by Richard Marsden
The Parliamentary Labour Party lacks confidence in the leadership of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. To date, however, none of his critics feel confident enough in their own leadership qualities to oppose him in an election in which the membership have an equal say. It is a leaderless mutiny. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much Jeremy Corbyn and the PLP as ‘leadership’ itself.
Interestingly the earliest historical example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is a reference to the then Leadership of the Opposition:
1821 C. W. Wynn Let. 11 Mar. in Corr. (1920) 268 Charles writes that Tierney has regularly resigned the Leadership of the Opposition.
The source continues, ‘and no new one can be found to replace him.’ The Tierney in question is the Right Honourable George Tierney, a Whig who was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, 1817-21. Tierney famously fought a duel with pistols with William Pitt (the Younger), on 27 May 1798, who had questioned his patriotism and courage. Both aimed twice and missed twice.
From the House of Commons ‘leadership’ was spread far and wide through the travels of colonial capitalism and now the whole world it seems bends the knee before this mystical and elusive quality. There are more flavours of leadership than ice-cream: seductive, revolutionary, transformational, charismatic, Machiavellian, modest, heroic, to name but a few. While leadership scholars in their schools of business have a hard time escaping from their circuitous definitions most agree that leadership is a ‘good thing’. It emits a virtuous glow. We admire leaders. Some of us, if we are not careful, may even become one.
We’re noticeably less keen on leadership’s corollary, follow-ship. No one aspires to be a follower. There aren’t journals, books and courses on followship. There are no ‘Born to Follow’ self-help books or reality television programs. In fact, it’s rare for anyone to actually mention follow-ship at all. This is odd because they are sides of the same coin; the relationship between leaders and followers shapes the actions of each. Perhaps this silence is to prevent attention being drawn to the fact that leaders are the only active subjects in this scheme of things; followers—and that’s most of us—are passive tools or objects to be used.
In common usage, the verb ‘to lead’ defers to the noun ‘leadership’. We talk about leader-ship, not lead-ing; an object, not an action. In so doing we abstract from the power relations of leadership and construe it as a concrete quality of leaders. While personal qualities are important, leaders may embody situations as much as they create them. Successful leaders in one context may, and often do, fail in another, to their and their followers puzzlement. This partly accounts for the bewilderment that follows the failure of leaders (such as football managers) when they move from one context to another.
Having reified leadership, we fetishize it and treat leaders like secular gods. In Victorian days we called them our ‘betters’. As with Jeremy Corbyn and the PLP, problems in social organisations are routinely attributed to a failure or a lack of leadership. Instilling new leadership, especially strong leadership, is seen as their solution. While we don’t chuck them into live volcanoes, we sacrifice our leaders to the gods of success in much the same spirit in which our ancestors appeased their gods. So it’s understandable that the PLP has asked Mr. Corbyn, ever so politely, if he wouldn’t mind hurling himself into the flames, for the good of a higher power with a more pressing claim—themselves.
Fortunately, given their short shelf-life, there is an endless supply of would-be leaders. Since leaders are ‘not what they were’ we manufacture new ones by reverse-engineering from leaders whose credentials are not to be questioned, i.e., dead ones, mostly men. Their lives are pored over for early signs of future greatness and the essence of leadership is duly extracted. A veritable industry of scholars translates this distilled quality into advice on ‘how to’ become a leader.
The essence of leadership it transpires, is to have a ‘vision’, to be able to translate it into measurable goals—for a nation, a corporation, a lemonade stand—and get subordinates to achieve those goals. Vision separates leaders from mere managers. (‘Managers do things right; leaders do the right things.’) In the nineteenth century seers of visions were locked up or worse, now they’re running the country. All manner of rogues and scoundrels attempt to cloak themselves in the reflected glory of actual, past leaders (all too often the rogues and scoundrels of their day). The moment we submit ‘leadership’ to empirical scrutiny, however, we find that the most renowned leaders are usually the best ideologists of what they claim to have done or are about to do. Stripped of the guff, ‘manager’ describes what most of them do perfectly well.
Are we not more than a little weary of this ‘leadership’? Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters surely are. Those on the receiving end of ‘austerity’ throughout Europe certainly are. And with good reason. Austerity is a relationship between those who judge and those who are judged, between moral leaders and the morally led. Austerity now masquerades as economic policy but it is rooted in ancient religious, aesthetic practices of self-mortification intended to cleanse the soul of sinful penitents.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this aestheticism was transformed into the morality of the workhouse and techniques for disciplining labour. Now entire regions and countries are infused with the morality of the workhouse. They have been ‘living beyond their means’ and getting their governments into debt. Belts must be tightened. Sacrifices must be made. Until balance is restored. Yes, you suffer, but for your own salvation. Yes, we are cruel, but only to be kind. Behind this rhetorical cloak we find that the privileged are doing very well out of this austerity thank-you-very-much—while the stress of daily living anaesthetises the feeling of being alive for everyone else and renders them docile. ‘Europe’ is Janus-faced.
It may have escaped the attention of those members of the PLP who lack confidence in the leadership of Jeremy Corby, but all over the world people are resisting the hegemony of austere capitalism and have lost confidence in the kind of leadership to which it is attached. They demand workplace and community democracy. This resistance may ebb and flow but it isn’t going away. This resistance is leadership-from-below—in plain terms, insurrection. It’s a choice between being the furrow or being the ploughshare.
The people have deferred to leadership and sacrificed their own powers of organisation for too long. While some have more gumption or mother-wit than others, when need arises we are each capable of becoming our own leader, the cause of our own actions. Leadership is a social quality, exercised, not created, by individuals. As such, its strength can come and it can go and pass from person to person. Jeremy Corbyn understands this. His critics in the PLP do not.