The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Anarchism As Management Theory

15th March 2013

Liam Barrington-Bush of Concrete Solutions on learning from self-organised social movements

As we’ve stumbled our collective way into ‘The Age of Social,’ countless systems, across all parts of society have begun to look woefully ill-equipped for a world in which a single tweet may come to exert as much influence as the media moguls of the 20th Century ever have imagined possible.

Among those ill-equipped systems is the world of management.

Like so much else in the previous era, management, was build on the twin notions of hierarchy and control; the few would organise the many, and great things would be achieved.

There was of course truth in this. Industrialism brought certain gains to the manufacturing world that would never otherwise have been possible.

But it also came at significant cost, particularly when the ideas of industrialism began to find their ways into a range of charitable, non-profit and voluntary organisations.

In recent decades, in the name of professionalism, countless social change organisations began to adopt the rigid and inflexible structures typically found in factories and government departments. For doing so, they were lauded by Ministers and CEOs alike, told they were ‘finally acting respectably,’ and ‘equal and legitimate partners’ to government and the private sector.

Yet the costs couldn’t have been more glaring.

Industrialism never saw the commitment, passion or general well-being of workers as more than a source of inconvenience, therefore such things were not part of the measures of success these systems boasted. In a social change organisation, on the other hand, if you ignore the commitment, passion and general well-being of those who work and volunteer with your organisation, you are digging its grave, one untrusting sign-off process at a time.

Occupy and countless other social movements that have criss-crossed the globe in recent years, are living, breathing examples of what people who want to make the world a better place can achieve, when they don’t have someone telling them what to do and how to do it.

From a call-out in famed activist magazine, Adbusters, in the summer of 2011, people in roughly a thousand locales self-organised to create village encampments in their city centres, based on principles very different to those which govern our societies, as a whole.

Beyond the camps though, Occupy has spawned thousands of ‘spin-offs,’ practically addressing issues ranging from toxic debt-swaps and hurricane relief, to families being evicted from their homes and the legal definition of ‘corporate personhood’. Not to mention a distributed version of the internet, beyond the control of service providers!

Meanwhile, at the camps themselves, a thousand or more people, in New York, London and countless other urban centres, gathered twice a day to make decisions together. No individual would hold any more power than any other, yet every participant was free to veto anything they felt was fundamentally at odds with the group’s values.

Traditional management theory tells us this is a disaster waiting to happen; that the self-serving immaturity of the participants would mean that nothing would ever get done.

The general assembly process can indeed be time consuming. However, rarely were vetoes used and in general, participants’ sense of self-interest shifted when they were in a community of equals. Rather than approaching an assembly as a scrum to get the best you can for you or your organisation, people, by-and-large would begin to see their interests as deeply interconnected. Thus, rather than fighting for a pre-determined aim, most came to understand the perspectives of others and see compromise not as a failure to make their case, but as a success in their ability to work together toward common aims.

Which is really, really valuable stuff, from a management perspective!

But this kind of interaction doesn’t sit well with management, as it requires equality as a precondition for success. Having someone who can fire or discipline you, tell you that you are equal, doesn’t make it so. In order to free the self-organising potential that all of us share, we need autonomy, which is to say, our own space to do things our own way, even within a very loose shared framework (like the ‘we are the 99%’ Occupy slogan).

Many managers quiver in their boots at such suggestions, assuming the worst of an abstract notion of ‘the workforce,’ if not told exactly what it should and shouldn’t be doing.

But as the growth and reach of so many recent social movements, in a time of distributed communications are showing us, those assumptions of the worst are self-fulfilling prophecies, effectively countered only by an alternative starting point – people usually want to do good.

This is the core of anarchism. It is not as naive as to say that this general disposition cannot be infinitely corrupted, but it does say that if we leave people who believe in something to their own devices, they will probably come up with better, more effective ways of supporting that belief, than we could have told them.

This is why I advocate ‘bringing the anarchists into the boardroom’ – learning from those that managers have traditionally looked down their noses at, and exploring what doing so might mean for organisations and the people inside them who aim to leave the world in a better place than they entered it in.

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