The Structures of Structurelessness: Contestation and Power within Networked Social Movements

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
56 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Martin Eiermann, UC Berkeley Dept of Sociology, Berkeley, CA
Ever since the publication, in 1911, of Robert Michels’ thesis on the “iron law of oligarchy”, scholars of collective action have sought to link the study of movement’s organizational forms to distributions of power. At the core of this line of inquiry is a simple proposition: The dynamics of collective action are influenced not only by contests between movements and their antagonists or targets – most prominently among them organs of the state, but also corporations, NGOs, or other movements – but also by internal micropolitical struggles. In more recent years, these concerns have echoed through the study of what scholars have variously termed “self-consciously non-hierarchical” movements (Milkman et al 2013), “networked self-management” (Castells 2011), “horizontalism” (Piven 2013), “rhizomatic resistance” (Funke 2014), “the logic of aggregation” (Juris 2012), or “prefigurative social movements” (Graeber 2013). By focusing on concrete networking practices, these analyses have contributed to a narrative of collective action that stresses movements’ ability to efficiently disseminate information (Vicari 2014), their resilience against repression (Passy and Monsch 2014), solidarity across decentralized networks (Nicholls 2003), and the goal of "prefiguring" alternative and cooperative values and lifestyles outside the logic of market capitalism (Juris 2012). 

Yet we often know surprisingly little about the professed objects of study: What happens when alternative norms and political agendas are concretely put into practice? With a few noteworthy exceptions (Juris 2006, Milkman et al 2013), scholars have brought the full brunt of their conceptual toolkit to bear on a relatively thin layer of empirical data about the dynamics of recent decentralized movements. Available data troves have certainly been substantial: Recent studies have drawn on online data to analyze online social networks of the Occupy movement or the Spanish Indignados (González-Bailón et al. 2011; Caren and Gaby 2011; Tremayne 2014), unveil transnational ties between activist groups (Vicari 2014) or ties within online campaign organizations (Lewis, Gray and Meierhenrich 2014). But most openly available and accessible online data belong squarely in the realm of what Erving Goffman (1959) has called the “front-stage” of social action: They are traces of public-facing and performative interactions and communicative rituals that might differ significantly from the dynamics and processes that shape internal struggles over power. Their greatest analytical utility lies in the light they might shed on the talk about collective action, not in the insights they offer into the doing of collective action. As a result, conclusions often remain speculative about the link between organizational forms, distributions of power, and movement dynamics. The choice before us is often to accept the applicability of Michels’ “iron law” to a new generation of social movements, or to embrace the characterization of these movements as qualitatively different, decentralized, scalable, and resistant to power monopolization by virtue of their networked organization. 

Through an analysis of Occupy London – one of the largest Occupy encampments in the world in 2011 and 2012 –, this paper refocuses attention on the internal organization of ostensibly “networked” collective action. It makes two interventions. First, it adds empirical depth to existing studies by investigating the actual structural arrangements and dynamics of contention and cooperation through which informal collectives sustain and reproduce themselves. The paper does not assume any particular “horizontal” or “rhizomatic” configuration (Castells 2011) at the outset, but draws on a combination of meeting records and 50,000 emails among participants (which are analysed using a combination of network methods and qualitative analyses of sampled exchanges) to reconstruct organizational structures from interactions among participants. Instead of assuming the durability and atemporality of those structures, it investigates whether, and how, they change over time. Second, the paper presents a tangible set of mechanisms that connect organizational structures to micropolitical struggles over power, and thus inquires into the dynamics and conditions that fuel organizational change over time. It demonstrates that Occupy London is best understood as a small-world network that was susceptible to the rapid spread of contestation across a high percentage of participants, that the movement’s heterogeneous composition fueled the rise of such acrimonious contestation, and that the “process model” of conflict resolution – rooted in the spirit of consensus-based and cooperative decision-making – proved inadequate in facilitating the dissolution of conflict. It suggests that one important liability of networked collective action is rooted not in the endlessness of its meetings (Polletta 2002) or in the tyrannical proclivities of its organizational forms (Michels 1911, Freeman 1970) but in the persistent danger of contagion that threatens to sever the ties between its participants. The paper thus adds empirical weight to the study of prefigurative politics that seek not only to combat the effects of neoliberalism but also to put political imagination into practice.