Liquid Organising and Soft Leadership in the Popular Protest Wave

Monday, July 14, 2014: 5:50 PM
Room: 413
Oral Presentation
Paolo GERBAUDO , Culture, Media and Creative Industries, King's College London, London, United Kingdom
In activist and academic discourse it is often claimed that contemporary protest movements, including the Arab Spring, the indignados and Occupy Wall Street are 'leaderless' or 'horizontal' movements (see for example Castells, 2012). However, looking at their internal doings and at their communications it becomes soon evident that far from being leaderless, these movements are characterised by new forms of both personal and collective leadership, in which activist clusters often numbering no more than a dozen people come to acquire much influence in the direction of social movements. What we are witnessing to is thus not the end of leadership, but the emergence of a new form of leadership which attempts to harness the communication ecology of contemporary social movements. 

Drawing on my ongoing research about the popular protest wave of 2011-13 in Egypt, Spain, the US, Brazil and Turkey, and developing the argument presented in my book Tweets and the Streets (2012) I describe contemporary leadership as 'soft leadership'. This form of leadership makes use of the interactive capabilities of social media, tapping into the imaginary of participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006). Leadership comes to revolve around community management and facilitation, rather than outright 'direction' of collective action.

This paper will look at the specificity of emerging forms of leadership and their connection with the informal and 'liquid' practices of organising performed by contemporary movements. Specifically I point to the limits of this format of organising, arguing that while soft leadership is powerful in nurturing social movements at their inception, it also runs the risk of exacerbating contemporary movements’ well known tendency towards evanescence. Furthermore, the new forms of leadership emerging in contemporary movements raise serious  risks of opacity and unaccountability because of their very 'liquidity'.