Applying swarm theory to networked union organising


Beautifully demonstrated by this video, swarm theory is an idea from biology that proposes that large groups can solve complex problems very efficiently. For instance, ant colonies can quickly find the richest food source, bees choose a new hive or birds fly in exhilarating patterns like the starlings above.

Individual ants or starlings don’t understand the big picture, they follow simple instructions based on local information. And yet collectively, they are able to perform tasks of stunning complexity.

So what does this mean for union organising? Can swarm theory be applied to human attempts to change the world? Humans are a lot more complex than ants, and we have competing stimuli pulling us in different directions. Yet when people act in unison, we’re capable of incredible creativity.


Can new technology create a collective intelligence that we can tap into?

The practice of crowdsourcing ideas is well established on twitter and other online communities: twitter users often already refer to the medium, half-ironically, as Hivemind – as in “Hey, Hivemind – what can we do about X?”

Swarm theory looks at how action can be organised through the Hivemind. It’s explained well by Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party: A swarm

“…is a scaffolding set up by a few individuals that enable tens of thousands of people to cooperate on a common goal in their life. These tens of thousands are usually vastly diverse and come from all walks of life, but share one common goal. The scaffolding set up by one or a few individuals allow these thousands of people to form a Swarm around it and start changing the world together.”

A recent example is the swarm of activity that lead to the closure of the News of the World: the ‘scaffolding’ was provided by the journalism of Nick Davies and the work of Tom Watson MP, the mechanism was twitter. Twitter users bombarded News of the World advertisers, demanding that they withdraw their advertising. Many did, and News International was forced to sacrifice its highly successful but now thoroughly toxic brand. This is just one of many examples in what has become common practice.

Rhizomes versus trees

This  links with the philosophical idea of the rhizome versus the tree as a dynamic organising structure. The tree represents the traditional hierarchical organisational form that our society is familiar with: best exemplified by the military, with the generals at the top and various layers of command all the way down to the foot soldiers at the bottom, this form is common in government, business and across society – including in trade unions, which often structurally mirror the organisations they were formed to challenge.

The idea of the rhizome was first developed by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus. It’s a complex work, but its central idea is that a more dynamic and organic model for organising people is the rhizome.

A rhizome is a plant structure that sends out horizontal shoots that connect to other nodes. If it is broken up, each node can form a new plant.

What this suggests for organising is that rather than having strict hierarchical structures, we could have networks of activists connected to each other and to nodes – campaigns. This creates a dense ecosystem of interlocking social movements and practical solidarity.

Swarm theory takes the rhizome structure even further, by proposing explicit organising techniques to mobilise people through these networks.

The Big Society

The power of the swarm is the essential mechanism that David Cameron is trying to tap into with his Big Society initiative. This is doomed to fail, though, because you can’t generate a swarm by axing the structure that it forms around.

So what does this mean practically?

Trade unions are often accused of being bureaucratic. In fact, in too many cases, the structure is the union. In the minds of many trade union activists, the union doesn’t exist outside of physical buildings, branch meetings, industrial conferences and congresses. We also tend to fetishise formal roles: shop steward, convenor, national officer, regional secretary, general secretary and so on.

The success of UK (and US) Uncut is precisely because it is a swarm organisation. The authorities are utterly discombobulated by it, because there are no leaders to arrest. There are people who take on various tasks – spokesperson, web development and so on – but the structure is light and is nothing more than a framework that facilitates a swarm of activity.

You can arrest the entire framework, but the swarm will quickly form a new one. Hacking groups like Anonymous and LulzSec follow the same model: the Shetland cyber pimpernel Topiary has been arrested, but this hasn’t stopped hacks on a number of targets.

Bureaucratic inertia versus the tyranny of structurelessness

There is a tension between too much and too little structure. Many social movements, particularly student occupations and those influenced by anarchism, favour consensus-based decision making. There are problems with this as well, and trade unions need structure to ensure democratic accountability. Also, unions come under intense legal scrutiny – not least during ballots for industrial action – so structure is essential to ensure that we can take action effectively and accountably. The correct balance is a discussion for another day, but I think it’s fair to say most unions need a structural shake up: the structure should facilitate activism, not retard it.

How do we achieve this?

The first step is a conceptual one. We need to stop seeing our organisations simply in terms of their structures: unions are more than their buildings, meetings, staff and reps. Instead, we should see the structures as enabling activism – like a ladder ordinary members can climb to have their voice heard. We should never have structures simply for the sake of it – every structure needs to have a clear and relevant function, and should be designed to operate as smoothly and effectively as possible.

Secondly, we need to break the link with the servicing model that sees members as clients who receive services from the union. We should work towards a model where every member is an activist.

Thirdly, we should see workplace struggles and campaigns not as isolated activities but as nodes in a wider ecosystem. Other campaigns, political parties, social movements, community and faith groups should be seen as nodes as well, and members should be encouraged to engage and make links.

Above all, we should destroy the idea that activists need ‘permission’ from a hierarchy before they can be active.

By taking these steps and rethinking our organisational forms, we can start to build a networked, global, social movement unionism. This would provide a complex, contradictory but dynamic and resilient culture of resistance to the dominant order.

Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Posted in organising tactics, Theory and tagged , , , .

Marxist. Socialist & labor movement organizer. Boston DSA Labor he/him
Bread & Roses Caucus in #DSA


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