Given a common need, a collection of people will, by trial and error, by improvisation and experiment, evolve order out of chaos.
Those who are familiar with open source projects know it well, and we have seen it during the COVID-19 pandemics, with hundreds of initiatives to manufacture, for example, masks or ventilators, to make up for the inefficiency and lack of foresight of administrations worldwide. We are engineered to collaborate, but for some reason—which is my plan to slowly unravel here—advocates of management and promoters of the virtues of hierarchies are always willing to monopolize that beautiful capability.
Before you think the author of this blog has become completely crazy, let me tell you it is not me. It is Colin Ward who wrote the leading sentence in this post, in a readable essay “Anarchism as a Theory of Organization” (which you can read here)
This is a remarkable text that shows the affinities between anarchy and the principles of organization of complex systems composed by many interconnected units.This essay was first published in Patterns of Anarchy. A collection of writings on the anarchist tradition, edited by Leonard I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry, Anchor Books, New York, 1966.
Colin Ward was a British writer recognized as “one of the greatest anarchist thinkers of the past half century, and a pioneering social historian.” He viewed management as a coercive ‘technique’ that drained workers of spontaneity and initiative. So do I.
He wrote many stimulating essays and books, but his 1973 masterpiece – Anarchy in Action – criticizes managerial approaches to industrial production, offering instead actual examples of anarchist practice within organizations. His expertise was in architecture and urban policy, but his writings touched on self-determination in nearly every facet of society. He defined anarchists as: people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit.Rethinking organizational hierarchy, management, and the nature of work with Peter Drucker and Colin Ward, in ephemera 14(4), November 2014
There is clearly a connection, barely explored in practice, between organization’s management and systems dynamics. How do we actually evolve the order required to collaborate out of the natural chaos of free people? I think that it is necessary to look with fresh eyes and begin to test what we already know about crowds, swarms and all sort of self-organizing behaviours.
Clearly we need more thinking but, even more importantly, more testing of ideas like Stafford Beer’s, a consultant and professor at the Manchester Business School, known for his work in the fields of operational research and management cybernetics. Beer was the first to apply cybernetics to management, defining cybernetics as the science of effective organization.
I’m not a fan of cybernetics (though I admire Norbert Wiener). However, the more I see the limitations of current firms, labour markets and the challenges we are facing, the more convinced I am that there is a future beyond our present managerial weaponry, and perhaps…
Perhaps, only when a mechanical worldview will be replaced by a cybernetic one, anarchy as organization will be finally recognized and accepted, probably under a different name.