Anarchists in the boardroom

By Liam Barrington-Bush
Concrete Solutions , November 30, 2012,

‘The Left’ has a funny relationship with the world of management.

On the one hand, it can be a dirty word; something the ‘bad guys’ do, a tool of ‘the system.’

There’s good reason for such associations.

Since its birth, the management field has largely served to reinforce the social and political status quo, manipulating the vast majority of those who fall victim to it, to work ever-longer hours and give up any sense autonomy, as well as both literal and symbolic ownership over the fruits of their labour.

One doesn’t have to look far to find ‘management’ at the core of a range of problems, from labour disputes, to plain ol’ soul-sucking bureaucracy.

In traditional leftist working class politics, ‘management is the problem.’

But there’s another side to our relationship with the subject. It is exemplified in the fact that much of the organised left has long-embraced the same breed of top-down managerialism that most of us associate with industrial capitalism.

Trade unions — the protagonists in so many workers’ struggles throughout history — have long held onto many of the management traits used by the companies and organizations that they organize against. Last year I met an American who worked at the ‘trade union for trade unionists,’ lobbying other unions to treat their organizers with the same kind of respect they expected and demanded of other institutions!

And the world of NGOs is equally guilty, with several household name non-profits coming under fire for poor treatment of staff and cumbersome organizational structures that make it harder for public donations to reach those they are intended for.

This is a troubling sign. Amongst the broad web of progressive causes that is ‘The Left,’ few like to talk about management. Yet, in our silence we have adopted many of the structures we spend so much time criticizing the very real human costs of.

If we are clear about our core values, most of what we’ve long known about management doesn’t sit well, whoever is practicing it.

Why do countless organizations that advocate for transparency, equality and democracy, still operate internally (as well as in partnerships and with those they support) as their own elitist workplace dictatorships, with decisions made behind closed-doors and concentrated in the hands of a privileged few?

A friend recently leaked me an internal response from the leader of his youth organization, answering a staff concern about feeling the organisation didn’t live its participation values strongly enough in the ways it operates. The response was unambiguous: “‘participation values’ refer to work with young people … when you run a business it has to be hierarchical — we are not a cooperative.”

Apparently, for this director, at least, ‘values’ only apply to the work outside of the organization’s walls. Inside, you’d better know your place, kid!

Management was the chosen 20th Century means of organising groups, though its assumptions of hierarchy, power and control don’t sit as well with a more networked 21st Century.

But what is the alternative to the rigidly bureaucratic management practices of industrial capitalism and Soviet communism?

I believe that ‘anarchism’ will be the next big thing in management.

Well, maybe not ‘big thing,’ but it does offer an alternative organizing lens that tends to fit with the values our organizations are meant to be built around.

If you believe in transparency, equality and democracy, how can you organize in ways that manifest these beliefs?

The worlds of social movements and social media are offering some strong hints.

Occupy camps have demonstrated that groups of hundreds, or even thousands, can reach consensus together on the vast majority of decisions affecting their ability to organize themselves.

Peoples’ rebellions in Mexico have modelled ways of getting the needs of a community met through shared and rotating roles and responsibilities.

Argentine workers have shown that they can run re-claimed factories themselves, leading their industries, without managers around.

The simple use of a hashtag on Twitter has shown that it can be all the infrastructure necessary to enable hundreds-of-thousands of people around the world to align their various efforts for a better world, with countless others, amplifying those individual efforts immeasurably.

These may seem like far-flung examples for most of our organizations to even consider, but it will require some pretty radical adaptation to keep slow, rigid, bureaucratic institutions relevant in a world where flexible, lightweight organizing alternatives are emerging each day.

The question now is whether we will continue our organizational attempts to impose control on the emergent complex social movements that surround us, or if we will begin to take the still largely unknown steps necessary, to help our organizations become integrated parts of those movements, living our values through the process?


Liam Barrington-Bush is currently crowd-funding his first book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ on StartSomeGood.com. In the nine days it has raised almost $5,400 of a $7,700 total budget. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades and you can ‘Like’ ‘more like people’ on Facebook or join the email list.