"I wouldn't want my anarchist friends to be in charge of a nuclear power station": David Harvey, anarchism, and tightly-coupled systems

 Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. North is to the right. Reactors 4, 3, 2 and 1, reading left to right, appear at the left (South). Reactor 5 and the construction site for reactor 6 appear to the right of centre of the image.

An industry-specific response to David Harvey's popular claim that anarchists can neither run nor combat 'tightly-coupled systems', specifically nuclear power plants and air-traffic control. This paper is examines the the former and critiques Harvey's understanding of how such systems meet anarchist theory and practice, arguing that hierarchy does not make such systems safer or more efficient - quite the contrary.

The big problems arise, however, when you seek and try to ask yourself the question how can the international division of labour be so orchestrated so that all of us have enough to eat and reasonable material need are met and that - right now that is organized, of course, partially through command and control structures of corporate capital and partly through market engagements and when you start to think about replacements of that you start to think about forms of coordination which ... require a form of political organization that is not horizontal, that can be rather hierarchical, and a lot of people on the left are rather hostile to that idea. But, as i try to say, well, next time if you fly the Atlantic and you're half-way across the Atlantic and somebody says, "Well, flight traffic controllers in New York have gone into assembly-mode right now and they are going to discuss which airline should get priority landing," just imagine what you would think! There are many aspects of contemporary life that are now organized in what you might call 'tightly-coupled systems' where you need command and control structures. I wouldn't want my anarchist friends to be in charge of a nuclear power station [laughter from audience] when the light started blinking red and yellow and all that kind of stuff.


Fetishism of the Organizational Form and Tightly-Coupled Systems

Professor Harvey is trying to warn us against what he calls the “fetishism of organizational forms” - the mistake of prioritizing the method of organizing over its desired outcome2. According to most writers, in the 'broad anarchist tradition' these two facets of radical action are inseparable 3 It is worth mentioning that the other notable instance where this exact phrase is used in the leftist cannon is by Leon Trotsky in his Lessons of October (1924) where he warns against allowing the soviet to replace the party as the principal site of revolutionary organization 4. In contrast to Trotsky, Harvey does not seek a vanguard party but instead sees the anarchist aversion to hierarchy as an barrier to tactical plurality including political pressure and expansive but centralized coordination of large-scale efforts.5

Harvey worries that the focus on non-hierarchical local organization which he sees as dominating the rhetoric on the left is inadequate to meet the challenge of contemporary capitalism. The tactical plurality he advocates includes, among other things, an appropriation of the centralized planning methods employed by corporations like Wal-Mart who are able to coordinate multiple sites and diverse roles into effective production chainsYoutube link" href="#footnote6_rumrgi3">6. The irony of this is that since the 1990s, these corporations have been bastardizing pieces of anarchist history and practice to redesign their management structure and increase efficiency7, though we will leave this aside for the moment. Moreover, despite his work on neoliberalism as a class project 8 and his ongoing criticism of the Obama administration, he has nonetheless predicted that, given sufficient pressure, the Democratic leadership will cave to popular demands and act in the interests of society instead of the ruling class of bankers 9. Harvey's primary concern is how surplus value gets distributed within society; he argues that the State can produce significant positive social impact if it increases its hold of the surplus value produced by capitalist systems, but only if that State has come under popular control10. Currently, he says, the “party of Wall Street” enjoys the control it wrested from a series of political coups largely centring around deregulation of the financial markets, an expansion of the housing market (suburbanization), and a redesign of urbanity and urban life 11

Harvey centres his critique of anarchism around the operation of what he calls “tightly coupled systems”. In his writings, this phrase is primarily employed to describe the mechanics of the financial sector - “computer-driven split-second trading” - which results in wild volatility, global connectivity, and inevitably results in massive crises12. In line with his concern for the technological composition of the capitalist order, he considers this configuration in contrast to the organization of its global opposition which he, of course, sees as highly fragmented and isolated. He does not believe that local action or acts of escape from the system, what he calls the 'termite' strategy have any real effect on the total order and instead encourages a connected mass confrontation of capitalism with a political charactere13. Put simply, if the financial system of political economic rule acts as a tightly-coupled system, the fight against it should as well.

In his recorded statements on anarchism, he employs the term 'tightly-coupled systems' to emphasize the impracticality of horizontalist organization in certain instances – specifically nuclear power plants and air-traffic control. He states that one cannot expect these tightly coupled systems to function, particularly in times of emergency where lives are at stake, if they are permitted to fall into consensus based-councils at a whim. The argument then is whether or not anarchist organization is sufficient to [A] battle the tightly coupled systems upon which contemporary capitalism is based and [B] run certain tightly-coupled systems themselves. The remainder of this paper will deal primarily with the latter point. In short, Harvey says he “loves” the horizontalist, assembly-based, consensus organizing that he has seen in Occupy and the smaller student revolts at his university, CUNY, though he sees them as completely unequal to both tasksYoutube link" href="#footnote14_9c1i6e0">14.


Among the many things which complicate this view is Harvey's own concern for the technological face of capitalism. He is the first to emphasize that our current technological condition is one shaped by the needs of capitalist production and capitalist relations15. Harvey, echoing countless other anti-capitalist theorists, calls for a sort of referendum on these technologies and to begin imagining what sorts of technologies would be needed to produce a socialist world instead. I would like to leave aside, in this text, the question of whether or not nuclear power is incidental to capitalism or is necessarily co-constitutive of it, and focus specifically on the social technology used within these systems – the division of labour and authority – as this is the principle contact point where anarchist theory meets value production in practice. Between Harvey's two favoured examples, I have arbitrarily decided to focus on the nuclear power plant over air traffic control, though I believe that this analysis has much to say about these tightly-coupled systems in general.

Automation, Labor, Management and Nuclear Safety

Harvey's key issue with an anarchist nuclear power plant, as well as its analogue in air-traffic control, is safety. He claims that a power plant in crisis requires the quick and efficient response that only a tight hierarchical management structure can provide; this claim is not only surprisingly naïve, but is completely backwards.

A nuclear plant uses fission to heat water into steam which is used to power electric generators. Apart from loading the uranium fuel bundles into the core and launching the neutrons into the uranium atoms to begin the fission reaction, once begun, the power generation and the safety measures which regulate it are almost entirely structurally automated. This process is inspected by groups independent of the labour structure of the plant itself. The 500-800 people employed by a typical plant are mostly engaged in maintenance and monitoring with a minority acting in research and administrative capacities. There are ideally three layers of management, the topmost answering to a board of directors16. None of these layers are expected to have to engage with the physical operation of the plant and instead work mostly to facilitate communication between departments and between the plant and its inspectors, owners, and the State.

The four most serious accidents of a nuclear power plant were Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three-Mile Island, and SL-1. The most widely accepted explanations of first three of these accidents, almost without exception, place the blame on the management of the plant, not its rank-and-file17. While the first occurred because management permitted or encouraged the ignoring of basic safety protocol during testing operations18, Fukushima and Three-Mile Island were the result of a management regime that sacrificed safety for cost-efficiency including the downward pressure on plant labour1920. In other words, the only serious nuclear accidents in all of history occurred because of plant hierarchy, not in spite of it.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the {Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation} commission, stated that “What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”


It is no doubt because of this that the IAEA has, for well over a decade, been encouraging a reduction of management in plants and “pushing decision making down to the lowest appropriate level” to broadly empowered “self directed teams” to increase both the efficiency and safety of plant operations. They have further suggested that management's influence over cost-effectiveness via control over labor is quite minimal and the majority of a plant's value comes from its automatic function and its effective and attentive maintenance – again, best accomplished by self-directed teams under minimal management22.23 This is in rather obvious contrast to Harvey's understanding of how a tightly-coupled system is actually run. This begs the question, if a special management strata is not embedded in the plant hierarchy to ensure the safety of a nuclear plant, what in fact does it do and what would a functioning plant look like without it?

Atomic Anarchy

Harvey claims hierarchy is necessary for the safe operation of tightly-coupled systems because worker assemblies would imperil those who depended on the efficient function of such systems. Insomuch as human relations are concerned, hierarchy is the institutional form of a power inequity – originally the rule of the high priest, the term now covers any system in which the lower are forced into submission by the upper. Often, this power inequity is manifested in the centralization of the control over the means of production of surplus value and its distribution at the expense of those who created it; this is called a class-relation. Anarchists24 reject hierarchy on two fronts: its role in constraining human possibility, and its inevitable class character - its oppressive and exploitative natures respectively. For many anarchists, therefore, it was no surprise when the collapsed socialist states saw a mass conversion of their party nomenclatura into powerful criminal capitalists because the anarchist conception of value, and therefore of class, is in some ways broader and more anthropological than that found in some popular strands of Marxism25.

Alternatives to hierarchy include the consensus/assembly form of organization that the Occupy movement helped to make so popular in Harvey's world, but they certainly do not end there as libcom's own library will attest26. Even during OWS, anarchist groups like CrimethInc were publishing more-or-less insurrectionist critiques of the consensus process27, though Harvey should know this critique from his purported familiarity with the work of the late Murray Bookchin some two decades previous. While Harvey has dismissed Bookchin's 'municipal-federalist' anarchism as Statist, "if it looks like a state, and feels like a state, and quacks like a state, then it’s a state,”28 he has failed to understand anarchism's oldest and longest answer to industrial relations: anarcho-syndicalism.

Anarcho-syndicalism envisions worker-managed production systems networked into a stateless socialist society otherwise known as 'full communism'. Besides his facile concerns for safety, Harvey's problem with this idea is that isolated horizontalist factories cannot be integrated into pre-existing capitalist schema and so are doomed to fail. Ironically, an anarcho-syndicalist power-plant, nuclear or otherwise, might be in an ideal position for successful radical organization. From what I've seen of the organizational norms of these plants, the centralized managing hierarchy is an after-effect of two needs: coordination between departments and relations with the ownership and state-power strata. The first need can obviously be accomplished in any number of worker-managed ways – coordinating committees, extensive cross training and overlap, technological fixes, etc; the second requires a hierarchy simply because in a class-society the interests of those who produce value and those who own it are at odds and in need of mediation. Once relieved of this relationship, and consequently the historically established danger posed by the existence of a management hierarchy in the normal operation of the plant, the revolutionary anarchist nuclear power-plant could clearly be a potent influence on the development of anti-authoritarian socialism on a broad scale and is only truly dependent on one other point in the production chain, the fuel supplier. Considering that decommissioning a nuclear plant supposedly costs as much as half the energy it costs to build it29, the government or utility-monopoly which produced it might be more easily pressured into cutting its losses and even doing business with an anarchist plant to avoid dumping even more resources into its potential loss or risk serious and widespread damage in some violent conflagration.

Finally, since the bulk of 'horizontalist' organizational tactics in anarchism are part of revolutionary class struggle30, it is hard to imagine in what instance a nuclear power plant would need to suddenly enter assembly-mode during a meltdown – or in the air-traffic control case, during complex operations. Without the hierarchy to struggle against, in what possible circumstance would collective struggle be necessary during such risky periods?


It seems that David Harvey has it backwards. A worker-lead localized 'horizontalist' takeover of a nuclear power plant would not be a public safety risk with no real impact on the development of mass socialism. In fact, removing the management hierarchy and profit incentive that official investigations have pointed to as the key causes in the only major nuclear accidents in history might not only make a safer world, but one in which libertarian socialism could have broad, substantial, and somewhat sustainable impact. I don't write this to promote the usage of nuclear power but rather to point out that in at least this case, the 'broad anarchist tradition' appears to be fully equipped to manage the operation of the 'tightly-coupled systems' of contemporary capitalism.

  • 1. Harvey, David. Lecture. Rebel Cities: The Urbanization of Class Struggle. LSE. 10 May 2012. youtube link
  • 2. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012). p. 125. PDF link
  • 3. Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt. Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism. AK Press. 2009. [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Flame:_The_Revolutionary_Class_Politi...(Counter-Power_vol._1)]Wikipedia synopsis[/url]
  • 4. Leon Trotsky. The Lessons of October. Chapter 8 - Again, on the Soviets and the Party in a Proletarian Revolution Marxists.org link
  • 5. I would guess that Trotsky himself would dismiss Harvey as a 'social democrat' given his approval of electoral action
  • 6. Harevy, David. Lecture. The End of Capitalism? Penn Humanities Forum, 30 Nov 2011 Youtube link
  • 7. for example Peters, Tom. Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. 1992. A list of this nut's other titles... you get the idea.
  • 8. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • 9. Harvey, David. Lecture. Rebel Cities: The Urbanization of Class Struggle. LSE. 10 May 2012. youtube link
  • 10. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012) p. 22-3. PDF link
  • 11. Ibid. Chapter 7.
  • 12. Harvey, David. Urban Revolution: An Interview with David Harvey (Part 2). New Left Project link
  • 13. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012). p. 125. PDF link
  • 14. Harevy, David. Lecture. The End of Capitalism? (Penn Humanities Forum, 30 Nov 2011)Youtube link
  • 15. Harvey, David. The Limits to Capital New Edition (2006). Chapter 4.
  • 16. International Atomic Energy Agency. TECHDOC-1052. Nuclear power plant organization and staffing for improved performance: lessons learned. 1998.
  • 17. the SL-1 military reactor accident happened because of a significant, and almost inexplicably obvious, operator error
  • 18. Chernobyl Disaster - Wikipedia
  • 19. Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. 2012. Summary here
  • 20. Kemeny Commission 1979 Summary here
  • 21. Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. 2012. Summary here
  • 22. International Atomic Energy Agency. TECHDOC-1052. Nuclear power plant organization and staffing for improved performance: lessons learned. 1998.
  • 23. Slightly more recent documents have advised a necessary separation of the operational structures from the profit making hierarchy. IAEA Safety Standards Series. The Operating Organization for Nuclear Power Plants: Safety guide. 2001.
  • 24. again, following Schmidt and van der Walt
  • 25. Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. 2004. Full PDF link
  • 26. for example
  • 27. Breaking Consensus Reality. 2011. full text here
  • 28. Harvey, David. Urban Revolution: An Interview with David Harvey Part 2. New Left Project link
  • 29. Benjamin K. Sovacool (2011). Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy, World Scientific, p. 118-119. but I read it here on wikipedia
  • 30. As the recent publication, Fighting for ourselves, by SolFed has made clear

Posted By

Jan 22 2013 23:41


  • Groups that rule out all forms of hierarchy thereby give up on any prospect whatsoever for democratic response not only to the problem of the global commons but also to the problem of continous capital accumulation.

    David Harvey - The Enigma of capital and the crisis of time (2010)

Attached files


Jan 23 2013 18:04

Good read, thanks for posting.

Jan 23 2013 22:07

Yeah this was fairly good. short, snappy, to the point. I would still like to see the air traffic control argument unpacked though wink (largely because i have no imagination).

Jan 24 2013 00:09

In atc, priority is also automated. Our procedures are written and any knowledgeable group could add or take away. We say they are written in blood, because they are. It isn't like the management hierarchy is proactive. Probably different than nukes, we all take an oath. Our jobs is safety. Period. Our duty priority is seperate aircraft and issue safety alerts. Our operational priority is first come, first served. I like Harvey, but he isn't an air traffic controller. We serve all the public equally. In the business, they are called Airman--any member of the flying community.

Jan 24 2013 01:41

I think David Harvey grabbed his critique of anarchism from this internet video:

Jan 24 2013 03:56

A friend of mine working in nuclear power plants pointed out to me that i make it sound like safety inspection is ONLY provided by independent organizations. this is, of course, not true. a great deal of time is spent on exactly this task within the plant everyday by the workers. sorry for not being clear about that.

Jan 24 2013 04:12
In atc, priority is also automated. Our procedures are written and any knowledgeable group could add or take away. We say they are written in blood, because they are. It isn't like the management hierarchy is proactive. Probably different than nukes, we all take an oath. Our jobs is safety. Period. Our duty priority is seperate aircraft and issue safety alerts. Our operational priority is first come, first served. I like Harvey, but he isn't an air traffic controller. We serve all the public equally. In the business, they are called Airman--any member of the flying community.

bluv it would be really cool if you could write a little article about this. i assembled this article from IAEA reports and recommendations and accident investigations but i have almost no connection to the grounded day-to-day operations and culture of a power plant. if you could write something about how hierarchy and 'command and control' structures actually work (or don't work) in ATC i'd really like to read it, especially from the view of someone who actually lives it.

Jan 24 2013 18:41

This is excellent, and in fact I've been meaning to write an article on just this topic for a couple of months but have never taken the time to do it.

I think Harvey is actually quite disingenuous when he talks about the not wanting his anarchist friends in charge of a nuclear power station. We're not saying 'anarchists' should be put in charge of these facilities, we think the workers who understand how they operate and how best to ensure their safety should be in charge, and freed from the pressures of a state bureaucracies or management trying to meet production targets or reduce costs. And of course, non-hierarchical organisation is in no way synonymous with occupy style assemblies, no one is suggesting that every decision anyone makes at work has to go through a full democratic process. That would be absurd, and Harvey must know that isn't what anarchism means, he's not stupid and he's had contact with these ideas.

Jan 24 2013 20:33
redsdisease wrote:
I think David Harvey grabbed his critique of anarchism from this internet video:

lol, that shit's hilarious.

Feb 4 2013 08:51

this is an amazing idea for a piece. please send it to him !

Feb 4 2013 20:40

Personally I'm suspicious of anything not run by marxist academics. Their logistical skills are world renowned.

iggle piggle
Mar 2 2013 13:44

David Harvey's glib comment is revealing of the default position of many Marxist's, the inability to imagine forms of organization based on cooperation and people taking responsibility for their specific roles, including coordinating activities in an emergency. it is quite possible that his understanding of anarchism is based on limited reading and experience (he seems to think all anarchists want decision-making based on consensus) but it is more likely that he is just trying for cheap laughs with this audience.

Presumably Harvey endorses hierarchical forms of organisation at Nuclear power plants, such as those found in existing nuclear power plants around the world with their outstanding track record of safety and concern for the environment This, of course, includes those found in the former and current Marxist-inspired state socialist countries with their over-riding concern for the working classes. Given their disastrous track record of management of nuclear power and their treatment of their subjugated populations you would imagine Harvey would want to avoid the topic altogether. Or perhaps he would simply say that such Marxist states had the 'wrong kind' of hierarchy, or that they weren't really 'true' Marxists, and other familiar lame excuses.

I was going to write a much longer piece but the article above has already demolished Harvey's argument so there is little to add except perhaps to note that an anarchist society would almost certainly not embrace nuclear power given its obvious dangers and the ways in which it plays into the hands of state-worshipping political ideologies with the emphasis on centralized decision-making, secrecy, the lack of public accountability and control. Thanks to Harvey though for one thing, he has clarified why anarchism and marxism actually have so little in common.

Apr 7 2013 20:07

Awesome article.

Just in the middle of reading 'Anarchy in Action' by Ward, and he elaborates a similar point about architecture, with the requirement being too expansive and complicated to be run hierarchically.

Jul 24 2013 16:45

The problem with Harvey's comment is it stems from the usual ignorance about anarchist historical theory and practice. Horizontalism is a relatively new term, originating in the 2001 Argentinian crisis. The fact that some NY students in OWS may have mistaken it for the alpha and omega of anarchist organisational praxis speaks more to the weakness of the anarchist tradition in the US rather than anything else. That Harvey takes the ideas of these relatively inexperienced young students to be the sum total of anarchist practice is wilfull ignorance based on arrogance.

Federalism represents the traditional anarchist alternative to hierarchy. But leninoid Marxists are too brain-dead to understand the difference between federalism and hierarchy, simple though it is.