Pathfinders – Attack of the zombies

The US presidential election campaign is set to move into high gear this year with both sides attacking the mental capacities of the other side’s leader, one as senile and the other deranged. There is something zombie-like about Biden and Trump, the one peering through screwed-up eyelids as if half-asleep and always baffled, the other pontificating on his own magnificence in the strangulated voice of hubris at full stretch. But it’s not as if US workers would be any better off if two different capitalist zombies were battling it out for leadership, the whole concept of leadership itself is a kind of zombie cult.

New research from Queensland University has identified a problem of ‘zombie leadership’, a set of ideas about leadership that remain popular while being generally ‘poisonous for organizations and society’. ‘It’s known as ‘zombie leadership’ because despite being demonstrably false, these claims refuse to die,’ says Professor Haslam, of the University’s School of Psychology. ‘One example is the assumption that leadership is exclusive to people with special qualities which set them apart from the masses’ (

This is self-evidently a false assumption, when you look at the calibre of most political leaders. The only special quality many of them have is a narcissistic sense of Divine Right which is impervious to criticism or even rational thought. But zombie leaders make for zombie followers, who refuse to believe the evidence of their senses and remain convinced that leaders in general are a superior species.

The researchers point to other noxious but unchallenged preconceptions, like the idea that people can’t manage without leaders, and that leadership is somehow good by definition. They argue that these ideas have no evidential base but persist because they flatter ruling elites (of course) and also appeal to anxious people who feel they have no control in the world, with the result that they help to ‘justify inequalities of esteem, recognition, and reward.’

They are correct on all counts. But they don’t say that all leadership is bad. They see ‘good’ leadership as an inclusive group process in which people feel appreciated, ‘grounded in relationships and connections between leaders and those they influence.’

Recently the Economist ran a podcast series called Boss Class, which aimed to offer useful advice to managers trying to improve their game and get better results out of their workers. Much of the discussion revolved around similar ideas of democratic participation, listening, appreciating, and recognising what individuals are good at and what they’re not good at.

The problem with all this, from a socialist perspective, is that it’s largely pious bullshit which either does not understand or refuses to admit the basic realities of capitalist employment. While it’s undoubtedly better to have a nice boss than a nasty one, the fact is that workers are not there by choice, they are coerced by economic necessity into labouring to make someone else rich, and no amount of smarmy management-speak can disguise the conflict of interests between workers and management that is an integral part of the class war. Many workers instinctively recognise this, and are not fooled into working harder or for free just because the boss smiles at them and calls them by their first name. Unfortunately though, many other workers are conned into thinking that the boss is their friend, and they are consequently hit very hard when the cost of living goes up but their wages don’t, or when they suddenly face redundancy after years of loyal service.

It really doesn’t take much to find examples of people cooperating perfectly well without leaders. One recent news article looked at a Suffolk commune that’s been going successfully for fifty years with everyone pitching in and nobody feeling the need to be Napoleon, although the place looks palatial so the buy-in would no doubt exclude the average sans-culotte ( Even without doing any reading at all, most people can probably call to mind incidents from past experience where they worked cooperatively with other people on a common goal without anyone taking a leadership role. It’s really not hard. People do it all the time. That’s why socialism will work.

Surprisingly, there are even some capitalist companies which have got rid of management structures and have no actual bosses, like the Morning Star tomato processing company in California ( But these tend to work in practice like cooperatives, where workers essentially have to exploit themselves if the entity is going to compete successfully in the marketplace against other companies with no tender scruples about screwing their own workers. And screw their workers they must, even if they’re nice and polite bosses who know everyone’s name, because the logic of capitalism is to grow or die, and that means skinning the workforce every chance they get.

Socialists have an understanding of leadership which is somewhat different even from that suggested by the Queensland study. We don’t have leaders and we regard hierarchies as intrinsically anti-democratic. But to say we don’t believe in leadership under any circumstances is not accurate. In fact, as Engels pointed out in response to some people fetishising anti-authority, there are times when it would be damned silly and even dangerous not to have an expert in charge, like on a ship at sea (On Authority, 1872 –

In fact we think leadership should be encouraged in everyone – if by leadership we mean a willingness to take the initiative, problem solve, show others the way, and inspire them to take part in a collective cause or a project. That’s how we’ll get socialism, after all, by you and everyone else having the courage to stand up and be first, not sitting and waiting like a zombie for someone else to tell you what to do.


Next article: Greater London Assembly elections, Thursday 2 May 2024 ⮞

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