In his stunningly insightful book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell suggested that there were two world-changing inventions for the twentieth century, nuclear weapons and nonviolence, and described the way their histories and powers were intertwined. After all, Gandhi’s unarmed revolution against British colonialism in India succeeded just as nuclear weapons makers were claiming that ultimate weapon as the ultimate power on the planet. Today, Schell’s former New Yorker colleague and friend 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. Welcome aboard what might just be Earth, Version 2013. Rebecca Solnit
Movements Without Leaders
What to Make of Change on an Overheating Planet
By Bill McKibben
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