ReThink UvA spontaneously emerged after a meeting of staff members in the Maagdenhuis on the first Saturday of the appropriation. It started as a collective of staff members without an organizational structure, leaders, and clear distribution of tasks. Yet, in a matter of weeks, ReThink UvA has evolved into a full-fledged movement with several hundreds of supporters, regular general assemblies (GAs), working groups dedicated to specific topics and tasks, and something akin to an enlightened politburo.

The establishment of working groups was prompted by actual needs of the movement, had a bottom-up character, and could count on the support of the ReThink community as a whole. However, it also facilitated the empowerment of a group of individuals within the movement. They (and here I include myself) have come to the forefront in a variety of ways. They have articulated visions, written press releases, talked to journalists, maintained contacts with politicians, managed mailing lists, run a website, drafted proposals for GAs, and been involved in negotiations with the Executive Board and other parties. The establishment of the so-called agenda working group and its evolution into a de-facto coordination and short-term strategy working group—the enlightened politburo—has further contributed to this tendency.

In response, a number of ReThinkers (and here too I include myself) have expressed concerns, particularly on the lack of transparency of and access to decision-making processes within ReThink UvA. In order to respond to these concerns, however, we would first need to gain a better understanding of the dynamics within the movement. This article is an attempt to this end and aims to trigger a discussion on how we should organize ourselves.

Understanding elite-mass dynamics within ReThink UvA

The raison d’être of working groups is that they carry out tasks that cannot be carried out by a mass of disorganized people. Thus, establishing working groups in fact implies the creation of two categories of people within the movement: the organized and active few and the passive and disorganized mass. These are certainly not fixed categories: individuals from the first category may move the latter and vice versa, as has been the case also within ReThink UvA, but overall the distinction is maintained.

This differentiation has practical purposes, i.e., carrying out tasks effectively and efficiently, but also moral consequences. It establishes varied notions of legitimacy within the movement. The communications working group, for instance, is entitled to speak on behalf of ReThink UvA. When individual members of the passive and disorganized ‘mass’ speak to the press, they may only do so on their own behalf. Their actions do not carry ‘legitimacy’ within the movement if they do claim to speak for ReThink. Only if they join or coordinate with the communications working group they become ‘legitimate’ speakers of the movement. As this example illustrates, the establishment of working groups automatically leads to the funneling of the initiative into the hands of the few.

Secondly, establishing working groups implies a distribution of tasks, which leads to specialization within the movement. A select number of individuals gain experience, knowledge, skills, and contacts while carrying out tasks within working groups, which others lack for the very reason that they are not part of the working group. Unless completely new tasks arise or working groups sense a lack of manpower, the active few will attend to tasks because they have this advantage over others. This too has a moral component: the very fact that the people in question have this advantage will make them entitled to run the show in the eyes of many.

Thirdly, establishing working groups leads to differentiation of communications too. Communication and information on certain topics and tasks become restricted to the designated working groups. This contributes not only to the above-described specialization effect, but also, quite importantly, to group thinking and feeling. The higher intensity of communication within working groups generates greater harmony in thinking, familiarity with each other and cohesion. This increases the distance between the group of individuals in question and the mass at the intellectual, personal, and emotional level.

Fourth, differentiation leads to institutionalization of role patterns and expectations. The active few increasingly commit themselves to various (new) tasks at the same time, suspecting that nobody else will volunteer, and the passive larger group of individuals don’t volunteer because they assume the job will be done by the usual suspects. This process is not only apparent in the relation between working groups and the wider ReThink community, but even within working groups.

A final important consideration is the lack of manpower in the face of a constant flow of challenges. This is as such not a result of the differentiation process, but does complicate the matter. The experience of the last few weeks is that the active few is pressed to respond to a series of events and deal with a variety of tasks at the same time, leaving little time to consult with or report to the community. Despite good intentions, this lack of communication contributes to the increasing distance between the active few and the passive mass.

This brief exercise offers a number of clues on how to understand the dynamics within ReThink UvA at this stage. It seems fair to say that once we started organizing ourselves we have set in motion processes that differentiate between an active few and a passive mass of ReThinkers. These processes are not caused by power aspirations of those active few—having been at the center of the movement from the very beginning, I can confirm that all have honorable intentions—but rather seem to be an inevitable result of organization as such. Thus, it looks like we have ended up with what Robert Michels long ago identified as ‘the iron law of oligarchy’. An ‘oligarchy’ is surely not how we would like to come forth, but how then should we deal with this reality?

Acknowledging leadership

Social movements often find governments or other hierarchically organized entities against them in their struggle for change and are therefore usually thoroughly suspicious of leadership. This is also apparent in the current protest movements at the University of Amsterdam, which all oppose the top-down managerial governance structure at the university and call for democratization. This skepticism sometimes translates to a complete denunciation of leadership, leading to claims of being a ‘leaderless movement’, such as in the case of De Nieuwe Universiteit. I suspect that many ReThinkers tend to view our movement in similar terms, even though we have never explicitly stated so in public.

Leadership exists in different forms, however, and there is no point in denouncing it in its entirety. In fact, as the exercise above shows, leadership seems rather inevitable for a movement the size of ours and our experiences so far seem to confirm this. Instead of ignoring and concealing it with idealist one-liners, I would contend that we gain more from acknowledging that leadership does exist. We should contemplate which forms of leadership fit the purposes of the movement the best. Considering ‘horizontal’ leadership forms, sometimes also described as ‘shared leadership’ or ‘peer leadership’, may be a good step forward in this regard.