December 13, 2003 21:56 | Culture

Read on Emergent Leadership

I few months ago, I wrote about a book I had started reading: Herbert Read's "To hell with culture".

The volume is essentially made up of a number of papers Read published between 1941 and 1961. The aforementioned post was some notes on merely the Introduction of the book, which on it's own was an eye opener.

Due to time constraints and stretching myself across a number of interests, endeavors and obligations, I must admit that I am only now at the third of the papers, and of that, half way through it. I return to this work now, however, because ideas and insights I have thus far gained from it continuously revisit me, on a daily basis, and I am wont to glean more.

The order in which the articles appear in the book impress upon the reader the overall "view" which Read wished to impart. The Introduction, résuméd in, again, the above linked entry, could have been a paper of it's own accord, expounding on the role of (truly knowledgable, intuitive and involved) artist, poet, free-thinker, in society and its governance. Extolling the importance of these "disruptive elements in society", as they stir things up, if you will, and make things happen. "Here's to the crazy ones", right?

The Introduction is followed by the article after which the book is named - in my humble opinion a misnomer, though it is the most sensationalist title of the compiled works and thus was probably a marketing-based decision... but I digress. A point I retain from "To Hell with Culture" is how "culture", is the opiate of the people: a dope used as a tool by despotic leadership. I say despotic in presenting a parallel with a quote of Benjamin Franklin who, when asked his opinion on the U.S. Constitution in 1787, over 200 years ago, said:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being capable of any other.

How does one corrupt the People? By controlling the culture, the dope of the People. I could go on about media manufacturing of reality, but this is not the aim of this entry and I leave it to the reader to muse on these points. Read goes on heavily about propaganda and even quotes Goebbels and Hitler, something he does quite a bit apparently, and a reason I fear why his works are not more present in public knowledge.

The next article is "The Politics of the Unpolitical" and it discusses what Read refers to as

"the politics of those who desire to be pure in heart: the politics of men without personal ambition; of those of who have not desired wealth or an unequal share of worldly possessions; of those who have always striven ... for human values and not for national or sectional interests."

With such people, decentralized governance is a natural form:

Decentralization is thus also of the essence of this alternative to democracy. 'Real politics are local politics', and power and authority should be devolved and segmented to the utmost limit of practicability. Only in such a way can the person - every person in society - be assured of an adequate sense of responsibility and human dignity. These qualities for the average person only emerge in his actual sphere of work and in his regional environment."

The very next paragraph begins with "Centralization is a disease of democracy", and makes a very convincing argument to validate such a statement. I would like to remind you also that extreme centralization has another name: dictatorship. Read goes quite in-depth to demonstrate how democracy and fascism share some very fundamental characteristics - summed up best by Sadism and Masochism, the desire to have control and the desire to relinquish control - and how very very easily, with the right conditions - such as corruption of the people and despotic leadership - a so-called democracy can slip to fascism and onward to dictatorship.

In a time when culture delivery is instantaneous and pervasive and centrally controlled (mass pop-culture, media conglomeration, etc...), such political terms can be applied to more than just politics...

The great hope of ideas such as expressed in Joi Ito's Emergent Democracy paper is that with instantaneous, pervasive and DEcentralized cultural exchange (the Internet, mass communication, relationship management, etc...), such a slip can be staved off.

The third article is titled "The Cult of Leadership", and explores, as far as I've read, the relationship between various forms of leadership and those being led and how the dynamics of such play out. Another quote which stands out in the angled light of Emergence is one Read makes from a Professor Bartlett who discusses, in a work titled "Psychology and Primitive Culture", the relationship of the chief to the "primitive group":

'it is a relationship in which leadership does not depend mainly upon domination or assertion, but upon a ready susceptibilty to the thoughts, feelings and actions of the members of the group. The chief, that is, expresses the group rather than impresses it...'

Before I end this entry I must say that Read invokes Hitler and the Nazis a great deal, propping them up as examples for various things, not all of which are necessarily "bad". While this may make some uneasy, we must remember to learn from the past and recognize those lessons, no matter how unsettling it may be. You cannot have a "Never Again!" without a proper "Lest we forget!".