The Left Should See Our Movement as a Dynamic Ecology

Instead of finger-wagging at other leftists, we should think ecologically about our organizational structures and tactics.

A rally for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 2, 2020. (Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia Commons)

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1972 novel The Dispossessed, a rather poignant moment occurs when the protagonist Shevek has to accept the possibility that the anarchist planet he lives on may not be exempt from alienating (or “dispossessing”) power relations, even though it has no formal governmental structure.

Reacting in surprise to his friend Bedap, he says, “What are you talking about, Dap? We have no power structure.” In response, Bedap reminds him that there are several ways to exert influence over labor; that, for better or for worse, existing beyond a top-down governmental structure doesn’t automatically evade coercive power. Just because there is formally “no power structure” doesn’t mean there are no power relations. Shevek is stuck believing that his own planet’s structure, by definition, defies oppression and dysfunction.

Shevek’s confusion reflects an abiding belief on the Left that bad political outcomes exclusively lie with those other political structures, but certainly wouldn’t happen under the one we embrace.

Determining a proper system for organizing political power is still a deeply important question on the Left today. Are certain organizational structures more or less prone to bureaucratization, more or less democratic, or more or less effective in achieving socialism? Clarity about these questions would help leftists be more adaptive and responsive to what is needed in a specific political moment.

Rodrigo Nunes’s Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organisation takes up this complicated issue. Nunes, a professor of modern and contemporary philosophy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, PUC-Rio) and a Jacobin contributor, comes out of the alter-globalization movements of the late 1990s. Since then, the Left has experimented with a variety of tactics, but has remained, according to Nunes, reluctant to dispense with false dichotomies. This tendency is especially pronounced in moments where we assume that lessons of history can be boiled down to simple abstractions: unity vs. multiplicity, centralization vs. connection, local vs. global, party-form vs. network-form.

As a result, organizing efforts and movements are caught flat-footed as they confront unexpected setbacks and complexities. Whether it’s from internal dysfunction, loss of momentum, or external interference, often leftists are stubborn to accept that a lost cause can’t be blamed solely on those uncommitted to a specific brand of leftist organizing. Often the failures are a sign that organizing itself needs to evolve. “No one way works,” writes Diane di Prima, whom Nunes quotes in a chapter epigraph. “It will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down.”

Organisationsfrage: Directing Energy and Force

Throughout the book, Nunes argues that there are several pieces to successful political struggle. It isn’t about which specific actors, institutions, theories, or slogans are called upon ahead of time — after all, we can’t know in advance whether theories or slogans are fail-safe. It’s their interactions and relations that matter: how they affect and mobilize one another, in a particular place and time.

This interaction animates the range of forces and energies that go into organizing. These dynamics are not reducible to one specific model (the party, the council, the union), nor can they be understood merely as decentralized, local, diffuse, or networked forces that can all come together to work in concert. Rather, Nunes teases out the different ways that people and systems are brought into contact at all levels of political power and within all kinds of social struggles.

To lay the groundwork for his theory of organization, Nunes notes the tensions internal to the word itself. It would be wrong, he says, to limit our understanding of “organization” to institutions like political parties. Rather, “organization” is an active process. An organizing system establishes relations, directs forces, and focuses energies.

We shouldn’t dismiss any structure prima facie. We never know when it might turn out to be useful to achieve a specific political goal. This lesson was clear in the years after the decentralized Occupy movement, when some of the same activists who had sworn off vying for state power through elections then realized the enormous potential of Bernie Sanders’s electoral campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid and threw themselves into them.

The lesson here isn’t that both organizing strategies are equally effective. On the contrary, this experience illustrates how the Left needed to be responsive to the moment. An opening arose to seize a potential electoral or parliamentary victory. What a shame it would’ve been had that moment been preemptively dismissed out of hand for being inauthentic to the Left!

In this way, writes Nunes:

We might talk about identifying longer- and shorter-term tendencies that are, at any given moment, amplified or reinforced by forces acting in other directions, upon which we can intervene in order to raise or lower the probability of certain effects.

A basic thing to understand about political organization, then, is not so much the form it takes, but the forces it is capable of building and stoking at a particular moment. What matters is how the connections we build help activate political energies that can be built upward and outward, and how we can manage the constraints on political energy, but also keep it from losing focus or running out of steam. Nunes again points to the Occupy movement. While some of the networks that crystallized around Occupy Wall Street eventually went on to organize effective disaster relief when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, for example, many on the Left (rightfully) reflect on how quickly other movements died out when they lacked clear direction or rootedness in more established and formal working-class institutions.

Nunes writes:

For that potentia to go in the direction we want it to, for it to produce stable and resilient ties, for it to be invested in activities that root political objectives in the everyday lives of a large number of people and build that capacity to transform our present predicament — none of that comes “naturally,” if by that we understand things suddenly clicking together without anyone trying to arrange them. Someone has to do it; that someone is whoever wants to see these things happen.

Locating Ourselves Within an Organizational Ecology

A running theme in Nunes’s text is his invitation for us to think ecologically. Thinking of organization ecologically means seeing

a distributed ecology of relations traversing and bringing together different forms of action (aggregate, collective), disparate organizational forms (affinity groups, informal networks, unions, parties), the individuals that compose or collaborate with them, unaffiliated individuals who attend protests, share material online or even just sympathetically follow developments on the news, webpages and social media profiles, physical spaces, and so on.

Any politically engaged reader can locate themselves within this ecology, and that’s part of its beauty. Not only is the organizing system itself an ecology; we can also see ourselves as acting ecologically. Establishing relations and connections is what generates the moving parts within this system. Nunes writes, “To truly think of one’s actions ecologically is to be less invested in one’s own self-image than in the need to play, or at least recognize as valid, whatever part a situation might require.”

This would mean avoiding the over-romanticized image of the “activist” as one who embodies the authenticity of political struggle. This not only conflates identity with strategy; it also neglects the many people who can organize without being self-consciously activists. Nunes, for example, doesn’t minimize the potential impact of sharing memes on social media as a node in the organizational ecology — so long as the process doesn’t stop there.

Thinking ecologically means that organizational success isn’t owed to a rigid set of codes and orthodoxies. Rather, its success relies on an ability to see where to apply energy and when. Because an ecology contains a variety of subjects coming into contact in a variety of ways, we should see clearly that no one strategy, person, slogan, or action achieves a political end by itself. What matters is the strategic combination. The various forces at play depend on each other, supplying one another with energy and possibilities.

Furthermore, ecological thinking can help mitigate some of the various melancholias plaguing the Left. As leftists, we are very bad at interrogating our own habits of thought and very good at transferring blame to an idea of another Left, whoever that may be: anarchists, Marxists, horizontalists, reformists. But this habit of finger-wagging is a symptom of the same inflexible thinking that Nunes’s book inveighs against: preemptive suspicion on the basis of political categories and abstractions. Our attention should be directed to the specific methods and specific forces, not to a set of pieties to which we attach our political identities. Understood as an ecology, we can see the utility of deploying different tools and different points depending on the situation, with none resulting alone in a movement’s success or failure.

Theory and Metacommentary

A book on theory has always to contend with the question of its practical application. Dense terminology, abstract models, and challenging argumentation often push serious organizers away from these types of texts.

But Nunes’s text stages a commentary on itself, with an awareness of how it fits into the wider ecology. After all, one way to think about organization, following György Lukács, is as “the form of mediation between theory and practice.” Yet, again, the organization is not about the form it takes, but the forces it creates. Nunes’s book is about how organizing is fundamentally about establishing relations and managing energy. In doing so, the book connects concepts, traditions, discourses, and readers, showing that no piece can be seen in isolation.

Neither Vertical nor Horizontal is neither just a book of political theory, nor just a critique of organizational failures. Within Nunes’s ecology, all parts of political organizing are seen as small ways of acting within a bigger project. Likewise, in his own book, the theories, concepts, traditions, ideas, critiques, and limitations he touches on all contribute to the larger whole. Nunes takes theory seriously while also never losing sight of the precise limitations and challenges that organizers and political actors confront.

By communicating to readers, whoever they are and wherever they may be within the ecology of the broad Left, Nunes’s text is establishing relations and opening up possibilities. Like Shevek in The Dispossessed, we too learn to see how we function within this ecology, and can recognize the potentia and potesta that all organizing has to manage.