1990s >> 1998 >> no-1124-april-1998

Never a follower be

The Greek phrase “an-archon” or “no leader” gave us the word “anarchy”. Yet “anarchy” to most people is another name for chaos, or disorder. The assumption is that without leaders, there can be no civilisation. Our contention is the opposite. Leaders, and the followers who create them, are holding us back from any real global civilisation.

Think what some of these leaders have accomplished for humanity. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Margaret Thatcher, Mao Tse Tung, Saddam Hussein–it would be perverse indeed to claim that such leaders have benefited the human species, and yet stubbornly the leadership cult persists. Anyone can write a long list of “bad leaders”. But try writing a list of “good leaders” and see how far you get.

The world is obsessed by leaders and leadership. Corruption charge may follow sex scandal in the halls of power, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many political, religious or other leaders are exposed as liars and frauds, nothing seems to dent the idea of leadership as a practical and reliable method of organising human affairs. The evidence may say differently, the individuals in real life may be as bent as a rubber shilling but the principle of leadership is still considered perfectly valid. Is this because we believe that some (mostly) men are just superhuman, or because we are over-rating the few and under-rating the many?

The comic-strip character “Superman” has to save the human race so often he must get really bored with it. In most adventure stories, books and films, and in true heroic form, one or other man usually saves us all. With this plot, write your own blockbuster. We have a “hero” fixation, perhaps shaped in a modern form by Nietzchean ideas of perfectibility, but born originally in the vacuum left by the death of old gods and antiquated religions, and justified by a rather freudian view of history as the sequential biographies of great leaders and lords. All this continues to inform our art, our imagination and our politics. If only we had the right people in charge, everything would be better.

Or would it? In nature, any species which relied so heavily on certain “heroic” individuals to save it just wouldn’t last a single sweaty afternoon. Human beings are far too inventive and adaptable to leave themselves in such a fix, and in order to persuade ourselves that we need leaders we somehow have to forget this fact, and keep on forgetting it.

Humans are remarkable. Our very diversity as a species is the key to our success, if that is the word, in dominating all other species. We have the most complex brain ever evolved in nature and by trading ideas through the medium of our collective diversity (that is to say, society) we have multiplied our latent ingenuity by many orders of magnitude. In a geological second or two we have climbed down from the trees, given ourselves a name, learned to produce food in abundance, and sent our spacecraft to explore our planetary system.

That’s not bad going for an unpromising and rather weedy bald, deaf ape with bad eyesight and no sense of smell. Nobody would have put money on us back in the Pliocene.

We now we dominate the globe. And are we looking after it properly? Obviously not. The rest of the animal species are at our mercy, and we are making them extinct. Are we content? No, we’re not. Can we stop destroying everything around us? No, we can’t. What’s wrong with us?

Post-scarcity era

It’s because we can’t let go of the past. Yes, we’ve had to fight all the way to survive. Yes, we’ve had slavery of one sort or another and, yes, we’ve been dominated by priests, kings and presidents for all our written history. We’re in a new era now, the post-scarcity era, and we don’t need to fight anymore, but we haven’t woken up to the fact. We still think we have to dominate everything, including each other. Our social systems, our behaviour, the cast of our ideas are all predicated on the inevitability of competition for wealth and favour, on the need for leaders and followers. We are still hypnotised by the historic glare of power and domination, lulled and gulled by the soft insistent tones of our leaders that they and their ilk are as inevitable as the stars in the sky, that leadership, the power of it, and the competition for it, are as natural as birth, sex and death. That’s the way the world is, people say, even Darwin said so.

But he didn’t say so. There is nothing in the human brain that inclines it to subservience. Nor is there a “must-dominate” gland. Attempts by so-called Social Darwinists to justify our terrible oppression of ourselves as natural and correct have long been discredited, while efforts by some modern sociobiologists to do essentially the same have also been severely attacked. To imagine, as did the Social Darwinists, that evolution is entirely a process of merciless competition is to take no account of the alternative and co-operative tactics nature also employs, while to suggest, as do some sociobiologists, that our genes may dictate our behaviour and therefore our culture (including leadership culture), is merely to sit down very heavily on one end of that old see-saw, the Nature-Nurture argument, and hope the riders at the end fall off.

But although there is nothing “natural” about our social condition, there is nothing unnatural about it either. Where evolution calls forth one or another set of behaviour patterns in other species, we have the ability, and indeed, the obligation, to make our own conscious changes. We have changed in the past often enough as circumstances demanded. In the new post-scarcity era, we can and must adapt again, this time in the interest of the whole planet.

Each of us can be our own leader. The greatest command is that over oneself. Our capitalist world, controlled by a few rich people and their minions, has done its level best to school out of us the very things which make us such a great species in the first place–initiative, experimentation, imagination, diversity. But society can’t reduce us, because it is attempting a self-inflicted wound. The rich need us to be smart to run their wealth-collection system for them, but they try to keep us in our place by browbeating us and treating us like children. It won’t work for ever, even if it seems to be working at the moment.

The leaders we are asked to support, and sometimes choose between, are a myth, created and maintained by–leaders. They are poor examples of honesty, integrity, even of humanity. They are not interested in truth, justice, or any of the grand notions they spout about. They exist, have always existed, will always exist, for one purpose only: to line their own pockets and empty yours. They are parasites on the social body, unwanted, unnecessary and destructive. To follow leaders is to hand over your heart on a platter, with knife and fork attached. It is an admission of defeat, acceptance that you are inadequate, in and of yourself. It is an act of submission and indeed an act of cowardice unworthy of the human animal.

To refuse to follow leaders is a liberating step, one which the working class has yet to take. When we realise that the post-scarcity world can be run very efficiently and healthily by democratic co-operation, that our own lives would be vastly better without states, governments, police, and all the trappings of leadership, we will collectively be in a position to make that step. And then we will see a revolution unprecedented in history.

The Socialist Party has no leaders in fact or theory. Socialism wouldn’t operate that way and neither do we. All decisions are made by common vote, all administration is above-board and open to inspection, and all work is voluntary. None of us is perfect, and that’s why democracy works better than leadership. Mistakes by one person are not disasters for the many. Private interests don’t count. Power doesn’t exist. Socialists are their own leaders, and they follow nobody but themselves.

Socialism–common ownership in a leaderless global democracy–could not work with people unwilling or unable to think for themselves, to take responsibility, or to co-operate, but fortunately it doesn’t have to. Human beings are better than that. We can think, and we can co-operate, and we don’t need the bigots of the Right to tell us we’re worthless, nor do we need rescuing by some “heroic” and entirely untrustworthy vanguard of the Left.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advises Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Socialists, having to truck with the money system in any case, would instead offer the following injunction: “Neither a follower, nor a leader be.” So the next time you are asked to vote for a leader, do yourself a big favour. Don’t.

PADDY SHANNON

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