Mathijs van der Sande, Radboud University

20 November 2018

From Occupy Wall Street and the Spanish Indignados in 2011 to the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and from Black Lives Matter to Nuit Debout: in the past years the world has witnessed the emergence of a new kind of social movement. What distinguishes these various radical-democratic movements is that they all experimented with new forms of decentralised organisation and horizontalist decision-making procedures. They were also not headed by a charismatic leader – today’s protest movements typically do not have, say, a Martin Luther King.

As a consequence, journalists as well as political theorists have consistently presented these movements as leaderless. Their prefigurative repertoire, it is often argued, was typically devoid of any kind of political representation and leadership.

But is this really the case? If we take into account the various meanings of the concept ‘representation’, it may strike us as rather nonsensical to claim that a social movement politics is possible at all without representative claim-making. Recent sociological research, moreover, indicates that said movements were far from ‘leaderless’. One may argue, however, that their practices evinced an alternative – and arguably more democratic – understanding of leadership.

My claim is that if we are to learn from these previous movements – if we want to try again, and try better, next time – we must take this role of representation and democratic leadership more seriously. Why would it be necessary or desirable for radical-democratic movements to be entirely leaderless to begin with? And would it indeed be impossible to combine a prefigurative, radical-democratic approach with at least some forms of charismatic leadership? What if we do need a new Martin Luther King?


Mathijs van der Sande teaches political philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands). In 2017 he btained his PhD at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven (Belgium). He was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics (CAPPE) in Brighton (2011-12), and a visiting Fulbright scholar at The New School for Social Research in New York (2015).

His main research interests are theories of radical democracy, anarchism, (post-)Marxism(s), political representation, and social movement theory. Departing from a critical appraisal of the recent ‘global uprisings’, his PhD thesis aims to further develop and expand the anarchist concept of ‘prefiguration’ or ‘prefigurative politics’ from a broader range of philosophical perspectives (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Antonio Negri and Ernesto Laclau/Chantal Mouffe).

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