Book of the Day: Collective Action After Networks

Organisation of the Organisation-less: Collective Action After Networks. By Rodrigo Nunes. PML Books (Mute / Post-Media Lab), 2014.


“Rejecting the dichotomy of centralism and horizontalism that has deeply marked millennial politics, Rodrigo Nunes’ close analysis of network systems demonstrates how organising within contemporary social and political movements exists somewhere between – or beyond – the two. Rather than the party or chaos, the one or the multitude, he discovers a ‘bestiary’ of hybrid organisational forms and practices that render such disjunctives false. The resulting picture shows how social and technical networks can and do facilitate strategic action and fluid distributions of power at the same time. It is by developing the strategic potentials that are already immanent to networks, he argues, that contemporary solutions to the question of organisation can be developed.”

Excerpted from an earlier article on the same topic, ‘Three theses on organisation’, by Rodrigo Nunes:

It is Possible to Have a Mass Movement Without Mass Organisations

This lesson is not particularly new; it has been known since at least 1968, or since the late 1990s if we are to eschew the classical references. It is nonetheless both worth repeating and phrasing in this way, since attempting to translate the questions thrown up by the present into the language of older debates can offer more of a grip on them than merely insisting on their absolute novelty.

What matters here is not only the extent to which mass organisations (parties, unions – notable exceptions being the strikes in Egypt, and local support by unions in Tunisia) were seen as ‘part of the problem’, or simply not invited, but also the extent to which they were questioned as mass organisations. In the face of a large, heterogeneous, developing, living movement, their mobilising capacity seemed limited by comparison – and the quality of their representation too stale, too ossified, too much of a representation to matter. When masses of people rose up against the representative system and the dearth of real options it offered, unions and parties were widely regarded as representing that system itself, rather than those they notionally represent.

To say this, of course, does not tell us anything about the staying power of the movements that appeared in 2011; whether a choice not to form mass organisations will entail a progressive loss of momentum, or whether forming them will simply be divisive without bringing any gains; nor does it say anything about whether mass organisations as such are an outdated proposition.[ii] But it does say something about the state of existing mass organisations, and the potentials that reside in the encounter between widespread discontent and access to technological tools that allow for mass, multi-polar communication. It is, thus, evidently good news: mass organisations are in crisis everywhere (and this includes Latin America, from where I presently write); it is good to know that it is possible to bypass them in order to produce political effects.

It also says something about the crisis of representation, and how it will be a long time until it is solved. Some were quick to point out the ‘failure’ of movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, in the sense that the forces that eventually came to power were not much better than those that were removed. There is a truly bizarre logic in this: if these movements started out by decrying how all essential decisions were outside the scope of representative democracy and all the available options were different shades of the same, to expect to prove them wrong by pointing out that what they got was ultimately a different shade of the same is essentially to corroborate their assertion. This argument can only make sense if one has already accepted the premise these movements reject – that there is no alternative to the ‘there is no alternative’ that they oppose. It fails to acknowledge how they have, from the start, set their sights on a much longer game than can be measured by electoral cycles (and which will demand a lot more from them to be achieved).

In regard to the political system as a whole, these movements are exercising – and that is perhaps all they can do at present – what Colectivo Situaciones have called poder destituyente, de-instituent power.[iv] They undoubtedly also possess a constituent power whose future and direction is as yet impossible to predict. It may result in new political forms, new mechanisms of representation, new institutions or, at the very least, new organisations. It may result in all of those at once, as was the case in Bolivia in the aftermath of neoliberal crisis. But right now, their main achievable goal is probably that of flushing the system; and not only can this not be done overnight, the sharpening of contradictions in the short term – Spain now has a right wing government elected by 30 percent of the population, while polls indicate that around 70 percent agree with the indignados, who the new government are on a declared collision course with – may lead to just that in the longer run.


Organisation Has Not Disappeared, But Changed

Many have observed how the obvious similarities between 2011 and the alterglobalisation moment went oddly unnoticed among the commentariat. In what concerns organisation, there is a double irony in this invisibilisation. On the one hand, the alterglobalisation moment marked the first attempt to elaborate the transformations to organisational practice brought about by new communication technologies, the internet above all. On the other, it already manifested the same tabula rasa, new dawn attitude that some adopt today: new technological conditions have changed the way we organise forever, it is all about connected individuals now, the time of hierarchical organisational forms is over. Therein lies, of course, a third irony: that, as is often the case with the modern attitude of announcing the present as a total break with the past, it appears retrospectively as an anticipation of something then still to come. The ‘new technological conditions’ of ten years ago – mailing lists, camera-less phones and Indymedia! – pale in comparison to the access to the means of production of information that we see today; conversely, today’s ‘total break’ has already been around, in some form, for ten years.

The problem is that different things tend to get mixed up in the discussion, and activist practices associated with older organisational forms – such as ‘factory floor’ or ‘door-to-door’ community organising – are lumped in with the organisational form itself. As a consequence, the argument flits from claiming that some organisational forms are no longer necessary to some forms of activism have become superfluous, and ends up producing a falsified picture of how social media have actually been put to political use.

In a well received article from late 2010 that went on to seem thoroughly debunked by ensuing events, Malcolm Gladwell drew on Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking work in social network theory to suggest that social media are fabulous tools when it comes to spreading information and fostering low involvement forms of action (‘share’, ‘like’, ‘retweet’, ‘donate’), but are not as good when it comes to developing dependable relations, commitment and what it sometimes takes to really get an action or campaign off the ground. One of that text’s strongest conclusions was that ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’.[vi] In other words, social media are an excellent medium for weak tie activism, but the development of strong ties requires greater organisational consistency than ‘clicktivism’. As anyone who’s ever organised anything will know, it is sadly not as simple as ‘tweet it and they will come’.

My hypothesis is that, rather than contradicting this conclusion, the political use of social media in 2011 highlights a possibility underestimated by Gladwell: that, under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

If one pays attention to how events unfolded, the myth of isolated individuals coming together on the randomly picked date of a Facebook event becomes shaky. Even the instance seemingly closest to the ‘spontaneous uprising’ narrative, Tunisia, is arguably best described as starting with strong ties. Mohamed Bouazizi’s shocking act of self-immolation first galvanised a small circle of friends and family who tried to make sure the information about his death, and the protests that followed, got out of the town of Sidi Bouzid. From then on the story was picked up by Al Jazeera, there was support from the local trade union branch and student groups, and longer-term activists and media critics of the government began to speak (and act) out.

The movement, in other words, was not simply from weak ties to strong ties, isolated individuals to strong commitments, the internet to the streets; but (small scale) strong ties to weak ties (more people hearing about what had happened) to strong ties (activist groups and individuals becoming involved on a larger scale) to a broader fringe of weak ties becoming strong ties as things gathered momentum. This is illustrated in the geographical spread; from the countryside to Al Jazeera, then from social media and YouTube to the capital and abroad, where each relay produced not only a greater number of informed people, but also people who became active; and it is not too much to imagine that communication among individuals was taking place not only through media, social or otherwise, but also through meetings and nascent or pre-existing organisations of different kinds.

It is well known that, for years, activist groups in Egypt had had their attempts to channel mass opposition to the Mubarak regime frustrated and repressed. Then the events in Tunisia and the viral spread of information and availability of online mobilising tools provided them with an opportunity that they seized. It is true, someone did create a Facebook event calling for the January 25 ‘Day of Anger’; this someone, however, was no random ‘concerned citizen’, but the admin of a Facebook page (‘We are all Khaled Said’) with over 400,000 followers that had existed for half a year. That admin, the now famous Wael Ghonim, attributes the idea to his collaborator AbdelRahman Mansour and the final decision to a brainstorming session over a month earlier with Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, in which they agreed that the Facebook page would spearhead the call, while the activist group would take care of logistics.[x] (April 6 had already mobilised for that date – Police Day – in the past.) And as the idea of a protest on that and subsequent dates caught on, it was worked out and made operational by several other already existing and then sprouting organisations and affinity groups.

The communication that enabled the Arab Spring (or 15M and Occupy) did not simply spread from one individual to the next via social media; in each case, what happened was always a much more complex relay between already established hubs – either ‘strong tie’ groups or communication nodes with a large following and credibility – and a long tail of ties with decreasing intensity, in a sort of ripple effect with many epicentres. If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only. This is even more explicit in those cases, such as 15M and Occupy, where there was an open, overground organising process prior to things ‘kicking off’.[xi]

Finally, it is interesting to speculate on how the beginnings of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are tied to death and sacrifice, of Mohammed Bouzizi and Khaled Said above all. There is no greater test of commitment, or of the strength of ties, than being ready to die. The relation between years of police abuse and violence, and then the irrepressible resolve demonstrated by protesters in those countries – the way in which the risk of taking action being the highest was turned into the most fundamental ‘strengthener’ of ties: the disposition to die together if necessary, and the solidarity that it creates – seems clear.


The Primary Organisational Form of 2011 was Not the Assembly

At the most evident level, the primary organisational form employed by movements in 2011 was the camp. From the extraordinary example set by Tahrir Square, the model spread to Wisconsin, Israel, Spain (where, however, it was an unplanned outcome of the 15 May demonstration); and then, after Occupy Wall Street (initially devised as a camp) and the 15 October day of global action, to the rest of the world. It was the most powerful meme, which is unsurprising seeing as it provided the most stirring images and, with Egypt, the most captivating victory.

Yet it is important to bear in mind the precise connection between form and goal that made Tahrir into a victorious symbol. For more than simply a meme, it was a tactic that consisted in concentrating the movement in one place with a very concrete, if negative, demand: that Mubarak step down. Even then, it is clear that it would not have managed to achieve its goal had the regime not realised they were losing control of several other parts of the country.

As the camp became a meme, this connection was lost. It is remarkable that the first tweet from @acampadasol – the first Twitter account of the first ‘spontaneous’ (i.e. moving from strong ties to developing strong ties along the weaker intensity long tail) camp in Spain, at Puerta del Sol, Madrid – stated that ‘we shall stay here until we reach an agreement’. Who ‘we’ was, and with whom agreement was to be reached, were things left unstated in the micro-blogging website’s peculiar syntax. By the time it got to the various worldwide ‘Occupy’ that sprung after October 15, this tie was lost. The same can be said about other related memes, such as the ‘human mic’, which started out as a practical solution to a ban on amplification at Zucotti Park in New York, and went on to become a marker of a certain ‘Occupy’ way of doing politics, even where the original impediment that had elicited it did not exist.”

About the Author

“Rodrigo Nunes is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Brazil. He coordinates the research group Materialismos, which investigates the resurgence of metaphysical speculation in contemporary philosophy and its interfaces with other fields such as politics, science and anthropology. He has been involved in several political initiatives over the years, such as the first editions of the World Social Forum and the Justice for Cleaners campaign in London. He is a member of the editorial collective of Turbulence (”

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