Beyond The Gripebomb: Power and Leadership In The AEW Movement and Alternative Cultures
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Photo: Being The Elite
Having sold out shows doesn’t mean you have to sell out. This article will utilize practices and theories from the study of social movements, leadership theories, case studies of business success, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), viewing the subcultural movement of AEW as a distinct community and culture. (Hence, AEW being an alternative culture as such is one assumption of this analysis.) The concepts here are intended to be generalizable to a variety of alternative cultures.
Though AEW is not a decentralized organization in the most precise definition of the term, it does in some ways operate in a similar manner to one. Decentralized social movements are known to struggle when achieving institutional power. However, this is not because the philosophies and ideas of institutional power, the oppressive power which these movements were built to destroy are simply a superior paradigm, but rather because of a failure to cautiously and holistically integrate, most importantly, the core values, but also the principles, practices, and procedures that have been proven by the movement’s development into its new institutional structure, along with evidence-based and consensus-based practices as appropriate. These communities do have a shared set of standards not hierarchically imposed but that are known and have been agreed to by their community. This type of structure may require significant adaptation by those more accustomed to conventional power dynamics.
To engage in this process effectively, a strong education with an emphasis on critical thinking, experimentation, and interdisciplinary approaches, rather than merely the practices of the past, is extremely helpful. what more often happens unfortunately is that people who have expertise and are bound to a single set of philosophies obliterate the ideas of the culture once it is brought into the halls of power. Cultural leaders are found to be incompetent not because they are, in fact, incompetent but because their ideas are assumed to be inferior merely because they are not easily understood through the methods of the dominant paradigm. Further, community leaders are often not provided with the technical assistance needed to succeed and legitimize themselves to institutions, and when such assistance is offered, it is not culturally competent or offered in an authoritarian manner that threatens the progress of the community, hence rightfully rejected. CM Punk, as someone who asserts himself to be punk, should be well familiarized with the words “we don’t need no one like you to tell us what to do.”
Just as lack of cultural competence in support resources and in the approach institutions and leaders take to them hinders the progress of racial minorities that are already the fastest-growing groups economically, the same can be said of fast-growing and successful subcultural movements like AEW. The failure of disadvantaged communities to maintain power, whether economic or cultural, is often hence largely a self-fulfilling prophecy created when those claiming to hold power create obstacles to inclusion higher than the ones they set for the incumbent leaders and systems. Here, we see that the AEW movement was in a great position prior to outsiders coming in to “save” it and alter its culture. Their presence and ideas, not the “unstable” community itself, caused the disruption that is leading it to be on the downswing. Moreover, the people who are brought in to “right the ship” of the unruly, disorderly alternative culture or community-led institution lack the same kind of vested interest the community leaders have in their own success and hence do woefully inadequate work, writing the death certificate of the idea they didn’t like in the first place. For sure, not all outsiders are the same. Sometimes the skill of authentic cultural integration comes innately, even with a background in conventional organizations, which I think is certainly the case with Jon Moxley, who has indisputably become an ambassador of the AEW movement and stepped up in a time of crisis.
Many times members of an alternative community will accept the paradigm of dominant, often capitalistic forces and in doing so consider themselves superior for no longer being unprofessional but now being with those in power. People from under-represented cultural backgrounds, or those under economic pressure, will rely on oversimplified models of business and leadership, because they feel incapable to challenge the status quo or simply have not been the opportunity to enter professional spaces where their ideas are valued. They have accepted voluntary subjugation in exchange for perceived economic benefits and acceptance, not knowing that there is another path forward that allows for both growth and authenticity, while integrating the best knowledge from both conventional and alternative methods. To be clear, exchanges with outside communities can have substantial benefits. The key difference between a good and a bad exchange with dominant or powerful groups or ideas is agency. If the community is left in a state where it lacks agency and the ability for self-determination, then its unique character is at risk.
Having members of the community accept in totality the dominant culture often causes conflict because they expect power dynamics to operate the same way within the alternative cultural space, and assert themselves as such. A punk should know this as “selling out.” Sometimes this is sold in the form of faux empowerment and may even leverage parts of the culture, much like Stokely Hathaway’s performance even going so far as claiming spiritual higher ground, but not fully authentically integrating it. These kinds of leaders will learn and ostensibly accept just enough of your identity and even remain as part of your community, but it only goes as far as it needs to for the sales pitch to work. It’s just thinly veiled pandering, like I saw often in political outreach to minority communities. People who can claim cultural authenticity but are really pushing the dominant ideology sell for a premium in the world of politics. But sometimes it is not terribly obvious that this ideology has taken root and even those who genuinely express their allegiance to their community have unconsciously accepted these ideas of power.
“A boss lives inside all our heads” - Anti-Flag
A frequent consequence of failing to take an interdisciplinary and culturally competent approach to management as a social movement grows, especially when it comes under the influence of corporate or other establishment powers, is a “crackdown.” This often happens under crisis, for good reason to prevent litigation and negative media attention, but results in unnecessary cultural repression and chilling effects, based on the opinions of well-intentioned experts who are trained in traditional methods of managing crisis situations. These crackdowns fall into the systems thinking “fixes that fail” pathology. The modified “cleaned up” culture is returned and remains permanent, removing various distinctives that gave the community its initial power, a net negative for society, which no longer gets to benefit from the culture’s full potential. Reactionary, rigid, avoidant management does not create success. It destroys creative communities and prevents innovation. I discussed this issue in further depth, including the unmatched systemic and societal benefits of thriving, self-organizing cultures like that in AEW, in the Diversity in Wrestling and Creative Cultures article.
There have been many calls to reduce the level of worker power within AEW and specifically stating that the EVP system has failed and should be abolished. This is, in fact, contrary to the trend amongst experts in business, which is favoring an increase in worker ownership as being a means to improve profitability and overall success, and leadership by those who have backgrounds closer to the culture and community of the consumers to better adapt to market needs.
Furthermore, systems like co-determination that give workers a voice on corporate boards have been successfully used internationally for decades. Also, worker power has seen a massive resurgence in the United States, shaking up the business and political status quo. Worker control in businesses provides hope for a better future of the workplace in this time of reinvigorated class struggle, and it can work. There is substantial theoretical literature around spontaneous order, self-organizing communities, and all the way to anarchist systems of organization, which have been widely promoted in the punk community, so to claim that there is no intellectual basis for giving workers control over their product, especially in a creative environment, is simply not correct.
“I believed we could and I believed we would change the world, but it feels like the world changed us.” - Adam Page
It can also be said that AEW is being “gentrified,” a slow and sometimes insidious process that can become deleterious if not properly managed. But here, instead of newcomers tearing down buildings and moving in, some new signings are felt to be threatening to tear down intangible cultural institutions. Tensions become high and groups start to have a disdain for each other. When community members object, seeing that they are having their way of life eroded, they are too often seen as having nonsensical complaints and being an impediment to progress. The dollars and cents line up, so it must make sense, these people in the community are just too unintelligent to get it.
Cultural gentrification has even become a storyline within AEW, in many ways, most obviously being the Jericho Appreciation Society, where “sports entertainment” seeks to gentrify “pro wrestling.” Adam Page’s assertions in his promo against CM Punk prior to Double or Nothing are fully in line with the general discourse that can be expected around cultural gentrification, as it is generally the working class that suffers while ostensibly progressive people cause their community harm, and the response CM Punk made at the All Out Media Scrum is a highly unpolished version of the ways gentrifiers respond to criticism. However, many people are really well intentioned and desire solutions to holistically integrate and maintain thriving cultures, and that is the focus of the three main principles here: Respect The Culture, Train Up Community Leaders, and Let Arguments Work.
Respect The Culture
You need to respect the culture, its people and its leaders, as experts on the same level as traditional establishment experts. It also needs to be understood that the group of stakeholders in such a community is expansive, and in fact the community is part of the governance and creative process, not like the conventional model of business, where are the only people that matter are shareholders and executives. Just like in a punk show where the crowd is a part of the show, in alternative sports cultures, fans are also to an extent participants, not just passive consumers of a product. Parties who would traditionally lack agency have agency in these spaces, which is contrary to much of modern society, and may require some adaptation for those who are unfamiliar with this model.
Discussing misunderstandings between healthcare professionals and politicians and communities of color, a space where upset experts too often have wrongly labeled groups of people as being incorrigible, Dr. America Bracho stated that there are technical experts, administrative experts, and there are community experts. People who have lived experience in a culture and community produce native knowledge that is a unique and valid form of expertise and should be recognized and managed as equal collaborators. The practices the community creates are the true keys to success. If without imposition by force or support from pre-existing institutional powers such practices can thrive, it only serves to show their power. Methods that allow communities to thrive in the worst of conditions may not be the same as the ones that are studied or practiced in the best conditions, but that only proves their unique value. This is somewhat analogous to certain indigenous farming practices that could work without the high technology and investment of modern agriculture. By integrating and legitimizing this knowledge alongside established knowledge you were able to gain results that could not be accomplished solely by the means created by institutions.
These results are clearly and unambiguously shown in the growth and success of AEW and its unique and distinct product as compared to its major competitors. I feel this is largely driven by the fun, emotionally vulnerable, and highly relatable approach emanating from Being The Elite. I have heard countless testimonies of people who were genuinely attracted to this approach when major corporate competitors did not. The process of trial and error Adam Page elucidated, even against attempts to over-manage, is what drives innovation. Itis basically the backbone of the scientific method, and All Elite Wrestling has proven to be a living laboratory both for the future of the sport and for creating a social movement. And “The Elite” are the pioneers of this “experiment” and should be held in such regard. Now in no means does this mean that they or any other cultural leaders are unimpeachable; the point of science is to revise conclusions as new evidence is found.
"The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools." - Thucydides
Train Up Community Leaders and Embrace Your STARs
This is both a science and an art, and the art is best practiced by those who live it. Ideally, some members of the community are educated at such a level that they can engage and be respected in discussions with figures of authority, and be considered equal collaborators. Education is more than a means to prepare one for the specific duties of employment, but to develop the intellectual skill set and depth of knowledge to be prepared for situations of leadership and civic engagement. This is why diversity in educational attainment is more than a matter of economics and employment but of social inclusion in systems of power. Combining both the native knowledge of trial and error with the best of academia and industry, while most importantly enabling leaders to gain the critical reasoning skills to exercise agency over what is right for their community, should be the goal of education. Being overly reliant on a limited set of knowledge and conventional frameworks without the ability to adapt can result in frustration and even authoritarian attitudes developing through means similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Having respected members of the community with a broad set of training in liberal arts and professional disciplines, who are active participants in the decision-making process, can enable breakthroughs in growth and help maintain legitimacy. The community then can benefit fully from the ideas and practical methods from experts across a breadth of disciplines to become what it wants to be, not letting others decide its fate.
However, education can and should come in many forms. Those who are skilled through alternate routes (STARs), meaning in the normal context skills obtained other than through a college degree, but in this context also can mean not through the conventional wrestling systems, can also be deemed technical experts and bring their own perspectives. Studies have shown that including STARs can improve workplace diversity and I believe the same can be said for improving diversity of cultural perspective. However, to unlock their potential, you want to have members of the culture trained up in leadership and technical skills, such as through “micro-credentials,” which have successfully been used by community colleges for technical skills needed for workplace advancement into managerial roles. Also, top universities like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School already have some management “soft”skills training offerings in a more brief online certificate program format. As we have seen with workers in other sectors, this additional training can create more legitimacy for management and better outcomes. By combining the existing skills of STARs with leadership training and support, workforce development experts are finding they can “manage a Target” or take on other more advanced roles.
When there is a lack of respect for the members of the culture as equal experts, that is a major problem. Even in conventional sports there can be significant differences in culture, philosophy, and priorities between organizations and it is important that coaching and other staff reinforce the organization's values. There must be agreement on core values or at a minimum, for a functional relationship with an expert with the ability to agree to disagree, the ability of the leaders of the culture to balance what is technically right with what is appropriate for their community. In public policy, even when scientific or technical experts have a clear and definitive answer to a problem, it is considered legitimate for policymakers to “balance competing interests” and hence not fully “take advice,” in order to serve constituent needs best. Just as our democracy is not a technocracy, a self-organizing workplace is inherently non-technocratic.
Let Arguments Work, But Don’t Get Too Worked
Petty disputes over minor relatively issues are known to derail social movements. In fact, those who have sought to disrupt the growth and coalition-building of social movements, such as in the civil rights movement, focused on exacerbating personal and ideological conflicts. Establishing ground rules based on shared principles and values can help in the event of a dispute.
Communication styles vary between cultures and that is also true of alternative sports subcultures. These alternative communication approaches may be seen as deviations from professional practice but come with a character and good intentions not seen in the more bland form, and due to their genuineness, can be more effective than conventional approaches. Creative subcultures, like punk rock and rap, have art forms that are not a mere contrivance created for entertainment but are rather a genuine expression of the views and beliefs of the artist, while being mixed with the imagination toward a result that is no longer literal.
This mixture of reality and fiction makes for compelling art that brings together communities, however, the misunderstandings of these types of art forms by outsiders have even confused the legal system with recent cases involving rap artists’ lyrics being admitted into evidence against them for crimes, launching calls by civil rights and music industry leaders for legislation to clarify the nature of these expressions and hence protect free speech. The style in which discussions occur may be viewed as intense or even as betrayal, or “going into business for yourself,” rather than a structured dialogue. However, this style is very appealing to a populace that has been fed overly polished content and ideas for years. Respectability politics just does not reach many populations as effectively as authentically created, free-flowing art that recognizes their needs. Today’s political discourse shows that people are interested in workers’ rights and other issues forbidden to more “diplomatic” leaders, and want bold warriors for it. They want “Cowboy Shit,” not carefully made entertainment. Respectability is a bare minimum, not a gimmick, not a way to get yourself or your movement over.
However, even with this necessity and success, an outsider or even someone within the culture who has been inculcated into more traditional views of conflict resolution may abhor this approach as being unsteady and unstable. But repressing arguments or putting leaders from outside the movement on a pedestal such that they cannot be touched, which is different from keeping them insulated to create an objective perspective (as in an external consultant), just leads to worse problems in the future as we saw on that horrid September night. Though all parties should consider techniques to make better arguments, an approach of acceptance of all ideas which do not violate the core values of the movement or shock the conscience, at least for the moment in discussion, should be taken as the first step.
Over time deliberation can occur through not just the enlightenment of participant observation, but of a genuine care for the humanity and uniqueness of the community. Creating relationships in whatever way possible allows the mind to observe with compassion rather than seeking a win. Context, in the immediate sense and in the larger sense, is critically important. Know the meaning, the context, and the intention behind the approach before criticizing the approach.
“Not a product of your system, but we are the system of change.” - Matthew Lee Massie
Why The AEW Movement Matters: A Warrior’s Cry
I have previously spoken very positively of CM Punk, knowing the connection between AEW and cultures like punk rock, which he himself once affirmed. But now his actions and attitudes seem to be destining AEW to the same failures that are well-known in these cultures, an issue that can be avoided. This article is intended to refresh knowledge of these known issues and as a starting point for determining potential solutions.
As I once said about another alternative sports culture with a similar trajectory, “when skateboarding loses its edge, it loses its efficacy,” hence here I say “when AEW loses its fun and its genuine art, it falls apart.” It also loses its efficacy to change hearts and minds, create communities that keep young men in particular away from extremism, a systemically critical problem for the existence of democracy itself that no amount of legislative, technocratic, or business-driven solutions can solve, and to Change The World.
There is sufficient evidence both for worker-led structures, such as worker ownership and co-determination, and for the unique utility of non-conventional sports cultures for creating better relations and discourse between communities. The AEW movement is perhaps the best model of community-building and influence for young men toward a more inclusive, worker-friendly attitude while still incorporating their desire for strength I have seen in a long while, acting almost like a domestic form of public diplomacy.
The reason why AEW can connect to fans is because its athlete-artists are allowed to fully express themselves and portray their full selves without excessive restrictions or having to adhere to a model imposed from the top down. Preserving this community and using it as an example for future community-building efforts keeps the sport’s creative progression going and is beneficial as an exemplar for fans. In a time of increasing political and social polarization, it is communities creating their own narratives, responding to their own needs by building what they desire in the world without waiting on the establishment to validate them, all with a heart for inclusion, communities like what AEW has been, that will lead us out of the Darkness and into a new Order, one that defies all expectations and appears as if by magic. This is just the beginning.
Greyson Peltier is the host of The Fixerpunk Podcast, a communications consultant specializing in social impact and political advocacy, and founder of Laguna Beach, CA-based consulting firm Off Speed Solutions. He has been on both sides of the political aisle, working on efforts in areas such as minority outreach and youth culture for multiple organizations. Peltier holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Southern California, AA degrees in Business Administration and Social and Behavioral Sciences from Coastline College, and has been featured by media outlets like Vice, ESPN Radio KLAA, USA Radio Network, and Street Fight Radio.
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