention of supporting their admirers. I can be fascinated but rarely impressed. And when I am impressed, it is usually with the power of Mother Nature who generates these outliers with incredible talent and determination.

    In today’s North America, there are more leaders than chiefs. We have been brought up with the idea that we are the masters of our own destinies. Everyone is a critic even if we know nothing and read nothing. Individualism rules.

    This probably contributes to a lack of organization but at the same time, maybe it will help. At this juncture, I am not sure any kind of emerging leaders would survive. The elite is powerful and would easily strike them down as they pop up. Therefore, and accelerating game of whack-a-mole might be our best strategy to weaken and disorganize the elite.

    That might go on for a decade, but that would be enough for the young generation that has been brought up to work in groups to get angry and rise up. Maybe then would the time be ripe for a leader to emerge.

    With 300M people in the US, who knows how things will evolve? The law of unintended consequences rules no matter what we do.

    Therefore, unless you chose commerce or finance, if you do something don’t expect success, just do it because you enjoy it and it gives your life meaning.

    1. Susan the other

      I’m reading about the inventions that made the film industry, and Hollywood, possible. In the 20s there were lots of independents, and within little more than a decade there were only big studios, with their own theaters, etc. And all the bigs had been financialized in order to invest in the latest technology. This became a war of competition between the US and France in the 40s and Hollywood won the money, but France made the best movies by most standards. The bit that really caught my eye was the hubris of filmmakers who thought that audiences were so passive they would subconsciously buy anything on the screen. That never worked for me. Don’t know about the rest of the world. I was always instantly sobered up from the screen fantasy by the simple act of walking out of the theater doors into the sunshine or the night sky. That was always the only thing my emotions truly responded to. So to make a convoluted point – I agree that we are all who we are at a very basic level. And this fact works for us, particularly when we instinctively know what has to be done, because all the hubris of the dream pushers and financiers cannot ever manage to change us fundamentally. imo

  6. Tyler Healey

    I think the movement’s leader should be a woman. She should emulate Joel Osteen’s skill to avoid discussing issues that will fracture the movement. We don’t need to get hung up on anything but the fact that the wealthy are failing the world by hoarding their money instead of giving it to non-profits like and the poor.

  7. David Lentini

    I think the essay tends to conflate the “Great Man (or Woman)” (the “Leader”) with “leader”. All movements need leaders, most of whom, as Bill points out, are not recognized until long after their movement ends if ever. Someone has to do the basic organizing of the movement’s followers, get the message out, arrange for the meetings and demonstrations, etc. But at some point, very often one or a few individuals emerge who seem to posseess a set of qualities that enables them to act as symbols of the movement—they become the figureheads of the movement and embodiments of the movement’s message.

    When that happens, the movement tends to enter a much more visible stage and starts to have an effect on both the culture and politics of a society. Al Gore is not a Great Man, and the climate change movement has languished accordingly for decades with lots of small victories but no great impact on the global environment. The Tea Party hasn’t produced a Leader, and has been larglye co-opted by the corporatists of the GOP. The civil rights and feminist movements have languished since the late ’70s for lack of a visible Leader. The anti-war movement against Viet Nam started very small, but produced a number of recognizable Leaders. The Occupy Movement has been largely limited to consciousness raising, precisely because it has rejected the idea of promoting any agenda and hence a Leader.

    The problem with grass-roots movements is their lack of cohesion, focus, and persistence to make political changes. Without a Leader to focus the movement and act as a representative to the dominating political structures, the movements at best take generations to have an effect and are often stalled easily by the dominating poltiical foreces through intimidation and frustration. We’ve been waiting for grass-roots movements to show real impacts on many so-called “progressive” issues, which often appear to have broad public approval, only to watch the current power-elite stymie change again and again.

    So, as much as I respect and admire Bill (whom I knew briefly in high school), I would argue that we won’t get much real change without a Leader; and we’re deluding ourselves if we think that a grass-roots movement can boostrap societal change.

    1. Moneta

      I believe “the” leader will emerge long after change has started to occur.

      In my experience, true leaders have usually been individuals who know how to stay in the background and look for charismatic puppets to win masses over.

      1. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

        That would be the “behind-the-scenes” variety of Leader or “Great Man”. I don’t dispute its existence. Looking at the FigureHead, or F.H., one kind is Napoleon, the face of the Leadership. Apart from eloquence and good oratory skills, I’d say a certain quality of fearleassness and also commitment to the cause is desirable (also as seen with MLK Jr) …

        1. Moneta

          Yes. But I don’t think we are deep enough in a revolutionary mode to get a Napoleon just yet.

          I think we are still in the grassroots mode where there are indeed leaders but they are still unknown.

            1. Susan the other

              What we need are millions of self-leading activists. Stop driving your car. Start walking. Stop eating junk food, do a community garden. Don’t buy another car and recycle the one you have at your first opportunity. The big, financialized industries survive only by accelerated demand consumption. Stop consuming. If you can’t find a job you certainly won’t be able to consume or pay taxes. Eventually even the military will have to change its stripes. It is dangerous to want the good King to come along and lead us. He will inevitably be another Barack Obama.

              1. Lambert Strether

                I’m doing all of those things as I’m sure many are. They are necessary, but not sufficient. But here again, one might ask sufficient for what? And thus we bump up against TINA.

                1. Susan the other

                  TINA can be good or bad depending on whom TINA works for. If TINA works for mitigation (real mitigation) of global warming; for adjusting societies to be sustainable, for equity for all, for the dissolution of financialism and the absurd growth paradigm of capitalism, yatta yatta – then OK. Let’s TINA our brains out; lets go for change in an almost military mobilization, as was suggested here last week. They can’t force us to participate in a mortally destructive “economy.”

          1. Nathanael

            “Yes. But I don’t think we are deep enough in a revolutionary mode to get a Napoleon just yet.”

            I think we’re only a couple of years away from one. But that’s just a hunch.

            1. Lambert Strether

              Napoleon was, surely, a reaction/consolidation to revolution, not part of “a revolutionary mode.” I mean, the Napoleonic code, right? “A career open to talents”?

              1. Emma

                Nathanael AND Lambert

                One can simply not overpower the powers-that-be today with a revolution or movement as they really are unassailable and have acquired too many privileges. The 2-party system was designed by mercantilists and has been allowed to become so deeply entrenched that the winner takes all right down to the bottom through redistricting.

                Yet these games have not been enough for them and they now monitor citizens, just as the nutritional content of conifer leaves is so low for grouse, that when awake, the grouse eats round-the-clock to survive.

                The last time there was any sign of a revolution within the US, was perhaps during the early 70s with the SDS Weathermen faction and look where it got them. They may have had a positive impact on how things evolved vis-à-vis the Vietnam War (pull-out shortly after) but that was it.

                If people take to the streets today, their revolt will be defeated in nano-seconds as it won’t just be rubber bullets stopping them. The elite beaver has powerful jaws and chisel-sharp teeth that enable it to fell a tree and rapidly remove the branches.

                Unluckily for us, because the density of the forest has been destroyed through their polluted ways, the tress DO fall to the ground and a thick carpet of rotting conifer decays slowly just as the American Dream does too.

                1. Lambert Strether

                  On SDS, see here. Adding, I don’t know what “take to the streets” means, operationally. Was Occupy that? And I think the lesson of Tahrir Square is that it’s the day after that matters. For which “the left” (whatever that means) really has no answer. Not that I find any of the other answers in any way acceptable.

                  1. Emma

                    The OWS movement cannot be compared with those who unified and put their lives at real risk with very specific and coherent demands in various places around the Middle East.
                    In addition, unlike the Tea Party, the OWS have failed to manipulate political debate to their advantage, and to the same extent. So those with power are once again succeeding in replenishing their nest eggs.

                2. Nathanael

                  “One can simply not overpower the powers-that-be today with a revolution or movement as they really are unassailable and have acquired too many privileges. ”

                  Heard it before.

                  That’s what they said about King Louis & his court.

                  1. Emma

                    Sweet of you to think so.
                    But one is France, the other the USA, and there are BIG differences between both countries.
                    Aside from which, that was then and this is now, and weaponry has also evolved too, hasn’t it?!
                    A revolution is not required.
                    People simply need to unify – truly unify (ie. ignore the “divide and conquer” the elite would have us do amongst ourselves)- and focus on achieving one major goal together, such as establishing more fairness in society than is presently in place “full-stop”. The rest can be improved upon after.
                    However, so many special interest groups here selfishly remain within their own field day-in-day-out, as opposed to connecting with other fields to cross-fertilize success, so I suspect “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

                    1. Whistling in the Dark

                      “such as establishing more fairness in society”

                      Well, guess I shoulda read on further.

                      Please elaborate. Will math be involved? (How on earth couldn’t it be?) So, we need a fairness quotient: the ratio between favor and deservedness, naturally. And, no one will expect we can reach full fairness parity, oh no! But, let’s shoot for, you know, a global range of 10ish. (10ish, anyone?) I mean, we set an arbitrary floor of deservedness of 1–you know, basic human rights and all. ‘One’ is the bare bones. But, of course, some people have a lot more than that, don’t they? How many people could live (insert “comfortably”–internal memo: will have to be codified; no problem) on the resources afforded to this one individual. This is their “favor” score. Now, what is their deservedness? Does anyone score higher than a ‘1’? Well, maybe in a perfect world–but let’s not kid ourselves about that one.

                      Well, I nominate Emma and me, for starting the ball rolling and all. Maybe our deservedness scores have ticked up to a 1.05 or so. Not trying to be greedy, just sayin!

                      I mean, we are talking about the same thing, right?

                      Picture yourself in a boat on a river
                      With tangerine trees and mandarine skies
                      Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
                      A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

                3. Whistling in the Dark


                  So, what??

                  All that’s left is to see who can write the prettiest poetry memorializing a burning world?

                4. skippy

                  “as the nutritional content of conifer leaves is so low for grouse, that when awake, the grouse eats round-the-clock to survive’ – Emma

                  skippy… they also have a propensity to go toxic when stressed by over done rabbit populations.

              2. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

                King Louis tried to flee but was captured (house arrest). The “feuillants” were for a constitutional monarchy. The jacobins were for a republic. “Lots” of the French nobility fled, e.g. to Austria. The jacobins and the ? gained ground, and France declared war on Austria. Later, Britain blocked a French port. The 2nd most important day is the day “The people” captured the King (lots of Swiss guards died then —> Tuileries). Then, all hell broke loose during the chaos of Robespierre and Regime de Terreur. After that, Directoire (saner). Napoleon repulsed the Brits ensconced in the French port. He rose to prominence, the Pope was there when Nap. became Emperor of the French. Then, a kind of single-minded megalomania and French Super-Patriotism set-in in some French minds. Then, Waterloo. etc.

    2. from Mexico

      • David Lentini said:

      But at some point, very often one or a few individuals emerge who seem to posseess a set of qualities that enables them to act as symbols of the movement—they become the figureheads of the movement and embodiments of the movement’s message.

      Terrence Deacon wrote a book about human beings called The Symbolic Species. Humans are the only species that thinks symbolically. The importance of symbolic thought to human social, political and economic organization cannot be overstated. What is the point of creating permanent mental associatons that do not exist in the real world when survival and reproduction depend upon figuring out the associations that do exist? The answer is that symbolic thought is fundamentally communal and facilitates human cooperation, human hyper-sociality and the ability of humans to organize themselves into large cooperative groups.

      • David Lentini said:

      The problem with grass-roots movements is their lack of cohesion, focus, and persistence to make political changes. Without a Leader to focus the movement and act as a representative to the dominating political structures, the movements at best take generations to have an effect and are often stalled easily by the dominating poltiical foreces through intimidation and frustration.

      McKibben says “it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders.”

      However, I think McKibben is mistaken to believe the gay and immigrants rights movements are grass-roots movements. I disagree with McKibben for the following reasons:

      1) They are both identity polictics movements. As the Rev. Martin Luther King put it: “The American racial revoluton has been a revolution to ‘get in’ rather than to overthrow.”

      2) Being movements to “get in,” neither seeks to upset the status quo economic or political order, and

      3) As Peter Skerry argues in Mexican Americans, neither the gay or immigrants rights movements employ grass-roots politics. Both rely heavily on elite-network and protest politics, for which grass-roots organizational politics is anathema. (Boy, did we ever see a glaring example of this in the recent imbroglio over Bradley Manning where the elite-network politicians, sitting atop their lofty sinecures on the Pride SF Board, essentially told the grass-roots organizers to go f’ck themselves.)

      • David Lentini said:

      So, as much as I respect and admire Bill (whom I knew briefly in high school), I would argue that we won’t get much real change without a Leader.

      I agree.

  8. Stephanie

    “it needs to remake the world in record time”

    I think this is the cruxt of the issue, and pretty much sums up why there can’t be Leaders, and must be leaders…The crisis is such that it must be tackled from every aspect of society and economy, and every aspect of economy and society must be re-made. It is complex in the same ways that societies, cultures and economies are complex. There are so many entry points into change that it requires people doing both small and large things, changing behaviors, eating differently, traveling differently…etc…that I don’t see how it is possible for there to be primary leaders with cohesive messages. The answer, in part, lies in decentralization and diversity.

    My area of interest is in food systems, for example, and I think that people will have to change practices and thinking in many different ways to enable more sustainable food systems. I don’t know if you’ve kept up with what’s going on in Michigan, Yves, but it seems to me that, as a state that has had to re-organize earlier than other places due to the crises it has experienced, food systems re-organization is well underway. It’s not just ‘urban agriculture’ though that’s part of it, but food exchange systems(via food hubs, for example), withdrawing from corporate food, re-organizing around regional food, and various other activities.

    1. Moneta

      I read somewhere that 50% of US produce was grown in California.

      For me, that makes no sense whatsoever environmentally. It does when you think of economies of scale and politics but not in terms of sustainability.

      Globalization has pushed forward the idea of competitive advantage but the reality is that politics always gets in the way…. there are so many things California should not be producing when you consider its climate!

      There is a global shakeout coming and it won’t happen on our schedule.

    2. Eclair

      “Remaking the world in record time” states the problem succinctly.

      Recent movements, abolition, women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights … were (and are) about allowing certain suppressed groups to function freely within the current System. A System – whether you term it “capitalism” or “communism” or “patriarchy” – that has placed the human species above the rest of nature in a hierarchy that is too often topped by a male god-figure.

      The System is one of dominance over Nature. We can cheerfully dump poisons into water and air, bulldoze and burn square miles of living trees land and dynamite mountain tops. All for the purposes of accumulating cash … and power.

      In a couple of hundred years, by believing fervently in this System, we. as a species, have managed to trash the Planet and caused millions of fellow humans to live lives of misery.

      This is not about how certain groups of humans can gain additional rights so they can flourish within the System. This is about changing the entire System.
      And, to do that, we have to challenge and change the belief system that says that creation is a hierarchy, with humans (especially “white” humans) at the top, and the rest of the universe … four-footed, crawling and winged creatures, trees, even mountains and running water and the oceans … under our sway to do with as we wish.

      Starting from the ground, creating and actually experiencing all the frustrations, teeth-numbing boredom and liberating joys of a deliberative process .. one that gives each member a chance to speak, that actually encourages more vocal members to “step back” and let the shyer or less experienced people speak … is part of creating a new System. One that is not hierarchical and gives formerly marginalized groups, from women to transgendered people to people not of the dominant white variety, equal participation.

      Yeah, maybe this has always been a pipe-dream of humanity, but at this time, with the Ice-caps melting, temperatures rising, the ocean acidifying and Peak Water on the agenda, we have to work towards this goal … or, it’s game over.

    3. Susan the other

      Agree Stephanie. Time is critical. And I’ve been feeling Yves’ disturbance in the force in an almost hopeful way during these last brutal years. It is as if we, the whole world but especially we in the US, have reached a threshold of awareness. Nobody calls an environmentalist a tree-hugger anymore. Kinda like Rupert Sheldrake has been trying to tell us – awareness comes at some point and change happens with little effort. Of course we are not monkeys in the literal sense, and we do have to contend with propaganda and bribery, but still truth comes.

    1. Nathanael

      This is actually an important point. Leaderlessness is a tactical response to an elite “shoot the leader” tactic.

      The elite “shoot the leader” tactic is exceptionally stupid, because one thing about a leaderless movement is, *you cannot cut a deal with it*: you (the elite) have only one option: you must surrender to it.

      Only once there is a leader is there someone to compromise with!

      So it’s a really bad tactic. But it has been the popular tactic of our elites lately. To the great benefit of al-Qaeda, which has lost a hundred “leaders” and is stronger than ever before.

      1. Lambert Strether

        Say what you will about AQ, TINA is not a problem for them. I would hazard that’s why they are able, though “leaderless” (perhaps p2p or “virtual” would be a better word) to keep reproducing themselves. This is, of course, a self-licking ice cream cone from the perspective of the security class and the military, so it’s all good, until it isn’t.

        1. Nathanael

          Yeah. There are definitely those in the military-industrial complex who like having their al-Qaeda “enemy”.

          A bit like Israel’s funding of Hamas. The blowback, in the end, is humungous, but in the meantime it *seems* to make sense to the idiots in the MIC.

  9. zwei_dinge

    The environmentalist marketplace of ideas promoted by McKibben is no more democratic than its counterparts in any other spheres of public discourse. People like Van Jones and Tzeporah Berman don’t receive special attention because they are respected. Rather, they enjoy access to the means of mass communication because their activity promotes the interests of the people who own those means. Meanwhile, people like Jill Stein are excluded (see ) from McKibben’s marketplace of ideas because their activity is less favorable to capitalist interests.

    1. StrangerInAStrangeLand

      I was surprised to see that the author supports the carbon tax which is another financial scam being promoted by big money who are salivating at the opportunity to extract even more “rent” by decree from the populace. Horrible idea. As if we had any ability to not get in our cars to go to work or the store for example. We barely have any public transportation, our cities and suburbs are set up to be car centric and our whole infrastructure is set up to be sucking up petroleum. It’s not the people’s fault. It’s our government and industry that force these things on us.

      All the carbon tax is going to do is shove prices even more into the stratosphere at our expense. It will not change anything except impoverish those who already are suffering with no end in sight.

      1. from Mexico

        Nathan Tankus did a post a few days ago where he interviewed Philip Marowski. Marowski says trading schemes for carbon emission permits and offsets comes out of the neoliberal playbook:

        Neoliberals neutralize their opponents by mounting a full spectrum response to crises: a short-term easily mobilized response to stymie their opponents; a subsequent medium-term response which involves a strong state in instituting more new-fangled markets; and a long-term science fiction response (also involving the state) to present an upbeat optimistic version of neoliberal doctrine. The shorter-term responses buy time for the thought collective to mobilize their longer-term panaceas. The book describes the dynamic in greater detail, but here, let me just indicate that, in the case of the climate crisis, the short term response is global warming denialism; the medium-term response is to institute trading schemes for carbon emission permits and offsets; and the long term science fiction response is geoengineering, such as schemes to pump particulates into the stratosphere to supposedly block out the sun and mitigate the warming process—but not, significantly, to actually cut back on carbon emissions.

        What do agree?

        1. susan the other

          Carbon cap and trade; particulates in the atmosphere, and geo engineering. The Neoliberal playbook is a giant headache. Let’s all step outside the movie theater for some fresh air. For starters, the US Military is the biggest carbon emitter on Earth, outrageous pollution of every variety as well. So cap n trade means the US government (taxpayer) is going to be paying thru the nose for those carbon credits, and to a bunch of financiers who managed to snag them up on the cheap, or quite possibly fabricate them altogether. How long can that last when everyone sees immediately it is a hoax? Any large scale geo engineering is just that much more environmental damage in the making. And particulates in the atmosphere are pie in the sky. Literally. Particulates in the atmosphere, aka global dimming, is a wild card at best. They will either slow down the energy from the sun reaching the Earth (and will not be an instrument that can be fine tuned so it could cause a new glaciation) or it will do the opposite and prevent even more heat from escaping. It’s a financiers prospectus for planetary boondoggle and disaster.

          1. StrangerInAStrangeLand

            susan the other, thanks for posting that. Cap and trade is just another disaster waiting to happen. But it’s being “sold” as a panacea, just like the particulates. I cannot believe how short sighted and unimaginative (to think through the ramifications of what’s being suggested) these people are. Blocking out the sun. I wonder if they’ve ever heard of photosynthesis? Vitamin D?

            In the end it’s always the rule of unintended consequences. When they screw up they say, who could have known? Problem is, they’re escalating our problems now because we have idiots running the country who are too irresponsible and stupid to rule with way too much technology at their fingertips.

        1. Whistling in the Dark

          It would be better if I read it no doubt, but not having heard of the group before… why am I wary of the word “citizen’s” sitting up there in their name like that?

  10. diptherio

    I think there may be some confusion on the definition of “leader”. Some of us, despite our philosophical anarchism, are “natural leaders”, i.e. for whatever reason, we end up being someone others look to for guidance in group situations. This is no great insight, but I think it’s important to keep in mind. There is an important distinction between natural leaders in this sense and leaders in the sense of “deciders” (to use a Bushism). What we’re disenchanted with is the latter form of leader, the former is both unavoidable and necessary.

    “Good” leadership, so to speak, is really just a form of assisting others to organize themselves effectively. “Bad” leadership is telling other people what to do. Good leadership is quickly recognized and sought out by others, whereas bad leadership has to announce itself and impose its will. We had lots of good leaders in Occupy, and the bad leaders didn’t last too long.

    But what we do need are more spokespeople. The Lakota tribes made their decisions communally and then tasked an eloquent individual to be their spokesperson. The whites couldn’t fathom this and took the spokespeople to be the “Chiefs” in the hierarchical sense, but they never were. Our movement, if we can call it that, needs more Lakota-style spokespeople, imho. Many people need a face and a voice to attach themselves to, at least in the beginning. If Occupy erred on the leadership front, it may have been in not providing a single (or a few) people to serve as the face and voice of the movement.

    1. Lambert Strether

      In general, I’m very skeptical of the word “leader,” because it appears in so many Washington Post headlines as a catchall term for people in positions of authority or prominence, but who play very different roles functionally, and concealing those functional roles is the very purpose of using such vague language. When I hear “leader,” I think of some extrovert with a bunch of PowerPoint slides come to lecture the cube dwellers on the next re-org. Or I think of some marked down best-seller in the Business section of an airport bookstore. On the right, “leader” ends up with fuhrerprinzip. On the left, “leader” ends up with revolutionary vanguards, and there’s a case to be made that in the 20th C that model didn’t work out all that well. We also have the issue that people tend to identify with leaders, especially charismatic ones, and then we get all the ills of tribalism. (It’s almost a “strength of weak ties” argument; identifying with a leader is a lot more like clicking Like than it is about having at least a semi-coherent political worldview, let alone being able to advocate for that view with others. We saw this in 2008.)

      That’s what I like about “spokespeople.” It’s a precise word that both describes and circumscribes the power of the person playing the role.

      I’d also make the point that it’s not so much “leaders” we need — in the sense of charismatic national figures — but more leadership. The Civil Rights movement had a collective leadership that took a long view, worked out their strategy and tactics together, etc. And that leadership had individual quirks and skills aplenty, and the leadership was flexible enough to integrate them all. “The left” (whatever that may mean, and I’m not even sure a linear metaphor is correct) has nothing like that, and has never had, not even in the 30s, or in the Populist Era. I don’t know if this is a group dynamics thing, a class thing, a cognitive capture thing, or what.

      Shorter: I think “We need a leader” is potentially a destructive view. But “We need leadership” is potentially much more constructive.

      1. Emma

        “But “We need leadership” is potentially much more constructive.

        Agreed Lambert that “we need leadership” goes without saying, but it is a little more complex than that. The Mr/Mrs Leadership also needs to be intelligent enough to have flexibility in his/her approach to alter his/her style accordingly to each and every situation and the level of maturity of followers involved.

        There are only a very small number of successful examples of this in history.

          1. Emma

            What about neither, and rather a wise Guide who passionately leads us all to realize more security and prosperity?
            I’d like to point out that the ancient linguistic origin of “to lead” actually means “to go forth, die”.
            As for a ruler, yes, we can rule that one out too as they are never really accountable to their followers.

            1. Whistling in the Dark

              “a wise Guide who passionately leads us all to realize more security and prosperity”


              Is this a joke? I mean, it’s satire, right?

              …Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.

      2. peace

        Leadership research suggests that it is extremely difficult to determine a predictable cause-effect relationships of specific leadership traits, characteristics or behaviors that predict performance.
        See leadership-debunking: “The Romance of Leadership” (Meindl, Ehrlich, & Dukerich, 1985) builds on previous work regarding the attribution of leadership (Calder, 1977) and the social construction of leadership (Pfeffer, 1981). Leaders serve more of a symbolic role to give meaning than a functional role to create results.

        However, there is some useful guidance from leadership research: e.g., Servant leadership: guide, build trust, build buy-in, and then followers will believe they are leading themselves (this concept is even mentioned in “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu [but Tsu also is all over the place])

        Some of my own research on leadership has found:
        — Matching leadership personality with top management team characteristics is more important than leadership personality types; and this predicts outcomes such as lagged ROE.
        — Randomly selected leaders in group task situations take on leadership in diverse ways including taking more time speaking, interrupting and ignoring others, nevertheless these leaders honest and equitable regarding sharing group rewards.
        — Leaders are influenced by cultural norms regarding whether to focus on self-interest or equity/sharing

        Teaching leadership: I focus on ethics and more horizontal forms of leadership. (note: I am not as Re-li-gious about “horizontalism” as some Occupy folks are.)

        Leaderless orgs: While Occupy was active in Liberty plaza a main failure was that the Demands working group never agreed on specific goals. However, Occupy would have succeeded in terms of having agreed upon, specific demands/goals but the demands working group was infiltrated and derailed by 1 person who consistently “blocked” resolutions with that “X” hand gesture. UGH!!! I know this secondhand from people in the demands group and from occupy and media articles that proved she was on the payroll of a security agency. I cannot locate the article about her now though. I feel the lack of specific demands/goals delegitimized Occupy in the eyes of many (at that time and historically. Ugh!).

    2. Whistling in the Dark

      Re: “spokesperson”

      Neat! To take it one step further, if leadership isn’t just about speech, we could retool the notion of an executive while were at it: no longer a leader in the … I dunno, insert gimmicky business-speak word here… sense. Rather, a neutered sort of thing– merely an executor, an agent of the body politic. While we’re at it. Let’s let that body politic be rather manageable in size. Bring back the 5000, a la 300?

      1. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

        – a newform delegate.
        – a newform representative.
        – a newform lobbyist.
        – a non-binding agent.
        – an approximate representative.

  11. allcoppedout

    I’m all for decentralised organisations, but here’s a warning from the past he should heed from Ludwig Von Mises (bear with me)! He’s on about a very “decentralised” system:

    The process of social selection that determines each individual’s position and income is continuously going on in the market economy. Great fortunes are shrinking and finally melting away completely while other people, born in poverty, ascend to eminent positions and considerable incomes. Where there are no privileges and where governments do not grant protection to vested interests threatened by the superior efficiency of newcomers, those who have acquired wealth in the past are forced to acquire it every day anew in competition with all other people.

    Within the framework of social cooperation under the division of labor everybody depends on the recognition of his services on the part of the buying public of which he himself is a member. Everybody in buying or abstaining from buying is a member of the supreme court which assigns to all people—and thereby also to himself—a definite place in society. Everybody is instrumental in the process that assigns to some people a higher, and to others a smaller, income. Everybody is free to make a contribution which his fellow men are prepared to reward by the allocation of a higher income. Freedom under capitalism means not to depend more on other people’s discretion than these others depend on one’s own. No other freedom is conceivable where production is performed under the division of labor, and there is no perfect economic autarky of everybody.

    I’ve taken the quote from

    I was misdirected to this site looking for information on the Levellers and their notion of liberty. I take it everyone can see the “decentralisation” in this barking rot? It’s an almost perfect example of “non-evidential argument”. Even this short extract,looked at line by line, would generate a big chapter of “debunk”. What would we generate in evidence on this one sentence?

    “Great fortunes are shrinking and finally melting away completely while other people, born in poverty, ascend to eminent positions and considerable incomes.”

    There are many general points to make, but we can take them as read here. This muck is still “decentralisation”, even if we recognise it as chronic polemic and untrue. I draw attention to it merely as a warning.

    In organisation theory we have seen various fashions on organising structures and leadership come and go. A classic would be Conger’s treatment of the dark side – Conger, Jay. “The Dark Side of Leadership.” Organizational Dynamics 19 No. 2 (Fall 1990): 44-55

    I have no doubt we should already have achieved a very different society – the opportunity costs of capitalism or whatever we call the establishment system are immense. A population three times the size of when I was born – coming about just as we had reliable contraception. Wars of huge scale and depravity. History everywhere that is untrue. Ludicrous inequality …

    We have had the ideas Yves has summarised so well for a very long time. They have even been part of the business school debate – as Maju lays out they are subject to deeper critique. Any ideas we have are subject to the “bludgeon” -the ultimate ‘morality’ of the establishment based on the ability to send the boys round. It’s difficult to believe we can change anything other than by massive constitutional reform, a matter made to seem so impossible that our arguments are reduced to pipe-dream status (what then was Von Mises smoking?)

    The leader of the UK Green Party (Caroline Lucas MP) was arrested today at a fracking protest – news quickly moves to discussion of the royal baby. This is “leadership in action” – the vile, cosy sycophants no longer toadies (who actually ate toads to make themselves sick for the delectation of the master)but much worse. We face a massive challenge in organising the non-violent direct action needed to bring real change. Hence my interest in groups like the Levellers, Diggers, Whiteboys (named after their Irish smocks) and others crushed who went a bit further than peaceful protest. What interests me is we are not turning out into the streets ‘Gandhi-style’ – the evidence we should is overwhelming so what leadership controls are preventing us?

    You can find a leadership development bibliography here:
    I’ve at least skimmed all of it (teaching) and its subject to the same drawback as the Von Mises garbage – where is the evidence, even of stuff we’d want like ‘flat-organics’? Various forms of ‘Bill McKibben’ are present even in the business school literature.

    Today in the UK our Green MP has been arrested and the partner of a Guardian Snowden-linked journalist detained for 9 hours under ‘terrorism’ legislation. In Ireland, publication of tapes of banksters laughing about what amounted to treason led not to their arrests but direction of the police to find the whistle-blower. It’s cold. Should I put my heating on and support the vile leadership in Qatar or wrap up in a woolly in decentralised Von Mises protest! Yesterday, my grandson ‘couldn’t be arsed’ to put waste cans in the recycle bin. He has teenage trouble with “authority”.

    McKibben is generally right, but we are missing the point on leadership entirely. The Austrian fantasy of constant competitive turmoil and hence change is also part of the flat-organic dream. The question marks need to be in much deeper – what freedom is there when people do not have guaranteed income might be a start – something that raises issues of whether we can think at all from sinecure, even as leaders of niche movements. If I were to mark Von Mises (a leader) as an undergraduate his work would pass (I’m just being honest – standards are non-existent beyond modest literacy). We need to understand a lot more on barriers to rationality, creativity and freedom. Currently, we are as popular as my advice on recycling to a teenage brain.

    1. Moneta

      There are still a lot of delusions out there. Too many still think that if we forced the 1% to share, or that if we printed money properly, we could all consume like the top 10% forever.

      IMO, the scales will come off some eyes when pensions get ratcheted down.

      1. John Cummings

        The “reformer” wet dream. Capitalism is perfectly fine with a few tweeks, just need a “bit” more of sharing.

  12. Jim

    Has the classical/traditional left helped to foster the illusion of believing that it could create one dynamic unified will—the illusion that it could bring together millions of spontaneous individual wills into a fictitious class cohesion?

    Is it legitimate to claim the radicals/revolutionaries are just as career oriented as everyone else?

    Have anarchist/communist/social-democratic movements/parties specialized in mobilizing anger/rage/hatred as the foundation of their politics?

    Does class thinking rank far above race thinking when it come to the release of genocidal energies in the 20th century?

    Is it possible to move beyond the politics of resentment?

  13. Jim

    Leadership and the Historical/Classical/Traditional Left since 1917

    Did the magic word “organization” historically evoke the leap from the level of many active individual wills to that of the standardized class will?

    Did Lenin’s conception of the party become the legitimate rage collector for the supposedly not yet mature and operational workers in seizing the right to act?

    Did the classical/traditional left reduce class consciousness to the party and then reduce the party to the mastermind?

    Was such a reduction pure hubris?

    Was such a reduction a catastrophe for the Left?

    1. John Cummings

      Does it matter? Lenin was working with capital since his failed 90’s movement in Russia.

      Most Hegelian dialect all comes together at some point.

  14. Jim

    Looking at the recent 20th century I would argue that the political experiment of translating the energies of the average individual into political forms and mobilizing these energies to achieve “progress” has been largely a catastrophic failure (think of the Russian, Chinese and German exterminations.)

    I would also argue, in particular, that modern radicalism in all of its essential styles (anarchist, communist, syndicalist, social-democratic etc) has been a massive failure as well.

    This failure has centered around the attempts by these styles of radicalism to collect immense deposits of anger and hatred which were supposed to lead to satisfaction but instead resulted in a huge releases of resentment and rage.

    Would it be worthwhile to spend a significant portion of the 21st century attempting to dismantle the apparent fatal alliance between intelligence and resentment?

    1. Whistling in the Dark

      “Would it be worthwhile to spend a significant portion of the 21st century attempting to dismantle the apparent fatal alliance between intelligence and resentment?”

      !!! But, beware! How can we do this without a mustering of the collective will, borne out of…

      Have you read Camus’ The Rebel? I haven’t, but I think it may be relevant.

      What is a human if not a calculating and wronged, if not wronging, thing? ( I mean, if you clicked, you laughed, right?) And what if it is hard-wired, so to speak? Can we dismantle that?

      Here’s a proposition: beware the proposition.

      But then, where do we turn? Anyone got a handy cosmic Non- Sequitur?

      1. JTFaraday

        “I mean, if you clicked, you laughed, right?”

        I think The Onion just went a long way toward explaining the irrational popularity of FaceBook. (And I only know this because I’m a loser who can’t do anything right).

        Anyway, most of the time one doesn’t need revenge. Karma’s bitch enough. Naturally I’m talking about life amongst the little people here.

  15. john

    “the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule.”

    Al Gore divested out of the green industry. Some leader.

  16. Dan Kervick

    Others have already touched on this, but I think McKibben’s piece focuses too much on the question of whether or not it is important to have the single charismatic leader, and not enough on equally important questions about whether or not it is important to have organization, long-term plans and a grand political strategy. The picture I get from reading McKibben and many others is of a movement that consists in the spontaneous generation of organized resistance here and there to some of the projects of the powerful. The movement is successful in that instance if the project is thwarted, and fails if the project is carried through.

    But resistance is what you have to do when you don’t have political power yourself. Isn’t there any left remaining out there that actually wants to achieve political power? It doesn’t seem so. Rather, it seems to me the contemporary left prefers to be powerless and prefers to be permanently on the side of the rebels and resistors, opportunistically throwing monkey wrenches into the inexorable progress of some alien Leviathan.

    That can certainly be a useful orientation. But in some way it is not very ambitious. On the one hand there is a great deal of admirable energy and sweat going into such a movement, and there will be some successes here and there. But on the other hand the orientation of the permanent resistor defines itself by a kind of long-term surrender to the inexorable control by The Powers That Be. There is something fearful and weak in this attitude, an unhealthy embrace of outlook of the subordinated peasant.

    “Resiliency” and “adaptability” are nice buzz words. I hear them all the time in the corporate world.

    1. Whistling in the Dark

      “On the one hand there is a great deal of admirable energy and sweat going into such a movement”

      I hear a fat chortling cat. … meaning, I can’t help but concur, it seems.

      What’s the alternative to struggling though?

      And also, while the admirable are sweating… isn’t true suffering going on in your neighborhood, or the next one, or the next one over from that?

      And, hey, I know, get the log out of my own eye. But, while I have one hand covering my blinded eye, mine other is pointing; see where it’s pointing?

      ——————————> X

    2. Andrew Watts

      The contemporary left believes that achieving power would taint their moral purity. They would rather be powerless, ineffectual, and pure rather than achieve their goals. What they don’t understand is that every endeavor is tainted by human imperfection. This is one of the reasons why they’ve made so little difference over the last few decades.

      “But on the other hand the orientation of the permanent resistor defines itself by a kind of long-term surrender to the inexorable control by The Powers That Be. There is something fearful and weak in this attitude, an unhealthy embrace of outlook of the subordinated peasant.“

      They’re idealists and dreamers. They want to change the world, and as avid believers in progress, they think that’s a possibility. A peasant has a firmer grip on the realities of their situation. It’s a necessary survival skill. Most of the general population of the developed nations can afford to dither.

  17. Saddam Hussein

    I think the either/or thing is unhelpful here. It’s not hierarhcy OR anarchy, it is what mix of the two. The state is fiercely, ‘congenitally’ hierarchical; open access to information severely undermines its ability to be so. Does this herald the advent of pure anarchy? No. But I think the state’s uncontrollable urge to expand its sphere of control in self-defence against more and more open access cannot result in success, since total top-down control of everything is impossible. Thus is very bumpy ‘softening’ of state/corporate control is underway.

    More anarchic or democratic or distributed-power processes are emerging. This historical development, as with all profound change, is difficult. Both leaderless and led groups will play a role, imperfectly. How it all turns out, especially as we have peak everything to deal with too, is anybody’s guess. What is certain is that the ‘new’ social form or order will have faults and be subject to evolution too, if we make it that far.

    As for self-organising, everything is, even hierarchies. What this will never mean is perfect harmony; no aspect of nature is in perfect balance (apart from death itself perhaps, though that is another discussion). Living systems operate far from equilibrium, always dynamic, always vulnerable to change.

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