• authored by Wanda Marie Pasz
  • published Fri, Feb 11, 2005

So You Want To Be Free?

Getting Institutional Outposts Out of Our Heads

Say this word and think about what it means:


Now say this word and think about what it means:


If you're not sure of what they mean, or think they might mean the same thing, google each one and see what you turn up.

Think about institutions with which you are familiar - the courts, police, government agencies, schools, health care facilities, are a few examples of institutions. And then think about the black civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the anti-war movement.

Movements and institutions have different definitions because they are different, completely different from each other. So different, in fact, that they are antithetical - that is - they are polar opposites of each other.

While precise definitions of institutions and movements vary depending on the source that you consult, here is a brief analysis of the major differences between the two:


Institutions are established entities.

These entities cannot exist without the approval of the state.

Approval depends on their meeting certain criteria - determined by the state - that qualify them to function as an institution (i.e., a police department, hospital, government agency, social service provider, etc.)

Each institution serves a specific purpose which serves the interests of the state.

The purpose of the institution does not change even though the people who run the institution come and go.

The overarching interest of the state is to maintain an existing social, political and economic order (a.k.a. the "existing order") so institutions, whatever services they provide, all serve the existing order.

In order to do their part in maintaining the existing order institutions are granted authority over people by the state. This is so that they can control the people and their behaviour to ensure that it does not pose a real threat to the existing order.

Institutions do this in a number of ways - by restricting access to services, rights and benefits to those who do things the way the state would like them done. Institutions reward good behaviour (desired by the state) and punish bad behaviour. They do this in a variety of ways, some more direct than others. If you break the law, the courts have the authority to deprive you of your freedom. Refuse to submit to the authority of your employer and a different kind of institution will deprive you of your ability to earn a living. The state determines the "crime" and institutions determine who's guilty and impose the "time".

Institutions also regulate relations among institutions. These uber institutions play an important - and subtler role - in maintaining the existing order. Their presence is not as visible to the people because they do not directly regulate individuals. They control other institutions which, in turn, control the people.

The uber institutions are important because, although all institutions ultimately have the same objective (to maintain the existing order), conflicts can and do arise between them in relation to resources - money or things that generate money. An uber institution is needed to ensure that institutional conflicts are resolved.

Institutions are expected to defer to the authority of the uber institution in any conflict. That's one of the rules by which they must abide in order to retain their status as institutions and avoid sanctions, direct and indirect, that could deprive them of the authority that the state has given to them to control the people.

If you look inside of any number of institutions, you will see some very common characteristics as well.

Each institution has a central locus of control. Although people within the institution may have degrees of authority to do certain things or compel others to do certain things, one person or a small group of people ultimately control the institution. These are the institutional leaders. Their mission is to ensure that the institution continues to service its purpose and pursue its institutional goals.

Neither the purpose of the institution nor the goals that it pursues can be changed by the people who run the institution. That's really important. Institutional leaders have a lot of power. If they use that power to turn the institution into something the state doesn't want, the existing order will be threatened and maybe even changed.

So, not just anyone can be left in charge of an institution. Institutional leaders are drawn from an elite stratum within our society - one that has the most to gain from the maintenance of the existing order. They are people who are both products and proponents of the existing order, steeped in its culture and values. They believe in the existing order and have proven their ability to nurture it and, when necessary, to defend it. The possibility of moving the institution in a direction that is contrary to its specific purpose is not even going to occur to them. (This is why CEO's of public institutions command exorbitant salaries and lucrative perks. It's not that the institution needs the "best and the brightest" - that's just a cliché - it needs the most effective and trustworthy, the most committed, the most devoted directors.)

In furtherance of institutional goals, the institutional leaders may delegate some their authority to others within the organization. This creates the hierarchies of authority that are common in all institutions.

People who are involved in the institution serve the institution; the institution does not serve them. Institutions are not democratic nor can they be. Democracy implies that the people rule. Institutions, by definition, rule the people.

So that's an institution. Now think about a movement. What are the defining characteristics of a movement? What does a movement look like? What are its objectives? How does it behave?

People on the Move

It's more difficult to get our heads around what a movement is because, unlike institutions, we are not surrounded by them. Many of us have never been a part of a movement or have only a very narrow understanding (and a negative perception) of what movements are and what they're all about.

A helpful way to get our heads around movements is to think of them in relation to institutions.

A movement is not an entity. A movement is a phenomenon. It's something that happens.

A movement is not established or static. Movement implies motion, force, momentum, something that pushes forward against some thing else. Something that is static, established or immobile can't be a movement.

Populist movements - are movements of the people. They have their genesis in people. They are created by the people for some purpose that originates with the people.

Movements are not creations of the state. They do not serve state interests. They do not exist to uphold the existing order.

Here's a crucial difference: Institutions support the existing order. Movements oppose the existing order. They move against it.

The state cannot regulate a movement. A movement won't submit to the will of the state. Nor would a state wish to regulate a movement. To regulate it is to give it legitimacy and the state can't legitimize something that is moving against state interests. Outlawing or destroying a movement is the only regulation of a movement that makes sense to the state.

Movements have their genesis when a group of people are dissatisfied with the existing order - usually some aspect of it that places them in a position of great disadvantage.

Movements form when enough of those people connect with each other. Their shared dissatisfaction with the existing order is what connects them. Someone says, "This isn't right!" and someone else responds, "That's what I've been thinking too."

This connection is really important. It's the beginning of a process of freeing the mind from an orthodoxy that dictates: If you can't conform yourself to the existing order, you must be nuts. It gets the oppressor's outposts out of your head.

Once the connection is made, the like-minded talk: About what's wrong (a common grievance is identified), what's right (a common goal is identified), how "what's right" can be achieved (they conspire about making it happen), then there is action. Encouraged by the knowledge that they are not alone, they seek out like-minded others. Forward momentum begins.

The issue that draws them together is fundamental - liberty, equality, dignity - and so is their goal. The goal, when achieved ("if" is not an option), will fundamentally change the existing order.

In pursuit of their goal, movements do not play by the rules - formal or informal - of the existing order. People who are "on the move" are keenly aware that the rules are against them and playing by the rules will achieve nothing. The rules exist to snuff out movements not to help them achieve their goals.

The momentum of a movement as it proceeds towards it goal, is dependent on its strength. It's strength lies in its people. The more people, the more momentum. The role of people in a movement is quite different from the role of people in an institution. This applies to what they do and how they come to be a part of a movement.

People on the move, don't seek to convert people who don't share their interests or goals. Nor do they seek, through institutional partnerships, to indiscriminately herd people into their fold. Converting someone who has no connection to your cause is a waste of time and energy. Bringing the disinterested into your movement will slow it down. Bringing in people who may be opposed to your objectives may sink your movement.

People on the move do not need people who are only half-committed or part- persuaded. They seek people who share their goals. They reach out across the landscape like a beacon, alerting like-minded others that "Here's what we believe must stop/must change/must begin. This is our vision. If you're into it, spread the word. Make it happen."

The word is the vision of how things should be. Spreading the word builds momentum. Not because it wins converts but because it connects with the like-minded. The more beacons, the more people on the move, the more momentum. Make it happen is an invitation to each person, each individual, to contribute what they can, where they can, however they can, towards the goal.

Hence movements do not have the characteristic internal features of institutions. Movements do not have hierarchies. There is no central locus of control in a movement. There are no master plans and no directors. These are not needed. In fact, these would demobilize a movement.

People do not serve the movement. The movement is a vehicle through which they can achieve something that is fundamentally important to each one of them. Each individual is drawn to like-minded others by a shared vision that involves something very fundamental. Together they pursue that fundamental thing. They do it by contributing their talents, skills, and energies. Nobody directs them. No central controller tells them what to do. They know what they can do and they just do it. Their talents guide them to activities that will help the movement.

The ability to use their talents to pursue their interests draws both draws people to a movement and keeps them involved. Movements humanize people by recognizing every contribution that furthers the goal of the group. Movements to not restrict or manage the contributions of the people. They encourage contributions.

Although there may be disagreement or disparate views among people who are part of a movement about the details (what tactics to use, what strategies to employ, how their sought after rights should be administered once they are won, what reparations (if any) will be sought) true movements do not split apart over these issues. These issues are secondary to the overall goal.

It may happen that those with differing views about the details will to coalesce into groups within a movement, but they will remain within the movement and continue working towards its ultimate goal. Take a look at the feminist movement or the black civil rights movement for some good examples of this phenomenon. Within both of these extremely effective populist movements there were and continue to be wide ranging differences of opinion about what is needed to achieve the goal of equality (consider the differing views of liberal and radical feminists or of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X). There was no doubt, however, and there is no doubt that equality is the goal.

Within a movement, the people do not waste their time fighting about who is the leader. That's because the role and the conception of leaders is completely different within a movement than it is in an institution.

This is another important distinction between institutions and movements. Institutions appoint leaders and give them authority over others. Institutions need people in authority to achieve their goals. Movements don't. A movement doesn't need a person in authority because a movement is the antithesis of an institution. Movements don't gain move by direction or decree. A movement moves through the efforts of the people.

Within any movement, there may be any number of perceived leaders. These are people who have no authority over the movement (they can't - the movement is the people) but whose talents, dedication and passion about the goal make them a bigger, stronger beacon. Through their skills, often in the area of communication, they are able to reach many many more likeminded others. And that's what the role of a leader in a movement is all about. Getting the word out. Leaders of populist movements don't organize people or tell them what to do. They articulate the shared grievance and the shared vision in ways that are especially effective and compelling. They inspire like-minded others to organize themselves and act.

These perceived leaders often emerge from different groups within a movement - those groups that coalesce around similar views of how to get things done (the radicals, the liberals, the in-betweens). Each serves an important purpose in the movement - each reaches and inspires pockets of like-minded others.

While the perceived leaders in any movement may number a few, this is deceptive. There are many, many leaders in a movement.

Perceptions about "who's the leader" are influenced by many factors, including the reaction of institutions to the movement. In the absence of a formally appointed leader, institutions look within the movement for someone who looks like they're "in charge". People who speak to large assemblies or whose ideas are popular within a movement are perceived as leaders of the movement although really they are not leaders in any conventional sense.

To an institutional leader, a group of people listening to someone speak must be expressing deference. People who do things after hearing a speech or reading an inspiring book must be carrying out directives. Hence, the speaker or writer must be the leader and the listeners must be his or her subordinates. This is the only frame of reference institutional leaders know and it creates as misconception about the nature of a movement and the role of the people who are a part of it.

These perceived leaders are ID'd as "the leaders" of the movement and accorded a certain status - often as "head pariahs" - by the state and its institutional supports (which includes the institution that we often call the mainstream media). Their colleagues are dismissed as gullible followers who are being led down the garden path. This rationalization of a movement, is pretty typical. It's the reason that many institutional leaders don't take movements seriously until they're well on their way to their goal.

The reality is that the number of leaders (keep in mind that we are talking about the inspirational kind and not the authoritarian kind - those don't exist in movements) within any movement is large - huge in fact. An inspirational leader is someone who inspires others to do something or to make something happen. Therefore, everyone - from the well-known speaker on the podium at a large gathering to the person holding a small discussion group in their home or on the Internet - is a leader. That's what is meant by the expression, "We're all leaders."

Now, having said all that and knowing what we know about institutions and movements let's get to a question that needs to be addressed by our much oppressed and aggrieved community - the community of workers. Is there a labour movement in North America?

I don't think that there is. I don't think there has been anything in North America that fits even the most elastic definition of a labour movement in the past 50 years.

The notion that the thing we call a labour movement is really a movement is one of the greatest deceptions that has been perpetrated on our community in - its history. And that's a damned shame because there should be one and there is great potential for one to evolve.

In order to allow a movement - our movement - to evolve, we must understand how we have been deceived, for what purpose and by whom. We must get their outposts out of our heads. Then we can start to move.

Conspiratorially yours.

Wanda Marie Pasz is a contributor to Members for Democracy who has traveled far and wide in the institutions of labour-management relations.

Next: The Movement That Almost Was

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