The lessons of 2011: Three theses on organisation

Rodrigo Nunes looks at the social movements of 2011 and their implications for organising, rejecting the opposite conceptions of the vanguardist party and the loose virtual network.

Submitted by Django on July 3, 2012

2011 was an exceptional year, one which could – hopefully – come to be remembered in the same breath as 1968 and 1848. That being so will depend on whether the coming years will fulfil its promise, making it appear retrospectively as the start of something. Understanding the nature of that promise, and the means by which it can be fulfilled, therefore, are part and parcel of making that happen. A key challenge in this regard is to strip what happened in 2011, as much as possible, from false representations, both negative and positive, created by media coverage and the sometimes misleading reflections of protesters. To try, in other words, to stay as close as possible to what people were and are doing, rather than what they say or are said to be doing.

Negri’s dictum on Lenin – ‘organisation is spontaneity reflecting on itself’ – suggests spontaneity is never simply formless but always already belying some kind of organisation.1 It is a long standing mistake of the ‘organisation’ debate that it takes place as if one should choose between absolute formlessness (‘spontaneous’ movement) or form (the Party). As much as a party, however tightly controlled, will always have some degree of porosity and anomalous deviation, what seems formless always contains its own form, even if mutable and open. The three theses that follow aim to both draw out some of the lessons already implicit in the last year and a half’s struggles and to get closer to what is characteristic of their underlying forms.

1. 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.2 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).3

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. 4 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.

2. 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.5 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.

n 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'.6 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’.7 As anyone who’s ever organised anything will know, it is sadly not as simple as ‘tweet it and they will come’.8

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.9

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.10

(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’.11

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.

3. 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.

This is not to say that subsequent iterations of the camp meme were in no way tactical; they were, except the tactic was different. In the absence of the clear cut negative demands that existed in Egypt and Wisconsin, what they were doing was not trying to enforce a collectively shared will, but attempting to create the political space in which a collectively shared will could be constructed, so that a social force capable of effecting change through ‘contamination’ and/or enforcement of its will, could appear. In this sense, if their ‘diminishing tactical returns’ resembles what happened to the counter-summit cycle of the alterglobalisation movement, to criticise them without recognising the other, crucial function they exercise – like Badiou, for example, did back in 2003 in regard to counter-summits – amounts to missing what people actually do by virtue of focusing on what they (or the media) say they do.12

The strength of camps such as the ones seen in Spain, Israel and several Occupy sites lay in their provision of a focal point for widespread dissent. They were moments when already existing virtual and non-virtual social networks collided with one another, were reshuffled and given greater consistency by direct contact and co-presence. More than that, they provided a space in principle accessible to all, regardless of any previous experience of activism or insertion into the social networks in which the process had initiated. Finally, they did so while also exposing people to the challenge of sharing a space and its running, which, if it can be rather testing, can lead to the development of stronger ties. In other words, what these later camps did was to act on the conditions of possibility of politics: in the context of profound disempowerment and a severe crisis impacting on highly atomised societies, they functioned as a space where the fabric of relations that one calls ‘the political’ could, at least for those who were there, be partially (re)constituted.

The whole difficulty was that, while they did this, both outsiders and insiders also expected from them concerted political action and clear position taking. They had to grow up in public. All this in a situation whose tactical coordinates were not time bound, with no obvious idea of what that holding on indefinitely entailed, and facing the Herculean (maybe Sisyphean) task of deciding it on the spot with very large numbers of very diverse people.

Much was made of the general assemblies, which is no surprise considering how at once impressive and quaint they looked (cue the de rigueur journalistic remark on hand gestures), but also how they seemed to address the widespread experience of a democratic deficit. One of the most typical comments made by participants speaks of everyone’s ostensible gladness to be given a voice in front of others. And if virtual networks were the original medium for affective spread and contagion, the ‘reshuffling’ enabled by open mic spaces where people could exchange points of view, begin new relationships and get into other networks – let alone the sheer power of discovering commonalities with people one would otherwise never meet – cannot be underestimated.

Yet the very difference in intensity in moving ‘from the internet to the streets’ can produce an overvaluation of the assembly in the face of everything else. During the Arab Spring, Christian Marazzi compared the logics of contagion proper to financial markets and to the events taking place in the Mahgreb.13 n the former, it is the deficit of information that leads to mimetic behaviour which, in the frantic heights of a speculative bubble, becomes entirely self-referential and incapable of observing any dynamics outside of itself; instead it assumes some (market Big) Other knows something ‘we do not know’. In the latter, an excess of information produces an ‘imitation of oneself’ whose material referent is the very social body. In these terms, the risk that assemblies carry with them could be described as a fetish of presence – of restricting the imitable ‘oneself’ to the assembly itself, losing sight of non-presential affects as well as the ‘others’ of that experience, which in turn is made into a less inclusive, less connected ‘you just had to be there’. This mistakes the immediate, visible body of the mo(ve)ment for the whole of its real one – which is mediate as well as immediate, virtual as well as actual, diffuse as well as concentrated, variable as well as given, and dependent at all times on a complex assemblage of bodies, technological interfaces, words, affects and ideas.

This dynamic can be intensified by the very tendency of the media to represent assemblies as the movement’s core. If, however, we take a step back from the most visible to apprehend the entire process that enabled it and kept it alive, what becomes apparent is that this movement’s key organisational form, while in its own way also open and horizontal, is not the assembly.

We could call it distributed leadership: the possibility, even for previously ‘uncharted’ individuals and groups, to temporarily take on the role of moving things forward by virtue of coming up with courses of action that provide provisional focal points for activity. (I have previously referred to this as ‘diffuse vanguardism’, defining it as the power ‘to ignite large scale effects without any sort of [previously existing or at a proportionally large scale] decision making procedure’.14 ) t applies both to the first outliers, groups or individuals, who started networking towards the mass actions that then developed into camps and assemblies. But equally to all those whose initiatives, by example more than persuasion, by contagion more than argument, managed to cut through deadlocks in decision making processes progressively reduced to the assembly form.

What makes this form of leadership different is the fact that it does not require a previously established ‘leader’ or ‘vanguard’ status (membership numbers, political trajectory, reputation). In fact, one of the key things that, in the present environment, appears to work in favour of an initiative is precisely its being ‘anonymous’ or (to put it in sports language) ‘unseeded’. It is only natural that, the present crisis being to a great extent one of representation, there should be suspicion towards ‘representative’ names.

At the same time, producing an initiative that resonates and gains traction with others usually demands more than just ‘throwing an idea out there’. It implies setting an example to be followed, and thus depends on it being embodied in a group of people who ‘make it happen’. Such seems to be the case with arguably the most important development to take place after the camps – the focus on anti-eviction actions and occupations with a view to providing housing for foreclosure victims. Again, a mediation takes place between strong and weak ties, producing strong ties in the process. But, even at times when the participation threshold is lower, successful new initiatives are likely to be those that offer relatively low entry levels, perhaps increasing in commitment and militancy with time.15

The logic of distributed leadership characteristic of 2011 struggles is that of the ‘leader of the pack’ as described by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus; and yet, if we read Hegel minus the teleology (the only way to do it today), we will find it is not too distinct from those Werkzeuge of world history, ‘world-historical individuals’. In Catherine Malabou’s felicitous phrase, what we have here is the movement of a changing body/border precipitated by the occurrence of singular initiatives ‘as the cutting edge of excess/overrunning (comme bord de débordement)’16 Interestingly, it could be noticed that more optimistic readings of today’s movements, while ostensibly predicated on something like ‘collective intelligence’ rather than history (or Spirit), appear to rely on a surreptitious teleology according to which this intelligence, rather than responding to conjunctural problems with the resources at its disposal at any given time, is in the long run ‘working out’ the solutions for all crises faced today.17 In a somewhat extreme case of presence fetishism, assemblies and working groups figure as stand-ins for humankind as a whole.

But it would be naïve to think that such leadership, while distributed, is done so evenly. What visualisations of the social media networks behind the likes of Occupy and 15M18 illustrate is that these networks, like the social ones behind them, possess what is called a scale-free structure.19 That is, their characteristic distribution consists of a large number (or ‘long tail’) of less connected nodes and a small number of hubs with more, more connected and farther nodes. As such, any simplistic ‘levelling’ conceptualisation of horizontality as absolute equality is contradicted by all the available knowledge, mathematical and intuitive, on the structure of this kind of network. (Was this not a variation on the liberal theme of a naturally righteous, free association of individuals, at any rate?)

Yet this does not make these movements ‘undemocratic’ either. Firstly, it must be noted that the majority of the most important Twitter accounts in these visual representations did not exist just over a year ago. If they acquired their present relevance it was through their being relevant at the time when new connections and a particular kind of traffic among them boomed. This argument can no doubt be extended beyond social media. Secondly, while it is obvious that there is something self-confirming about being a hub – those who have more connections will automatically be heard more – this very self-confirming loop entails dependence on a process of constant legitimation. That is, while distributed leadership is not an ideal ‘free market’ of information, analysis and initiative, but subject to preferential attachment, a hub’s ‘stock’ also fluctuates according to the quality of traffic that it routes and initiatives that it proposes or backs.20 Furthermore, that something is routed by a ‘strong’ source does not necessarily make it ‘catch on’; for every successful initiative there are hundreds that do not ‘take off’. At the same time, one of the things that makes a source strong is the fact that it can draw attention to smaller, less connected nodes, and thus contribute to increasing their visibility and connectivity. Finally, the more connected and excitable the ‘machine-body’of a networked movement – that is, at peak moments in the mobilisation of bodies, affects and virtual connections – the likelier it is for traffic from less connected nodes to be picked up, the quicker and easier the movement from weak to strong ties that an initiative requires to be made effective, and the faster can traffic be rerouted in general.21

Thus, however counter-intuitive, we could speak of a ‘vanguard’ of these movements, if we understand it as an immanent vanguard, endowed with a power of immanent command. Its capacity to ‘lead’ has to be proven each time, or rather, its status fluctuates much more rapidly. It is only a vanguard to the extent that it ‘works’ – and when it does not, it does not, maybe even in ways that will damage its power to ‘work’ in the future.22 t is a cause that inheres in its effects. Now, it could be argued that this was the only sense in which vanguards ever actually existed historically. But to make this point is tantamount to suggesting that there is no objective ballast to vanguard status – the identification of one having long been the chimera of different strains of Marxism – beyond the effectiveness of its (temporary, localisable, though potentially much wider than its initial context) ‘leadership’.

Rodrigo Nunes is a PNPD/CAPES post-doctoral researcher in philosophy at PUCRS, Brazil, where he leads the research group Materialismos ( Ontological day job notwithstanding, he remains involved in different political initiatives, and a member of the Turbulence collective ( He occasionally blogs at

Republished from Mute

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12 years ago

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Submitted by Network on July 5, 2012

Not terrible clear or accessible at points, but pretty spot on IMO.