Modeling the structure of organisations - a research proposal

Like most of us on the revolutionary left, I have dedicated significant time to numerous political organisations, trade union branches, and mutual aid groups. In some I have had a central organising role (Kallum Ross and I wrote a post-mortem for one of these organisations - Labour Transformed) whilst in others I have been a rank-and-file member with limited decision making responsibility. Some of these organisations became pivotal parts of my identity, with my sense of personal and collective well-being tethered to some arbitrary barometer of organisational success, whilst others were bit-part flirtations, or frustrated attempts to engage with no clear pathway to do so. I have made deep lasting friendships in some instances. In others I have had no contact with comrades who I worked so closely with and had no falling out, but also no connection beyond the shared organisational identity. Sadly there are also instances of actual fallings out, often over subjects that in hindsight had little to no material stakes attached to them.

I indulge in this brief organisational autobiography not to cast myself as uniquely placed to talk about organisation in any way, but specifically because many of us will have been through a similar range of experiences. Indeed, even beyond the revolutionary left, many of these experiences will register with anyone who has engaged with any organisation or social grouping - be it a workplace, schools, bands, neighbourhood communities, etc etc. The list is endless. It is strange then, that we largely take organisational structures for granted, choosing from a handful of boilerplate organisational forms and running with them. Where these discussions do tend to take place, the focus is often placed on the distinction between centralism and horizontalism. This is a false distinction however, something that Stafford Beer noted in his classic text Designing Freedom, way back in 1974:

“How do we sustain individual liberty and societary cohesion at the same time? It is right that this problem should be incessantly discussed. But the discussion always seems to lead into the same disastrous trap; a false dichotomy between notions of centralisation and decentralisation1.

Beer - most well known for his pioneering work applying his Viable Systems Model to the management of the Chilean economy under Salvadore Allende - was talking about the management of what he termed exceedingly complex systems. Such systems are so complex as to be indescribable with perfect precision. This is simply because there are too many moving parts, too many variables, often affecting the performance of one another. Whilst an economy such as that of Chile is clearly an exceedingly complex system, so too are organisations such as trade unions or political sects. This complexity comes from both within and without. Within any organisation there are members with their own ideas on how things should be run, and often subgroups (subsystems) with their own interests and focuses. Many members will likely be members of other organisations too, splitting their level of commitment based on where they feel most effective. Then of course there is the ever changing outside world. Any marxist worth their salt understands that the environment is not a static background on which we act, but itself a dynamic, ever changing system which we both change and are changed by. Therefore organisations must be able to dynamically adapt to a changing and - particularly in the case of revolutionary organisations - often hostile world.

Of course there is also the quality-of-life aspect to think about. We spend our lives engaging with and inhabiting organisations. We owe it to ourselves to make these environments which are not only effective in their ability to reproduce themselves effectively, but to be fulfilling and engaging rather than draining and alienating. In The Black Lamp’s editorial, we noted that our faith lay in “the potential of the constituent parts of the left, those that have the capacity and creativity to effect real change in the world,” and not in “organisations and networks that leave many of us as alienated as do our day jobs within the capitalist mode of production.” This is not an attack on individual organisations, but an acknowledgement of the necessity of their existence, and therefore the necessity to design them in a manner that is as anti-capitalist in culture and structure as in strategy.

With all this in mind, The Black Lamp will be commissioning and writing a series of pieces on modelling the structure of organisations. In this introductory piece I will lay out some of the important themes and focuses of this project. Although we have a series of pieces in mind, we welcome contributions too.

The tendency toward oligarchy

Maybe the only cross-class consensus view is that bureaucracy is bad. Like a parasitic growth, it creeps irresistibly into every aspect of life. We all hate it, but often find ourselves sucked into it, unconsciously replicating its patterns. Stafford Beer defined bureaucracy as “a nucleus - within an institution - which retains its homeostasis by ignoring not only external change but the primary function of the institution itself2.” In other words, bureaucracies are like rogue subsystems that become ends in themselves. Their functional goal becomes their own reproduction, regardless of whether that comes at the expense of the ability of the organisation as a whole to reproduce itself. However it is worth noting that bureaucracies originated as a necessity:

“Indeed, bureaucratic organization tends to appear wherever a collective activity needs to be coordinated by several people toward explicit and impersonal goals, that is, to be controlled. Bureaucracy has served as the generalized means to control any large social system in most institutional areas and in most cultures since the emergence of such systems by about 3000 B.C3.”

Herein lies the central question: How is it possible to coordinate large social systems without a subsystem that parasitises the larger system for its own interest? Organisational structure will necessarily be an important factor in answering this question. In terms of structural forms organisations should take, variations on democratic centralism or horizontalism are usually taken for granted. It is clear however that the structural form an organisation takes will have significant ramifications for the organisation’s ability to reproduce itself. By structures I do not simply mean the formal positions that exist and the processes by which members are able to interact with electeds, but also the informal power structures that arise and replicate, often with severe consequences for the organisation at large.

In 1911 Robert Michels4 posited that complex organisations tend towards bureaucratisation and rule by an elite, regardless of how democratic their initial structures might have been. The iron law of oligarchy was based on Michels' research on the European mass social democratic and socialist parties, principally the SPD. Michels showed how any large organisation needs a bureaucracy in order to maintain efficiency. This division of labour inevitably leads toward knowledge and skills hoarding, as well as a banking approach towards the reproducibility of the organisation, resulting in the bottlenecking of organisational pathways. But is this an “iron law”, as Michels claims, or a tendency that can be countered? This is one of the formative questions of this research project. Contained within this question are concerns about the ability of an organisation to both reproduce itself, and to adapt to a changing environment. As Stafford Beer put it in Designing Freedom, “To succeed, we must first perceive the nature of dynamic surviving systems, and the conditions they must meet to remain stable yet adaptive5.”

To locate a path forward we must look back at the dominant historic organisational forms. Though democratic centralism and horizontalism are traditionally perceived as polar opposites, it is our contention that while this may be true in terms of form, there are often many functional similarities (to the point where a democratic centralist organisation may be more functionally similar to a horizontalist structure than to another democratic centralist one). Chief amongst our tasks will be to excavate these categories and understand how flexibly they have been used to reproduce the extant leadership layers.

Structure vs betrayal…again

Critique of organisations often involves identifying the failings of those in leadership positions. These might be failures to act in ways in which we want, or failures to democratise organisations, or failures to delegate power. However it is rarely possible to evaluate these decisions effectively, due to the lack of information about the internal dynamics of the organisation in question. Even if we have access to information on formal structures (who inhabits which position, who answers to whom etc), the majority of an organisation’s members will be unaware of the informal relationships and networks that exist between those within leadership structures. These can be as influential (or indeed moreso) than the formal positions that exist. To give one example, despite being a member of the Labour Party-adjacent organisation Momentum for many years, I learned more about how centralised decision making was - and who was actually making those decisions - when I had left the organization and happened to form friendships with those who were “in the know”, than I did as a card carrying member devoting much of my time to my local branch. Indeed, I would be amazed if most members of the organisation even know the names of any Momentum staffers. This is not a situation unique to Momentum of course. How many DSA members are aware of where their membership dues go? Despite being a significantly more transparent organisation than Momentum, the onus is still necessarily on the member to hunt out information.

In these all too familiar scenarios, a visible figure (or number of figures) becomes the target of critique, and individual agency is given primacy over structural limitations. In reality these processes are co-constitutive. With Momentum much blame was laid at the feet of founding member Jon Lansman and his failure to democratise the organisation, whilst a close-knit network made all consequential decisions. Several years have passed since Lansman left Momentum and two rounds of National Coordinating Group (NCG - the highest governing body in the organisation) elections have taken place with a different slate elected each time, yet the levels of truly democratic engagement have remained low. There are of course a number of variables at play here - not least the demise of the British left within the Labour Party - and that is the main point! The founders’ original sin of having failed to create the transparent and generative structures and processes that would have facilitated member engagement certainly opens them up to criticism, and may well have locked the door to retroactively creating a necessarily democratic environment, but this cannot be looked at in isolation, under the assumption that if others had been there at the birth we would have a mass membership socialist organisation with high levels of engagement. Indeed others who later took the reigns - amid boasts of democratising the organisation - failed to achieve very much at all.

The appropriate mode of analysis then is not solely a critique of the people at the top, nor a purely structural analysis, but an understanding of how cleaving apart structure and betrayal creates a false dichotomy between two processes that are necessarily intertwined. The agency of individuals will always be shaped by the environment around them, and in the case of an organisation that includes both the formal and informal structures and processes, as well as the outside world within which the organisation operates.

Already we are seeing a set of recursions appear - from the individual member through local branches, up to the organisation in toto, and further still into the environment in which it operates. Systems within systems. Through understanding how these systems operate and interrelate, we can hope to avoid lazily picking up organisational structures of old - designed for different conditions and different goals - and instead cater to both the conditions we operate in and the functions we want our organisations to achieve. This approach to accounting for complexity is the heart of good scientific inquiry, and whether it is framed in system theoretic terms, or even in the dreaded dialectic, it provides a framework in which to move forward. As Bertell Ollman puts it,

“Unlike nondialectical research, where one starts with some small part and through establishing its connections to other such parts tries to reconstruct the larger whole, dialectical research begins with the whole, the system, or as much of it as one understands, and then proceeds to an examination of the part to see where it fits and how it functions, leading eventually to a fullerunderstanding of the whole from which one has begun6.”

Ofcourse much of this might sound technical, but the aim of this research project is to flesh out the “how to” aspect such that others feel confident in applying such a critical lens to their own organisational endeavors. Ollman makes a big deal of “vantage points” in Dance of the dialectic. Modelling is sometimes described as more art than science because there are an infinite number of models of any system, and choosing the most informative will always depend on the question we are concerned with. From the vantage point of considering organisation-wide member disengagement, it may be somewhat informative to look at the dynamics within a certain local group in which a small network has largely shut out those on the fringes, but this alone cannot tell us about the organisation-wide phenomenon. It does however tell us that structures exist that have facilitated the local takeover, and points to locating where and how those structures originated. Being able to reflexively move between different vantage points allows us to “zoom in” when we need to, without losing the wider picture. The glaring problem ofcourse, is one of information.

Skill and knowledge hoarding

One of the central challenges we face is access to information about organisations, both formal (e.g. financial and membership information) and informal (e.g. the networks of people - both within and without - who have considerable sway on decisions an organisation takes). This is a subset of a wider problem whereby individuals are incentivised to make themselves indispensable, and therefore hoard both cultural and practical information (yep, just like in many of our day jobs, where we are pitted against one another). If the setup of an organisation is such that most members are excluded from meaningful activity, those that have obtained positions of influence have considerably more to lose by sharing their know-how than they would do in an environment where the average rank-and-file member has a tangible sense of agency. The consequences of skill and knowledge hoarding are threefold:

1. Reproducing systems of influence/bureaucratic layers within the organisation.

2. Preventing a thoroughgoing critique from sources external to the organisation.

3. Limiting the ability of the organisation to adapt to the ever-changing environment it operates in, and thereby curtailing its ability to reproduce its functionality (this is crucial - it is the function that needs reproducing, not merely the existence of the organisation!)

It is necessary to tease out the feedback loops that these three processes are part of, and whether its possible to formulate thresholds for when these patterns are so entrenched that they cannot be broken, and an organisation is no longer fit for purpose. This may feel extreme. We’ve now moved from critiquing an organisation with the aim of changing it to potentially discarding it altogether. Yet this is the internal calculus many of us have made when we have chosen to leave an organisation; we have deemed that it is broken beyond repair and therefore no longer worth our time and energy. So the question is whether we can expand on that sense of defeat to identify an objective criterion from which we can classify organisational dynamics as so ossified as to be incapable of change.

Importance of belonging/identity

In an oft-quoted letter to Arnold Ruge, Karl Marx declared  that - faced with an uncertain future - our role must be that of “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” Yet here we are, perennially tip-toeing around our comrades for fear we may upset them. Critique is reserved for those outside our own circles. In part this is understandable. When the stakes of critique seem so low - The Black Lamp is a tiny publication, if 100 people read this piece that will be an achievement - risking actual bonds of community and friendship for criticism that feels like it has no impact does not feel like a worthwhile trade off. There is also the consideration of what Michael Tomasello and Malinda Carpenter call “shared intentionality7” - the synthesis of self and other - where criticism of one’s own organisation or comrades is tantamount to self-criticism. Exploring how these sub-kinship ties manifest will be another important part of this project, with particular focus on what actually bonds us together, and whether it is even possible to critique our own communities from within them without breaking those bonds or indeed breaking ourselves.

Where those bonds do not exist, internal critique of an organisation is still almost always derided as fiddling while the world is quite literally burning. Living in a moment of ongoing overlapping crises means that tinkering with the structures and processes that make up organisation leaves one open to lazy criticisms of navel gazing. An honest appraisal of the successes of those that launch these critiques makes for rather dire reading. Let us look at one example. The “Enough is Enough” (EiE) campaign launched in the UK as a response to the cost of living crisis. A number of trade unions (CWU, RMT, UCU, FBU), as well as the publication Tribune and a small number of Labour Party MPs made up the core of the campaign, centered around five demands that made for excellent sloganeering but lacked in any real content:

  1. A real pay rise
  2. Slash energy bills
  3. End food poverty
  4. Decent homes for all
  5. Tax the rich

There was great fanfare around the campaign, coming as it did at a time of increasing unrest within the UK. However, it reproduced one of the central problems most political campaigns in the UK have historically exhibited: you can’t engage with them in any meaningful way. You sign up to a mailing list, you turn up to marches, you listen to the well-known figureheads give rousing speeches. You can often donate money too. And that is it. Every person who buys into the campaign’s demands and wants to have a meaningful impact is reduced to a name on a mailing list and a number in a crowd. I will note that many people pointed out these issues with EiE when the campaign first surfaced and were largely shouted down. Making these structural arguments when a campaign has just launched and has significant momentum behind it, with marches drawing in big numbers, will always be met with retorts about navel gazing and attempting to derail what is allegedly a successful campaign. The lack of an actual forum for these discussions means they inevitably collapse into slanging matches on social media. When the excitement dies down, people have moved onto the next great hope, where the dynamics may appear different in form, but are inevitably the same in content.

Its worth pausing to note that EiE disappeared for all intents and purposes. Before the 30th January protest, their website’s last announced event was almost a year ago. The criticisms were right of course, and a ruthless assessment would have to conclude that the campaign failed. Their five demands have not been met and the campaign has largely collapsed. It is hard to feel optimistic that the same patterns won’t be repeated again.

Towards a ruthless critique

I have briefly critiqued two organisations here. Both merit a far more rigorous treatment. I would love to see considered long-form critiques of all organisations that exist. The hope is that this project will help develop tools to perform these critiques, whilst exploring the limitations of organisational models such as democratic centralism and the binding effects of community and belonging. Perhaps the simplest description of this project is an attempt to apply system theoretic and anthropological concepts to organisational modelling. If you are interested in contributing to this project, or would like to respond - critique! - this introductory piece, please get in touch with us either via Twitter @the_black_lamp, or via email: The structure of this project is by no means set in stone either. It may just involve interested parties writing essays, or maybe a small number will engage in some collective reading and production of materials. Get in touch and let us know how you’d like to contribute!

Works cited

1. Beer, S., 1974. Designing freedom. John Wiley and Sons. P.70.

2. Beer, S., 1974. Designing freedom. John Wiley and Sons. P.78.

3. Beniger, J.R., 1986. The Control Revolution. Harvard University Press. P.13.

4. Michels, R., 2001. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Ontario: Batoche Books.

5. Beer, S., 1974. Designing freedom. John Wiley and Sons. P.7.

6. Ollman, B., 2003. Dance of the dialectic: steps in Marx’s method. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill. P.14.

7. Tomasello M, Carpenter M. Shared intentionality. Dev Sci. 2007 Jan;10(1):121-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00573.x. PMID: 17181709.

Vivak Soni is an editor at The Black Lamp.