Imagining social movements: from networks to dynamic systems

We must move to an understanding of networks as constantly changing and dynamic; no two 'links' are alike.

Graham Jones
23 November 2015


, CC BY 2.0

In a world of increasingly tangled social networks, it was inevitable that this would begin to shape how we see social movements. From the ecology of organisations in the Spanish anti-austerity struggle, to the rhetoric around Momentum and the Corbyn campaign, the words 'grassroots' and 'network' have gained in currency. Yet beyond this we still seem to lack models for understanding the dynamics of these systems that might help us to organise them more effectively. It's vital therefore that we develop analytical tools capable of dealing with their complexity, that remain accessible to those outside of niche academic circles.

In his recent article for openDemocracyUK, friend and comrade Liam Barrington Bush goes some way to developing such an analysis. Grounding his piece on a network diagram of nodes and links – an increasingly familiar sight in the age of global communications – he presents a critique of centralised activist networks, focusing particularly on the Radical Assembly (RA). He makes a lot of good points about power in grassroots organising, but I feel the model he presents is overly simplified, and risks mischaracterising not only RA but also the nature of systems as a whole.


One problem with network perspectives that speak in terms of nodes and links is that they paint an overly static picture of how a network operates. These diagrams can certainly be useful as a quick snapshot of actors and their relations. But without considering parameters such as time and change, the function of the links, the differences between nodes and so on, it's difficult to understand much about how the system actually exists in the real world.

Each node is presumed to have some unity in time and space, rather than itself being a complex assemblage of multiple different parts. Nodes are made to seem equivalent, despite the diversity of actions they may take. Any two nodes are only connectable by a single link; but what constitutes a link? How regular or strong is that link? What does that link produce or what might it be able to produce? The result of these and other ambiguities is that two systems of quite different nature could be represented by similar diagrams, despite operating in very different ways.

We should see human social networks as self-reproducing systems, that exist on a variety of levels and which are always socially embeddedAn alternative to the abstract network diagram is to take a more dynamic, materialist perspective. We should see human social networks as self-reproducing systems, that exist on a variety of levels and timescales, and which are always embedded in some social context.

Imagine we take a bird's eye view of the city, with each person involved in the network mapped. We click a button and the map comes to life, speeding through days and weeks, showing people's movements and their moments of communication over time. We would see rhythms of activity, a dynamic pushing and pulling. Flows of people would gravitate around points of attraction without ever permanently centralising, the movements neither random nor rigidly determined. We would see differing densities and frequencies of communicative links. At varying and overlapping intervals in a number of parts of the city, there would be a physical movements towards numerous spaces (for group meetings), followed by a moving apart and the resumption of other communicative links between members inside and outside the group (email, text, Facebook etc). The system would appear like an organism, breathing and pulsing with life. This challenges the idea that we can distinguish an 'inorganic' social system. Instead, there are merely differing levels of formalisation in always-organic systems.


By moving away from an abstract network image and instead re-constructing the material processes at play, in both time and space, we get a much better idea of how that network is embedded in its social and physical surroundings. In some ways, the outlines of these movements would still resemble the abstract network diagram, but with added important details. For example, it shows that systems are maintained only insofar as they continue moving and reproducing themselves; in other words, they are subject to entropy. This also makes it easier to think in terms of change, because change then becomes a natural and inevitable part of the system, rather than something exceptional.

Being subject to entropy means that social systems are constantly threatening to fall apart, and so require constant work against this tendency to be maintained. This applies not just to the Radical Assembly or to formalised networks in general, but to all systems big or small. And this is where initiatives such as Radical Assembly can be of benefit – by helping to combat the entropy of surrounding systems. By creating spaces in which new people can meet those involved in campaigns, find out about their struggles and be encouraged to get involved themselves, or at least to spread the word further, RA groups can contribute to combating the entropy experienced in other networks.

For example, as an East London-based housing activist myself, I had been supporting Islington Park Street from afar through retweets and so on for some time. But it wasn't until North London RA meetings that I was able to meet a number of the people involved, develop stronger relationships, attend their home (the site of their struggle), have in-depth discussions and start discussing future action together. In other areas, the East RA group has built on the relationships between existing campaigns like Focus E15 and Boleyn Dev 100 and become, amongst other things, a useful space for organising joint actions. Even the small West London RA group has helped us pass on community organising skills and materials to an isolated estate campaign out there. Likewise, it has been through RA general assemblies and groups that I've come to know people in other groups Liam mentions like Sisters Uncut, Black Dissidents and DPAC. The point is that larger formalised networks can help to strengthen and assist pre-existing informal networks, rather than operating as separate entities.

'Networking' can therefore no longer be distinguished from action, because communication is itself an action which creates and maintains the living 'organism' of a system. Instead of 'networking vs action', there are merely different types of action with different effects, and in order to succeed we need to balance them appropriately: meetings, protests, education events, outreach, socials and so on.


None of which is to say that 'centralisation' isn't still an issue, but we must see it not as a static structure but as a process. It's worth pointing out, however, that as far as the Radical Assembly is concerned, the general assemblies are not a central hub – having neither democratic power nor a communicative presence outside of the event. If there's any centralisation, it's the delegate system. In this, a rotating selection of people from each local group communicates and holds face-to-face meetings, to bring forwards votes and opinions on proposals from local groups, as well as to arrange the general assemblies.

larger formalised networks can help to strengthen and assist pre-existing informal networksEven if we abandon the idea that this is a static centralised hub, we can nonetheless still see it as creating a centralising force. Those who volunteer to be delegates get the opportunity to form bonds with people across the city and in different campaigns, that those who choose to operate only in the local groups would miss out on. This can have the effect of increasing the communication power of those dedicated individuals, without it translating into greater power throughout the whole network.

This centralising force is not restricted to formal networks however, but is the same within small groups and informal networks. As Liam says, "even the role of hosting/coordinating/facilitating a meeting directs a level of power to a limited few organisers", which can result in disparities in power over time as certain people become more confident, experienced and generate a wider network of contacts. This can be dangerous both in terms of democracy and the resilience of the group or network.

But we don't avoid this centralisation of power by avoiding formalisation – if anything, that leaves us open to even greater risks. This is akin to the Tyranny of Structurelessness argument, which says that far from ensuring freedom, a lack of defined structure allows internal disparities of power to form, particularly around pre-existing structural oppressions (race, gender, class, disability etc). This can be combatted through formal means, such as safer spaces policies and inclusive facilitation processes, so long as these are democratically produced and open to future revision.

On a network level, one problem of relying on spontaneous emergence is this relies on the current (likely imbalanced) geographical positioning of existing groups. For example, the relative dearth of housing campaigns in the west of London means they've not, from what I can tell, hit the kind of critical mass necessary for it to have formed itself into a self-reproducing communicative system, as it seems to be doing in and around areas like Barnet in north London (where the Sweets Way estate was located).

One of the potentials of networks like Radical Assembly (and in this case Radical Housing Network, which likewise could be identified as a 'centralised' network) is to strengthen links between campaigns that already exist but who are isolated, and also to disseminate skills and information to allow those informal networks to form. We can counter imbalances through processes such as the rotating roles, distributing skills through workshops, and agreeing on rules and principles to work towards genuine inclusiveness. This is why for example the RA Education and Skill-Share group has begun organising regular facilitation training, to make sure all the constituent groups are themselves working against the centralisation of power among a few individuals.

Overall, the formal vs informal network distinction resembles an older argument of organisational vs anti-organisational (or insurrectionary) anarchism, and can be answered in much the same way. Firstly, it's a false dichotomy, better seen as different quantities and qualities of formalisation rather than an either/or. Secondly, all across the spectrum are forms with their own strengths and weaknesses, and we thus become more powerful through their articulation.

All the potential pitfalls of larger formalised networks, such as rigidity or disparity of power, are surmountable with the right processes. The answer to these risks is not to retreat back into weak formalisation, but to develop forms of organising that allow us to maintain the autonomy of the individual groups whilst taking advantage of the emergent properties of a larger, formalised, resilient network.


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