Tag Archives: PIerre Clastres

A Model of Non-Coercive Leadership

This morning I was humbled to discover that almost everything I have been trying to learn about non-coercive power (or what I’ve been calling The Power of Asking) Sister Mary Lou Wirtz appears already to know. Or so it seems from an interview with Sister Wirtz in the National Catholic Reporter.

Wirtz belongs to the Franciscan order, but she also serves as President of the International Union of Superiors General and is a recognized leader of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Leadership Conference, which represents about 600,000 nuns and sisters around the world, has been at loggerheads with the Vatican for some time now. After an assessment that found “serious doctrinal problems” with the LCWR (a finding Pope Francis recently reaffirmed), the Vatican in April of 2012 ordered the LCWR to place itself under the authority of three bishops. Now about 800 leaders from LCWR have gathered in Rome to meet and, presumably, respond.

Wirtz characterizes the meeting as an opportunity for reflection.

The concept of power of this world, as Jesus refers to it, of our governments and all that, is so often the power of oppression or putting down people or abusing power in many different ways. What we’re trying to reflect on is ‘What is the good aspect of power?’
…when we use power in the right sense, we can influence others and that influence itself is power. We’re sometimes afraid as religious to use that word, and yet I think in the very communal way in which we go about our ministries and service, that is a power.
We have the power to influence many, many people — through what we do and through our service, without us focusing on that as an end in itself, but as through that service.
…we need to continually look at how do we use our power. Because it is something that others will view, others will see, and it’s a model for them also.

She goes on to talk about the “prayerful dialogic manner” in which the sisters are approaching their upcoming session with the representative of the Vatican. She hopes that their manner will set the tone and example.

If LCWR can truly open a dialogic stance with CDF [the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] for instance and bring clarity because of openness on both sides of the dialogue, I think that would be wonderful. I think that’s what they’re hoping for.
I hope…we can model what true dialogue is, that we can model that in such a way that it helps those on the other side — in other words, the Vatican side — to understand what we mean by dialogue.
That it is a mutual sharing by both sides of information, of whatever is on their minds — that there can be that kind of mutual openness to hear one another. That isn’t always felt at this time.
They’re [LCWR] being slow in the process, hoping that through taking the time and patience that the possibility for better dialogue can truly unfold.

Where have they found patience and, even, hope? According to Sister Wirtz, it comes from dialogue among themselves, “struggling with questions,” and “a deep inner struggle.” That struggle is generative, to borrow a word Sister Wirtz uses when talking about the biblical story of Esther. Esther is “a very rich image” for the women leaders gathered in Rome, says Wirtz, “even though we do not bear children.” In trying to model the practice, the behavior, the attitudes that they want to see and inspire in others, they are exercising and sharing their own power and creating new possibilites for others, a new order, a new model of power itself. “We bear life,” she says, “through what we pass on to others and how we serve others.”

Postscript: According to my WordPress stats, this post gets a lot of traffic, much more than I ever imagined it would when I wrote it. The search terms that bring people here almost sound like something out of a classroom assignment — “discuss non-coercive power” “what is non-coercive power?” and so on — and I suspect some of these visitors are trying to crib an answer to an incredibly complex and difficult question. There is much more to the subject than this one example suggests. Those who are looking for more than a quick hit might want to read the posts I’ve written on asking.

Impossible or Indigenous in Peru

QuechuaHighlands

In the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting, I mentioned a woman who spoke on behalf of the Mongolian herders whose livelihood is threatened by the Oyu Tolgoi mining project. Her name is Sukhgerel Dugersuren, and she is the Executive Director of the Mongolian NGO Oyu Tolgoi Watch. In her remarks, Dugersuren asked the company to recognize the herders as “indigenous” people (as the IFC does). That isn’t just a gesture of recognition or respect, a way of acknowledging that the herders were there first, or that they have a centuries-old claim to the land and the scarce water sources of the Gobi; it means that before moving ahead, the Oyu Tolgoi project would require – to use the language of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 32, paragraph 2) — their free, prior and informed consent.

I was reminded of Dugersuren and the case of the herders when I read yesterday morning that the Humala government in Peru now intends to exclude the Quechua people of the Peruvian highlands from “prior consultation” on mining projects.

President Ollanta Humala campaigned in 2011 on the idea of “social inclusion” and specifically on giving indigenous communities a voice in the consultation period before big mining projects begin. Prior consultation — the first law Humala signed upon taking office — codified into Peruvian law the idea of free, prior and informed consent. But only two years later, with $50 billion in mining projects over the next five years at stake, and with Canadian mining giant Newmont scaling back its investments and announcing a delay in its controversial Minas Conga project, it looks as if Humala wishes he could take it all back.

QuechuaProtestConga

Apparently Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Merino has prevailed; Deputy Minister of Culture Ivan Lanegra, who was in charge of administering the prior consultation law, is now making noises about resigning.

I haven’t yet seen anything like an official statement on the matter, but Humala and other Peruvian officials have already started offering reasons – if they can be called that — for excluding the Quechua from prior consultation. They read like a bizarre exercise in bad anthropology.

Attempting to legitimize its betrayal of the Quechua, the government resorts to revisionist history, crude caricatures and discredited ideas. So, we are told, the Quechua-speaking people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because over the centuries, they mixed with Spanish colonizers (whose abuses the law of prior consultation was supposed to help remedy). To be indigenous would seem to require a weird exemption from history – to be at once the victim of colonial abuse in need of redress and yet to live in complete isolation or perpetual flight, and never to have had any contact with the Spanish.

The people of the Andes can’t be indigenous: they practice agriculture, we are told, which makes them not indigenous people but campesinos. “In the highlands,” said Humala, parsing the difference, “there are mostly agrarian communities … indigenous communities are mostly in the jungle.” The indigenous are not farmers, but jungle dwellers, presumably hunters and gatherers who have never cultivated the land. If they till the soil or produce, it seems, they must give up all claims to their heritage, or at least their legal status.

A third and final absurdity: the people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because they “meet in public assembly” or, as Humala has noted elsewhere, they have “mayors” who represent them, and so they are not without a “voice.” To be indigenous is to be without representation, then — silent. It goes even deeper than that: it is to be without politics, or at least without the plaza or the public square. We are, I suppose, to imagine the indigenous living in an archaic and pre-political world, where assembly is unnecessary or the public world unknown.

You can see where all this is heading. It is virtually impossible to be indigenous, unless you live in a small foraging band of jungle dwellers without any political power, or even any idea of politics. Placing these restrictions on the law of prior consultation in Peru makes a travesty of free, prior and informed consent, which requires that states deal “in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions”; the very existence of such institutions would appear to be grounds for exclusion from the law.

Even with a law in place and gestures of good will at the start, the “indigenous” in Peru now risk being defined out of existence, or of having their right to consent sacrificed for the sake of big mining and continued growth. That is why it was especially curious and telling, in ways that are not yet wholly apparent to me, when I read this morning that just yesterday Peruvian ambassador Gonzalo Gutierrez Reinel and the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold “met to exchange views on mutual partnerships, particular[ly] in the sectors of culture and mining”: it is not at all clear that “culture” will survive the incursion of big mining in either country.

A Follow-Up to Hitchings’ Follow-Up Post on “The Ask”

Shortly after I posted my thoughts on his Times opinionator blog, Henry Hitchings promised me  a “follow-up blog” on “the dark side of nominalization.” Yesterday that follow-up blog (wait – isn’t “follow-up” a nominalization?) appeared. There, Hitchings echoes what I’ve said about asking:

I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.

At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.

It’s good to see that Hitchings has relented and come around to the view that “the ask” is an insidious and sinister piece of jargon — a view I’ve been developing since my first post on “the ask” just a little over a year ago (and in subsequent posts, here and here, for example).  The other day Hitchings seemed to admire the “distancing” effect the nominative ask creates, and I feared he was advocating doing unpleasant things in order to achieve “polemical or diplomatic” ends. Now he is on the side of “a more dynamic process” in which, I gather, the “authority and power”of the person doing the asking will be openly acknowledged.

I’m all for transparency, attributions of agency and the give and take of dynamic process, but the real power of asking lies elsewhere. Asking transforms power itself; it involves the exercise of a non-coercive power. We tend not even to think of this as power, as Pierre Clastres pointed out in Society Against the State. Instead, we are used to associating power with force (which subjects others to labor, or worse) or commands (which prompt others to do our bidding). But when it comes to asking, nobody’s really in charge — at least as long as someone is making or responding to the request. It’s a moment when things are up for grabs.

The authority and power vested in a person, their title, position, influence over our lives — if any of that is being brought to bear on a request, then we are simply being ordered about with commands disguised as questions. Asking marks a different point of departure — a place where you and I are on equal footing, and we start something, together. It creates “middle ground” between the petitioner and the respondent: not just an area of compromise, but an area that is open, shared, and which nobody can claim entirely as his own.