Anarchy as a theory of self-organization

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

He and his writings about anarchy and organization features prominently in several of the contributions to a special issue of the journal ephemera on “Management, business, Anarchism”.

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.

Stafford Beer, Cybernetic and Management, 1964

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.

3 comments

  1. The first thing would be to change the name. Anarchism is not the right word and brings up bad memories of some terror based organisations.

    However, I must say I do not fully like the idea, if only because once you become aware that there is a grand plan (if there is a “grand plan”) you stop behaving independently; start thinking on “helping” the grand plan and, consequently, jeopardise the “grand plan”. Sort of self defeating

    Incidentally, the link to Wiener does not work.

    • Changing the name, I must admit it is a temptation and probably worth exploring. When I first decided to research, I had the same feeling. Anarchism and Anarchy are tinted with taboo-ridden connotations. My feeling now (still exploring) is that this is a not completely fortuitous consequence of historic development. There is policy in stigmatising the word.

      That does not mean a change of name is not a possibility. We’ll have to involve some marketing experts 😉

      Your second question, I am not sure I fully understand it… Why a grand plan? Quite the contrary. Self-organization is not about grand plans, but typically quite focused local reaction to our environment… A grand plan is what Big Companies and Big States are supposed to be doing today…

      Link to N.W. corrected. Thanks.

  2. You are possibly right about the fact that anarchism got its bad name through bad press. However, it is only true that some followers did what they could to get that bad name. A “joint action”, let us call it.

    About the second. Yes you are right about self-organization . I was only mentioning that once the plan is made “public” , behaviour is no longer independent. However, it may not be a problem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.