Against Leadership

For meaningful social change we need to abandon the Harvardian ideal

In her opening remarks this past September, President Faust welcomed first-years to America’s “most accomplished” and “most iconic” university. In narrating the headline-grabbing endeavors of Harvardians past and present, she delicately impressed upon intimidated first-years the significance of their “excellence.” Cast into this “cauldron of creativity,” she argued, the class of 2011 will emerge ready to transform the world.

Despite the singularity of the occasion, we upperclassfolk will readily recognize the premise of President Faust’s enthusiasm: from the politician production-lines at the IOP to chronic Wall Street recruitment fairs, Harvard bombards us with the message that we’re brilliant. Whether as future intellectuals, entrepreneurs, reformists, or even revolutionaries, we will, for better and not for worse, be tomorrow’s leading lights.

Somewhat ironically, and probably non-traditionally, however, my three years at this institution have nurtured in me a deep skepticism of the premises that sanction this narcissism. I firmly believe that the part of us that finds security in our assumed excellence must be repudiated. Even in the most well-intentioned among us, inflated confidence in our own capabilities breeds an arrogance that imperils substantial social change.

It is in the explicitly political communities at the college that this narcissism has made, and will make, its crimes most clear. The oft-repeated mantra in these circles, which adorns far-too-many Facebook favorite-quote sections, challenges us to recognize that we are “powerful beyond measure.” Interpreted a certain way, it inflames leaders-in-waiting with an enviable passion to bestow their wisdom on a waiting world: Dependent on political leanings, Capitol Hill or the World Bank beckon. Yet not unlike the bright-eyed bureaucrats sent to Iraq in order to engineer a new (democratic!) constitution, only a conviction in their own goodness prevents them from recognizing the elitism of their endeavor. What Harvardian narcissism defies, yet what the world needs, in place of enlightened leaders assigned to manage the world, is a reaffirmation of democratic ideals in their entirety.

In order to contribute to a larger revolutionary project, we must begin by unmasking our own incompleteness. Perhaps the most fundamental fact of human existence is its total contingency upon fate: The reasons that I am who I am, and not someone else, are necessarily inexplicable. No one can account for the intrinsic irrationality of existence (the fact of our general good fortune vis-à-vis the fact of others’ enormous suffering, for example). Similarly, we can never escape the reality that our assumptions, arguments, and interpretations all depend on the specific environment that nurtures us.

These basic premises require that we eschew hubris for humility. Knowledge of our own contingency should alert us to the contingency of our own knowledge: From the impossibility of transcending the limitations of the circumstances to which we are confined, it follows that no one person can know the world’s workings completely. Each person’s perspective is shot through-and-through with their particularity; hence, while each of us has our own version of reality to contribute to a democratic milieu, no one else can be spoken for. In fact, we can go so far as to endorse a politics premised on the equality of all intelligences; not in the crudely ‘postmodern’ sense, which holds that all arguments are equally “correct”, but in a deeply democratic sense: The task of understanding and resisting injustice can only be waged socially.

The turn away from the pretensions of “save-the-world” politicking is—at its core—a revolt against a particularly pernicious Enlightenment ideal, which assigned the task of social change to the “best and the brightest”. As Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, because thinkers in that tradition believed that rational thought promised progress, “it followed that normal political change ought to follow the path indicated by those who were most rational—that is, most educated, most skilled, therefore most wise.” The structuring fiction of this world order is the inequality of intelligences: If I understand the state of affairs better than the less-enlightened general population, it follows naturally that I should decide policy.

Despite its apparent advantages over hereditary/religious orders of earlier ages, this notion of “superior intelligences” cannot escape its artificiality. The inequality of intelligences can never be an objectively verifiable fact of human life; the metrics that establish intelligence are necessarily steeped in arbitrariness. Especially when referring to political knowledge, as “leaders” must, how can anyone claim superiority? How can one possibly understand the narratives, struggles, and hopes of the people “better” than they themselves? Indeed, much like the frenzied efforts colonial intellectuals devoted to constructing the criteria with which to judge “civilization” and “backwardness,” a “leader” will find it necessary to justify his right to impose policy on a population. Here his Harvard degree might be useful.

In place of the anti-democratic kernel of the Harvardian ideal, then, we must shun leadership and commit to humility. We begin our revolution by admitting our incapacity to dictate “solutions” to anyone else and by asserting our willingness to really engage the realities of the oppressed. For what we enable, then, is democracy of a genuine sort. As the “best” represents always a subset of the general population, submission to the “best and the brightest” presupposes the annulment of properly democratic politics. Against this, in our wholly sensible quest for a better world, we must realize that we will all be empowered only once we each admit our individual powerlessness.

Adaner Usmani ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.