Book highlights: Organisation of the Organisationless

The book highlights I’m sharing today are from a book called Organisation of the Organisationless, written by Rodrigo Nunes and published by Mute. This book “shows how social and technical networks can and do facilitate strategic action and fluid distributions of power at the same time.” There are two key insights that I pulled from the book, although the content is really great throughout:

  1. Networks are not and cannot be flat.
  2. Network-systems are not leaderless, they are leaderful

Networks are not and cannot be flat

This insight says to me that the natural state of a network is hierarchical. This can be seen in all kinds of networks, even, I would argue, networks that intentionally try to structure themselves as flat through the implementation of various kinds of egalitarian rulesets. There will always come to be “super nodes” that have more influence than others. The best it appears we can do is to try and limit the kind and amount of damage that any one of these super nodes could do to the network should they be compromised or otherwise go rogue.

Network-systems are not leaderless, they are leaderful

Although there is no one in charge of network-systems, they are not leaderless. They are in fact “leaderful”, in that because anyone can take on a position of leadership since there is no one in charge to stop them, the network ends up with many leaders with varying degrees of influence. This is similar to one of Rick Falkvinge’s Swarmwise tactics, which is to empower everyone in the swarm to take initiative and not wait for direction or ask for permission before acting.

I really enjoyed reading this book and thinking about how its insights applied not only to activist networks like Occupy and the Arab Spring, but also computer networks like Bitcoin and Bittorrent. I’ll be writing more about these ideas in the future. In the mean time, enjoy the highlights!

“Organisation of the Organisationless” book highlights

A network logic structures the everyday lives of most people, from the way they work to how they interact in their leisure time, so that networked organisation is literally what ‘comes naturally’ to them – which makes it easy to understand why they would see formal organisation as an avoidable, unnecessary risk.

It is important to keep descriptive and prescriptive theories apart not because the first are ‘real’ while the second are made-up (both are theories, and therefore constructions constantly tested against reality), but because we need to keep our ideas of ‘how things are’ as distinct as possible from our ideas of ‘how things should be’ if we are to get a clearer sense of how, if at all, we can make the former into the latter. The effect that such a project should produce is neither bafflement nor surprise, but recognition: if anything discussed here is at all hidden, it is hidden in plain sight, and quite often it is the interference of prescription on description that will have kept it from view.

[R]egardless of whether one is for or against them, whatever solution to organisational and strategic problems can be expected today will in all likelihood come from within networks. This is not just because distrust of formal organisations is justifiably at an all time high, given the acute crisis of representation laid bare by the financial debacle, and the feeble response offered by most of the institutional left. It is also, and more crucially, because networked organisation is an everyday reality for everyone, including those who oppose it on principle, and is widely perceived as rendering formalised ties, if not obsolete, then at least not unavoidable. To put it somewhat more dramatically: even if a return to the party-form were found to be the solution, the party would no doubt have to emerge from existing networks.

It may be that, for the sake of clearing the way, the time has come to be openly polemical and say once and for all that networks are not and cannot be flat; that prefiguration cannot be a goal in itself; and that an idea like horizontality may have moved from a fresh, critical antidote to outdated ways of organising, to becoming an epistemological obstacle. ‘There comes a time when the mind prefers what confirms its knowledge over what contradicts it, that is, the answers over the questions’,8 and an ‘intellectual and affective catharsis’ may be needed to set it in motion again. Get rid of horizontality and replace it with what – the central committee? Democratic centralism? Evidently not. The point is not to abandon horizontality, prefiguration and other ideas, which are worthy ones even if their use might be only regulative, but to get rid of precisely the binary scheme by which to criticise or relativise one thing is necessarily to slip into its opposite.

To decide that, because absolute horizontality is impossible, unaccountability and authoritarianism are justified, would be acting like the man who, ‘on realising that the mind is not eternal or immortal, … preferred to be mad and to live without reason.’

One of the distinctive traits of the present moment is precisely the way in which our heavily mediatised environment drastically enhances the reach, velocity and insistence (capacity to continue producing effects) of information and affect. This is more than a quantitative difference; it is a change in degree that produces a change in nature. It makes a huge affective difference that developments can be followed in real time, both because little of the affective charge is lost, and because response time is reduced: a sense of urgency can be produced even over large distances, and acting on it is an immediate possibility.

The combination of affective synchronisation, strength in numbers, and seeing those with whom they have strong ties join the protests lowers the thresholds of participation for ever more individuals, generating a cascade effect that is perfectly performative: because something is happening, I join in and get others to join, ensuring that there will be more of whatever is happening.

The amplitude of an event of this kind will be proportional to how successfully it taps into a social malaise that has brewed for some time without finding any outlets, such as the social impacts of economic stagnation, as in Europe and the US, or the social costs of economic growth, as in Turkey and Brazil. The more public the expression of this malaise becomes, the more people are likely to see the need and the possibility of moving from indignation to action. The more people manifest a disposition to act, the more widespread it becomes.

While ‘clicktivism’ has been (rightly) criticised from different quarters, when this kind of process approaches a critical threshold, there is a growth in the number of ties and a progressive strengthening of ties that amounts to an overcoming of ‘clicktivism’. This could be described in Facebook terms as a passage from ‘like’ to ‘share’ and ‘friend’, then ‘comment’ to ‘confirm participation’, and finally actual participation in actions, online and offline, at which point new, non-digitally-mediated, strong and weak ties will be created. At the same time, the expanding digital layers of the network-system function as a space in which ideas can be circulated and ‘tested’ (through metrics such as ‘likes’ and retweets) as potential candidates to the role of ‘structural germs’ which provide focal points and basic protocols for collective action.

The choice for either dispersion or unification is not inscribed in advance in the notion of a network-movement. On the contrary, the idea of network-movement opens the possibility that several ways of combining the two – swarming, distributed action, diversity of tactics, institutionalisation, forking, even (why not?) parties – can be selected according to what the occasion requires. Once these are considered in the context of a network-system, the point is not what solution is valid for the whole, but what solutions work within the whole. There is no need to find a single answer to what everyone must do – it is no wonder these should appear unlikely, given the number of variables being dealt with, but instead the need to find the mediations which, through their interaction, enhance the whole system’s capacity to act. The point is to create something more than mere alliance building (where the parts, understood as constituted groupings of people, are supposed to stay the same, only co-operating punctually) and less than a one-size-fits-all solution (e.g., the idea of the party). This is about strategic interventions that can attract both constituted groups and the ‘long tail’ that does not belong to any groups, pitched not as exclusive but as complementary, whose effects can reinforce each other.

[N]ode degree (the number of ties each node has) is subject to a power law, a statistical distribution generating a curve in which a relatively small number of highly connected nodes (hubs) is followed by a sharp drop to a long tail of nodes with slowly decreasing node degrees. Among the first to observe the same phenomenon across various different kinds of networks were Albert-Lázló Barabási and Réka Albert, who proposed in 1999 a model of network formation that directly connects growth and scaling: as (most) networks expand, they produce this kind of statistical disparity. So this would be the bad news: our networks are not only unequal, they are so by mathematical necessity, and this is directly connected to how they develop. The consequence is inescapable: if by ‘horizontality’ we mean a situation where each node would have exactly the same degree or weight in a network as every other node at any given time, networks cannot give us that. That they cannot is not contingent or accidental, nor a temporary condition to be overcome, but an intrinsic property of what they are and how they grow. This does not come without good news, however. Firstly, the presence of power laws is widely recognised by scientists as a likely sign of a Distributed Networks and Distributed Leadership self-organising system. (Though, it must be stressed, networks do not appear to self-organise their way out of power laws.) Secondly, this kind of network – called scale-free because it has no ‘average’ nodes to speak of – occupies ‘a sweet spot between the unbuildable and the unusable’, in that it is because of highly connected hubs that clusters can communicate with each other through counterintuitively short paths between distant nodes, the so-called ‘small-world’ effect. This also makes scale-free networks ‘highly resistant to random damage, since the average person doesn’t perform a critical function’ and so only a selective attack to several hubs at once could take them down. This places the network-systems of current struggles somewhere between the last two models put forward by Paul Baran, the ‘decentralised’ (each cluster presided over by a hub) and the ‘distributed’ (mesh- like).

[T]he proliferation of ties constantly produces redundancy, creating alternative paths between nodes that counteract the tendency for hubs to become critical to the network’s functioning. This continuous internal differentiation entitles us to describe them as distributed, even if, especially in their sparser peripheries and among small-degree nodes, we have something closer to a decentralised architecture. To sum up: these are not horizontal movements, but distributed network-systems – whose participants may or may not espouse the ideal of horizontality – which are subject to continuous internal differentiation. Regardless of what individuals’ ideas about decision making, leadership and representation might be, and the practices that they derive from these, their general and most constant framework of interaction is best described, from the point of view of the system, as distributed leadership. It is not that there are no ‘leaders’; there are several, of different kinds, at different scales and on different layers, at any given time; and in principle anyone can occupy this position. That is, they are not leaderless but, if the poor wordplay can be forgiven, leaderful.

The potential for real-time diffusion and amplification that exists today has enabled a diffuse vanguardism in which initiatives can snowball exponentially and produce impacts far exceeding their original conditions.

Assemblies may or may not happen against the background of distributed leadership, which, being a property of the network-system, must happen; excessive focus on them amounts to reducing the network-system to the movement-system, and the movement-system to only one of its expressions. A successful initiative is not one that manages to capture the support of the entire network-system, but one that attains sufficient support to produce at least the effects it intends; success is relative to scale.

A clearer picture of power relations in a network-system can only emerge once we introduce considerations as to the quality of ties – their nature and intensity.

The simplest quantitative way to evaluate leadership as a network property is node degree: the more ties, the more capacity to influence other nodes. In directed networks – those in which ties are unidirectional, as in the internet, where a link in a webpage points to another webpage – a distinction can be drawn between out- and in-degree. This, in turn, determines a distinction between hubs and authorities, hubs being nodes with a high out-degree (they point to several other nodes), authorities being nodes with a high in-degree (several other nodes point to them).

These quantitative measures, however, indicate a potential, not necessarily its exercise. In fact, an important conclusion that follows from the dynamic nature of networks is that the continued existence of potential is to some extent dependent on its successful exercise. If a hub ceases to interact and route relevant traffic, its ties might go dormant or disappear, and traffic may be routed around it, reducing or eliminating its importance in connecting different clusters. If it routes bad traffic (spreads false information, misleads its ‘followers’, supports negative initiatives), it might have, if not necessarily a quantitative decrease in degree, a qualitative loss in trust or reputation.

Characteristics that are less strictly relational (capacity to inspire and motivate, charisma, empathy) evidently also come into play.

Leadership occurs as an event in those situations in which some initiatives manage to momentarily focus and structure collective action around a goal, a place or a kind of action. They may take several forms, at different scales and in different layers, from more to less ‘spontaneous’.

The most important characteristic of distributed leadership is precisely that these can, in principle, come from anywhere: not just anyone (a boost, no doubt, to activists’ egalitarian sensibilities) but literally anywhere.

More often than not, large assemblies result from initiatives, not the other way round.

Distributed leadership is therefore to be understood as the combination of a topological property (the presence of hubs) and two dynamic ones (hubs can increase and decrease, and new hubs can appear or, alternatively, nodes can ‘lead’ without necessarily becoming a hub or authority in the process). If the first of these entails that networks are constitutively unable to become the perfectly flat, totally transparent, absolutely horizontal media they are sometimes posited as at least potentially being, the latter two indicate the measure of democracy they can be said to have. Individual networks can of course be more or less democratic according to how distributed leadership potential is, and how open they are to new initiatives and hubs emerging. It is only if we understood ‘democracy’ as synonymous with ‘absolute horizontality’ that they could be called undemocratic. Horizontality, despite being an impossible goal to achieve, has its use as a regulative principle, indicating the need to cultivate the two dynamic properties of distributed leadership.

There is a place for strategic interventions which are not aimed at totalising the network-system, but do not leave things in the hands of a blind ‘process’ that is presumed virtuous.

In any collective sport, a good team is neither one in which one player organises the whole game, nor one in which each player does their own thing, but one in which all players are equally aware of all the movements on the pitch, and capable of occupying whatever spaces need occupying – even when that means staying put.

It is through an awareness of a diverse ecology of agents and interactions and the political potentials offered by the conjuncture that interventions can be devised.

Not everyone needs to back an initiative, although it requires support proportional to its aims; but what is backed is not a group or position that exists outside the strategic wager which the initiative embodies, but the wager itself. This amounts to occupying the vanguard- function, or being a vanguard, without vanguardism.

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