Does technology fundamentally change the way we interact with each other, and organise politically?

Beautifully demonstrated by this video, swarm theory is an idea from biology that proposes that large groups can solve complex problems very efficiently by communicating in the right way. 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 have to understand the big picture: they follow simple instructions based on information communicated by their peers. And yet collectively, they are able to perform tasks of stunning complexity.

So what does this mean for union and political 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. We also have the ability to understand and communicate the bigger picture, to develop a collective vision. And 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.”

The scaffolding provides the vision, and suggestions of actions to take to realise it. By creating a compelling vision, and giving people accessible ways to get involved in achieving it, activists can create a “swarm” of activity that reaches far beyond their traditional base. For this to work, the vision has to be an inclusive one – which is why it is very important for political activists to spend time developing and articulating positive alternatives, instead of just focusing on the negativity of the status quo.

A good example of a swarm that worked was the activity that lead to the closure of the News of the World newspaper in 2011: 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.

More recently, there has been a massive swarm around the low wage workers’ movement in the US, with a particular focus on the need to raise the minimum wage. The vision is simple, and compelling: the economy needs to work for everyone. No one who works should live in poverty. And well-paid workers boost the local economy by spending their income where they live. The campaign is ambitious, too: it’s aiming for a $15 minimum wage, which would be a dramatic increase of 67%.

Of course this has corporate lobbyists spluttering into their skinny lattes, but the message is hitting home, and being spread virally through social media. The campaign has real momentum, and the argument is being won. And the wage is rising: SeaTac in Washington State became the first city to implement the $15 wage. Even if the campaign doesn’t achieve its goal of a $15 federal minimum wage, it’s certainly resulting in better pay for a lot of workers.

The campaign is backed by the mainstream unions, in particular the UFCW and SEIU, but it’s reaching far beyond labour’s traditional constituency.



Rhizomes versus trees

This is backed by 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.

Nodes connecting in a rhizome

Nodes connecting in a rhizome

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. This form is very resilient: if the centre is attacked – for instance, if the union is sued by employers – the campaign can continue organically, without needing to be driven from the centre.

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

This sounds like the Big Society, doesn’t it?

The power of the swarm is the essential mechanism that British Prime Minister David Cameron tried 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, position papers, 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 groups like UK (and USUncut 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 was arrested, but this didn’t stop 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. This was both the strength and the weakness of the Occupy movement: it formed a powerful, inclusive swarm around the idea of the 1% – but didn’t have a mechanism to change society. In some respects it was an anti-political, post-modern movement that rejected formal organising. This created a vital space to explore ideas, but this wasn’t enough.

Trade unions and political campaigns 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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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