Friday, December 10, 2010

New Social Movement (NSM) Theories and Anarchism: 3. Anti-Hierarchical Organization

New social movements allegedly use more horizontally-distributed organizational forms, aiming to be highly participatory and democratic. But, according to popular perception, anarchists are opposed to organization and order. As with many assumptions regarding anarchism, this is clearly incorrect. Anarchists are usually very much in favor of organization and order, but that of a particular variety. They oppose bureaucratic, authoritarian, and hierarchical organization, whether in the economic, political, or cultural spheres of society (Ehrlich 1996). Instead, anarchists envision anti-hierarchical forms of organization that are more organic, small-scale, and directly democratic. As Bookchin (1989) observes, “the new social movements share a libertarian ambience”, as well as the tendency for decentralization, affinity groups, confederation, and “anti-hierarchicalism” (p. 270). Thus, anarchism has emphasized participatory democracy, self-help groups, and cooperative styles of organization (Ward 1996). Unlike other NSMs, these organizational forms are not “new” to anarchism and were widely employed during anarchism’s classical period. Consequently, anti-hierarchical structures are a founding assumption of anarchism writ large.

Anti-hierarchical organization requires conscious choice, especially the adoption of anarchist values such as self-determination, solidarity, cooperation, and mutual aid. Instead of planning for an idealistic, perfect future, anarchists create a new society in the shell of the old society by acting out their values in the present.[X] Values are not abstractions to be merely debated; for anarchists values must be lived, on a daily basis. To avoid living these values would mean to avoid being an anarchist. As such, there are no mere “philosophical anarchists” in the broad anarchist movement, who only think and debate anarchist ideas. Anarchism is practiced and created in the continual deliberation and activities of anarchist lives and organizations.

Anarchist politics may be viewed as a particular strain of “anti-politics” that oppose the typical forms of political activity, such as participation through political parties. Instead, principal anarchist organizational forms include affinity groups, cells, collectives, cooperatives, networks, and federations (see Ward 1996, Ehrlich 1996, Gordon 2007, and Day 2005). These forms constitute “looser” and fluid organizational structures than those found in standard bureaucratic and top-down organizations.

Affinity groups are “closed” organizations composed of people who have intimate relations with each other—trust, companionship, and common interest are prerequisites—and are utilized in specific situations, such as protests. Made famous during the Spanish Civil War for their decentralized defense of the Republic against fascist forces (Bookchin 1998), affinity groups have since been deployed during anti-war, environmental, anti-nuclear, feminist, and global justice movement protests (e.g. Finnegan 2003). These groups provide a small-scale, flexible alternative to bureaucratic or command-and-control style organizations that are common at many conventional protests. Members of affinity groups are in a constant process of evaluating their goals for present and future situations, as well as their levels of commitment and appreciation for specific tactics (Bookchin 2004).

The most decentralized organizational form that anarchists create is that of the autonomous cell. Although some have argued that cells are not anarchist, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) take seriously the anarchist concepts of decentralization and direct action against authority. Anyone who takes an action—illegal or legal—to either stop the destruction of the environment or the exploitation of animals, or to curb the potential for such abuses, may claim to be a member of these “organizations”. So successful were ELF and ALF cells at their goals of disruption and property destruction that in 1999 the FBI called them the top domestic terrorist threat in the US (Federal Bureau of Investigation 1999)—despite both groups' denunciation of violence and physical harm to human or animal life. In a practical sense, such “organizations” are not really organizations at all, but rather loose collections of associates or even single individuals who presume to operate under the auspice of the ELF or ALF labels (Beck 2007). In the case of the ELF, a “front press office” (run by an unaffiliated but sympathetic individual) received press releases from such groupings announcing an action, often calling themselves a unit, cell, faction, or wing of the ELF from some particular location. In this capacity, the press office was merely a central location to distribute the words and actions of pro-ELF people, while the office had no control over what any particular ELF cell did. Other anarchistic groupings also take on a relatively clandestine approach, also implied in their self-labels, notably the Biotic Baking Brigade (described below). Crimethinc is also well-known for encouraging various groupings of people and individuals—who likely do not know each other—to publish propaganda under its moniker.

Collectives are designed to serve an above-ground and longer-lasting purpose. Anarchist collectives have flat organizational structures, particular goals, and an established (although not necessarily formalized) decision making process. These organizations may do any number of things, including run a social center or “infoshop”, print an activist newspaper or manage a guerrilla radio station, provide women health care and advice, organize a community garden, offer legal aid, or wage political campaigns. Atton's (1999) research on the British tabloid, Green Anarchist, demonstrates how NSM organizational characteristics drawn from Melucci (1996) can be seen in many aspects of the paper's collective, including: self-management of writing and distribution amongst many geographically dispersed people, and decentralized editing.

Some collectives could also be considered cooperatives—designed to either manufacture or provide a good or service, or to purchase or acquire such things, respectively. Anarchists have been active members for decades of housing, food, bike, child care, and even punk rock record store cooperatives. Cooperative members pool their economic resources and physical labor in order to create the best possible, equal outcome for all involved. Rothschild-Whitt (1979) argues that cooperatives possess a collectivist-democratic nature, which appears largely analogous to anarchist values (a relationship that has not been explored by sociologists). There are no elite owners of cooperatives, only members. Consequently, many cooperatives have a staunchly anti-hierarchical structure that empowers equal participation.

While most anarchists emphasize the need for localized organization, they also acknowledge that larger, more complex forms are also sometimes necessary. Yet, instead of creating centralized bodies that coordinate policy, anarchists advocate network or federation structures. Networks are flexible, informal mechanisms for interaction. Both individuals and organizations may participate in the coordination of campaigns, events, or other projects. According to Day (2005), these anarchistic organizational structures rely upon a “logic of affinity” as opposed to a “logic of hegemony”. Sometimes networks exist merely for the exchange of information and communication (Juris 2008). Federations, on the other hand, are a more structured way of linking formal organizations and sympathetic, supporter organizations to each other. Unlike many federation systems, however, anarchist federations are horizontal relationships: no central committee exists and no member organization has any more power than any other. The anarcho-communist NEFAC, for example, makes decisions at yearly conferences via direct democracy of all members. In-between meetings of a federation council—consisting of recallable spokespersons from each member organization—deals with administrative and executive functions (NEFAC n.d.). By mandating recallable positions, NEFAC collectives can control wayward spokespersons.

If there is an enduring quality to all of these organizational forms, it is their impermanence. Anarchists emphasize the means almost as much as the goal itself, assuming that it is impractical for anarchist organizations to use hierarchical and rigid means, even to achieve supposedly liberating ends. As such, Welsh (1997) finds disdain in Melucci's assumption that
“new social movements have to transform themselves into durable organisations in order to achieve [success] remain problematic in terms of anarchist and libertarian approaches... SMOs [social movement organizations] reproduce hierarchies and bureaucratic structures which are antithetical to grassroots movements” (p. 167).

Another common thread in all the above organizations is that no one person or small group of persons can control these groups. Theoretically, everyone in each organization has an equal say in how the organization is run. Leadership is usually informal and decentralized, and, if it exists at all, it resides in rotating positions with little power. Positions like “facilitator” or “note-taker” exist not to direct the trajectory of an organization, but to allow the group to realize its goals. Anarchist organizations operate on the basis of either direct democracy or consensus decision making. Unlike in representative democracy, where people elect others who will then theoretically vote in their best interests, anarchists advocate direct democracy, where everyone votes on each individual issue to be considered. Members vote on proposals without channeling their “voices” through other individuals designed to represent them, as in most “representative democracy” systems.[XX] Consensus decision making may be considered even more radical; an organization must try to reach a common decision that everyone involved can live with. With consensus, even small minorities must be respected and organizations must find ways to reach common ground where all participants are satisfied with a decision and its foreseeable outcome (Gelderloos 2006a).

These are not “new” characteristics as NSM theories might suggest, but practices that have driven the anarchist movement since its origins. These organizational forms and decision-making processes are not seen by anarchists as approaches to be selectively implemented, but are appropriate (or necessary) elements of everyday society. Presently, they represent a minority of approaches in society and operate in a “sub-political” world, but anarchists view them as potentially the major political forms in a future, more-anarchist society.


[X] According to Gordon (2007) this is a central tenet of modern anarchism—an open-ended experimentation that supplants the Marxist-Leninist practice of “Five Year Plans” and other pre-determined visions of Utopia. The IWW dubbed the saying “the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” in their Constitution. Source:

[XX] See Skirda (2002) for a historical account of anarchist direct democracy voting at an international anarchist gathering (pp. 80-93).


Atton, C. (1999) “Green Anarchist: A Case Study of Collective Action in the Radical Media". Anarchist Studies, 7 (1), March: 25-49.

Beck, C.J. (2007) “On the Radical Cusp: Ecoterrorism in the United States, 1998-2005”. Mobilization: An International Quarterly Review, 12: 161-176.

Bookchin, M. (1989) “New Social Movements: The Anarchic Dimension”. Pp. 259-274 in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, edited by D. Goodway. London: Routledge.

Bookchin, M. (1998) The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Bookchin, M. (2004) Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Day, R.J.F. (2005) Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements. London: Pluto Press.

Ehrlich, H.J. (1996) Reinventing Anarchy, Again. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1999) Terrorism in the United States. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.

Finnegan, W. (2003) “Affinity Groups and the Movements Against Corporate Globalization”. Pp. 210-218 in The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts, edited by J. Goodwin & J.M. Jasper. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Gelderloos, P. (2006a) Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Social, Political, and Environmental Groups. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.

Gordon, U. (2007) Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press.

Juris, J.S. (2008) Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Melucci, A. (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

NEFAC. (n.d.) “The Constitution of the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC)”. Available online:

Rothschild-Whitt, J. (1979) “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models”. American Sociological Review, 44, August: 509-527.

Skirda, A. (2002) Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Ward, C. (1996) Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

Welsh, I. (1997) “Anarchism, Social Movements, and Sociology”. Anarchist Studies, 5 (2), October: 162-168.

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