Morality and Law
Social Movements: the Strength of Organisation vs Anarchic Networks

Are ‘traditional social and political ties’ weak? Have they always been so and will they be so in the future? These are questions that certainly cannot be answered in one page.

At first sight, the thesis is credible when one sees how political parties today struggle to convince people, how trade unions have hard times to achieve some minor victories, how social movements disappear as fast as they have emerged. And yet, beyond stating the obvious, we should wonder why this is happening? And if an ‘anarchic form of social network’ can do more than a proper organisation.

Let me try to give some examples of social movements today and yesterday and what they have achieved.

Take the ‘indignados’ in Spain. They do not exist anymore. It probably is wrong to say they had no influence, they first of all led to the emergence of a new political party, ‘Podemos’ that is now in government. But these government policies are not precisely in accordance with the demands of the movement.

Take ‘Black Lives Matter’, without central organisation, but certainly with influence among the population, though much less at government level.

The Arab spring had huge successes in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan … but how lasting? Who is in power right now?

Take the ‘Nuits Debout’ or the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ in France, without any doubt with consequences at the level of politicization of large numbers of people. But at the political level?

And take the women’s strike of 8 March 2020, a very successful global demo, certainly with an impact on the general public, but with lasting changes?

As for the ‘Fridays for future’, the youth movement fighting climate change, it certainly contributed to more awareness of the urgent problems this planet is facing, though at the political level, again, its influence is not visible.

Or take a political party, MAS, ‘Movimiento al Socialismo’ in Bolivia that just won the elections with an absolute majority! This will, again, change the country!

And finally, take the ‘movement’ that does not want to be a movement and in which I have a long experience, the World Social Forum. It will celebrate in January 2020 its 20th anniversary, but what has it achieved? 


Of course, the success or failure of a movement can only be assessed in accordance with its objectives. The WSF cannot be condemned for not achieving anything if it never wanted to achieve anything, just being an ‘open space’, claiming ‘another world is possible’ and leaving the practical implementation of it to its participants.

And if MAS was able to win the elections, which was its objective, it is thanks to a strong organisation and political will to work towards this achievement.
As for all the movements in between, it is not sure whether they ever had a clear objective. Growing awareness, certainly. Toppling dictatorships for the Arab spring, yes, with success. But then? Were they prepared to take over power? They were certainly not ready for it, so in the end, they lost.

Most national movements strive for a change of government, a change of policy, away from neoliberal austerity, desiring more social and environmental justice with jobs as well as social protection. But where did this succeed? 

The progressive governments that came to power beginning of this century in Latin America were the result of careful and strong organisations, lasting for years, the building of a political party in Brasil , an alliance with indigenous movements in Ecuador, strong party politics in Chile, each time with the help of trade unions or other social movements.
Having a clear objective, then, certainly is one major condition for working towards success. From this depends the strategy one can develop and the different steps one can take.

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Alliances are the second condition. Rarely it will be one single movement that can change anything in this world, locally, nationally or globally. A careful search for possible allies, political parties, trade unions, movements. 

Three, a strong organisation. At this level, the difference with the ‘anarchic network’ becomes very clear. Too much hope has been put these past decades in so-called ‘horizontality’, a ‘laggard’ of May 68 with its resistance to hierarchies and verticality. Horizontality sounds very attractive, but all too often it forgets that all types of organisation need some form of transparency and accountability, which means people have to be charged with these tasks. And even more often, ‘horizontality’ has been used to hide real and never avoidable power relations. 

(Neo)liberal minds of today love to refer to old communist practices of ‘democratic centralism’ as something that should be avoided at all cost. But they forget that the margin between this practice and the horizontality they prefer is very large.

The ‘anarchic network’ is very popular today and more often than not a reference is made to the libertarian municipalism of Murray Bookchin. Or to the collective withdrawal mechanisms of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Local autonomy then becomes the new ideal.

These ideas are gladly taken over by progressive movements. But as David Harvey explains in his ‘Rebel Cities’, you cannot jump scales, you need hierarchies and enclosures, you necessarily have to engage with the State and … with power. And you necessarily also have to work at the global level. 

Old examples

Today, with most of our problems being global, an intelligent combination of network and organisation has to be worked at. The only social movement that made real progress this past century was the workers’ movement. In all cases workers made strong organisations at national, regional and global level and organised real solidarity between them. They did not conquer the world but they did change it, integrating the idea of workers’ protection, decent wages, limits to working time, health care and education, annual holidays etc. into most major international organisations and in most of national legislations. Labour is not just a commodity anymore.

Precisely at the moment when trade unions were weakened, with the neoliberal policies introduced as from the 1980s, their power dwindled and workers’ rights were violated.
Maybe the most important lesson to learn is this: whatever change one strives for, power is needed and one has to engage with power. At what level is another question. But for building power, you need to organise.

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