Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Leadership in Large Societal Movements

Numerous treatises have been written about leadership, its origins and supposedly how to develop it. Unfortunately many of these discussions are limited in importance for most people because they focus on small environments where the consequences are who gets marketing account A or wins the debate B. Even the larger environments of democratic elections are limited in their scope because of term limits and the general reversibility of a vast majority of accomplishments, be it beneficial or detrimental. The true importance of leadership comes from those attempting to lead movements against large organizations or government, especially those leaders that do not come from some form of seat of power.

The sad reality when it comes to individualized power is that it is essential to accomplishing anything substantial over a long period of time without resorting to violence. Some may take offense to this statement citing numerous events in history where the “downtrodden”, powerless and oppressed banded together and rose up against their oppressors without requiring violence like the civil rights movement (sans the Black Panthers) in the United States and the movements supporting India Independence. However, when looking at these events in earnest, past the “underdog” hype and mythos, those that eventually succeeded over the long-term required either the intervention of individuals with power or their apathy in fight against the movement.

For example based on known elements at the time and in the future, it is unlikely that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have been passed effectively codifying the success of the civil rights movement if Richard Nixon had won the U.S. presidency in 1960. Also when viewing John F. Kennedy’s unwillingness to aggressively address the “black equality” question and difficulty confronting the Southern Democrats, it can be argued that had Kennedy not been assassinated in 1963 it is unlikely the Civil Rights Act would have been passed either, at least until a much later date. Numerous people underestimate the commitment that then president Lyndon B. Johnson had towards resolving the level of inequality for blacks in the South, a commitment that was lacking in both Nixon and Kennedy. In fact a number of historians give Johnson credit for pushing the Kennedy administration to address civil rights. Clearly if Johnson had not been president at the time, granting him the ability to wield a large level of power, it is unlikely that the civil rights movement at the time would have been successful while remaining non-violent and the probability of winning when turning to violence was almost zero.

Similarly India acquired its independence from British rule largely because it was calculated that the detriments from keeping India as a colony exceeded the benefits regardless of the movement clamoring for independence. For numerous foreign “revolutions” in the modern era intervention by powerful outside parties, like the United States, is principally involved in tipping the scale for example recently in Libya, the “rebels” were on the brink of annihilation before the intervention of NATO. However, the common denominator in all of these revolutions is the administration of power, brought on by those who inherently had it or through violence.

When there is a lack of individuals with significant power and a movement elects not to resort to violence how can a movement expect to accomplish its goals? Normally it will not accomplish those goals, a result that can be seen over numerous event through history most recently in the currently failing 2nd Egyptian revolution now that the army is actually interested in maintaining the status quo and the short-lived, but highly publicized, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in the United States. So is there a way for these movements to have success without applying power from the above sources?

The first critical element to any societal movement regardless of the amount of possessed power is the realization of sacrifice. Note that for the purposes of this discussion a “societal movement” is defined as: “a movement that aims to significantly influence the workings of a given society on a large scale”. OWS accomplished almost nothing worthwhile largely because the greatest level of defiance that most of its members were willing to undertake was cause a small amount of annoyance for those in certain positions of power in New York. Some could spin the accomplishments of the movement to include improved unity or societal clarity that expanded beyond New York, but those individuals are simply grasping at straws in their attempt to defend OWS. One could argue that the movement was about little more than the ego of the participants and pointless steam venting versus actually solving the problem of growing wealth inequality in the U.S. Would a legitimate devotion to sacrifice and the elimination from the movement anyone who was not willing to undertake the same mindset have changed the result?

From this presumption an interesting question arises. Suppose at the time of the OWS protest (fall of 2011) 5000 random individuals involved were asked whether or not he/she would be willing to be incarcerated for 15 years at a medium security prison in the general population in exchange for the passage of Fictional Bill 104 (FB 104). FB 104 would establish a real time maximum asset cap for individuals of 20 million dollars and for corporations a maximum yearly profit cap of 150 million dollars. The government would tax 100% of all income/earnings/wages/assets/etc over either cap. The IRS would be given much greater authority to pursue and charge tax cheats/thieves and all tax cheats found guilty would receive jail terms in medium security prisons with minimum sentences equating to 1 year per $100,000 that was concealed. Also U.S. foreign policy would place emphasis on pressuring notorious tax havens to open their books regarding banking by U.S. citizens, similar to the tactics recently used against Switzerland. Taxes accrued from this ceiling tax would be used to fund food banks, education, apprenticeships and small business loans to increase both the job pool and the number of qualified applicants.

So given this general outline of FB 104, which should go a long way to limiting the equality gap in the United States, how many of the 5000 polled protesters would actually sacrifice their freedom for 15 years to accomplish this goal? Sad to say probably not many of them, if any at all. What if unless at least 75% of those asked accept the terms the bill would not become law? Note that in the above example 15 years in prison signifies a tradeoff for the bill and is supposed to represent some of the real sacrifice that OWS protesters could have engaged in, various elements of economic disruption, which could have “persuaded” the federal government into actually doing something about the problem.

Another problem with the OWS movement was their “strategy”, if one could even say they had one, was not realistic relative to the general psychological makeup of society. While the overall initial goal, before it basically became a mouthpiece for every non-conservative societal complaint, was never fully clear; the argument against increasing financial inequality due to the application of superficial importance to certain occupations and the minimization of importance of others implies that OWS wanted the formation of a genuine meritocracy with appropriate handicap measurements for individualized starting positions. Note that the above statement is a rather mouthful so what exactly does it mean?

Most individuals are familiar with a meritocracy. A meritocracy is a school of thought that believes power and influence should be vested in individuals according to potential and accomplishment not class/rank, blood, connections, etc. In addition occupations and roles that foster positive societal development and stability take precedence over occupations that do not. For example in such an environment entertainers and stockbrokers would make considerably less money than physicians, teachers and engineers.

The appropriate handicap measurement element is basically a socio-economical version of the original premise behind affirmative action. The original idea behind affirmative action was to create an evaluation system, which extrapolated performance in similar opportunities between candidates even if only one participated in the specific opportunity. Basically certain individuals due to socio-economic, racial and/or ethnic background will not be afforded certain educational and/or occupational opportunities. Note that the “not” in the previous sentence is important because these individuals did not fail at the opportunity or fail to accept the opportunity, but never had the option of accepting the opportunity in the first place.

The key aspect of affirmative action was to use the written information (usually in the resume or other requested items) to create an effective questioning session for the interview to extract the necessary information to make the comparison extrapolation. Unfortunately for whatever reason, more than likely simple laziness, this original intent has devolved into quasi-quota systems (because actual quota systems are illegal) or free points in a rating system, stripping the value and fairness of affirmative action.

The affirmative action aspect of the meritocracy is necessary because clearly not all individuals have similar resources. Not everyone has loving parents that are dedicated to teaching their children about the rigors of existence and giving them the tools, focus and guidance to become successful adults. Not everyone has parents with sufficient capital to provide resources and opportunities to significantly increase the probability of success. For example would someone like Taylor Swift really be the success she currently is at the moment if she was born to a single parent household where the guardian parent was working two minimum wage jobs just to get by? For such a circumstance it is highly unlikely that Miss. Swift would have become a successful entertainer instead being relegated to a waitress or service minimum wage job herself; note while Miss. Swift is talented at entertaining the fact that her parents had time to spend with her and large amounts of wealth to spend on her heavily tilted the scales of success in her favor.

People marvel at the rare exceptional cases of individual A becoming a successful… say neurosurgeon, despite growing up with an incarcerated father and an alcoholic mother or some similar hardship, but they conveniently fail to consider the vast majority of individuals who are unable to overcome such handicaps. It is completely inappropriate for society to chastise those that are unable to overcome hardships simply because a very select few are lucky enough to do so. Is it right to punish the 3rd generation for the sins, incompetence and/or bad luck of the 1st and/or 2nd generation? Therefore to create a genuine meritocracy, society must provide resources to eliminate the most crippling handicaps: everyone must receive sufficient shelter, food and an education otherwise society can never be a genuine meritocracy (it certainty is not one at present).

However, the original question was: can a meritocracy even come into existence in the first place based on the current structure and personality of society? There is a refrain that oddly rings of jealousy when rich individuals complain about the government providing food stamps for the poor when said rich individuals have the “great” burden of diverting a part of their $150,000+ a year salary to buy food. Taking the temperature of society it appears that most of the so-called “winners” forget that generational influence creates unequal starting positions instead believing that whether or not someone is successful is entirely of an individual’s making, a rationality that has been previously identified as foolish. Unfortunately this rationality is used to back a strong self-serving ego and will continuously provide a barrier to creating a genuine meritocracy.

It is difficult to understand the mindset that facilitates cries of “no fair” from individuals born into upper middle class or rich families towards individuals born into poor families who receive government assistance, but there seems to be one explanation that must be a part of the whole picture. Psychologically there are two perspectives that influence the concept of personal self-worth: absolute or relative. An absolute perspective of self-worth focuses on the individual in a vacuum and any judgment is applied along fixed concepts or values. A good example of this mindset is whether or not an individual believes scoring an 80% on a test in school is good (for some it is while for others it is not). A relative perspective of self-worth focuses on the individual when compared against other individuals and fixed concepts have far less importance in the evaluation. Returning to the above test example for a relative perspective an individual can score a 46% and still classify it as good if the class average was 33% even though 46% is by all accounts a failure on an absolute level.

Unfortunately it seems like too many people in society judge their self-worth on a relative level, a concept supported by the common refrain of “keeping up with the Joneses”; this mindset can create an underlying fear that providing assistance to individuals who are judged as “below” these relative thinking individuals could eventually lead to these assistance receivers surpassing the relative thinking individuals thus lowering their own self-worth all because the government had the audacity to help feed them. It is unclear what psychological aspects of the mind create a divergence between absolute self-worth and relative self-worth judgments, but one possibility is that those who judge on relative self-worth have little natural self-esteem and are scared of the truth about the limited significance of their actual character and accomplishments, thus they have to mitigate those limitations behind the failings of others. Sadly there does not appear to be any easy way of changing relative worth mindsets to absolute worth.

The meritocracy problem is not the only significant problem in a movement with a goal like OWS. Similar to almost everything in life, certainty or the probability of occurrence of the event is a critical element to whether or not someone will undertake a given action. However, certainty is especially important for group movements driven by ideas because of the tiered time elements. Most decisions have immediate or short-term time expirations like playing the lottery or criminal actions like shoplifting where all realistic possible outcomes from the decision making process are resolved shortly after the decision is made. For idea movements like the OWS continuous pressure must be applied by the proponents of the new idea in order to dethrone the existing idea beyond the new idea simply being a better idea because there are parties that benefit from the existing idea who would not benefit from the new idea. This pressure must continue even after acceptance of the new idea to ward off challenges from previously defeated inferior ideas or other new ideas that are not as beneficial to society. Therefore, proponents for societal ideas must be prepared to sacrifice over a long time period and even suffer multiple grievances, thus proponents must be even more committed.

Realizing the need for sacrifice societal movements need strong leaders that will inspire other individuals in the movement to make sacrifices. Some individuals believe that a hierarchical system utilizing leaders and followers is not appropriate, some even cite this feature as a strength of the OWS movement, but to hold this belief is to support a philosophy that will eternally have a low probability of accomplishing anything significant. As discussed above focus and commitment are important elements for successful movements and these elements are difficult to acquire if individuals are left to their own devices and expected to coordinate with each other to accomplish anything meaningful over a long period of time. The lack of a direct recognizable leadership hierarchy was one of the major reasons why the OWS movement collapsed, at least in the public eye, after it was removed from its initial base of operations.

What can a leader do to inspire individuals to fight for their common ideals? Despite what movies and television try to instill as quality leadership, simply giving a rousing inspirational speech is only useful in the short-term. When the consequences start hitting the fan non-zealous followers will quickly lose faith in leaders that only elect to orate from the sidelines. Such a characteristic is why President Obama is currently a poor leader. Instead the leader must act as a counterweight to the negative aspects of the consequences. One obvious means to neutralize this dissident element is for the leader to experience the sacrifices with the followers. The clear advantage of this strategy is that followers see that the leaders are also willing to sacrifice for the ideal building a greater level of trust. The disadvantage is that the scale of detriment rises with the magnitude of resistance.

For example some might argue that the detriment to the leader accepting similar consequence to the followers is that it is difficult to “lead” from a jail cell. However, looking over history no significant non-centralized power-based movement succeeded when the highest consequence was simply spending a few nights in jail. When the chief consequence is simply very short-term incarceration the opponents of the movement are not taking the movement seriously and realize that it has no real probability of success. However, when the opposition starts taking the movement seriously the consequences become more severe: longer jail terms, lawsuits, physical injury or even death, hence the real detriment. These results will lead to a difficult question: which is more damaging to the movement, leaders being maimed and killed or followers losing faith in their leaders? The answer is only something the particular movement can decide.

Instead of directly involving themselves in the consequence, leaders can alleviate or neutralize the consequence for their followers through effective legal arguments or counter negotiations with the third parties or the opposition party. One concern with this indirect strategy is that there are times when the opposing party begins to exert significant consequences and do not always allow for due process and other rights or in cases of movements outside the United States, such rights may not exist at all. Therefore, utilizing legal tactics to lessen or eliminate consequences may fail solely because the opposition does not allow them to succeed. Of course a leader could attempt to retain some credibility by blaming the failure of these avenues on opposition driven blockage.

Another issue for these types of movements in a democracy is that they must have the interests of the majority at heart. The “dark side” of democracy is that the majority is supposed to get what it wants, even if what it wants is wrong and/or foolish, and the minority is simply supposed to take it. This reality was not a large problem in the past for the minority because logical arguments could be made to break through and defeat inaccurate preconceived notions not backed by logic or evidence and convince members of the majority that a current idea was inferior to another idea. Unfortunately in the modern polarized global political system (which is not simply isolated to the United States) most people have developed the attitude that changing their opinion about anything is tantamount to complete failure so they resist change making it more difficult for the minority to induce change through dialogue. Fortunately for a movement like OWS the general goal of defeating income inequality is inherently favorable to the majority because it addresses a system where the minority can oppress the majority

Another way to associate goals of the movement to the will of the majority is the demonstration of belief both through altruism and accomplishment. As society has modernized it appears to have created a greater gap between what some would regard as the basics of humanity or human decency. Certainty there is a large outcry of assistance from strangers to strangers after natural disasters, but there is little caring or assistance during periods of normalcy. Therefore, a societal movement must demonstrate to bystanders that they should at least “root” for the success of the movement, if not join it themselves. Basically the general apathy and indifference that consumes people regarding the suffering of others must be defeated (i.e. I don’t care unless it is happening to me or someone directly associated with me). The accomplishment aspect bleeds into the certainty aspect in that people in the movement need to have the belief that they can actually win. Therefore, besides the overall goal of the movement sub-goals must be established that can be broadcast: recruitment goals, funding goals, opposition disruption goals, etc; some tangible metric that can be used by supporters to suggest that they are winning.

One of the trickier elements for a movement like OWS is their general goal when it comes to the distribution of power. Normally when a revolution type movement form the goal is to overthrow the current power structure and install one lead by the movement where individuals in the movement become the powerbrokers. In the case of OWS the presumed goal is to overthrow the current power structure and install a system where there is no guarantee that they will be powerbrokers, only allow for everyone to have a fair chance at becoming one. When thinking of it in a numerical sense in most revolutions the powerbrokers start at 10 and the revolutionaries at 1-2 and if the “rebels” win they go to 10 and the former powerbrokers go to 1-2. In the OWS situation the initial conditions are similar, but upon winning the “rebels” go to 5 and the former powerbrokers go to 4-6.

The chief problem with this change in the end result is that for most people in the movement the idea of acquiring power over the individuals/groups that will be disposed with a victory is a significant motivating factor, a reward for the sacrifices that are made to achieve victory. Such a mindset has played out numerous times in history with the oppressed overthrowing the oppressors and then becoming the oppressors themselves, especially against the former oppressors. Therefore, how much will members of a OWS like movement be willing to sacrifice for a seat at the table if that table will be open for everyone, especially if individuals who do not sacrifice receive the same general benefits? Ironically a leader of such a movement could motivate such sacrifice by tapping into the relative self-worth mindset by arguing that those who participate and sacrifice for the movement will enhance their legacies while those who don’t will be looked down upon even though the absolute tangible gains from the movement will be similar for all repressed parties.

The final issue is actually winning without centralized power or violence. The only genuine way to accomplish a victory in this situation is the effective use of numbers. Society has become dependent on an economic system that is a pyramid structure where a movement with numbers can simply collapse the entire system. Of course such a strategy relies on invoking Zappa’s philosophy of it being better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees. This ideal is important because for a movement without centralized power the highest probability of victory comes from a mutual assured destruction (MAD) strategy.

MAD works on two levels. First, it acts as a deterrent, as most know from the Cold War, neither side acts against the norm creating a stable, but stressed situation. Second, one party acts to trigger a response from the opponents significantly damaging, if not effectively eliminating, both sides. In the case for such a strategy with an OWS movement millions of individuals would simply need to stop working and buy only the bare minimum to survive. This reaction would create a self-catalyzing economic collapse that would erode the foundation of the global economy, especially if such action occurred in the United States. The powerbrokers would not be able to neutralize such an action and their “penthouse” positions would come crashing down along with the base, for despite some of the attitude possessed by the rich demographic if the base of the building collapses the penthouse will not “magically” remain aloft through levitation.

However, the crux of a MAD strategy, hence the clever and useful acronym, is who would be willing to destroy themselves in effort to induce certain changes? What typically prevents non-zealots from executing extreme actions: fear. Non-zealots fear that their sacrifices are not sufficient to accomplish the end goal, thus they are “throwing their life away” for no genuine progress. Therefore, to execute a MAD strategy one must eliminate this fear. Religious revolutionary leaders do so through promises of beneficial positions in the afterlife, i.e. defeat those heathens that hold Jerusalem and God will welcome you to heaven or blow yourself up to kill those Zionists and Allah will grant you virgins. An OWS movement really has zero religious zeal, despite the feelings of Jesus the Christ towards the poor (something forgotten by most rich people who claim to be Christian), so the most empirically relevant element for overcoming MAD trepidation is not available.

The magnitude of the sacrifice and movement have to be significant enough, so a few dedicated individuals who elect to bare the burden of sacrifice themselves as a flash/rallying point will simply result in needless sacrifice that will soon be forgotten. For example who remembers the names of the Tibetan monks that occasionally immolate themselves in the name of Tibetan independence? Interestingly there are millions of people that could be candidates for joining a movement that does not have a centralized power structure, thus will more than likely need to rely on MAD. Sadly their involvement could be regarded as controversial.

Those who are depressed have loosened their opinions of the value of life making them more amenable to taking risks and sacrifices with it for what could be viewed as a great purpose. In addition the relative self-worthy pendulum swings in the movement’s favor in that the depressed see little value in their lives so participating in such a magnifying movement may tap into their deflated ego. It must be noted that to some there would be clear moral pauses to incorporating individuals of such psychological states into such a movement in that will they simply be pawns as a means to an end? Also such incorporation could create a negative backlash against the movement whether justified or not. However, there is something to be said that depressed individuals are not mentally incompetent, thus they could freely decide whether or not to participate in a societal movement and what level of sacrifice they would be willing to devote to it.

Overall for a movement like OWS to succeed it requires one of three elements: 1) Numerous advocates in the current centralized power structure that will change the current system to be accommodate the goals of the movement; 2) Utilize violence to create an environment where the proposed goals of the movement provide less of a detriment to those in power than the detriment provided by the violence; 3) Execute a non-violent MAD strategy involving task and consumer elimination that threatens to collapse the entire economic system unless the demands of the movement are met. Some could argue that there is a fourth option in that millions could elect individuals to power in a democracy catalyzing the formation of option 1. However, this argument is difficult because the civil rights movement had a seasoned leader in LBJ with decades in government with time in both houses of Congress, an ability to effectively understand and play the political game and numerous friends, allies and even people just willing to listen; there is no such person with those characteristics with regards to income inequality and genuine meritocracy (Bernie Sanders does not have anywhere near the necessary clout). In the end unfortunately for OWS backers that particular movement elected to embark on a “none of the above” strategy, thus explaining why it has faded quickly and quietly into obscurity.

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