Rediscovering Charisma: The Case of the Green Surge

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greenAs I left the house on Saturday to attend the West Midlands Green Party Regional Conference, Jonathan asked if I wanted to take the camera. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘This isn’t the kind of event I’ll be blogging about - just too far removed from music.’ I regretted this cavalier assumption about halfway through the afternoon, when it dawned upon me what a wonderful case study of a charismatic organisation was operating around me.

Around this time last year, I had thought the Green Party as rather interesting as an organisation that should be charismatic, but was not. Or possibly, was no longer. My father had been a member back in the 1980s when it was still called The Ecology Party, and as far as I can recall looking back to that era (I was at an age not to pay a great deal of attention to politics), it had what I now recognise as some of the classic hallmarks.

It had a cause: protecting the environment. It also had a crisis: this was also the era when the hole in the ozone layer and the evidence of climate change (what was then referred to as global warming) first hit the headlines. As a party, it set itself apart from the mainstream to make this critique. And it made significant headway, particularly in the European elections of 1989.

And then its influence waned. Weber’s original formulation of charismatic authority saw it as inherently unstable. It emerges from crisis, and then either wanes as the crisis resolves, or transmutes into a more stable, bureaucratic structure. The Green Party of the 1990s shrank back into the margins of the debate, not least as the politics of coping with climate change moved into the main stream.

But, as readers in the UK will be aware, the last year has seen the party emerge from this quarter-century of obscurity back into the public eye. This has been driven to a significant extent by a massive growth in membership - the party doubled in size during 2014 and has gained the same number of new members again in the last month. This type of growth is quite astonishing, and is a very clear and visible symptom of an organisation that is, once again, operating charismatically.

So, what is powering this growth? You’d think, on the surface, that the party’s cause and crisis would be as it was in 1980 - why is this a matter of urgency again now after all these years?

There is a general answer to this, and a specific one. The general one is how the mainstream political landscape has been changing in recent years, with a significant lurch to the right, in particular with the demonising of foreigners and the poor. Across Europe, the reaction to austerity economics has involved a counter-balancing surge of support for new, or newly-popular parties on the left. In the UK, the Green Party has emerged to represent this side of the spectrum, as the Liberal Democrats have lost support for their role in government with the Conservatives, and Labour has pulled rather too many punches through fear of losing support to UKIP.

In this context, the Green Party’s cause has emerged much more strongly in terms of social justice than environmental campaigning. The two have always been linked in the party’s core identity, but it is striking how support for them is now being articulated in terms of this other strand than the one they are named for.

And of course, the specific crisis that the charismatic growth is responding to is UKIP. This was true in general terms, but a key moment was the decision to include the likewise erstwhile fringe party in televised leader debates, whilst excluding the Greens. People who might previously have been satisfied to generally approve of, and possibly vote for the party were galvanised to action through outrage.

(UKIP is itself, currently, also operating charismatically. I have thought this multiple times over the past two years, but have always held back from writing the analysis because I didn’t want to feed them with any more attention than they’re already getting.)

So, I find this case study interesting from the structural perspective of how changing circumstances can generate more or less charisma according to whether a particular cause is experienced as critical.

The other thing I noticed during the event I attended was about the effect of this sense of being part of something bigger on the emotional tone of a gathering. I have examined the way that massed-voice choral events generate the euphoric sense of communion that is a charismatic group’s primary emotional pay-off. A similar thing was going on here.

For the long-standing members, simply having 200 people attend the regional conference rather than the 40 or so they had been accustomed to attract was a lift. But you noticed the effect most clearly when various speakers produced statistics. Both regional and national levels had seen a 3- to 4-fold increase in the last year, and simply being told the figures produced the euphoric kick of being part of a crowd.

Indeed, as most of the speakers were focused on being practical and informative rather than inspirational, it was all the more telling that this emotional effect was available through a cognitive function rather than a particularly heartfelt appeal. This in turn recalls how, notwithstanding the mythology of presence, charisma can actually work in absentia. Actually, given how much of my time I spend hanging out with choirs, this was refreshingly unlike a cult by comparison.

I hope I have managed to be reasonably unproselytising in this post. The point of it is not to engage in political debate after all - although I am interested in politics, I’d see that as off-topic for this context. The point of it is that an experience in a different part of my life suddenly threw some light on a subject I have found useful to investigate to shed light on the experience of choirs and their conductors. I have found the analysis useful, if nobody else has!

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