The Organizational Needs of 21st Century Movements

A journalist from the Bulgarian weekly Капитал contacted me earlier this week about the anti-government protests currently going on there. (Global Voices has excellent coverage.)  One question about activist organization really got me thinking.

“The activists on the rise now are mainly advocates, journalists, NGO professionals, PR people, environmentalists,” she wrote, “little professional groups that are believed [sic.] to build a new, stronger civil society. Do you believe they can create something enduring without a political party to back them up?

This question of the organizational requirements of 21st century movements has received a lot of attention.  There has been much discussion of leaderless movements, as well as complications of that interpretation.

Egypt’s National Salvation Front: between an informal network and a formal political party, capable of mobilization but not governance.

In Egypt, after the 2011 revolution, the only entities with the organizational capacity to govern were the  Muslim Brotherhood and the military.  The young, secular revolutionaries lacked that capacity, so the army and Brotherhood took control.  Though the revolutionaries have formalized somewhat into the National Salvation Front  (a 35-group coalition lead by Mohamed ElBaradei which organized the anti-Morsi protests), they still did not have the power to govern and so the army has once again stepped in.

So what are the organizational requirements of loosely-connected networked movements?  How formalized do they need to be to succeed?

It depends. The organizational requirements of a movement are dependent on the organizational demands of that movement. If the activists believe that existing politicians and political parties can implement the change they seek, then they only need the organizational power to persuade.

However, if they do not trust the current political actors to make the changes they desire, if they want to take the reigns of power and make those changes themselves, then they need the power not only to persuade but to implement.  The power to implement is much more organizationally demanding, and a loose civic coalition would not be sufficient.

Though it is outrageously difficult, achieving the resignation of a head of state is actually organizationally easier than running a government.  The former task requires the ability to convince individual citizens to put their bodies in public space until demands are met.  The latter requires budgeting, management of complex bureaucracy, engaging with both foreign and domestic interests on a variety of issues, from monetary policy to trade to social programs, understanding both written and unwritten institutional operating norms, along with the able to follow them.

No networked movement – not Occupy, not Egypt’s revolutionaries, not 15M in Spain – have been able to formalize to the extent that they can take the reigns of government in a democratic system.  Governance is not only more complex than networked activism, it is also qualitatively different.  The former is hierarchical, the latter flat.  The former has massive formalized structure and slow-moving processes, the latter is flexible and centerless.

Being able to govern (if that is what these movements want) means not only greater organizational capacity, but different organizational capacity and throwing off some of their flat, ad hoc, networked nature in order to be interoperable with the pre-digital structures of government.

Image: Facebook via Aswat Masriya

2 thoughts on “The Organizational Needs of 21st Century Movements

  1. Two points:

    1) Do the people involved in creating the change have to be the same people charged with implementing its results? Different sets of skills are required and only a very few are blessed with both sets. Moreover, the demands of creating the change will most likely have exhausted the participants leaving them in a weakened state to govern. Therefore maybe the movement for change must try and create in parallel a kind of “government in exile” to hone the skills which may ultimately be needed.

    2) You say that no networked movement has been able to formalise to the extent they can take the reigns of government in a democratic system.
    I am not sure this is strictly true. Can we not learn something from the success of Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia?

  2. Hi Sam,

    1) Only if they are seeking to unseat the current political class. If they are simply asking of a different political leader from among those already active (for example, a change of political party), then the activists don’t need to take the reigns of power themselves.

    2) I am not very familiar with the Czech case, but it seems that it did have a leader – Havel – so it was not a leaderless campaign like those we have today. This idea of a leaderless yet coordinated group of peers is what I am trying to get at by using the term “networked campaign.”

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