16 Beaver Group: “Networked Leninism”

There looks to be an interesting discussion going on with the 16 Beaver Group tomorrow evening, for anyone in New York City that is interested. Things like this are certainly pertinent to talk about, especially in light of the recent events unfolding in Turkey and Brazil, as well as the question of how to respond to the revelations regarding the NSA’s PRISM program:


Friday Evening — 06.21.13 — A Networked Leninism? Beyond Horizontality and Verticality — A Conversation

0. About this Friday
1. ‘The Lessons of 2011: Three Theses on Organization”
2. About Rodrigo Nunes
3. Additional reading

The last two years have seen a series of revolts take place around the world. Whether anti-austerity campaigns or uprisings against long-standing oppressive regimes, these have all been struggles in defense of old, and for the creation of new, rights and commons; they have also displayed several organizational similarities. ‘Twitter revolutions’ and ‘postmodern social movements’ are names that have been thrown around. Often, however, attempts to understand them have remained at a superficially descriptive level, and obscured more than they clarified.

It doesn’t help that this comes in the wake of decades of soul-searching among the left – a period in which discussions on organization (or the lack of it) have been at the forefront – and at a time when the stakes of enacting radical political change are so high. This often results in unproductive, defensive dialogues that present an exclusive choice between strategy and process, closure and openness, prefiguration and effectiveness, the party-form or no form at all. What if, however, we change the terms of debate? What if we question the idea that contemporary movements are formless and seek instead to identify the underlying forms they already possess, consciously or not? What if we understand spontaneity as the creation and propagation of new forms rather than as formlessness? What if we redefine concepts like ‘vanguard’ and ‘leadership’ according to what we see today, rather than trying to make the present fit old molds?

Drawing on different intellectual and political traditions (Marxism-Leninism, autonomous Marxism, post-structuralism, Liberation Theology), and developing concepts like “distributed leadership”, “complementarity”, “imperceptibility”, “synecdoche”, “vanguard-function”, “eventing”, “dyad”, this talk will explore the possibility of a way beyond the dichotomies in which organizational and strategic debates, after the first wave of struggles of 2011, seems to be at risk of getting stuck.


“Negri’s dictum on Lenin – ‘organisation is spontaneity reflecting on itself’ – suggests spontaneity is never simply formless but always already belying some kind of organisation.[i] It is a long standing mistake of the ‘organisation’ debate that it takes place as if one should choose between absolute formlessness (‘spontaneous’ movement) or form (the Party). As much as a party, however tightly controlled, will always have some degree of porosity and anomalous deviation, what seems formless always contains its own form, even if mutable and open. The three theses that follow aim to both draw out some of the lessons already implicit in the last year and a half’s struggles and to get closer to what is characteristic of their underlying forms.”

“The communication that enabled the Arab Spring (or 15M and Occupy) did not simply spread from one individual to the next via social media; in each case, what happened was always a much more complex relay between already established hubs – either ‘strong tie’ groups or communication nodes with a large following and credibility – and a long tail of ties with decreasing intensity, in a sort of ripple effect with many epicentres. If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only. This is even more explicit in those cases, such as 15M and Occupy, where there was an open, overground organising process prior to things ‘kicking off’”

“We could call it distributed leadership: the possibility, even for previously ‘uncharted’ individuals and groups, to temporarily take on the role of moving things forward by virtue of coming up with courses of action that provide provisional focal points for activity. (I have previously referred to this as ‘diffuse vanguardism’, defining it as the power ‘to ignite large scale effects without any sort of [previously existing or at a proportionally large scale] decision making procedure’.[xiv]) It applies both to the first outliers, groups or individuals, who started networking towards the mass actions that then developed into camps and assemblies. But equally to all those whose initiatives, by example more than persuasion, by contagion more than argument, managed to cut through deadlocks in decision making processes progressively reduced to the assembly form.

What makes this form of leadership different is the fact that it does not require a previously established ‘leader’ or ‘vanguard’ status (membership numbers, political trajectory, reputation). In fact, one of the key things that, in the present environment, appears to work in favour of an initiative is precisely its being ‘anonymous’ or (to put it in sports language) ‘unseeded’. It is only natural that, the present crisis being to a great extent one of representation, there should be suspicion towards ‘representative’ names.”

“The logic of distributed leadership characteristic of 2011 struggles is that of the ‘leader of the pack’ as described by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus; and yet, if we read Hegel minus the teleology (the only way to do it today), we will find it is not too distinct from those Werkzeuge of world history, ‘world-historical individuals’. In Catherine Malabou’s felicitous phrase, what we have here is the movement of a changing body/border precipitated by the occurrence of singular initiatives ‘as the cutting edge of excess/overrunning (comme bord de débordement)’.[xvi] Interestingly, it could be noticed that more optimistic readings of today’s movements, while ostensibly predicated on something like ‘collective intelligence’ rather than history (or Spirit), appear to rely on a surreptitious teleology according to which this intelligence, rather than responding to conjunctural problems with the resources at its disposal at any given time, is in the long run ‘working out’ the solutions for all crises faced today.[xvii] In a somewhat extreme case of presence fetishism, assemblies and working groups figure as stand-ins for humankind as a whole.”

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