Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making

Aaron Peters writes about open source consensus, and explains how networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making and acting.

One of the big stories at the end of 2010 was the emergence of a number of social movements engaging in the biggest flood of direct action this country has seen for decades. Working synchronously the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, the London Student Assembly and student occupations across the country worked with sixth-formers, schoolchildren and sympathetic members of the public in arguing against the removal of the cap in higher education tuition fees, gaining widespread media attention and pushing the parliamentary vote much closer than was previously thought possible.

Elsewhere actors like UKUncut and False Economy have functioned in a manner that has been described previously as ‘open source’ behaving in a networked and autonomous manner in making an impact. For such actors there is no structural hierarchy or bureaucracy and anyone who wishes to participate and actively contribute to the group can do so. These networks in many ways represent organising without organisations.

There has been something of a debate as to whether such ‘open source’ actors are indeed any better than organisations, with some claiming that such actors will necessarily have to compromise their structures as time goes on and will eventually come to imitate the social movement organisations (SMOs) of the past with top down hierarchies of leaders who represent the interests of ‘members’ rather than participants.

In response to such claims these networks claim that they are inherently more flexible, dynamic and are more capable of reacting to fast changing events than those of centralised, hierarchical organisations with bureaucracies that by their very nature hinder quick and effective decision making as we so desperatly saw with the National Union of Students (NUS).

A UKUncut event by the name of ‘The Feeling is Mutual’ was recently organised by myself and several other participants within the network to highlight co-operative models of business as being superior to those that seek merely to extend shareholder value and little else. The objective was to educate and inform the public of the superiority of such business models and start a debate as to what kinds of model we would like to see regarding British banks in the future, be it credit unions, mutuals, banking co-operatives or outright nationalisation for certain players such as RBS and Lloyds.

The event subsequently received a very mixed response, with many passionately for and others passionately against. Most, however, were unsure and felt ill at ease holding a company such as John Lewis as a model for the future given it does not even allow worker unionisation despite its merits relative to every other business in the West End.

Consequent to this response the event has been called off and will be replaced with another action for the same day (as some rather logistically innovative stuff has already been organized for the usual … Arcadia ahem … suspects) that will focus, as has previously been the case, on corporate tax avoidance and also the increase in VAT which will hit the poor the hardest.

The online disagreement was mostly conducted in a deliberative manner in the spirit of solidarity and indeed taught myself and no doubt others some under-reported home truths about the John Lewis group for which I am grateful.

The discussion it engendered about how many within Uncut and the Left feel about co-operative models of business was also highly informative – as always with networked movements, the participatory element of the ‘process’ was in many ways as productive as the end. I learnt about other people’s sentiments on the matter as well as facts, many of them utterly unexpected; this is how movements build consensus on certain issues, through trial and error.

This feedback loop of a mixed collective response on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere to the action in part shows the power of networked movements and organising without organisations. While it is true that anyone can set up an action and be entrepreneurial in fostering dissent with such models, it is also true that this same model allows such individuals the ability to see if consensus forms behind the action in the form of online support through social networks – there was not consensus in this instance and subsequently the only appropriate course of action, in order to stay true to the spirit of our movements, was to cancel it.

While some claim we need organisations with democratic representation in order to make a difference moving forward, others are worried that in so doing we would renounce the autonomous dynamics that have made these movements so vibrant and successful. In this instance the network model responded much more quickly than an organisation ever could; would the NUS change position under similar conditions? Historically we know it didn’t, several times.

The lesson from the whole event is this – networks can be more powerful than organisations in fostering dissent and for that to be the case individuals and groups must be innovative in ideas and actions. That is why this model has proved successful so far. However, these same individuals and groups must be reminded that where there is not a broad consensus behind a particular action this model fails.

As with open source code software, open source protest is subject to Linus’ Law, namely that all content is transparent and that anyone can contribute or comment on the code at any time. As a result open-source actions are subject to much stronger oversight among participants in deciding if they are good or bad – this offers them an advantage against formal organisations in constructing themselves in a consensual and democratic manner, just as it gives an advantage to Linux over Microsoft in writing superior code.

In order for de-centred networks such as UKUncut and the student movement to be as successful as many of us think they can be, dissent entrepreneurs and autonomous groups need to act boldly and innovatively. They must always do so however in a spirit of  collective deliberation, consensus and, most importantly, solidarity.

38 Responses to “Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making”

  1. The Dragon Fairy

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh by @AaronJohnPeters

  2. Jacob Bard-Rosenberg

    http://bit.ly/dP3eAX – Yeah, but UKuncut (in London) actually do have a private group who meet to plan actions…

  3. Shamik Das

    Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh writes @AaronJohnPeters on @leftfootfwd

  4. Jacob Bard-Rosenberg

    Sorry should I say that again. http://bit.ly/dP3eAX UKuncut in London has a private organising group. Can we stop making shit up.

  5. Jose Aguiar

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh by @AaronJohnPeters

  6. NewLeftProject

    The networks debate continues – @aaronjohnpeters speaks up for the defence http://bit.ly/hsKFWh

  7. Deb

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making http://bit.ly/e2Qmug

  8. Zoe Stavri

    Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making, says @aaronjohnpeters. V. interesting. http://is.gd/k6nPn

  9. Aaron Peters

    http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy

  10. Andy Bean

    RT @aaronjohnpeters: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy

  11. Double.Karma

    RT @aaronjohnpeters: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy

  12. Dave Mellows

    RT @aaronjohnpeters: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy @anthonybarnett @danhancox @@davidwe …

  13. Aaron Peters

    http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy @anthonybarnett @danhancox @@davidwearing @ukuncut

  14. sianberry

    More interesting stuff on organising; RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh

  15. Ellie Mae

    Very good piece by @aaronjohnpeters on decentralised networks like @ukuncut: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO I recommend it!

  16. Peter Pannier

    RT @MissEllieMae: Very good piece by @aaronjohnpeters on decentralised networks like @ukuncut: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO I recommend it!

  17. Gareth

    This is a very good piece of 'open source protest': http://bit.ly/h1oSzW (HT @MissEllieMae) New term to me, now it makes sense

  18. Jim Lawrence

    RT @dartacus: This is a very good piece of 'open source protest': http://bit.ly/h1oSzW (HT @MissEllieMae) New term to me, now it makes sense

  19. GuyAitchison

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh by @AaronJohnPeters

  20. The Fat Councillor

    And, *this* is why the protests will fail. Factionalism and disagreement already >> http://bit.ly/fhHQoO #ukuncut

  21. Rooftop Jaxx

    RT @aaronjohnpeters: http://bit.ly/fhHQoO piece on @leftfootfwd on networks, autonomy and democracy

  22. Marina Pepper

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can B deliberative, accountable & consensual in decision making http://bit.ly/e2Qmug <=== READ THIS!!!!! #ukuncut

  23. Alex Tambourides

    RT @MarinaPepper RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can B deliberative, accountable & consensual in decision making http://bit.ly/e2Qmug #ukuncut

  24. peter kobi

    RT @MarinaPepper: RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can B deliberative, accountable & consensual in decision making http://bit.ly/e2Qmug <=== …

  25. UCL Occupation

    piece by @aaronjohnpeters in @leftfootfwd earlier today http://bit.ly/h1oSzW

  26. Extradition Game

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making: http://bit.ly/hsKFWh by @AaronJohnPeters

  27. AegiSite

    Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in …: In order for de-centred networks such as UKUncu… http://bit.ly/hU0jEM

  28. Kerry Abel

    RT @butternotguns: Really interesting blog by @aaronjohnpeters about groups using the internet for political action http://bit.ly/h1oSzW

  29. Butter Not Guns

    Really interesting blog by @aaronjohnpeters about groups using the internet for political action http://bit.ly/h1oSzW (via @UCLOccupation)

  30. Gareth Jones

    http://tinyurl.com/38fsxct Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making

  31. cim

    Most of the successful and famous open source software projects have a very small core of lead developers who make the majority of decisions about the project direction, and all the decisions over which specific contributions make it into the project. The advantage over closed source is that it’s easier to contribute if you agree with that direction, and to start your own project if you disagree, but in the latter case not much easier since you have to take on all of the work for a major project single-handedly, fund any hardware needed for the new project personally, etc. “Forks” of open source software are generally only successful when there is a major and widespread disagreement with the project leaders and/or direction. Democratic is one thing they are certainly not.

    “Organising without organisations” may work very well for protest movements, but I can’t think of a single piece of (successful, and large enough to require more than one person’s work, anyway) open source software that’s been written that way.

    Meanwhile, what would a “closed source” protest even look like? “Here’s a letter to send to your MPs… if you use it I’ll sue you for copyright violation” or “I’m sorry, you haven’t paid the licensing fee for that placard. You’ll have to stop using it.” or “We have a patent on protesting against tax evasion. You can’t do it too.” – all protest movements are “open source” in that sense, but it’s not a meaningful distinction between what’s happening now and more centralised protest organisation.

    “Decentralised” is a perfectly good term for this sort of protest movement, as is “non-hierarchical”, or if you can make either sound non-pejorative “disorganised” or “chaotic”. The analogy with “open source”, however, just doesn’t work.

  32. StephenH

    Well I’m not sure that the failure to reach consensus over Mutuals was a triumph– but neither was it a disaster. I followed the discussion on Twitter and initially had a sinking feeling as I thought – ‘uh oh here we go leftie sectionalism ahoy’. Yet to my surprise whilst this particular strand of action was deflated there was a encouraging degree of civility between all and tacit agreement to go forward with other protests. Let’s try and keep this level of maturity going.

    It strikes me that whilst the arguments against cuts rest on well-founded Keynseian principles that have extensively explored by- Stiglitz, Krugman, Martin Wolf and many others. UKUncut is striking into new ground previously untrodden by the major parties in suggesting that the tax rules need changing or that mutualisation is a preferable model to debt leveraged offshore high street slavedrivers. Whilst Richard Murphy has done great work on this– it’s still a complex legal and economic business and the precise policy remedies are not there yet. But its not for us to say exactly how the Post Office should be run or how offshore loopholes should be closed. I’m not an accountant or lawyer– but I do not accept that Boots is allowed to operate out of a PO box in Switzerland. For now it is enough for us to refuse to accept that ‘there is no alternative’.

    UKUncut should encompass all those who just want something done (i.e. me) , and those who have diverging but broadly progressive views about what that should be.

  33. William Cass

    organisations without organisations. Open source political action in 21st century UK. http://tinyurl.com/38fsxct #Aylesbury #solidarity

  34. Aaron Peters

    Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making | Left Foot Forward http://t.co/uA2THda

  35. Oliver Hill

    Just some minor pedantry… Whilst the open source nature of linux certainly is an advantage for it, in reality Microsoft code is superior simply through hiring the best talent.

  36. Spir.Sotiropoulou

    RT @leftfootfwd: Networks can be deliberative, accountable and consensual in decision making http://bit.ly/e2Qmug

  37. Solomon Hughes

    while the work of NCAFC (and other groups) in organising around student fees was very impressive indeed, I don’t quite see how the student protests can be seen as “organising without organisations” – as most of the University occupations were (rightly) mandated by General Meetings of their student unions – that is, by hands up, mass meetings of established structures (local student unions). This means using established organisations – and is a good thing because it leads to mass, democratic involvement in action. And if the student movement is going to encourage the broader union movement, you will need a lot more of this – trying to get trade unionists active without votes at branch meetings , support from local union committees and so on – would be a folly. I think perhaps you might want to focus more on how the active minority, mobilised by the various self organised campaigns relates to the broader groups through the formal student union structures as a model for hwo to work with the trade union structures.

  38. Aaron Peters

    @thewarmjets @nishmadoshi check this out http://bit.ly/h1oSzW

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