The Paradox of Organization

Organizations, contrary to the usual view, do not generally precipitate protest movements. In fact, it is more nearly correct to say that protest movements precipitate organizations, which in turn usually attempt to tame protest and turn it into institutional channels. So far as system-threatening protests are concerned, formal organizations are more an impediment than a facilitator. It is a great paradox of democratic change, though not so surprising from behind an anarchist squint, that the very institutions designed to avoid popular tumults and make peaceful, orderly legislative change possible have generally failed to deliver. This is in large part because existing state institutions are both sclerotic and at the service of dominant interests, as are the vast majority of formal organizations that represent established interests. The latter have a chokehold on state power and institutionalized access to it.

Episodes of structural change, therefore, tend to occur only when massive, noninstitutionalized disruption in the form of riots, attacks on property, unruly demonstrations, theft, arson, and open defiance threatens established institutions. Such disruption is virtually never encouraged, let alone initiated, even by left-wing organizations that are structurally inclined to favor orderly demands, demonstrations, and strikes that can usually be contained within the existing institutional framework. Opposition institutions with names, office bearers, constitutions, banners, and their own internal governmental routines favor, naturally enough, institutionalized conflict, at which they are specialists.[1]

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A . Cloward have convincingly shown for the Great Depression in the United States, protests by unemployed and workers in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the welfare rights movement, what success the movements enjoyed was at their most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical.[2] It was the effort to stem the contagion of a spreading, noninstitutionalized challenge to the existing order that prompted concessions. There were no leaders to negotiate a deal with, no one who could promise to get people off the streets in return for concessions. Mass defiance, precisely because it threatens the institutional order, gives rise to organizations that try to channel that defiance into the flow of normal politics, where it can be contained. In such circumstances, elites turn to organizations they would normally disdain, an example being Premier Georges Pompidou’s deal with the French Communist Party (an established “player”) promising huge wage concessions in 1968 in order to split the party loyalists off from students and wildcat strikers.

Disruption comes in many wondrous forms, and it seems useful to distinguish them by how articulate they are and whether or not they lay claim to the moral high ground of democratic politics. Thus, disruption aimed at realizing or expanding democratic freedoms — such as abolition, women’s suffrage, or desegregation — articulate a specific claim to occupy the high ground of democratic rights. What about massive disruptions aimed at achieving the eight-hour workday or the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, or, more nebulous, opposition to neoliberal globalization? Here the objective is still reasonably articulated but the claim to the moral high ground is more sharply contested. Though one may deplore the strategy of the “black bloc” during the “Battle in Seattle” around the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999, smashing storefronts and skirmishing with the police, there is little doubt that without the media attention their quasi-calculated rampage drew, the wider anti-globalization, anti-WTO, anti-International Monetary Fund, anti-World Bank movement would have gone largely unnoticed.

The hardest case, but one increasingly common among marginalized communities, is the generalized riot, often with looting, that is more an inchoate cry of anger and alienation with no coherent demand or claim. Precisely because it is so inarticulate and arises among the least organized sectors of society, it appears more menacing ; there is no particular demand to address, nor are there any obvious leaders with whom to negotiate. [Editor’s note: However, recent rebellions in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, and so on have very clearly articulated a demand to the state: stop murdering us.] Governing elites confront a spectrum of options. In the urban riots in Britain in the late summer of 2011, the Tory government’s first response was repression and summary justice. Another political response, urged by Labour figures, was a mixture of urban social reform, economic amelioration, and selective punishment. What the riots undeniably did, however, was get the attention of elites, without which most of the issues underlying the riots would not have been raised to public consciousness, no matter how they were disposed of.

Here again there is a dilemma. Massive disruption and defiance can, under some conditions, lead directly to authoritarianism or fascism rather than reform or revolution. That is always the danger, but it is nonetheless true that extra-institutional protest seems a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for major progressive structural change such as the New Deal or civil rights.

Just as much of the politics that has historically mattered has taken the form of unruly defiance, it is also the case that for subordinate classes, for most of their history, politics has taken a very different extra-institutional form. For the peasantry and much of the early working class historically, we may look in vain for formal organizations and public manifestations. There is a whole realm of what I have called “infrapolitics” because it is practiced outside the visible spectrum of what usually passes for political activity. The state has historically thwarted lower-class organization, let alone public defiance. For subordinate groups, such politics is dangerous. They have, by and large, understood, as have guerrillas, that divisibility, small numbers, and dispersion help them avoid reprisal.

By infrapolitics I have in mind such acts as foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight. Why risk getting shot for a failed mutiny when desertion will do just as well? Why risk an open land invasion when squatting will secure de facto land rights? Why openly petition for rights to wood, fish, and game when poaching will accomplish the same purpose quietly? In many cases these forms of de facto self-help flourish and are sustained by deeply held collective opinions about conscription, unjust wars, and rights to land and nature that cannot safely be ventured openly. And yet the accumulation of thousands or even millions of such petty acts can have massive effects on warfare, land rights, taxes, and property relations. The large-mesh net political scientists and most historians use to troll for political activity utterly misses the fact that most subordinate classes have historically not had the luxury of open political organization. That has not prevented them from working microscopically, cooperatively, complicitly, and massively at political change from below. As Milovan Djilas noted long ago,

The slow, unproductive work of disinterested millions, together with the prevention of all work not considered “socialist”, is the incalculable, invisible, and gigantic waste which no communist regime has been able to avoid.[3]

Who can say precisely what role such expressions of disaffection (as captured in the popular slogan, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”) played in the long-run viability of Soviet bloc economies?

Forms of informal cooperation, coordination, and action that embody mutuality without hierarchy are the quotidian experience of most people. Only occasionally do they embody implicit or explicit opposition to state law and institutions. Most villages and neighborhoods function precisely because of the informal, transient networks of coordination that do not require formal organization, let alone hierarchy. In other words, the experience of anarchistic mutuality is ubiquitous. As Colin Ward notes, “far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human experience of everyday life, which operates side-by-side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.”[4]

The big question, and one to which I do not have a definitive answer, is whether the existence, power, and reach of the state over the past several centuries have sapped the independent, self-organizing power of individuals and small communities. So many functions that were once accomplished by mutuality among equals and informal coordination are now state organized or state supervised. As Proudhon, anticipating Foucault, famously put it,

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected.[5]

To what extent has the hegemony of the state and of formal, hierarchical organizations undermined the capacity for and the practice of mutuality and cooperation that have historically created order without the state? To what degree have the growing reach of the state and the assumptions behind action in a liberal economy actually produced the asocial egoists that Hobbes thought Leviathan was designed to tame? One could argue that the formal order of the liberal state depends fundamentally on a social capital of habits of mutuality and cooperation that antedate it, which it cannot create and which, in fact, it undermines. The state, arguably, destroys the natural initiative and responsibility that arise from voluntary cooperation. Further, the neoliberal celebration of the individual maximizer over society, of individual freehold property over common property, of the treatment of land (nature) and labor (human work life) as market commodities, and of monetary commensuration in, say, cost-benefit analysis (e.g., shadow pricing for the value of a sunset or an endangered view) all encourage habits of social calculation that smack of social Darwinism.

I am suggesting that two centuries of a strong state and liberal economies may have socialized us so that we have largely lost the habits of mutuality and are in danger now of becoming precisely the dangerous predators that Hobbes thought populated the state of nature. Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.

1 Once in a great while one encounters an organization that combines some level of voluntary coordination while respecting and even encouraging local initiative. Solidarnosc in Poland under martial law and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement in the United States are rare examples. Both came into existence only in the course of protest and struggle.

2 Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1978).

3 Milovan Djilas, The New Class (New York: Praeger, 1957).

4 Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action (London : Freedom Press, 1988), 14.

5 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, trans. John Beverly Robinson (London: Freedom Press, 1923) , 293-94.