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Work, Place and Community: The ‘Solidarity Ecosystems’ of Occupied Factories

By Liam Barrington-Bush

The Greek workers of VIOME took-over their old factory, fought off evictions and collectively occupied auction houses to stop the sell-off of the land they work on. In doing so, they are not just creating a better way of doing work, but also offering hints at more supportive and integrated communities and stronger, less-fractured societies. And they are not alone.

Hand soap from the VIOME factory in Greece [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

At first glance it is a factory: heavy machinery, crates, palettes, industrial barrels and men doing manual labour. Little catches your eye, except maybe the homemade banners hanging up around the warehouse. They’re in Greek, so you might not be able to read them, but you can tell these are not the stock decorations from the ‘IKEA industrial chic’ catalogue.

Over a couple of days, you might also notice that you’re unlikely to see those men doing the same specific jobs, day after day, as you would in most factories. They seem to rotate their roles, mixing up batches of soap, pouring them into frames and cutting it into bars, but also cleaning toilets, taking product orders and coordinating distribution.

However, overall, when you walk into VIOME, it mostly looks like countless other industrial workplaces in the north of Greece and beyond. At least, until you come back on a Wednesday or a Thursday and find part of the administrative office converted into a free health clinic for workers and the wider community.

…or when you arrive first thing any day of the week and see all the workers gathered together, sharing updates on the work and making sure they are all in the know around the pertinent aspects of the business for the day ahead.

…or if you go into one of the store rooms and discover members of different migrant solidarity groups sorting through donations that are stored at the factory, for ongoing distribution around Thessaloniki’s many migrant squats, camps and occupations.

Over time, you notice that beneath VIOME’s sometimes mundane veneer, a series of radical changes are taking place. These are changes which offer alternatives to how we organise work, community and society at large. While VIOME has become a hallmark of these shifts in Europe, what those who work and support the factory are discovering is not unique. And it is spreading, offering an alternative vision of how radical changes might occur in the ways we work, live and relate to the planet as a whole.

INTRODUCTION TO WORKER CONTROL

Workers have formed cooperative workplaces together for at least three centuries. The recuperated workplace movement that the VIOME factory in Greece is a part of, however, traces its roots back to Argentina in 2001. This was a moment when the country was ravaged by neoliberal debt, frozen bank accounts and a handful of presidents that could only cling to the role for a number of days or weeks amidst mass public uprisings.

“It was an economic, political and social crisis,” says Andres Ruggeri, an academic at the University of Buenos Aires, who has been studying worker recuperations since 2002 and came to Greece to participate in the Second Euromediterranean Workers’ Economy meeting at VIOME in October. “This was not a working class, or middle class, or poor people’s insurrection – it was everything,” Ruggeri explains. “The ruling class collapsed. In this context, some of the bosses abandoned their factories.”

A VIOME worker puts up a poster for the 2nd Euromed Workers’ Economy meeting. [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

In 2001-2002, roughly one hundred workplaces that were left behind by their owners were quickly re-occupied by their workers. Though worker occupation was not a new phenomenon, its immediate explosion in Argentina at the turn of the millennium was the first time such actions had happened at this kind of scale.

Today in Argentina there are roughly 16,000 workers in 370 recuperated workplaces, holding up two fingers to the systems of work that have dominated the global economy since the Industrial Revolution. These coops range from industrial manufacturers, to hospitals, textile producers to chocolate factories, hotels to print shops. Some have come to lead their industries and have improved members’ incomes, making clear that it doesn’t take an MBA to run a complex business.

Though the movement has its roots in Argentina, it has spread across much of Latin America since the early 2000s, and begun to pop-up in countries around Europe, in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. VIOME is undoubtedly a shining star in the fledgling European movement for workers’ control, but similar projects to take back abandoned workplaces from absentee owners are currently underway in France, Italy, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia, and other parts of Greece. And while the motivations of the workers leading these occupations have been more pragmatic than utopian, what is emerging through their experiments is the DNA of a new kind of society.

HOW WORK CHANGES, HOW CHANGE WORKS

“We knew that if we left the factory, the economic crisis would leave us without money, with big problems with our families,” says Dmitri Koumatsioulis, one of the VIOME workers involved in the initial factory occupation in 2010. “We knew that we had to restart production without knowing the next steps.”

Thus was the uncertain footing from which the first steps were taken to put the Thessaloniki factory back to work after its bosses disappeared, owing the workers months of back pay. With no managers around, it fell upon the shop floor workers to figure out how the business they had worked in for so long was actually run.

They could have opted for new managers to fill the roles of the old managers. They could have adopted the pay structures of the former company and the jobs they had all done before, but they decided to leave all of that behind and try something different. Rotating roles, equal pay and decisions made by assembly became the new norm, as the VIOME workers experimented with finding a new way of working together.

“When production started again in 2012, we would come every day, drink our coffee calmly, and talk about each day’s production, the money to pay for materials, and the problems that came up each day,” says Koumatsioulis, contrasting the collective nature of the factory today, with the command-and-control systems of before. His colleague, George Arvanitis, puts the difference more explicitly: “All of us, we are the boss.”

WHOSE VOICES COUNT?

Assemblies and democratic decision making were not familiar processes for the workers of VIOME before the occupation began, but once they started talking it became obvious that they had no desire to reproduce the kinds of unequal relationships that were the core of work under bosses. Even beyond the bold move of deciding to take decisions together though, they realised that they were still missing important perspectives if assemblies only included the relative few who were actually members of the newly-formed cooperative.

“After [the decision to occupy],” Koumatsioulis recounts, “we decided that we must open the factory up to society, with an assembly to decide what we were going to do next, like, what products we would sell.” Thus was the birth of the Solidarity Assembly, a weekly gathering in which supporters and Thessaloniki residents were free to take part in shaping the direction of the factory.

Panel at the 2nd Euromed Workers’ Economy meeting, VIOME [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

Too often a company’s communication with a community is limited to occasional promotional broadcasts, or at best, hollow consultations when the decision is already a fait accompli. But the motivations for opening the gates at VIOME were fundamentally different, having seen how important the support of the wider community had been in helping them take back the factory. “After a lot of talk with the many who were in solidarity,” Koumatsioulis explains, “we decided that we must produce something that was going to help them.”

This decision marked a fundamental departure from the relationship between most modern companies and the local areas in which they set up shop. Rather than seeing the neighbourhood as incidental to the business – one of the pitfalls of owners and shareholders making decisions from afar – the workers saw the factory as a part of the community in which they lived their lives. With this simple grounding came one of the most radical shifts between the old and the new factory: the idea of active interdependence, rather than an incidental coexistence between the work and the lives of those in the area. People were supporting the factory, and in turn, the factory was supporting the people.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EVERYONE IS INVOLVED?

When the choice of what to make is left up to workers and communities, rather than managers and shareholders, the results improve in a range of obvious and important ways. The workers had been made ill by the chemicals used in the old production process. The local area had been polluted by the factory’s fumes. There was no investment capital to buy expensive specialist raw materials. People in the local area had seen their household incomes evaporate during the crisis.

These kinds of issues are deemed ‘externalities’ in most companies, but what are they actually external to? In a typical company, ‘externalising’ important factors is a one-way street; the company gets to say everything which doesn’t produce direct profit is external to it, shedding responsibility in the process, but no one else can do the same to the company. The company is never ‘external’ to the environment that it is based, the community that surrounds it, nor the lives of those who work there.

By involving all of these ‘external’ perspectives – very few of which would have been particularly relevant to the planning processes carried out by VIOME’s former owners – a direction emerged which offered answers to a considerable shopping list of problems found in countless other communities in Greece and beyond. When left with the choice and with the various relevant questions brought to the table, the workers began manufacturing affordable and eco-friendly cleaning products, instead of toxic industrial adhesives.

Today, the factory gates no longer separate the workplace from the community, nor from the environment its emissions escape to. From what the factory makes, to what the community needs and what is best for workers’ health and the wellbeing of the planet, decisions are made together, with those who do the work and live nearby. Through the initial act of workplace occupation, VIOME and countless other recuperated workplaces have begun to overcome the multigenerational failures of business owners, trade unionists, urban planners, sociologists, environmentalists and a range of policymakers, by weaving solutions to a seemingly disparate array of social, economic and ecological issues into the foundations of a single factory space.

WHEN OUR OPPOSITION MIRRORS THAT WHICH WE ARE OPPOSING

Corporations have made a science of isolating, externalising, siloing and compartmentalising themselves, under the illusion that it makes the business more manageable. In doing so, they lose perspective, zooming-in on one aspect of the business or another, without ever being able to put the pieces together and see the cumulative mess they are creating. Different teams and departments are found to be working against one another’s aims, while ‘the bottom line’ is seen as unrelated to the company’s environmental impacts. What the company does has no perceived bearing on the world it inhabits. There is no ‘cause and effect,’ so long as the effect falls beyond the realms of a quarterly report.

From a distance, we see the dysfunctional impacts of these false divisions, yet we often come to mirror them in the ways we organise our opposition. Unions fight for workers’ rights, green groups demand environmental protection, local community organisations push for neighbours’ concerns to be heard, but rarely do these isolated pushes align themselves, at times becoming explicitly adversarial.

We see this dynamic in clashes between trade unions representing workers in ecologically-destructive industries and environmental organisations. The unions rarely appreciate the realities that a fracking rig will have on any particular community’s environment, because they see the operation through the lens of net job gains or losses. When that union is organising at a national level, the issues are further isolated through the consolidation of industry workers’ common interests across the country, further minimising the significance of any local impacts that extend beyond employment. What emerges is a single battle cry, divorced from any particular place: we need jobs. Battle cries like ‘we need non-flammable drinking water’ are lost in the noise. They are ‘externalised.’

Similarly, national environmental organisations too often attribute the parts-per-million of various greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to particular industries, without understanding what those working in those industries in a particular area need. Abstract references to ‘green jobs’ do little to calm the fears of those who see their source of livelihood threatened by people who talk about their community from an abstracted distance and lack any personal stake in the impact of their pronouncements.

However, these kinds of differences have a potential to become more aligned when we move away from large-scale centralised thematic organisation (like that of governments, unions and NGOs), towards small-scale distributed community-led organisation, which has a clear shared value base at its core. In closer proximity, with those most-affected involved, it is easier to find common ground. As in VIOME, it became clear that neither the workers, nor their neighbours, wanted the factory to keep producing the building industry chemicals that they had before. Without the dialogue of the Solidarity Assembly though, it is hard to know if that common ground would have ever had the chance to surface, or if it would continue to be hidden behind the factory gates, as it had for so many years before the decision to occupy.

‘SOLIDARITY ECOSYSTEMS’

What seems to be emerging around VIOME and many other recuperations, are the early shoots of hundreds of connected ‘solidarity ecosystems.’ These are interdependent social and economic networks bound together by a mix of human need, geographic closeness and a set of core values which allow them to reach beyond their immediate territories and avoid the pitfalls of tribal localism. A shared sense of solidarity connects different aspects of local life in an area with one another (work and health, for example), as well as with the local lives of countless others, further afield.

Recuperations can be hard to describe because they transcend the various institutions most of us are used to. Rather than just a change of management, recuperations represent a new form of bottom-up social organisation, in which people decide together what they need, in the place they share, and take the action required to make it happen there, linking up with those further afield with similar values along the way.

Sign for the Solidarity Clinic within the VIOME factory [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

A former shell of purely-economic production may now address healthcare needs, alternative education provision, civic participation, food production and whatever else the people involved can create. These transformations are still in their early days, but the communities which surround these workplace recuperations are beginning to gently extract themselves from the logic and structures of capitalism and the state.

The recuperations tend to carry a sense of shared responsibility to meet community needs, but it is not addressed via one-size-fits-all welfare provision. There is certainly a level of supply and demand in the trading relations between recuperations, but it is driven by shared values and community needs, rather than lowest price and greatest profit.

The avoidance of hierarchy and promotion of collective decision making tend to transcend the different functions of a particular workplace, but no two recuperations will offer exactly the same combination of social and economic activity. There is a clear pattern of these spaces moving beyond the remits of their former owners, towards collectively answering many of the basic questions of life for those working and living nearby. However, the specifics emerge organically in each location based on the people involved, the needs they express and the materials available.

SCALING ACROSS

The spread of worker recuperations fits a pattern described by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in their 2011 book, ‘Walk Out, Walk On,’ as ‘scaling across.’ According to Wheatley and Frieze, ‘scaling across’ is a process through which “small efforts… grew large not through replication, but by inspiring each other to keep inventing and learning.” This is about when good ideas, rather than being scaled up and rolled out by central government or multinational businesses, are passed directly from community-to-community, changing and adapting to their local circumstances in each place they take root along the way.

Scaling across is the natural extension of the bottom-up, non-hierarchical organising patterns that are being used in recuperation after recuperation. It is the way that these (relatively) small-scale examples of social change become something more than an inspiring curiosity in one community or another. It is the process through which good ideas can become widespread practices, without an imposed model steamrolling the ever-critical local contexts they are being used in.

Wheatley and Frieze argue that ‘scaling across’ is a way of understanding scale that is still based on individual relationships between people and groups.

“A few people focus on their local challenges or issues. They experiment, learn, find solutions that work in their local context. Word travels fast in networks and people hear about their success. They may come to visit or engage in spirited communications…. But these exchanges are not about learning how to replicate the process or mimic step-by-step how something was accomplished…. Any attempt to replicate someone else’s success will smack up against local conditions, and these are differences that matter.”

While Dmitri Koumatsioulis and his colleagues at VIOME have watched their own work inspire others around Europe to take over their workplaces, they initially took inspiration from workers in Buenos Aires. Some of those workers, from the Zanon factory (highlighted in Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ 2004 film, The Take), flew to Greece at a critical moment at the start of the occupation, to share their learning and experiences. So while VIOME represents a major moment in the pan-European movement for workers’ control, their early days were the result of ‘scaling across’ more than a decade of learning from Argentina. And herein lies the real potential emerging from VIOME and so many other recuperations.

“Success for us is not if this factory makes profits,” VIOME member Tasos Matzaris argues, “but if this example goes abroad and new factory cooperatives are being made. This is what we think success will look like.” Or as a member of the VIOME Solidarity Assembly echoed, “one VIOME is not enough… What we are hoping is that more people will follow this example and that we’ll be able to cooperate and start a network. Occupy your own company and come find us.”

*This article was crowdfunded through the generous support of 18 people who wanted to read it. It is available to re-post freely under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0*

The old factory name on the roof of the VIOME factory [Photo: Liam Barrington-Bush, CC BY-NC-SA]

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Is active listening the bedrock of social change?

It’s one thing to agree on the kind of world we want to live in; it’s another to agree the means of getting there. But the ways we work with one another in the process can make or break the most beautiful visions and most effective organising methods. It’s time we take our relationships seriously. Active listening is a good place to start…

We could all learn to listen better

I have limited patience these days for discussing big picture politics; the ‘general aims for the world’ kinda stuff. I don’t find conversations at this level offer a great deal of insight into the people you’re talking to, their motivations, and how they might go about creating the world they believe in. They are so abstract as to be practically meaningless, beyond establishing a broad set of shared values.

Another level down, is the ‘how we organise ourselves’ question, which I’ve put a lot of space on this blog into over the years. Beyond our general political and social aims, are we able to talk about the structures that will get us there and how to avoid thinking we can replicate the organising structures of the present, without also replicating their disastrous consequences?

These are clearly important conversations to be having, as far less creativity seems to go into re-imagining our organising structures, than goes into re-imagining the ‘end results’ of social change (as though there is some ‘final stage’ of human evolution!). But these conversations, too, don’t tell us enough… And they don’t push us enough. At least not on their own.

I’ve had too many experiences of organising with people with whom I had a shared vision of the future and a broadly-agreed approach for getting there, and yet, antagonism came to characterise our working relationships, or those of others we felt we’d seen eye-to-eye with. (I’ve experienced this in movements and organisations, both, so it transcends the dysfunctions of most hierarchical bureaucracies.)

Introducing: Active Listening!

This is what led me to the radically-simple concept of ‘active listening,’ and applying to a 5-week evening course with Jonathan Kahn on the subject.

Active listening and peer coaching feel like the most intimate iterations of the politics and values I try to spend much of my life pursuing. If we’ve agreed – vaguely, at least – on ‘the big picture’ and have agreed on systems of non-hierarchy and decentralisation of power to help get us there, I feel that these are the personal and interpersonal tools that we need to grow such systems and keep them working through the rocky waters that inevitably lay ahead.

Active listening is not complicated, at least as far as the practicalities of it go. It’s about changing the ways we engage in conversation, to help the other person realise themselves more fully and most of it is about pausing, asking questions and clarifying intent and feeling. But doing it is tricky. Simple techniques likes ‘leaving someone five seconds of silence before you reply to them,’ can challenge deeply held cultural assumptions, as well as some of our own insecurities. These things can feel trivial when we are thinking of the bigger problems in the world, but are too-often – left unaddressed – the stumbling blocks that keep us from realising any smaller-or-larger scale change efforts that we take part in. If we aren’t able to be aware of the countless pieces of personal hurt and negative social conditioning that we bring into all of our organising relationships, odds are considerably worse that those organising relationships will bear fruit.

Jonathan is serious about changing the ways we interact with one another. He gives what can feel like immense amounts of time to exploring how body language, tone, silence and well-placed questions, can change the ways we engage with one another for the better. In theory, it can be hard to see the practical value of examining such details, but in practice, the results can be remarkable. The looks on the faces of at least two of the people with whom I was able to practice these techniques, told me that in my conscious silence, paired with a few well-placed questions, I had offered them something they weren’t getting, but clearly appreciated. It’s truly difficult to explain, but one person said to me, following a coaching conversation: ‘It’s great to feel like you’re not boring someone to death!’ As I was reminded by in Occupy London general assemblies in 2011, we are so used to feeling unseen and unheard – when we have a chance to feel truly listened to, it can be a deeply liberating experience. And this kind of experience, when realised, can open our abilities to organise together.

In just a few evenings, I felt forced to re-evaluate countless aspects of my ways of engaging with others. I learned and practiced several simple techniques to undermine the role of my ego in any interaction, help others express themselves more fully and explore the deeper motivations and insecurities (in myself and others) that might be impeding progress on a particular project or activity.

The Bedrock of Social Change

To me, these tools are nothing-less-than the foundations of a better future. They enable us to hear each other and to be heard, which are the aims at the core of most systems of direct and participatory democracy. And without processes that offer us the voice and involvement in our own lives (that most current systems of governance and organisation deny us), we are doomed to recreate what we’ve already got.

So this stuff is critical. And it’s hard. But it is not ‘self-indulgent,’ ‘trivial,’ ‘a distraction’ or any of the other pejoratives I’ve heard used to describe this kind of work.

The truth is, it can be scary. It can expose us to parts of ourselves we don’t like admit exist. But it can also help us heal the wounds that keep us from supporting one another in the ways we all need when we’re experiencing the struggles associated with trying to build a new world in the shell of the old one.

I can’t stress enough how much I think Jonathan’s work is needed. His conferences are often more expensive than many of us in the social movement/NGO space can afford, but he runs his evening classes on a ‘gift economy’ basis, meaning he will accept whatever forms of monetary or non-monetary gratitude you choose to offer, based on the value you have received, when the course is finished.

The greatest visions, strongest strategies and most robust organising structures can be brought to their knees by misunderstandings, hurt feelings and generally crap listening. Let’s give ourselves half-a-chance to make these ideas and systems work, by giving ourselves the tools to communicate better!

Here’s where you can find out more about Jonathan’s work: https://2016.dareconf.com/evening-courses

 

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Confronting the Whiteness of Big Green NGOs

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The actions of several big green NGOs at the London Climate March sparked some very uncomfortable conversations about racism in the environmental movement. But these issues have been festering within many green groups for years. If we want to understand and build a movement that makes space for our differences, we need to look to the roots of the racism that became visible at the Climate March.

A couple of years ago, having just finished running a workshop with my friend Sue about power and privilege in the UK environmental movement, the two of us randomly bumped into a senior manager I vaguely knew from a large UK environmental organisation in a pub. We had been trying to approach this organisation about working with them on these same issues, but hadn’t had much luck through other inroads. Finding ourselves in the same pub with the very senior manager responsible for internal training seemed like a fortuitous chance to open the conversation.

Our impromptu pitch was for a reasonable piece of work, rather than a one-off workshop like the one we had just delivered. One of the lessons Sue and I had learned while doing this work, we explained, was the need for regular ongoing reflection on the ways prejudice is subtly embedded in most organisations and individuals, even within the green movement. Once you acknowledge that we live in a racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory society, it becomes silly to think that we can undo lifetimes of negative conditioning in a single workshop. One deep-dive into the choppy waters of our own social privileges, just isn’t enough to break long-established patterns and behaviours, so we were suggesting a longer term approach.

Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming. While this manager offered vague support for the general sentiment of our work, this sentiment was not backed by the commitment to push the issues forward or the resources to make them happen.

‘You see,’ he replied, ‘I have to view everything I do through the organisational lens. Investing in a year-long process doesn’t make sense because I don’t know how many of those staff members who have been through it will stick around. If they leave, then we’ve wasted our money.’

The organisational lens has a lot to answer for, but rarely have its costs been as clear to me. As one of the better-resourced environmental NGOs in the UK, staff leaving, well-versed in their understandings of power and privilege, must not be seen as an organisational waste. Some might go as far as to say it is a large organisation’s responsibility to make this kind of investment if they truly believe in movement building, knowing that staff will leave and join other groups or organisations, thus spreading their learnings in the process.

If the organisational lens prevents a well-resourced organisation from prioritising the need to address its contributions to wider injustices, than something is seriously wrong. But the organisational lens has a cascade effect, in terms of its negative impact on addressing privilege. Without the investment in the internal work, the issues perpetuate themselves, and eventually make themselves known to the wider movement, and even the wider public.

Lack of investment (time and money, both) in building better understandings of the issues, allows micro-aggressions and prejudiced assumptions to go unchallenged in the workplace. This makes the workplace uncomfortable and unsafe for less-traditionally-privileged staff (who are already likely a small minority in most big organisations). Word spreads that ‘x’ organisation isn’t really committed to hiring outside of its own image, discouraging others from different backgrounds from wanting to apply to work there (trust me, these stories DO spread). Then, with minimal diversity in the organisation, it becomes harder and harder to have the necessary perspectives in the room to organise anything broad-based and accessible to those beyond the largely-privileged demographics involved in organising it.

This is what brings us to the London Climate March of November 29th. In a nutshell, a group of large – predominantly white – environmental NGOs, at the last minute, swapped the banners and silenced the voices of Indigenous and Black and Brown climate activists, many of whom had travelled to London en route to the Paris climate talks, to raise their voices about the frontline impacts of climate change. Indigenous communities had come to London to take part in the protests, after the protest ban in France made it impossible to do so there, following the recent violence.

Even after this very group had been invited to lead the march – in recognition of being those most-affected by climate change – their critiques were deemed too radical by march organisers. Participants reported having placards snatched at by stewards, attempts to have their bloc’s banner covered, and actual physical pushing and shoving to get a less-controversial banner to cover theirs.

I’ve heard various whispers about the nightmare of coalition organising of this march; several NGOs left the process out of frustration. Those that remained seemed committed to controlling the day like a highly-choreographed piece of theatre, the photos and online videos of which, could fit nicely into a pre-determined campaign narrative about a non-confrontational version of ‘people power’ helping shape the outcome of COP21.

In a move I have never experienced in a dozen years of marching and protesting, organisers even insisted on hiring private security to help police the march, so committed they were to making sure it didn’t diverge from their plans. When this wasn’t enough on the day, march stewards called-in support from the police, with whom the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc were left to negotiate for themselves, without the support of organisers.

Let’s reiterate for a moment: large NGOs in a Global North city organise a march about climate change, but when those who are facing sea-level rises and other life-and-death climate catastrophes raise their voices in a way the organisers find uncomfortable, the NGOs try to shut them up, turning to private security and then the police – with their long, established history of racism – to help them do so.

Let that sink in for a minute…

Now let’s trace a hypothetical line between the internal reluctance of these organisations to invest in deeper personal and organisational understandings of power and privilege, and the organising of the Climate March. It seems to me that organisations which had made the space to explore power and privilege issues – or even had a wider mix of people in the room – would have understood that:

  • Many Black and Brown people have negative and violent associations with law enforcement, and thus that the hiring of security would be a threatening move by a predominantly white organising group.
  • Those who are experiencing the first hand impacts of climate change most strongly are likely to have a different analyses of the issues than most London NGOs. Therefore, given the current and historical power dynamics involved, it would be critical to make space for different perspectives at the front of the march, even if they weren’t universally agreed.
  • Refusing to accept leadership – at the planning stage, or on the march itself – from those most-affected by climate change, replicates the colonial dynamic of Global North people and organisations telling Global South activists how they should respond to their own oppression.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the NGO senior manager I began with, is not unique to them or their organisation. I have seen it over and over in voluntary organisations and even grassroots activist groups, and when an NGO isn’t willing to put in the difficult work to get its own house in order, it shouldn’t be surprising when it makes a mess outside its walls.

If we don’t do the work needed to foster deeper understandings of power and privilege, shameful moments like that which played out at the Climate March are doomed to repeat themselves. Environmental justice will involve some uncomfortable conversations and confrontations, but the environmental movement needs to know that it can’t just shy away from – or in the case of the Climate March, actively try to silence – that discomfort. Either we face it straight on, or we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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Crowd-sourcing ‘The Accidental Anarchist’

So as some of you may have picked up elsewhere, I have an exciting new piece of work researching content for the upcoming documentary ‘The Accidental Anarchist’ with Carne Ross. As with most of my work, I thought, ‘why not ask everyone else what they’d include in this film?’

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The Accidental Anarchist

The Accidental Anarchist

Some background

I read Carne’s book, The Leaderless Revolution, in late 2012. In it, he tells the story of his transition from high-flying UK diplomat, to anarchist. While many of Carne’s insights felt familiar to me, his journey was unique. If someone in his position, so deeply aware of and invested in systems of government and top-down solutions, can undertake this kind of transformation, it offers hope for countless others to find similar paths, looking beyond current realities to imagine a better world.

As I read the book I began tweeting Carne; insights the book offered, thoughts it raised for me, parallels with parts of my own work. Specifically, I related to the ‘side door anarchism’ approach, bringing ideas of radical equality, non-hierarchy and autonomy into places where they’re least expected (and thus perhaps a little more digestible for some than countless more cliched images and symbols). We started to chat.

Since then, we’ve spoken at two events together in New York, I interviewed Carne for the Guardian, and he read a final draft of my book, offering a nice comment which helped with the promotion. So when I saw the post for research help with the film, it looked like a great opportunity to work more closely together and to help bring ideas of autonomy and self-organisation to a wider audience.

Remarkably, Carne agreed and asked me to help.

What is The Accidental Anarchist?

While the film will be framed by Carne’s personal journey, the majority of screen time will be spent exploring examples of radical, non-hierarchical organisation from around the world. This could mean worker coops or social movements; communes or community groups; autonomous Indigenous communities or worker-run factories. The point is to highlight what people are capable of, without the imposed coercion of a boss, a leader or a ruler.

Also – to be clear – we are using the idea of ‘anarchism’ in its loosest sense; as a very crude catch-all for a number of autonomous organising practices that have a) pre-dated the European notion of anarchism, b) emerged far more recently, and c) existed in parallel for decades and centuries. This is not an exercise in deciding what is and isn’t ‘true’ anarchism. It is an attempt to draw together a range of interconnected threads in the ongoing story of human organisation that are typically ignored, overshadowed or misrepresented by history, politics and the media. While anarchism is neither the first nor the last of these threads, it provides a lens from which to start a more nuanced conversation about how we organise ourselves in ways that reflect our shared values.

Crowd-sourcing stories

My first task is to create a long-list of potential stories this film might tell. This is where you come in. Rather than rely on my own knowledge and experience, I wanted to ask you about your favorite examples of autonomous self-organisation and self-governance, to start from a more complete list than I could ever develop on my own.

In particular – due to my own experiences and interests, my examples are mostly from the following countries:

  • Mexico
  • US
  • Canada
  • Spain
  • UK
  • Argentina
  • Brazil

So if you have stories from beyond Europe, North and South America, they would be particularly helpful!

Due to relatively tight timelines, this is only going to be open for a few days. Some time next week (after September 15), Carne, myself and the producers will look over the options and highlight a shorter list that may make sense to explore in the film. (Keep in mind it is only likely to be a handful of the countless potential stories that will make it into the film, due to both time and budget).

Submit a story

If you have an example you’d like to include, it would be great if you could add it to this form.

Check the current list

If you’d like to see what others have submitted so far, you can check it out here.

And if you have any wider questions or suggestions about the film, feel free to add a comment at the bottom of this post, or drop me an email on liam AT morelikepeople.org

Excited to have you involved!

Liam

PS – feel free to share this post around with anyone you think might have a story they’d like to include. Thanks!






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Structuring our Beloved Communities?

I wrote this piece for Contributoria, as my longest exploration of how we organise for social and environmental justice, since the publication of Anarchists in the Boardroom. It looks at the messy relationship between the kinds of organising structures we use, and the kinds of relationships we create. And I got to speak to some truly inspiring people in the process! Enjoy!

'I LOVE HUMANITY! LET'S FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT TOGETHER!'

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6193404069/sizes/l

In the early days of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase ‘Beloved Community’ to describe the kind of change he was working towards. The Beloved Community expressed a way of organising that made non-violence and compassion both its means and its ends, and placed strong relationships at the core of wider social transformation. The phrase, initially coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, articulated the idea that organising based on Love will create a culture of Love in its wake. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

The King Centre describes the Beloved Community as “an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.” But what does the Beloved Community look like when we get past its romantic broad-brush prose? And how can we organise ourselves in ways that align our methods with the visions our social change organisations and movements are trying to create?

The chicken-and-egg of structures and relationships

“I often say to people,” Margaret Wheatley tells me over Skype from her Utah home, “if you get the room set-up right, you’re at least 60 per cent of the way towards creating what you want.”

While seemingly a far cry from the ideals of Beloved Community, Wheatley has spent decades exploring what helps people to work meaningfully together, primarily in organisational settings, and places great importance on structuring the kinds of spaces we gather in. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, became a best-seller in 1992 and offered a glimpse of what human leadership might look like if it followed the organising patterns found elsewhere in nature. She is deeply critical of hierarchy and over-specialization and an advocate of self-organising and individual autonomy.

“If we’re creating a good process – people are highly engaged, self-motivated, thinking again, feeling creative,” she tells me, “what we’re really doing is reintroducing people to what it feels like to work well together.”

But to what extent is ‘working well together’ something that is created – by place or process – and to what extent does it emerge through the individual relationships involved? Or is this simply a chicken-and-egg conundrum that leads in an unending circle? Even if the ‘relationship/structure’ question is ultimately rhetorical, the exploration remains a critical one if we are going to find better ways of organising our communities, organisations and social movements towards something resembling a Beloved Community.

The political is personal

Following King’s articulation of Beloved Community, the feminist movement in the 1960s made a quantum leap in Northern/Western understandings of social change with the articulation that ‘the personal is political,’ grounding each of our lives in the wider social dynamics they are a part of. More recently, new social movements have traced this relationship back again, looking at how widespread system change is dependent on deep reflection about the kinds of individual relationships we choose to form together. In other words, the political is also personal.

Marina Sitrin lived in Argentina for several years in the early 2000s. An American activist and writer, she documented and took part in an emergent form of organising – Horizontalidad (or horizontalism) – that offered an alternative to the top-down structures of most political parties, unions and NGOs.

While many of our current organising structures were initially used to bolster the iron-fist management practices of the industrial era, horizontalism emerged in worker-occupied factories, neighbourhood assemblies and direct actions undertaken by unemployed workers after Argentina’s economic collapse in late 2000. Hierarchies were flattened, management teams disappeared, decisions were made via consensus and actions were taken collectively. Sitrin has written two books about her experiences there, offering eloquent articulations of horizontal organisational forms that have influenced countless social movements around the globe in the past decade.

“In Argentina,” Sitrin explains to me from Berlin, “the focus was on creating a new relationship where people could be heard, and finding that in that process it was developing… new ways of thinking about oneself, a new dignity.”

It is around this ‘new relationship’ that Sitrin’s work meets with Wheatley and others at the more progressive end of the organisational spectrum, grounding organising in the transformation of the relationships between those involved. “We are all bundles of potential,” Wheatley opines, “that manifest only in relationship,” highlighting that if we are to realise our individual or collective potential, it will be based on the quality of connections we are able to form with one another.

Liberation via Structure

Kiran Nihalani is a founding member of The Skills Network, a women’s collective based in Brixton, South London that organises cooperatively around directly-democratic principles. She finds it hard to distinguish between the means and the ends of organising, as have so many others – from traditional charities to revolutionary armies. “It is difficult to separate structures and relationships,” she tells me via email. “They feed off each other… [the structures] help people think about their relationships with others in the group (and people outside it) in a different way.”

In societies built on deeply unequal power dynamics, we often need to be reminded of equality, wherever we are used to finding ourselves in the social pyramid. “I would be a proponent of a little more structure,” Marina Sitrin cautiously encourages, based on the relatively loose methods used by most of the non-hierarchical groups she worked with in Argentina. “Structure helps facilitate more horizontal relationships.” Making explicit reference to King’s idea of Beloved Community, Sitrin continues:

“Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours. And if we agree to those structures ahead of time, collectively, there’s nothing hierarchical about that.”

Similarly, Peroline Ainsworth, another founding member of the Skills Network adds:

“…in our context, where people are so used to feeling ‘less than’, realising that everyone gets paid the same rate, deciding on paid to unpaid ratios together and seeing that you can participate in making formal decisions is crucial.

…the nuances of interpersonal relationships, although they are important, need to be combined with the really objective structural stuff to make it real for people. …This is an essential starting point in situations where a lot of people are so used to being made to feel unequal, even though they are told that they are equal.”

Another core member of the Skills Network, Hannah Emmons, described the liberating nature of their organising structures as follows:

“I think if those [non-hierarchical] structures and processes didn’t exist… [members] would be exactly where they felt they belonged – at the bottom … that they didn’t matter. So the structures we put in ensure people know that they do matter, and they are relevant, and what they have to say is worth hearing …[In] the hierarchical state, there’s always someone at the bottom, and unfortunately the majority of the people coming through our doors, they believed they were at the bottom of that hierarchy. So …when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are equally important as everyone else in the room.”

But are alternative structures enough to undo all the ways we inevitably adopt bits of the structural inequalities that surround us, when we have been raised in deeply unequal societies? Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, says this:

“Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

The question then becomes: are non-hierarchical structures and processes enough? Or do we need to think beyond these nuts and bolts if we want to foster our own Beloved Communities?

The shortcomings of non-hierarchical organisation

According to Paddock, “the form should always grow out of the experience. All the time, no matter how beautiful that form looks from the outside, it can eat us.” While no advocate of hierarchy, Paddock is also dubious of the focus many social movements since the 1960s and 1970s have placed on non-hierarchical structures: “The feminist movement was hugely successful in experimenting with ways of flattening hierarchies,” she argues, “but in doing so they became quite ideological. And thus the ideology started to overrun everything else.”

Paddock stresses the need to stay open to a range of forms, and that those forms must remain responsive to the people in the group, and the contexts they live and work in. “Structures are certainly helpful,” she says, “but they are only helpful if they grow out of relationships,” pointing to various experiences where “pushing the structure on the people just because of a philosophy of participation can end up having the opposite result in practice and in experience.”

Similarly, in North America and Europe, the concept of horizontalism has become rigidly associated with the particular form of consensus decision making used by Occupy and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. The experiences of some participants in both movements reinforced the thesis of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay , ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in which she argued that soft hierarchies simply replace formalised power when formal hierarchy is removed. In some of these protest camps, the rigid adoption of a particular form of decision making ended up placing power in the hands of those most versed in that process, often silencing those less familiar with the intricacies of ‘jazz hands,’ ‘blocks’ and ‘speaker stacks.’

Sitrin echoes Paddock’s sentiment about ensuring structures grow from the place they are being used, describing a far less dogmatic understanding of consensus in Argentina: “Horizontalism doesn’t necessarily mean any form of consensus… it’s that the group together decides what makes most sense for that group without anyone having power over other people.”

She continues by highlighting that in many of the neighbourhood assemblies, “there was no formal consensus process at all… People referred to consensus, but what they meant was finding agreement with each other by seeking a compromise in a conversation.”

Wheatley, too, warns against the wholesale adoption of any particular structure or process:

“The issue for me is getting hooked on one, and only one [process]… so it’s all that you know how to do. It’s just like people assumed I always want to sit in a circle [when facilitating a session]… I would urge people to stay with their game here and not get hooked on one particular practice.”

When relationships transcend structures

While in theory non-hierarchical structures are more egalitarian, this is not universally the case in practice. In fact, does an on-paper hierarchy necessarily create inequality, any more than a flat organisation automatically creates egalitarian relationships? Tana Paddock began to wonder about this question when working with a community organisation that had adopted a very traditional management structure:

“This place seemed to develop this really embedded culture of strong relationships and trusting relationships, so much so that no matter who came in, in those positions, they were forced to work in that way because it was so embedded in their being as an organisation, as a collective. …I’m in this place that looks on paper to be very structurally hierarchical, and it’s the healthiest place I’ve ever been, and it had consistently been like that for years and years. So it’s not just reliant on a charismatic leader or someone who’s really good at relationships, it seemed to really develop this really deep way of working, despite the structure… Who am I to say, ‘No! You should be a flat structure!’?”

Many of us have experienced moments where particular organising relationships become so much more than how they are described on paper. Peroline Ainsworth of the Skills Network describes some of the relationships she has there as feeling more “like equals than most relationships I’ve had in my life.” While they have initially been shaped by formal process, they have become “something that is more than and exists beyond and between the formal structures.”

This is further reflected in Hannah Emmon’s description of the day-to-day application of the Network’s decision making process, where a culture of ongoing dialogue has often come to supersede the formalities of consensus:

“The more important decisions which really need everyone, we do ensure there is everyone… However on smaller ones, I think we’ve got mini-versions of consensus, where… you turn to the next person [and ask their perspective]. Nothing in Skills happens completely individually… before anything is finalised it always comes back to the group before the next step happens. …We are always… conferring with each other.”

Amongst Argentina’s primarily Indigenous-led defence of the land movements, formal rules were often eschewed in exchange for a culture of direct discussion, and when needed, confrontation. According to Marina Sitrin:

“When faced with the challenge of different kinds of political parties… trying to infiltrate [assemblies], they tend to not have rules that [those parties are] not allowed to participate, but… a culture of calling them out. Which is a step forward.”

While this hasn’t always been the case within these movements, Sitrin sees this type of constructive confrontation as an improvement on the culture of passivity that pre-dated it. Rules become less necessary if you have a culture that offers collective accountability. “Once you have good trusting relationships,” Margaret Wheatley adds, “you can sit on the ground or meet on a bus and it all works … over time [structure] becomes less important.”

What does it all mean?

So let’s recap:

• Non-hierarchical structures can help us challenge the parts of ourselves and others which have been negatively shaped by wider social inequality and injustice.

• But those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

• Relationships may transcend the structures we create, though if we want them to do so in a positive way we still need to be very conscious of how we relate to one another.

Rather than juxtaposing structures and relationships, perhaps a Beloved Community is more about the intent behind them? “When you’re creating structure, where is it coming from?” Tana Paddock asks me pointedly. “Is it coming from a place of fear, of what could happen if you didn’t have that structure, or is it coming from a place of wanting to generate something positive?”

“Most institutions,” she asserts, “are created out of fear. Rules and structures are created [because]… something bad happened and you don’t want it to happen again, so you create a structure or a process or a regulation to keep it from happening again.”

If we start from a place of fear – expecting the worst and focusing on avoiding it – how much more likely might we be to create the very patterns we are afraid of? Many traditional organisational policies start by telling people what they can’t do, and end up spawning the kinds of dishonesty and carelessness they aimed to avoid. Might some of our most-seemingly democratic and participatory organising structures have the same effect?

Imagine if we organised primarily with the intention of liberating human potential? While the prevalent use of horizontalidad amongst Argentine social movements reflected widespread intent to create equal relationships, the specifics that emerged in groups varied vastly. And while the Skills Network remain strong advocates of consensus because they want to correct the powerlessness that so many of their members feel in wider society, it hasn’t stopped them from adapting their understanding of consensus to fit the needs and aspirations of those members.

In other words, there is no silver bullet that will address the rich complexity of human dynamics, but if we think more about the intent behind each structure, each process, and each relationship we form on the path to creating a Beloved Community, we may just find we get there along the way.

Thank you to Contributoria for commissioning this piece and making it available Creative Commons!

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr






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Jim Coe: Theories of change vs dart throwing chimps

Jim Coe has kindly agreed to us re-posting his blog demolishing ‘Theories of Change.’ He has captured the essence of why so many organisational campaign planning efforts – as they are actually practiced – are unable to handle the complexity of the real world. The blog was originally posted at CoeAndKingham.org.uk

Jim Coe

Jim Coe will smash your theory of change

I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.

The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.

However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.

And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:

It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.

The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.

The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.

This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).

It can help create a common understanding.

Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.

On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:

1/ PREDICTION

Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.

In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.

But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.

In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.

He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.

Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:

* How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)

* The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)

These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.

2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.

They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.

This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.

But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.

And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:

1. mapping where the power lies in the system
2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance

The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out

* What needs to change and

* Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how

Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.

Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.

This approach

* Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change

* Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them

* Helps in shaping a common strategy

* Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’

And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens.







Jim’s take on Theory of Change is closely related to the chapter of my book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, on strategy and planning. You can order it here.

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Social media for organisational change @ ECF2014

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the eCampaigning Forum in Oxford on April 11, 2014, describing how social media can act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the constructive subversion of organisational bureaucracy. Here’s the video to prove it.

…If you’re not yet convinced that you want to commit 28 minutes of your life to watching me talk, here are a couple of teasers:

  • I describe ‘three stages of organisational social media embrace’: ‘the new fax machine,’ ‘the social engineering project,’ and ‘the more like people organisation.’ Most organisations are stuck at the second stage, but the real magic happens at the third stage.
  • You’ll get to see silly image macros that involve the Hulk, the boss from Office Space and a bunch of wanky pics that come up when you search ‘professional’ in Google Images.
  • I explain constructive subversion, as a way of changing your organisation, without expecting the turkeys (senior management) to vote for Christmas (flatter, more democratic, transparent and trusting organisations).

I’m especially keen to hear peoples’ thoughts on this one, and if they have been able to put any of the ideas into practice in their own workplaces.

May your subversions be constructive!

Liam

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who really don’t have time for the video, here is the ‘3 stages of social media embrace’ I recently described on the ECF list. They are admittedly crude and no org will fall 100% into one of them, but I think they provide a bit of a sense of a trajectory for getting the fullest potential from online campaigning tools.

1. The new fax machine – it’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One Tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of orgs were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Jonses, cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project – highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more=better. (This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures).

3. The more like people organisation – everyone who wants to, tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more trad orgs. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our orgs have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.







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Pamphlets are the new social media

There’s an old political tradition (that probably never had a parallel in the world of management theory) of pamphlet-printing; producing 10-20 pages about a specific theme and selling them as cheaply as you can to encourage the spread of the ideas.

Lovingly hand-folded and stapled by anarchists :-)

Lovingly hand-folded and stapled by anarchists 🙂

The pamphlet tradition lives on in anarchist circles, while havingbeen mostly forgotten by others in the age of the internet. Some could argue that this is just nostalgic, but there’s also something about the ability to physically pass something around. Something cheap enough to give away to a specific person, at a specific moment, without much thought, that doesn’t require you to both be on the same online platform, or to even remember to send a link after a face-to-face conversation.

Having written a book already, I wanted to distil a couple of key elements from it in a more radical, but also more physically shareable format. So I wrote ‘The constructive subversive’s guide to organisational change,’ Steve Lafler did some illustrations, and Active Distribution printed it and are selling it for £0.77 (+shipping).

You can read the first draft on ROAR Magazine, or the second draft on openDemocracy, and then order a physical copy (or three…) from Active if you’re so inclined.

Alternatively, if you haven’t got the book yet (or want another one for some reason), order one of the last 10 copies from the first edition print run, and I’ll throw in a copy of the pamphlet for free when I send it out.

Good ideas should be passed around. And sometimes the internet just isn’t the right way to do it…

Happy constructive subversion!

Liam







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Quiet No More: How activism is changing organising

Last summer I did a workshop in Ottawa, which was attended by Joel Harden, an old friend from the Toronto activist world, who I hadn’t seen for close to a decade. It turned out he was writing a book, with a lot of similar themes to mine! His is called ‘Quiet No More: New political activism in Canada and around the globe.’ It’s good! Here are a few reasons why you might like to read it.

Quiet No More

Quiet No More is an account and analysis of grassroots organising in social movements, unions and political parties in Canada and beyond, looking at the changes in activism since the rise of the Zapatistas (twenty years ago, on New Years, FYI).

I wanted to include a few quotes and passages that were particularly powerful to me.

This is a quote Joel borrowed from Pam Palmater, a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq First Nation, active in the Idle No More movement, which emerged in December 2012 amongst indigenous communities in Canada, to challenge the active colonial policies being pushed by the Canadian government. Palmater, describing Idle No More, had this to say:

“This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”

Some of Joel’s own words resonated strongly with me as well, for instance, his conclusions about what makes the organising processes of new social movements unique:

“…one is struck by the organization of grassroots movements, whose boldness and creativity demonstrate that the future is truly unwritten. On paper, networks of green organizers shouldn’t be able to stall energy giants, but activist mobilizations have had that very result. Networked round dances, flash mobs, and blockades shouldn’t shift the edifice of Canadian federal politics, but they have…”

And while less-inspiring, Joel’s critique of current trade unionism also struck me, capturing the increasingly transactional nature of many workers’ relationships to the institutions which were critical in bringing about things like forty-hour work weeks and weekends:

“As recent internal union studies have shown, the wider malaise that workers feel with conventional politics includes existing frameworks of trade unionism. In this cynical context, workers often treat unions as insurance agencies rather than sites for collective action.”

More optimistically, Joel’s reflections on the victories of grassroots leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (who then chose to pay themselves the average wage of their members, a democratic act which is largely unprecedented amongst union brass), and the Canadian Labour Congress’ pensions campaign (which placed its emphasis on the human stories of pension cuts, told by those experiencing them), also explain the organising changes that are happening in the union movement:

“Simply put, direct democracy is the soul of grassroots unionism. It empowers union members to be leaders, and realizes this requires substantial change for unions themselves. … Today, there is much talk in organized labour about ‘branding themselves better” to withstand employer attacks – but the idea that a better pitch is needed misses the point. Effective union organizing will not be driven by brilliant ads, or by focus-group-tested messages that get released, like carrier pigeons of old, only to bring back good news later. Effective union organizing must being by developing the political capacities of union members, the vast majority of whom are spectators in politics.”

While Joel and I place our emphasis in slightly different places (I probably have a bit more faith in the possibilities for NGOs to create change, whereas he probably has a bit more faith in the ability of political parties to do so), we are definitely singing from similar hymn sheets, in our respective writings.

We may also diverge a bit on our sense of the value and importance of autonomous organising methods and the issues often associated with ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ but we are both coming from the perspective that progressive institutions need to change (in a more democratic, transparent and participatory way), if they want to affect wider change themselves.

In brief, I suggest reading it, if you are at all involved in activist organising, inside or outside of progressive institutions. The stories that Joel tells offer hope, and the analysis he adds offers strong insights, from a seasoned activist, as to how we can bring that hope to play in our own activism.

———–

I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







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Guerilla gardening for the whole family

Julian Dobson has written what will hopefully be the first of many guest posts here about a phenomena in which a local community has constructively subverted their local institutions to create something far better than what was there before. You can help to crowd-fund the book about the Incredible Edible community/guerilla gardening project here.

Incredible Edibles Todmorden

After five years of austerity and with more to come, the need to rethink local economies is more pressing than ever. Governments are not going to do it for us. The big society has evaporated as a political idea. Many of the new private sector jobs are precarious, low-wage roles with few prospects, barely keeping body and soul together.

No wonder people are looking at new approaches to local economies and better ways of doing society – ways that reflect many of the ‘more like people’ principles promoted here.

For six years now one of these experiments has been taking place at the back end of a neglected Yorkshire valley. Frequently dismissed as just another community growing scheme, Incredible Edible Todmorden is serious about rethinking the local economy. But it recognises that economies start with people.

Incredible Edible has come a long way since its co-founder, Pam Warhurst, came back from a conference inspired to take action in her community; since community worker Mary Clear dug up her rose garden and planted vegetables with a big sign saying ‘help yourself’; and since ‘propaganda planter’ Nick Green turned the derelict medical centre where mass murderer Harold Shipman used to practice into a free feast for passers-by.

So here are ten tips for an incredible edible community, neighbourhood or town.

1 Start with what you have. Get out there and do stuff – see Pam Warhurst’s TED talk.

2 Don’t write a strategy document. Council officers are useful – see Nick’s 17-ish tips for activists. But don’t wait for them to set the pace.

3 Don’t ask for permission. Hope starts with action. See Joanna Dobson’s post about this.

4 Make it easy. If you eat, you’re in. That’s why the Incredible Edible ethos is spreading around the world.

5 Propaganda planting starts conversations. See my 10 brilliant reasons why you should plant veg in public places.

6 Make connections through kindness. Here’s why.

7 Start now, but think two generations ahead. That’s why learning is at the heart of Incredible Edible actions. See this story on Todmorden high school’s new aquaponics centre.

8 Rediscover lost skills – especially the art of wasting nothing.

9 Reconnect businesses with their customers. Local food is about local business and jobs. Have a look at Incredible Farm which is selling fruit trees and salads and providing classes and workshops for young people.

10 Redesign your town. See the Green Route in Todmorden that links the town up with edible veg beds and bee-friendly plants. And then think about how the whole town can be different.

And if you like the sound of these, support our Kickstarter campaign to help spread the word and tell the Incredible Edible story. We have just two over weeks to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us.

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