Organizing Beyond Organizations: Good News Stories from Spain and Taiwan

C4SS Director William Gillis recently gave this talk in Austin, TX using the lenses of sociology, psychology, and information theory to explore the fundamental limitations of organizations. In other words, it’s a thorough explanation of why meetings suck.

Gillis presents a compelling explanation for the ineffectiveness of many political organizations, focused on some of the inescapable artifacts of human communication. Paraphrasing some of the salient points:

  • Knowledge problems: language is a lossy codec for communicating our internal experiences to other agents, leaving an immense gap between words and meanings.
  • Computation problems: tools like wikis and markets are subject to the massive efficiency gains of concurrency as they decentralize communication both in time and space. But most radical organizations prefer consensus meetings, which are severely constrained by the extremely low bandwidth channel of sequential one-at-a-time utterances.
  • Tribalism: in organizations, the cognitive biases and psychological needs of most humans act as a constant pressure to prioritise the self-preservation of our collective identities ahead of measurable progress towards shared aims.

However, while the critique is illuminating, I found myself unsatisfied, wishing that they had offered more light at the end of the tunnel. Frankly, I don’t care for critique without reconstruction.

Through my work at Loomio I’m connected with social movements around the world, as they use our collective decision-making software. These international connections give me great optimism, as I see new developments in organizing strategy and digital technology overcoming the limitations outlined in Gillis’ talk. Optimism is more fun when you share it, so I wanted to document two cases that I think are worth emulating.

The movements I’m most inspired by are inspiring precisely because of their combined competencies in organizational and technological development. Namely, they’re:

  1. The international municipalists informally headquartered in Spain.
  2. The conservative anarchists building new democratic forms in Taiwan.

Organized citizens in Spain have made an extraordinary demonstration of the necessity of making uncomfortable coalitions (they talk about “complicated majorities”). You see this when distinct organisations temporarily coordinate in service of one shared issue, disbanding after victory. Radical leftists are working shoulder-to-shoulder with organised labour, with immigrant groups, with progressive politicians and social entrepreneurs. Stacco Troncoso credits this practice of coalition-building as the primary factor in keeping the far right mostly out of action in Spain. It’s hard to fuel the hate-fires between tribes when they are being continuously reminded of their shared interests, and continuously invited into acts of mutual aid (e.g. the old unemployed factory worker loses some of his xenophobia when the immigrants show up to prevent his home eviction).

Another uncomfortable coalition you see in Spanish cities is the collaboration between A) the people who understand the state apparatus as a means of redirecting civil unrest it into channels that support the status quo, and B) the people who understand the state apparatus as one of the most effective levers in catalysing social change. In most parts of the world, this is a boring argument between radicals and liberals, an endless ping pong match where each team claims to have the One True Strategy while the Evil Others are undermining the struggle. In Spain activists have made peace with this tension, courageously taking the reins of institutional power while maintaining the grassroots mandate and accountability. For example, the most radical political conference I’ve been to was mindblowing not just because the speakers were incredible, but especially when you consider the event was hosted by the same people who run the Barcelona city government.

To name this tension between street movements and institutional power, in Madrid they coined the term extituion: “If institutions are organizational systems based on an inside-outside framework, extitutions are designed as areas where a multitude of agents can spontaneously assemble.” (The same author has named Cooperation Jackson as a U.S. example of the same phenomenon.)

All of this extremely promising organisational innovation is enmeshed with technological innovation. I’m immensely encouraged by the deep collaboration between political scientists and computer scientists that I’ve seen in Spain, which holds a rigorous critique of proprietary “sharing economy” and “smart cities” software, while also prototyping tools for direct democracy.

Similarly, you see elements of the same “organizational + technological innovation” recipe at play in Taiwan. In 2014 their occupy movement won. Since then they’ve been dramatically reformatting the government, moving beyond political parties, and deploying technology for mass citizen participation in law-making. This 4-minute video from queer open source hacker turned movement spokesperson turned digital minister Audrey Tang is a great introduction.

In Taiwan as in Spain, the credibility of the new political actors is rooted in the streets. Second, those actors have deployed a rigorous political strategy, systematically making allies throughout the public & private sectors, and civil society. The folks from vTaiwan told me how they interviewed every state official they could find and used the results to map out which government departments were most ready to concede decision-making power to citizens. Then they used those early engagements as leverage, playing departments off each other in a competition for who could be the most participatory. That is the kind of strategic genius that could be repeated the world over.

On the tech front, you see a dual strategy: comprehensive research of existing tools, plus regular hackathons for developing new tools. Perhaps the best-documented example of this approach is the vTaiwan Uber case, where Uber drivers, taxi drivers, citizens, and officials efficiently found the region of their agreement using a combination of face-to-face deliberation and digital sentiment mapping using pol.is.

Perhaps most importantly, these processes are being hosted by people who appreciate the immense skill required to facilitate multi-stakeholder deliberation, who are up-to-speed with the palette of tools available, and who are pre-emptively mitigating the risks of “open-washing”.

In 4 years of hobby-horsing, I’ve met exactly 2 other westerners who were familiar with the Taiwan story before I told them about it. I realise I sound like a stuck record. I feel like I’m in a little bubble where nobody seems to care much about these stories. I don’t know who else is capturing the lessons, building the transnational networks, and remixing strategies into their local context. So I’m confused, like, am I an early adopter way ahead of the curve, or am I making a mountain of a molehill, or am I just hanging out with the wrong people?

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