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Bill McKibben on the recent leaderless rebellions (1): on being a catalyst, not a leader

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th September 2013


Via TomDispatch:

Bill McKibben implies that the later twentieth and early twenty-first century may be noteworthy for two intertwined phenomena: computers and digital technology, which have decentralized power in some ways, while concentrating it in others, and the next phase in the development of nonviolent, direct-action, people-powered movements, the recent leaderless rebellions.

The 1960s now seems like a transitional age in which the new anti-authoritarianism now in ascendancy first dawned. In those years, members of cults (from Synanon and the Manson Family to the Moonies and the Symbionese Liberation Army) and others followed their leaders into madness and mayhem, even as some movements started to experiment with new forms of self-governance and to learn how to campaign without charismatic leaders. They began trying to transform liberation, equality, and democracy into internal processes as well as goals. The problem wasn’t just the cults, but the way political campaigns of every sort would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the people who assumed they were sent to Earth to explain it all and lead the rest of us (yeah, dudes, mostly).

As it turned out, for a rebellion against conventional authority, an unconventional version of authority wasn’t what was needed, but an alternative to authoritarianism altogether. Feminists and other radical democrats in many movements, notably the great antinuclear movements of the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered new anti-authoritarian techniques, still widely used and prominent in the Occupy movement, including consensus process, facilitators, and spokescouncils. These tools distributed power more equitably and rendered leaders of the old sort superfluous.

All through my activist life, I’ve seen police looking for leaders to negotiate with or suppress. A body with a head can be decapitated, but headless organisms charge on as long as some of us remain. And many people — Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, David Graeber of the Occupy movement, Bill McKibben in the climate-change movement, possibly even Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — have been mistaken for leaders when they were really something else: catalysts and voices for our movements. They weren’t and aren’t leaders because we aren’t followers. We don’t obey them, but sift through and adopt their ideas, frameworks, and strategies as we see fit, while contributing ourselves. No shepherds, no sheep — which is a triumph of political evolution and a measure of how far we are from the authoritarianism of the past.

In this essay, Bill McKibben is essentially announcing that he might at last be pulling back from a grueling, exhausting, continuous tour of the world as the most charismatic, witty, and effective catalyst for what has become a global climate movement with an ever-strengthening U.S. component. That’s good news. Because he understood more deeply than any of us how urgent and catastrophic our situation on this overheating planet of ours really is, he has pushed himself beyond human limits to address it. If this piece of his is a sidelong announcement that we can expect more writing and less showing up in every corner of the Earth, then it’s two kinds of good news — for sustainable Bill and more of his magnificent writing. (In fact, there’s a new book about to appear that sounds kind of great.)

The work needs doing, but the duty is all of ours, not just his, even if he has already roused crowds about the issue in hundreds of places on nearly every continent, including Antarctica. His books, in case you’ve missed them, do a remarkable job of laying out how dire the problem of climate change is, but also how alluring and within our grasp the solutions to it are; both Deep Economy and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet are oddly hopeful about what we could do.

The beautiful thing about them, spelled out clearly in his latest post for TomDispatch, is that they are deeply anti-authoritarian in that the solutions they imagine involve the dispersal of power — both the literal power that runs our homes and vehicles and farms and factories, and the power that is politics (which are both consolidated in corporations like Chevron, as he highlights below). He spotlights just where what’s left of our hope resides: in a decentralized, grassroots, youth-oriented global climate movement, including the extraordinary young people doing the lion’s share of the work at 350.org.

What all this means is that the power is also yours: you are potentially a catalyst for this moment.”

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