We’ve lived so long under the spell of hierarchy—from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses—that only recently have we awakened to see not only that “regular” citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—Frances Moore Lappé, excerpt from Time for Progressives to Grow Up

Friday, October 8, 2010

Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

by Malcolm Gladwell from The New Yorker

I've argued before that The New Yorker is used to reach those in the ruling class and all their middle class supporters who function as opinion shapers and disciplinarians against those who stray from the capitalist party line. See this, this, and this.

The author's chief concern in this piece is the widely ballyhooed claims that electronic social media were very successful in fomenting the Iranian (and other) demonstrations that occurred there earlier this year. If social media could cause problems for the establishment there, why couldn't it also cause problems for the Empire? However, the claim regarding Iran is thoroughly debunked by the author, and I'm sure that this was a great relief to many in the security agencies of the ruling class. 

As one can expect from this publication, the article is well written and founded on solid research to bolster the author's argument main thesis that social media is no threat to the established order. He argues and supplies the evidence that it is no threat because it is unable to foster the close personal ties that occurred during the Civil Rights campaigns in the South during the early 1960s and were successful in sustaining that movement. But then Gladwell makes this additional argument about the latter's success:
It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline. The N.A.A.C.P. was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had, as Aldon D. Morris points out in his superb 1984 study, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups. “Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures,” Morris writes. “Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation.”
He is arguing that a top-down, strong hierarchical structure is required to make an organization effective, that a self-organizing, horizontally organized network cannot achieve success in any program that involves significant risks to participants. This is where I part company with him. (Of course, it is completely understandable that he makes this argument--a strong hierarchical structure is required to sustain capitalism, or indeed, any class structured society--because he is writing for a prime outlet for ruling class views.)

His argument that the Civil Rights organizations were well disciplined hierarchies is patently false. They depended on the allegiance and support of many volunteers. There are few ways to "discipline" volunteers.  Volunteers overwhelmingly supported actions of these organizations simply because there was a complete correspondence of goals and values. Thus the officials of these organizations had to listen to criticisms and, as a result, often modified strategies and tactics and thereby conceded some power to their volunteers. I know this from personal experience.

Affinity groups, which support close personal ties, have been used with considerable success not only in the Civil Rights movement, but in many others including anti-war, anti-nuclear power, environmental, animal rights, and anti-WTO actions. Such organizations that use this model are totally opposite of hierarchical organizations. Authority resides at the bottom and works its way up the organization.

The fact that the Civil Rights movement accomplished so much was because the ruling capitalist class in the US eventually realized that it could accommodate the demands of the movement within the capitalist structure without harm to their rule or their system.