In starting research with Center for Civic Media, I get to sit and read for hours a day. Go to conferences which seem interesting. Attend talks of people I’ve read the work of. It is absurd. I still don’t like the institution of academia, but that’s because everyone should have access to such resources, not because I don’t like (and appreciate) the opportunities. My research is on how organizations with distributed power scale. In this area of study, decentralization or distributed power in an group is referred to as “flat.” “Decentralized” as a stand-alone term usually means how resources are distributed, rather than power structures. Read more about that on Charlie DeTar’s great post.
This means I’ve been reading rather a lot around how activist groups change over time based on how they interact with the rest of the world, each other, and themselves. Most recently, I finished Revolutions in Reverse, a collection of David Graeber essays. A standard sequence which became clear to me is the following:
- Individual groups work towards their objective from their perspective, build up some sort of core and maybe a following.
- Occasionally, something massive comes up, and some of these groups band together. While they have different perspectives, they share an objective for a short period of time. Basically, alliterative alignment-based alliance.
- After the shared objective is achieved, the thrill of victory makes groups want to continue to work together. Other shared objectives are sought, but alliances crumble due to the different perspectives which made the larger grouping so robust in its diversity.
- Individual participants become disenchanted because of these dramas and depart from the larger grouping at the least, and often their orginial core group as well.
Essentially, people set aside basic debates while a pressing objective is at hand. In facilitation work, instigating projects is a great way to get people over their social anxieties and political differences in order to create bonds which later might surplant those issues. As my friend Slim once said on the twitters, “sweat is a far more honest social lubricant.” The issue is when those collusions are expected to last longer than is actually reasonable.
What I have been wondering is this: Why don’t we just shake hands after the larger objective has been achieved, and go on our merry ways? To me, this is far more sustainable culturally. Personally, one of the things which I love most about meeting people doing good work completely unrelated to my own is that there are so many things wrong in the world, in such intertwined and complex ways, if we were all working on the same aspect, no impact would be made. I don’t want to continue being joined forces, because I want to know you have my back in the larger scheme of things. Talk about the breakup before you start dating (or the “Founder’s Prenup“) – adults should be able to act like adults, even when they go their separate ways. Then you have the ability to work together on big things in the future, instead of still being butthurt about something that happened in the past.
I see this approach as similar to the move to portfolio-based employment from one long career employment. People associate with you for a discrete project based on what you’ve done in the past, which then gets added to your portfolio. Why not the same for social structures and political movements? We gather around a project, celebrate it when it’s done, and move on. Sometimes we end up working consistently with the same set of people because it makes a lot of sense, but it’s not the starting assumption. In my wariness, I don’t believe this will solve large problems, only allow us to fail for better reasons. Does anyone have any examples around this, of it working or not working, or at least being tried?
Potentially related: Temporary Autonomous Zones
I believe a large part of the reason that folks end up getting disillusioned and leaving causes is they have sunk their identity into the cause and work itself, and suffer a shock when the work stops being in line with their values. I think this is easy to do when starting new projects, especially when the values exhibited in the early stage are closely aligned with the values of the participant.
Also, yo! Your use of “drama” and “butthurt” minimize the feelings of participants. Perhaps you could adjust your language in the future.
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