Decentralized Networks vs. Centralized Leadership

I’ve really been enjoying We Are Everywhere. It has challenged me to seriously consider some of the anti-capitalist analysis that I had previously dismissed.

Their chapter Networks: The Ecology of the Movement is a fascinating analysis of how decentralized networks of activists can create powerful actions, such as the Seattle WTO protest. It disabuses some myths of network-based organizing (such as they create events “spontaneously”).

The authors take their cue from ants: nobody tells them where to go but they are very effective of finding the best food, sharing work, and keeping the colony alive. Looking at ant networks, they propose four rules for effective network organizing:

1. More is different: The power of networks is to have lots of individuals and small groups generating ideas, making discoveries and proposing these actions, and then to interconnect these small actors so that ideas can spread.

2. Stay small: When you get too big, communication breaks down, hierarchies emerge, and the network loses it’s dynamism. So, when groups start to reach that point, they need to divide like an amoeba…or an ant colony!

3. Encourage randomness: Just like an ant’s “random” wanderings may find a new food source, a network and a movement need some randomness to find new ways to adapt, respond, and grow.

4. Listen to your neighbors: Knowledge in a network flows horizontally, not vertically. So, for that to work, you need to connect to your neighbors and share ideas, lessons,  and information with them.

Powerful ideas, and network organizing is certainly an important tool to have at hand. That said, I’m left with some questions:

1. Does network organizing lead people to only do the fun jobs and projects? Door-to-door canvassing, fundraising, reaching out to people who aren’t already on board: none of these are as fun as organizing a reclaim the streets party, but I think they are just as vital for the movement. In a network-based organizing model, is there the structure to get these less glamorous jobs done?

2. Do we have anything in common? In a completely leaderless, flat, non-hierarchical movement, is there enough common experience or language to hold us together? For example, Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Beyond Vietnam speech were two powerful pieces that gave people common frames for discussing the movement. Do we loose this common language in a network-only environment?

Give the article a read. It’s worth a good think.

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