Organization Through the Prism of Ecology

Alice Trumbull Mason, 9 Triangles (1952)

Addressing the theory of political organization is an increasingly urgent task. It does not matter how one approaches the question, whether one takes it from above or from below. After the “age of extremes,” the reaction of the 1980s, the neoliberal hangover of the 1990s, the war on terror of the 2000s, the crisis of 2008, and the pandemic of 2020; as well as after the chess game of the classical workers’ movement and that of anti-colonial liberation, after the defeats of 1960-70s politics, after the fading away of alter-globalization and the impasses of the struggles of the 2010s: wherever we look at the problem, thinking about what we can do, concretely, to grow our capacity to act remains an ever-present imperative. This is all the more so if we take on the increasingly intrusive task of the climate emergency with sober realism. For this set of reasons, Rodrigo Nunes’ beautiful and dense book, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization deserves to be read and discussed collectively.1

As the title emblematically announces, the book unfolds through the philosophical-political deconstruction of a long series of binarisms, which – according to the author – have limited the practical potential of those who oppose the present state of affairs: verticality/horizontality, centralization/decentralization, unity/diversity, macropolitics/micropolitics, molar/molecular, party/movement, organization/spontaneity, hegemony/autonomy, etc. All too often, in the history of social movements, these conceptual pairs have been thought of – and continue to be thought of – as “exclusive disjunctions,” “paralysing dualisms” (13), such that if you adhere to one perspective you must necessarily renounce the other. The two “left-wing melancholias” (51-80) to which they have given rise, one having as its metonymic date (the failure of) 1917, the other (that of) 1968, tend to approach the issue of political organization in a normative way, starting from what they hope will happen rather than from what is, here and now. What organizational form should the actors involved in the transformative process give themselves in order to revolutionize the world? Which principles best embody our political ideals? Taking a step aside from such questions that have animated multiple radical political orientations, Nunes pragmatically adopts an attitude based on the review of the forces at work and the practice of the objective: given the presence of such and such a subject within specific spatio-temporal coordinates, what allows us to increase the overall power of those on our side?

As is made clear from the very first line, the essay is presented as a response to the cycle of struggles triggered by the Arab Spring and the occupations of the squares. According to the author, the difficulties encountered by the 2011 protests constitute the 1989 of 1968, i.e., the material demonstration of the impossibility of going on as we have been used to doing since the rise of the New Left. If in fact the “horizontalist” ontology has won – the world is irretrievably structured in networks, while the critique of the old foundationalist metaphysics appears insurmountable – some of the demands developed within the “verticalist” approach (the first pole of the dyads just mentioned) do not cease to express their relevance (16). On the contrary, they have even acquired a new centrality. One of the most interesting points of Nunes’s book consists, therefore, in rethinking the contributions of the one tradition in light of its own political errors and historical inadequacies, and in light of the practical-theoretical discoveries which have emerged from the other tradition.2

In order to accomplish this task – Nunes continues – it is vital to embrace an ecological vision of the so-called Organisationsfrage, starting from the irreducible subjective pluralism present within a given environment. This vision thus involves thinking, in ecosystemic terms, the space within which the various subjects strive to transform the world, with the awareness that one is an integral part of the milieu in which one is immersed. This is the philosophical gesture of the critique that Lenin and Luxemburg addressed to the Second International and that, a few years later, second-generation cybernetics made to its predecessor: “if we are not outside the world that we describe, but inside or alongside it, not only are the descriptions we make themselves actions within that world, our actions in general have effects on what is described” (11). This political and epistemological disposition implies a different relational logic than the sovereign one that animates the spectrum of intersubjective relations within a movement, ranging from more or less successful or opportunistic alliances to more or less rigid and ideological antagonisms.

The abandonment of the cornerstones of the classical theory of revolution therefore invites a root-and-branch revision of the approach to the theory of political organization. From the mid-19th century to the post-World War II period, the three pillars of revolutionary grammar were constituted by the intrinsic necessity of the rupture in the historical continuum (whether thought of in procedural or eventual terms), by the deterministic coincidence between the objective position held in the social structure and political subjectivation, and by the presumed infinite malleability of social being. Now, however, that historical teleology has been replaced by contingency, economistic transitivity by the excess of subjective composition, and demiurgic idealism by complexity analysis (81–120), a drastic reconfiguration of the organizational method is needed. In this regard, Nunes elaborates several categories that appear to be of unquestionable usefulness in enriching contemporary debates concerning social movements and critical theory, as well as those regarding the fight against global warming – an authentic testbed on which to evaluate the solidity of any political proposal, whether theoretical or organizational. Three of them seem to me particularly pertinent: organizing cores, distributed action, and organizational ecology.

“‘Organising cores’ is […] a generic name for the nodes or groups of nodes that animate an area or a network, performing the function of concentrating and orienting the collective capacity to act in certain directions, continuously or only occasionally.” Consequently, “all organisations are organising cores, […] but not all organising cores are organisations” (203). This concept makes it possible to account for different foci (large or small, more or less intense and structured) capable of influencing the course of events. In fact, the activities of an organizing core are reminiscent of the operating methods of platforms, which are governed by “a logic of setting up spaces for collaboration that conditions but do not determine results” (205). Organizing cores thus create conditions of possibility for encounters, trigger dynamics, nurture pathways, advance slogans, etc. They stimulate rather than direct mobilizations; they take the initiative, without monopolizing it; they induce effects by channeling collective efforts. In this sense, an organizing core exercises vanguard and leadership functions, without systematically occupying these positions (201–11).3

From this angle it is easier to recognize and appreciate the scope of what Nunes calls distributed action. By this expression the author means the fact that we are never dealing with mere aggregative actions (the inscrutable sum of a nebula of dispersed activities) nor with monolithic collective actions (more or less coordinated by a thinking brain), but always with intermediate variations: the more or less virtuous combination of activities carried out by organized groups (parties, trade unions, associations, NGOs, independent media, militants of various collectives, etc.) with that of thousands of people whose degree of participation and affiliation to a movement is extremely heterogeneous and changeable. Obviously, the dense network of relations that is established between the subjects (individual and collective) that constitute a political dynamic can result in more or less accomplished and powerful assemblages; but the point for Nunes is to always keep this intricate complex of relations in mind when one is in the phase of analysis and tactical-strategic elaboration:

a theory of organisation must therefore start from the ways in which unaffiliated individuals coordinate their actions outside of organisations, or coordinate with organisations, as well as from how organisations coordinate with one another. “Organisation” must refer to this phenomenon first, and only then to individual organisations. The latter emerge against the background of the former, and things like parties are therefore part of a theory of organisation, not its primary object. (27)

Here comes the third important element of the Brazilian activist and intellectual’s proposal. The point of departure for a theory of organization is not so much an examination of the conjuncture, nor a theory of the subject, of the political form to be instituted or of the revolutionary perspective to be realised, but an examination of what he calls “organisational ecology” (159–73): “whatever we totalise as ‘the movement’ is in fact a non-totalisable network made of several different networks, an evolving network ecology that is in turn nested in broader ecologies that overlap in various ways (the city, the nation, global capitalism, members of a certain class, speakers of a certain language)” (164). Within this framework, Nunes draws six insights that are worth noting: 1) by acting on the shared environment, the components of an ecology can indirectly shape the field of possibilities of others; 2) functional differentiation is one of the fundamental characteristics (and strengths) of an ecology; 3) the wealth produced by a node or cluster does not belong exclusively to it, but is also available to the ecology as a whole; 4) thinking ecologically about organization implies not conceiving it as a zero-sum competition between the parts; 5) no one wins alone; 6) approaching the competition between the parts as a conflict between forces rather than as an irreconcilable contradiction makes it possible to consider this tension as a matter of relative strength and not an absolute opposition.

Now, if we transpose this methodological framework from the meta-analytical level to the daily-practical one of the fight against climate change, several avenues open up. I will limit myself here to the most important one: the main implicit target of this framing is undoubtedly the one-sidedness of the political perspective. In the struggles and debates of contemporary ecology, this paradigm is embodied in two antithetical examples: the self-management model of the ZAD4 and the ecological Leninism outlined in some of Andreas Malm’s writings. Despite their symmetrical opposition (small-scale prefigurative anticipation versus large-scale transition under the aegis of the State), both perspectives favor the disjunctive approach of “either/or” over the articulatory approach of “both/and” in Nunes’ proposal.5 Although both have a number of historical and political arguments in their favor, neither is powerful enough today to impose a balance of power to reverse the deepening ecological crisis. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine the triggering of reciprocal expansive actions between different political perspectives, each of which, by increasing its own capacity to act, creates better room for maneuver for the others.6 How to cultivate these processes and make the various components that sustain a mobilization grow together is a question to which we can only provide a contingent answer, situated in the materiality of singular contexts. Some indications of method, however, valid in the abstract, are passionately developed by Nunes in Neither Vertical nor Horizontal, a compelling book that alternates the critique of classic and contemporary authors of the revolutionary tradition with an analysis of the social movements that have disrupted the past decade. It is certainly a worthwhile read as we approach the decade that has just begun, which even more than the previous one will force us to think about the theme of organization through the prism of political ecology.


1 Rodrigo Nunes, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization (London: Verso, 2021). All page numbers cited in this review essay refer to this text.
2 Anyone who has actively participated in a mobilization will surely have witnessed various activists blaming other components of the movement for the failure of political dynamism. Living and organizing in France, I have heard dozens of times in the last few years members of the institutional left blaming the black bloc for the failure to massify demonstrations; or autonomous militants focusing mainly on accusations against trade-union federations rather than on their own self-criticism. Significantly, with the Gilets Jaunes, an uprising that disrupted the usual patterns, such unproductive reflexes were much less present. This did not prevent, however, various “representatives” of the two lefts from sifting the interest/importance of the uprising according to the degree to which it was more or less close to the (from their point of view) correct anti-capitalist line – which they knew by virtue of belonging to the correct political tradition.
3 In this regard, Nunes speaks of vanguard without vanguardism or leadership without leaderism, as well as thematizing the importance of horizontality beyond horizontalism. See Rodrigo Nunes, “Notes toward a Rethinking of the Militant,” in Communism in the 21st Century, vol. 3, ed. Shannon Brincat (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014), 163-87.
4 The Zones à Défendre are occupations – very often open-air – aimed at fighting against a project of land exploitation, in which alternative forms of life are experimented with. Editor’s Note: See this text by Kristin Ross on the ZAD and related movements in Europe for more historical context.
5 For Malm’s critique of the horizontalism of struggles, see Andreas Malm, Corona, Clima, Chronic Emergency (London: Verso, 2020), in particular 86–88. For a critique of Malm’s “state-centric” perspective, see Max Ajl, “Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency,” Brooklyn Rail (November 2020); and Bue Rübner Hansen, “The Kaleidoscope of Catastrophe – On the Clarities and Blind Spots of Andreas Malm,” Viewpoint Magazine, April 14, 2021. For my own part, I have tried to develop an alternative approach in line with what is presented in this short review, based on the theory of dual power and the pluralization of practices at the intersection, on the one hand, between ecological struggles, social struggles and decolonial struggles in the global North and South, and on the other, between different forms of direct action: demonstrations, camps, occupations, blockades, uprisings, strikes, sabotage, etc. See Davide Gallo Lassere, “Back to the Present: Global Spaces, Wilderness, Pandemic Crises,” Contretemps (French version), November 16, 2020 (Italian version published at Le Parole e le Cose).
6 To stay with the sequence that shook France between 2016 and 2020, we can say that some of the most exciting phases of the struggles took place at the moments when these combinations were expressed with particular vigor. With regard to the relations between the various components of the 2016 movement (cortège de tête, Nuit debout, rank-and-file unions), let me refer to my own Contre la Loi Travail et son monde (Paris: Eterotopia, 2016), 31–68; a condensed version of the argument was published in Viewpoint as “The Extreme Center and Social Struggles in France: From the Labor Law to the Presidential Elections,” trans. Patrick King, Viewpoint Magazine, June 15, 2017. With regard to the relations within the Gilets Jaunes and between the Gilets Jaunes and the other components (rank-and-file unions, autonomous, ecological), see my “A Crise dos Gilets Jaunes e o Horizonte de Possìveis,” in O trabaho das linhas, eds. Alexandre Mendes and Giuseppe Cocco (Rio de Janeiro: Autografia, 2020), 65–80; a shorter version was published in French as “La crise des Gilets Jaunes et l’horizon des possibles. De chacun selon ses privilèges à chacun selon ses besoins,” Revue K, Cahier spécial (Spring 2020): 93-101. See also Élodie Chédikian, Paul Guillibert, and Davide Gallo Lassere, “The Climate of Roundabouts: the Gilets Jaunes and Environmentalism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 4 (October 2020): 877–87; Davide Gallo Lassere and C. Lavergne, “Soulèvement Gilets Jaunes : expériences et compréhensions plurielles du riot,” Socio, no. 16 (2021, forthcoming).

Author of the article

is lecturer in International Politics at the University of London Institute in Paris.