The Scale of Things to Come: The Local, the Global, and Organization

Ende Gelände action in Lausitz, near the Germany-Poland border

The following is an excerpt from Rodrigo Nunes’ new book, Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organisation, out now with Verso. Part balance sheet of the struggles of the last decade, part diagnosis of the left’s traumas and melancholias in the last forty years, part attempt to develop a theory of organization that avoids sterile oppositions between ‘horizontalism’ and ‘verticalism’, the book draws from different sources and traditions –– from Spinoza to cybernetics via Marx, Bogdanov, poststructuralism and Simondon –– to propose a new grammar with which to think questions like spontaneity, leadership, democracy, strategy, populism, revolution, and the relationship between movements and parties.

Historically, debates on political organization have tended to have a prescriptive orientation: they asked what kind of organization one should have in order to achieve one’s aims, whatever those were. This also explains why those debates concerned themselves mostly with the question of organizational form: which one was the best (the party, the council, the network, and so on), what structures and procedures it should have, what kind of relations it should entertain with the masses … To start by thinking organization as ecology is to break with this tradition in two ways. First, an organizational ecology is not a model to be realized, but what already exists; it is what happens anyway. Thus, instead of beginning with the question ‘what ought to be?’, one starts from what is and constantly tests the question ‘what do we want?’ against the more basic problem: ‘given what is, what can be?’ Second, thinking organization as ecology avoids the hidden assumption in every reduction of the question of organization to the problem of organizational form: the idea that there is a single form that should be shared by all organizations, or a single organization to which everyone tendentially should belong. Instead, one takes plurality as a point of departure, without supposing that it could or even should be homogenized or collapsed into a single entity at any point.

The point of this shift, however, is not simply to affirm dispersion, diversity and plurality over concentration, homogeneity and unity. In fact, this book’s chief purpose is to find a way out of the sterile opposition between these two poles and the idea that one must necessarily make a choice between them. Since at least the 1960s, as the realization of the inherent vice in actually existing socialist regimes and their organizational model became increasingly impossible to evade, there has been a strong tendency to respond to the evils associated with collective action on a large scale by asserting the virtues of the small, the multiple, the diffuse. Although the problem as it was originally posed was essentially about how to produce change at a systemic scale without building a collective subject at that scale, with time the valorization of the ‘local’ over the ‘global’ would resemble more and more an abdication of the systemic dimension altogether. Whereas an answer to the original problem would necessarily have to hinge on a combination of collective and aggregate (individual) action, this shift led increasingly to a dichotomy between the two and a choice for the aggregate over the collective. If there is a certain solidarity between liberalism and post-1968 radical thought, it is above all on this point: the hope that the spontaneous play of aggregate action could allow one to bypass the dangers of large-scale collective action while still producing the same desired effects. As I argue in chapter 3, this is one of the most important ways in which the meanings associated with the word ‘revolution’ have changed in the last half-century.

If faith in this gamble is still strong in some quarters despite the fact that it is yet to show that it could pay off, there is one dimension of our present conjuncture that makes a reckoning with it impossible to delay. I refer, of course, to the climate crisis. The transformation of the planet’s climate and the modification of a number of key parameters of its biophysical system is predominantly an aggregate effect. It is the outcome of countless actions taking place every day over the last five centuries or so, many of them evidently coordinated, but the vast majority with no other element of coordination apart from the underlying systemic choice structures that made them more likely than alternative options. Nevertheless, climate change poses a conundrum that cannot be solved within a framework that opposes aggregate to collective action and places the former above the latter. That is because, on the one hand, the global scale of the problem makes any exclusively ‘local’ solutions implausible. This is an argument usually raised against attempts to dilute the question into a simple matter of consumer choices, as if the aggregate effect of market signals starting in individual behaviour were enough to produce the desired result. But it can be pushed further, and turned against more radical, non-market-based solutions. Even if a million sustainable communes emerged in the next few years, even if scores of countries shifted their energy base to renewables, if nothing was done to permanently deactivate the fossil fuel industry globally, that would still not be enough to avert dramatic temperature increases in this century. True, one might argue that nothing guarantees that these changes would not be sufficient to cause the abandonment of oil, gas and coal in the longer run. But that rejoinder runs up against another key aspect of the climate conundrum: its finite temporal dimension. Though it may be that the most extreme consequences of climate change could be averted by the aggregate effect of several local initiatives, can we be sure that this could happen within the narrowing window of time for action that we have at our disposal? Can we afford to gamble on that? Are we willing to?

The problem is then inevitably pitched at a collective level: what can we, as a species that is increasingly aware of how our everyday decisions undermine our own conditions of existence, do in order to avoid the worst? Yet no collective agent exists that could rise to the challenge on an adequate scale, and it is hard to imagine, at least in the near future, that any could. There is no imminent world revolution to put a simultaneous end to fossil-fuel capitalism everywhere, no world government to legislate for all the globe, no agency or supercomputer to enact a planned global economy. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) process, nominally tasked with becoming precisely that global agent, has time and again demonstrated the powerlessness of political intentions in the face of market incentives, international competition and the pressures of domestic policy. Thus, the only credible alternative –– and calling it that already demands some imaginative effort –– appears to be a combination of collective and aggregate action across different scales.

In fact, so ingrained is the devaluing of the collective vis-à-vis the aggregate in the opposition between ‘local’ and ‘global’ that people easily forget that local initiatives, if they are to be anything more than individual consumer choices, also require collective action. Starting a farmers’ co-op or an off-the-grid energy initiative demands a lot of collective action; it just happens that, in relative terms, this is at a small scale. In chapter 4, I will discuss at greater length how attempts to employ scientific discourses on self-organization to think politics are often marred by the projection of desires and unconsidered assumptions. For now, however, I will just note that the general direction in which the appropriation of ideas such as ‘order through fluctuation’1 or ‘order from noise’2  has usually pointed is that of downplaying the effort and resources required to produce large-scale effects.

On the one hand, this is, of course, a correct reading of the available scientific opinion. A physics of simple mechanical systems in which the effect is always directly proportional to the cause produced the idea that political organization was essentially about matching the adversary’s force (a people’s army stronger than the regular army, a workers’ state stronger than the class enemy …). By contrast, the non-linear relations between cause and effect characteristic of complex systems offered the prospect that, in special circumstances, a relatively small cause could trigger a radical transformation of a system’s overarching patterns of organization –– global change out of locally circumscribed action. What political readings of non-linearity tended to neglect, however, was not only that we are not necessarily always in the vicinity of a critical threshold, but the two essential concepts of nucleation and critical size. Together, they indicate that, so as to be capable of propagating across a system and transforming it, a fluctuation must not only start from a certain point (it does not occur everywhere at once), but this starting point must be large enough to withstand the negative feedback mechanisms that will dampen fluctuations and inhibit change. For Ilya Prigogine, this factor was indeed essential to understanding why, despite displaying a very high number of fluctuations, extremely complex systems can avoid permanent disarray and remain stable over time.3 According to him, ‘stabilization through communication and instability through fluctuations’ increase together as a system’s complexity grows, and it is therefore the fact that the threshold of nucleation (or critical size) rises over time that ensures a measure of stability.4 While ‘nucleation’ and ‘critical size’ are terms taken from Prigogine, equivalent ways of expressing the idea that systemic change always starts from a point and that there are limits to its spreading capacity can be found in a broad range of self-organization models, from the way oscillators synchronize to how cascading behaviour occurs in networks, as well as in Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation.5

That the two were overlooked is symptomatic of the fact that the reception of scientific discourses on self-organization in political thought happened at a moment when people were perhaps less concerned with resituating collective agency than with exorcising a certain conception of the revolutionary subject inherited from the Marxist tradition.6 To redress this imbalance is to remind ourselves that, if the problem of organization need not be one of absolute strength (how to build the most powerful force?), it never ceases to be one of relative strength (how to be powerful enough to produce effects at the required scale?).

It is therefore not local initiatives of any kind that are needed in order to respond to climate change, but those that are sufficiently consistent so as to endure and scale up, whether by growing in size and being replicated elsewhere, or by creating mutually beneficial and reinforcing connections with one another. It always bears repeating that, if ‘local’ is opposed to ‘global’, that does not make it necessarily synonymous with ‘small’. In fact, the problem with ‘local’ is that it is a scale-relative concept –– a cell and a planet are local in relation to an organism and the solar system, respectively –– that people often treat as if it had an absolute sense. Thus, even if the frame of reference should change depending on whether we are talking about a neighborhood struggle, changing national policy, defeating a global industry or changing the world system, it appears that, to most, the word will always conjure images of food co-ops and allotment gardens.

Collective action is therefore necessary at two levels. At the lowest end of the scale, it is vital to the setting up of strong local initiatives. But it is also necessary at a level that, if it is not strictly ‘global’, is not ‘local’ in an absolute sense either, but only relative to some larger scale. That is the intermediary level at which the networking of local initiatives, the networking of their networks, national campaigns, global coalitions, and so on, takes place. Collective action is required on both levels, and only with a lot of it in place can we possibly expect aggregate effects at an appropriate scale. Yet that construction would be ultimately ineffective, and probably also impracticable, if it did not stand alongside the work of unmaking the existing economic structures: incapacitating the fossil fuel industry, shortening (and in many cases eliminating) long supply chains, curtailing the reach of and eventually eradicating the profit motive. Once again, that can hardly be expected to spontaneously arise as an aggregate outcome of numberless small, local actions. These no doubt have an important role to play, as proven by the struggles of indigenous communities all over the world against the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure. But while each of these flashpoints has the power to provoke political defeats and economic losses, only if coordinated at a higher level and combined with collective action of all kinds –– blockades, direct actions, divestment campaigns, demonstrations, efforts to induce legislative change, fights over taxation and state funds –– can they force lasting change rather than the mere rerouting of economic flows. In short, it is neither a matter of waiting for dispersed local initiatives to suddenly click into producing the expected results, nor of building a single powerful global collective force to take the appropriate action, both of which are extremely unlikely. The challenge instead is to have sufficiently strong and coordinated focuses of collective action at the local and intermediary scales so as to produce global aggregate effects.

The threat posed by looming climate catastrophe helps focus the mind and render more palpable the problems that an unreflexive localism inevitably encounters when trying to think properly systemic change. It is patent that dispersion alone cannot be the answer to a challenge of that scale and complexity. However, the combination of strong local initiatives, different levels of coordination and collective action at larger scales does not apply exclusively to problems of that magnitude. After all, what we are describing when we use those terms is nothing other than a distributed ecology; and the strong claim that I am making here is that successful processes of social change are never wholly centralized or dispersed, they are always distributed, even if we may perceive them as being more centralized or dispersed compared to one another or to themselves at different points in time.

A young activist once told me, ‘What we need to do is disperse power.’7 He was stumped when I replied, ‘Whose power? Our own or our enemies’?’ For he was, of course, right in saying that it would be foolish to unmake the powers that be only to replace them with another rule so robust that we could not exercise any control over it; although we might call that rule ‘our own’ at first, it would be unlikely to stay that way for long. But he could see the point of my objection right away. Is a major part of the problem not precisely that our potentia or power-to is already quite dispersed? How effective can a strategy of dispersing it be in the face of large concentrations of potestas or power-over? Is it plausible that we can disperse the latter without concentrating our own capacity to act at certain strategic points? Should we just put all our faith in the belief that the aggregate effect of countless individual actions will eventually be enough to bring the existing order down? Or should we rather work collectively to identify what those strategic points might be and build our capacity to attack them – all the while taking care not to erect structures that might escape entirely from our control? If the latter, then we simply cannot afford to ignore the question of organization.


1 See Ilya Prigogine and Gregoire Nicolis, Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems (London: Wiley, 1977); Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (New York: Bantam, 1984).
2 See Henri Atlan, L’Organisation Biologique et la Théorie de l’Information (Paris: Seuil, 1972); Henri Atlan, Selected Writings: On Self-Organization, Philosophy, Bioethics, and Judaism, ed. Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011). 
3 ‘When a new structure results from a finite perturbation, the fluctuation that leads from one regime to the other cannot possibly overrun the initial state in a single move. It must first establish itself in a limited region and then invade the whole space: there is a nucleation mechanism. Depending on whether the size of the initial fluctuating region lies below or above some critical value … the fluctuation either regresses or else spreads to the whole system.’ Prigogine and Stengers, Order out of Chaos, 187.
4 Ibid., 189.
5 In Simondon, the equivalent concepts would be ‘structural germ’ and ‘quantum threshold of resonance’. See Steven Strogatz, Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (New York: Penguin, 2003); Duncan J. Watts, ‘A Simple Model of Global Cascades on Random Networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99:9 (2002): 5766–71; Gilbert Simondon, L’Individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Information (Grenoble: Jerôme Millon, 2005). For an empirical observation that corroborates these insights in relation to social movements, see Sandra González- Bailón, Javier Borge-Holthoefer, Alejandro Rivera and Yamir Moreno, ‘The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment Through an Online Network’, Scientific Reports 1 (2011): 197.
6 Tiqqun came close to thinking these concepts through in ‘L’Hypothèse Cybernétique’, even citing from the passage in which Prigogine and Stengers discuss them. They appear, however, to interpret them literally, as the need for a spatial basis of a certain size, conflating the problem of nucleation with their problematic of ‘setting up a territory’. Tiqqun, ‘L’Hypothèse Cybernétique’, Tout A Failli, Vive le Communisme! (Paris: La Fabrique, 2009), 312. 
7 In this regard, see Raúl Zibechi, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, tr. Ramor Ryan (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010).

Author of the article

teaches modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). His latest book is Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization (Verso 2021).