When Charisma Turns to Tyranny

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There's a scene in the film The Iron Lady in which Margaret Thatcher is chairing a cabinet meeting just ferociously. Hardly anyone dares speak, and when they do she slaps them down. There is an edge of desperation in the way she wields her power so absolutely. It is a classic portrayal of how someone who was once seen by her followers as inspirational has turned into their despotic oppressor.

You see this same narrative trajectory in the relationship between directors and their choirs.

A conductor who was seen as refreshing, even saving the choir when they first took office becomes increasingly controlling, stifling other viewpoints - let alone dissent - and holding sway through fear. I have heard such a choir described as being 'like battered women', and this captures quite vividly the state of the bullying victim who has lost the perspective to see that how they are being treated is wrong.

Now, when you hear one story of a choir going through this unhappy process, it gets blamed on the conductor's personality, possibly with a balancing observation that they 'weren't always like that'. But once you've heard several very similar stories with the same kinds of elements, you start to see it less as personal idiosyncrasy and more as a kind of psychsocial dynamic that might be susceptible to analysis. What we need to know is: what's going on here, and is there anything we can do to prevent it?

If we look at Bradley and Pibram's diagram for the way that communion and control interact to create a charismatic group, this process looks like one of ossification: there's too much control for the level of communion. Now, this may be because the leader has become increasingly controlling over time, or it could be that they've always been controlling, but when the euphoria of merging into a group identity wanes, that level of control is no longer needed to control the now depleted level of emotional energy.

When Weber originally proposed the category of 'charismatic authority', he defined it as inherently unstable. It was a form of authority that positioned itself explicitly outside the established power structures, and in opposition to them. Later theorists have tended to critique this view, and have documented various ways by which charisma can become routinized - that is, built into group practices and structures that can to a significant extent be repeated and delegated.

But the instability Weber documented remains. The critical edge essential to charisma relies on some sense of urgency, injustice, righteousness in the face of an inhumane or at least misguided establishment. This is what provides the moral impetus that fuels both the commitment to the cause and the bonding and emotional buzz of communion.

The more successful the group is in pursuing its cause though, the smaller the power differential between them and the establishment they critique becomes. You can see this very clearly in the Thatcher story. When she stood for Conservative party leadership, she was taking on the establishments of both class and male privilege; as a grocer's daughter she had a huge Little Guy quotient. When she took on the trades unions, it was a more complex confrontation because both sides could claim to be standing up for what was fair in the face of unreasonable power. The unions could see it as an attack on the working classes by those who controlled property and capital; the Tories could claim to be freeing industry from the tyranny of the closed shop.

By 1990, Thatcher was in control of her party, which was in control of the country: she had run out of things to critique from the outside. But she still exerted power in the style she had developed as an outsider, and, with nothing very significant, or at least nothing bigger than her reach, to rail against, this level of control was far too strong.

Troeltsch developed Weber's ideas on churches and sects to account for the way new religions become mainstream. Charismatic tyranny emerges when a group achieves mainstream status but is still being led in the style of a cult. The way to avoid this situation, therefore, lies in maintaining the equilibrium between communion and control.

One option is to relax control and develop more devolved forms of power. This can often produce a happy and stable choir and provides the structures to guarantee continuity and longevity. You will probably find you don't make great leaps in performance standard in this mode, but you will likely maintain well.

Another option is refresh or adapt your cause to something that presents more sense of urgency or crisis. If your original crisis was reversing a catastrophic drop in membership, there will come a time when that is fixed, and it will no longer be something to galvanise people to action. But the overall participation rates in choral singing is something that you can continue feeling exercised about.

As and when you get that one sorted, you could turn your attention to choral repertoire. By then it will either be neglecting tradition or in need of innovation. (Or indeed, both. The traditional vs. progressive debate is great for art because you can always find a good soapbox to mount on either side.)

Choirs are luckier than politicians for their chances of maintaining a charismatic dynamic. On one hand they'll never have as much power, so there will always be causes in whose name they can take the David role against their Goliath of choice. On the other, the causes available are more abstract and moral than the politician's concrete remit to manage the structures of daily life. In these post-Empire days, it would sound like hubris for a politician to declare a world-changing programme, but nobody batted an eyelid when Bob Chilcott told ABCD Convention delegates that, 'Singing can change the world'.

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