What a century-old political science theory can tell us about the future of online activism (spoiler: a heck of a lot)

One of my old Carleton professors, Glen Williams, always used to make time in his first-year political science intro course to teach about Robert Michel’s Iron Law of Oligarchy, which Michels came up with almost a century ago, in 1911. I hope I’m not misremembering this, but he told me that it was probably the smartest thing ever written in the discipline. And I don’t think he’s wrong.

Wikipedia give a summary above, but the key line (from his book Political Parties, p. 241) is:

“Who says organization, says oligarchy.”

In other words, any organized effort will always result in hierarchy and leaders.

It’s a fantastic insight that people who study Internet activism, and particularly those who believe that the decentralized nature of the Internet allow for a new, leaderless, way of organizing social movements and improving democracy, should keep in mind. Sorry, says Michels, that’s not the way the world works. If you’re going to organize (i.e., work together) and you want to be successful, you’re going to need leaders.

(An aside: this is why Occupy Wall Street’s consciously leaderless approach has condemned it to the margins of political effectiveness.)

Two recent articles and a recent book indirectly make this point. Ayelet Oz, a Harvard Law student, analyzes the decision-making process behind Wikipedia’s decision to black itself out on January 18, 2012, to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (h/t Michael Geist). She highlights the role that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales played in initiating the protest, even as the process of consultation and decision-making was rooted in the consultative norms of the Wikipedia community. But you still needed that leader for the protest to happen, and Wales’ status in the community was doubtless central to how the protest unfolded:

It was rather a delicate play between authoritative agenda setting and holding authority back, between charismatic leadership and broad community consensus. The center of this play lay at the paramount importance the community gives to legitimacy, and the different requirements it places for the decision–making process. The back–and–forth between narrowing and broadening the discussion went hand–in–hand with different understandings and alternate means of legitimation.

Meanwhile, in a critique of Manuel Castell’s new book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Christian Fuchs quotes Paolo Gerbaudo from Gerbaudo’s new book Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism challenging “on theoretical and empirical grounds the assumption of Castells’ and others that the Internet brings about leaderless movements” (citations removed):

although contemporary social movements claim that they are leaderless networks, there are soft leaders that make use of social media for choreographing protests and “constructing a choreography of assembly” : “a handful of people control most of the communication flow.” The choreography of assembly means “the use of social media in directing people towards specific protest events, in providing participants with suggestions and instructions about how to act, and in the construction of an emotional narration to sustain their coming together in public space.” The movements’ spontaneity would be organised “precisely because it is a highly mediated one.” The ethical problem would not be this movement choreography, but the denial that there are leaders because this would result in unaccountability.

(h/t Dwayne Winseck)

Last bit of evidence that leaders still matter in Internet activism comes from Parmy Olson’s We Are Anonymous, a journalistic account of Anonymous and LulzSec. A recurring theme in that book was how discussions about large-scale ops were invariably conducted behind the scenes in small groups of recurring players (i.e., leaders) and then presented to the wider Anon community.

So, yeah, leadership takes somewhat different forms if you’re engaging in online activism, but it’s still there, and it’s still important.

Bottom line: If you want to know how the Internet affects social movements and democracy, read your Michels and don’t forget about the Iron Law of Oligarchy. As Prof. Williams would argue, it’s the rare political science theory that will never go out of style.

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