Organizing in the midnight hour: an interview with Rodrigo Nunes

  • June 29, 2021

Anarchism & Autonomy

Political theorist Rodrigo Nunes provides a new approach to the problems of power and organization to help confront climate catastrophe.

People raise their fists during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, UK – June 6, 2020. Vincenzo Lullo /

With the Doomsday Clock currently set at 100 seconds to midnight, the time for world-saving and meaningful action is running out. The political stasis that has defined capital’s response to climate changes leaves us with little choice but to muster a response ourselves. This is a daunting organizational task, as it requires a radical overhaul not just at the level of global economy and politics, but also in our everyday lives, and demands that we construct post-capitalist and ecological modes of governance, work and social reproduction.

In his new book, Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization, philosopher Rodrigo Nunes provides us with a conceptual armory with which to think the question of political organization anew after the traumas of the 20th century. Following an interview with Spadework co-hosts Antje Dieterich and Daniel Gutiérrez, Rodrigo talks with Daniel about the reasons that made organization and power into such thorny issues among the left, how the looming climate catastrophe can change the conversation, and why a return to these age-old problems needn’t be a return to a past when individual organizations competed with one another for the title of vanguard of the revolution.

Instead, he suggests that an ecological approach to how we conceive of organization, strategy and political action may offer the best hopes of finding a direction of travel out of the present conjuncture that is based on solidarity and mutual care.

Daniel Gutiérrez: Under capitalist hegemony, the world has come quite undone. On the one hand we have a growing and increasingly popular white revanchism that is threatening liberal democracy, and, on the other, centuries of capitalist expansionism have resulted in an existence-threatening ecological crisis.

In this context, can the left afford to not aim for power? I come from an anarchist background. For me, I always saw power as something fundamentally bad. To desire power over institutions and processes was considered tantamount to gulags. Now, in my older age, with a child, it’s hard for me to not see a deeply pressing need and urgency to take over processes and steer them away from ecological catastrophe. Is there a way to reconceptualize power in order to seize this need?

Rodrigo Nunes: This question has two dimensions: one temporal and conjunctural, the other properly conceptual. The temporal one has to do with the conditions in which we have inherited the thought and history of what we could broadly call “the anti-systemic tradition” (Marxism, anarchism etc.), on the one hand, and with the new problem that is posed by climate change, on the other.

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of neoliberal hegemony inherited the tradition of anti-systemic struggles under conditions that were essentially those of defeat. This defeat was all the bitterer because it did not just come from being beaten by a stronger, deadlier form of capitalism, or from seeing the melancholic end of the 20th century’s attempts to build an alternative to capitalism. What hurt even more was the fact that those attempts had failed on their own terms: setting out to produce the liberation of humankind, they had not only failed to overcome capitalism as a world system, but ended up producing different forms of oppression and enslavement. This had a clear impact on our reception of this inheritance.

How so?

First of all, it made us very wary of the state, of parties and of anything to do with organized collective power. In my book, I call this “the trauma of organization”: we knew to what extent organized collective power could be perverted, which is why, not unreasonably, most of us wished to refuse or minimize its role. The question of whether it was possible to change the world without taking power essentially arose from the historical experience of taking power and failing to change it. This distrust of collectivity then combined with another element that had been developing since the 1960s, when the limits of actually existing socialism had started becoming clear: a rejection of the philosophy of history and an embrace of contingency and open-endedness.

One way of situating post-structuralism and other post-68 trends politically is to say that they resisted the orientation towards the “end of history” that much of Marxism had inherited from Hegel, and the consequent tendency to justify whatever was done in the present as a necessary step towards the society of the future. Against that, so-called “philosophies of difference” affirmed a fundamental openness of the future and the need for thought to be permanently attuned to otherness, to molecular changes, to the possibility of the new — for it to be turned towards the future or, as Derrida put it, the “to-come.”

Now, this openness to the future no doubt helped people live through the “winter years” that began in the late 1970s, but it also combined with the trauma of organization in a very specific way. Because even though people were very wary of organized collective power, they would still sense that, outside of the occasional burst of social mobilization, they lacked the capacity to do what they believed should be done. They feared power, but they also experienced powerlessness, even if this powerlessness could still be represented as some kind of virtue: “we keep on losing, but at least we’re not the bad guys!” So, that openness towards the future compensated this feeling of powerlessness with the promise that new forms of organization would emerge that had all the advantages of the old ones but none of the drawbacks, or that maybe the very small, local things that people were doing would click together to produce “spontaneous” change. A selective incorporation of scientific discourses on self-organization that I critique in the book was very important for this kind of discourse.

For decades, tonnes of texts were written that finished with a call to invent new forms, though the volume of concrete proposals to that effect was comparatively slim.

Hardt and Negri, for example?

They too, although in all fairness they tried to bring more precision to the discussion than others who retreated into quasi-mystical expectation. But the problem was, these new forms that were going to solve the problems of both powerlessness and excessive power were permanently “to-come”: their time was never here, and the hope that they would eventually spring forth fully formed often served to devalue any concrete attempts to create something in the present.

So how does this connect to our contemporary conjuncture?

Well, one of the particularities of the climate crisis is that it has a very marked temporal dimension. It’s not just that it makes a huge difference whether certain goals are achieved in five, 15 or 50 years time. It’s also this: in the past, one could reasonably believe that, even if universal liberation wasn’t achieved in this generation, it would still be by a future one; but the question that is posed now is that humans as a species may not have many more generations left to run.

So even if it were theoretically possible that systemic change could happen spontaneously at some point down the line, the cost of pinning all our hopes on that today is impossibly high. Climate change thus presents us with a “hic Rhodus, hic salta” moment: whatever we’re going to do, we might as well do it now. There’s no time to wait for those magic solutions that will supposedly emerge of their own accord.

Does this mean we simply go back to the old organizational forms, then? No. We know in what ways those don’t work, and we certainly need all the ingenuity and flexibility we can muster. What we need to abandon is the hope, implicit in this orientation to a redemptive to-come, that we’re ever going to find ultimate guarantees against power, that we’re ever going to step out of it, that its problems and its risks will one day just die away.

In a way, what I’m proposing in Nether Vertical Nor Horizontal is not a new concept of power, but the suggestion that maybe we don’t need a new concept after all; that maybe the mystery is that there was no mystery, that these magical organizational forms in which the exercise of power would be perfectly immune to corruption simply don’t exist. The elements I use to argue have all been around for a long time: Spinoza, Gabriel Tarde, cybernetics, Foucault… Ironically, under conditions of defeat, they too have sometimes been deployed against the grain of their own thought to shore up arguments that pose some position of purity altogether outside of power.

So how do we define power, fundamentally? What are we talking about at the end of the day?

Huey Newton explained it as the capacity to define phenomena and make them act in a certain way, which is a definition I like because it basically boils down to saying that power is a capacity to do things or to influence their course: potentia, as Spinoza called it. Why do people get together with one another in order to act? To enhance their potentia, to be capable of doing more than they could do individually. What is political organization, then? It’s the processes that have to do with gathering, shaping, channeling, storing, focusing etc. a collective capacity to act. These can be intentional or spontaneous, formal or informal; they’re everywhere, they’re not reducible to parties, hierarchical formations or the state.

The problem, however, is that once people develop habits, patterns, structures or institutions to gather, shape, channel, store etc. that capacity to act, these instruments that emerge as a way of enhancing their potentia can turn against it and become instruments of domination, disempowerment and so on. In Spinoza’s terms, they become potestas.

Doesn’t this put us back in a dualism, though — potentia and potestas, power-to and power-over, “good” power and “bad” power?

Now, here’s the catch: potentia and potestas aren’t two separate realities essentially opposed to one another. If you look at an interaction in which two individuals have more or less the same degree of potentia, “power-to” and “power-over” are not two different realities, but the same reality seen from different perspectives: your power to incite, motivate or persuade me to do something is a power you have over me. In itself that’s not a problem. On the contrary, we could say: a world in which nothing acted on anything else would be a world in which things would be sealed off from one another and nothing new would ever happen.

When does that become a problem? When you can not only incite, motivate or persuade, but also manipulate, deceive, coerce, intimidate — that is, when there is less and less reciprocity between us because your power-to grows at the expense of mine and I’m subjected to your power over me. Potestas is thus not a different, evil form of power, but merely what happens when habits, patterns, structures, institutions etc. in which collective potentia was invested grow so autonomous from that investment that reciprocity breaks down.

But then the solution should be simple — if you never invest collective potentia in anything, you don’t run the risk of it turning into a form of potestas, right? Except no, this can’t be the answer, because the whole point of investing things with collective potentia is overcoming our powerlessness as individuals. Perhaps you’ll find the risk of building a collective capacity to act above a certain scale too steep to run, but without enough capacity to act that you can pursue whatever goals you set yourself, you’re merely at the mercy of events, and you’ll find yourself to be powerless except for those rare, fleeting moments of upheaval that carry you with them like a wave and leave you stranded somewhere else once they ebb. Mixing Huey Newton’s definition with a famous French 1968 slogan, we could say that if you don’t define phenomena, or at least do your best to steer them in certain directions, phenomena will define you.

This is where your idea of organization as pharmakon comes in.

Exactly. I take this concept from Derrida to say that we should understand power and organization as things that are both remedy and poison, enabling condition and threat: the very thing you need is the one you must watch out for. There is no way out of that, no magical “new form” that’s going to be all remedy and no poison. If you want to change things, you need a capacity to act that is proportional to things you wish to change, so you have no choice but to take those risks. The alternative is powerlessness.

What the trauma of organization and an orientation towards the permanently to-come do is precisely blind us to the pharmacological nature of the question: we see the problem as being only one of excess (too much power or organization) without realizing that it is also one of lack.

Civil rights organizer, Ella Baker, compared organizing to spadework: the difficult, meticulous process of digging and cultivating the earth that often doesn’t result in a bloom, but is nonetheless what makes it possible. Organizing takes time, it takes care, it takes patience to cultivate solidarity and develop capabilities.

As you pointed out in a recent article, one reason why social majorities follow the right-wing’s political program of precarity is because they find that more plausible than collective solidarity — something most have never experienced. If we want people to support initiatives of collective solidarity, you say, then we have to build initiatives that meet them where they’re at and help them now.

But that takes time and organization! We know that mobilization and spontaneity on their own do not produce the world we need, but do we have the time to organize mass bases? Or better put, what are trajectories that can best maximize the waning window of opportunity that remains?

The image of “spadework” — of patient, unglamorous labor — suggests a counter-image with which to illustrate what has been the dominant practice in the left for a long time: in trying to live off nothing but short bursts of mobilization that explode into existence but fizzle out fairly quickly, we look like people whose only plan in life is to try to make a fortune in the casino. It could conceivably work, of course, but it’s certainly a high-risk strategy.

The alternative that “spadework” advances is that we build our own resources and capacities, including the capacity to initiate those bursts or to make the most of them when they come. The problem is, as you point out, that it takes resources to build resources: you need a preliminary investment of time, physical and mental energy into things that can potentially take a while until they look like they’re going anywhere.

We don’t have that many organizations that are in a position to make that preliminary investment, and most of the ones we have probably aren’t fit for that purpose anymore. What’s more, most of us already feel that our own individual resources are stretched thin: we are often exhausted, doing dozens of things at the same time, time-poor. Historically, a lot of organizing was done by students, who occupied a structural position that allowed them greater freedom, but even students nowadays are often overworked, in debt and under pressure to perform in a shrinking academic market.

To make things worse, today we have several ways of making ourselves and others feel that we’re active in politics, but most of it is just talking about politics online — which has its importance, no doubt, but a very reduced one when it’s done without any collective strategy and there’s hardly anything else going on.

These are very difficult questions, and I wish I could’ve addressed them more directly in the book.

You failed us, Rodrigo.

I know! But really, I don’t think I have any great solutions, yet I would say four things.

The first is about resources, understood in the broadest possible sense (people, time, skills, money, equipment, physical space etc.). When I talk about thinking organization ecologically, one of the things that this implies is that, the more people have an ecology to tap into, the less they are forced to start everything from scratch or do everything themselves.

An ecology supposes redundancy: there must be more than one way to get somewhere, more than one group or person who can perform particular tasks, people who can pick up the slack if others fail to deliver or are put out of action. It follows that, the richer and more densely connected an ecology is, the less work needs to be duplicated — a certain resource-saving effect applies. For that, however, it’s not enough for people to be connected; they must also find non-competitive ways to deal with one another.

This is a real challenge, because the attitude that we’re all competing to see who has the right line is so deeply ingrained in the left. But there’s no way around it: the more resources are treated as a common good, the more there is to go around. Not everyone can be a friend, but being flexible about one’s frontiers of friendship and alliance is a condition for expanding one’s capacity to act.

That’s point one.

Point two derives from an insight we find in Aleksander Bogdanov: organizing is not just putting things together, but putting them together in such a way that minimizes their resistances to one another and increases their capacity to overcome the resistances of their environment. This means serious thought must be put into how to structure the ways in which people come together so as to optimize their capacity to actually do what they set out to do. We all sense that time is an incredibly scarce resource, for instance, and yet we often treat it in the most wasteful way, making everything hinge on free-form face-to-face meetings that end without clear results. This is compounded by the counterproductive moralisms that sometimes develop alongside the rejection of more spectacular forms of activism — as if it can’t be real spadework unless it’s prohibitively labor and time-consuming, or as if it were objectionable to raise questions about results and efficiency.

This is completely misguided, however, and follows from the fact that people often don’t choose what works best, but what makes them feel better about themselves. Good spadework must prove itself capable of changing people’s lives somehow, and therefore can’t lose sight of goals. It also must be respectful of their limited time, energy and other resources so that the broadest range of people, not just very committed activists, can participate.

In the ideal scenario, of course, the two things go hand in hand: changing people’s lives at the level of social reproduction frees up resources and capacities that can be used to struggle.

What about three and four?

As with anything else, it’s only if we actively make the time for it that this kind of work can happen. We must make sure that whatever we commit to is sustainable in the long run, to be sure, but we must also commit to it in the first place. That means choosing it over other things, and particularly choosing it over things that could give us more instant, but also less solid, political gratification.

So we must both take objective constraints into account and find ways to work around them, in the same way that we must both feel the urgency dictated by climate change and allow ourselves the time to build things more slowly. As I say a few times in the book, organizing often requires us to hold opposing ideas in the mind at the same time.

Finally, one thing the last decade has proven quite abundantly is that we live in an age of mass movements without mass organizations, in which a media-saturated environment makes it possible for very small organizing cores to initiate mobilizations that cascade to thousands, millions of people very fast.

In the book, I compare this way of organizing, which runs through the uprisings of the last decade from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, to today’s most paradigmatic enterprise model: the platform. What they have in common is that, in both, some people set up a basic framework of cooperation (which could be as basic as a date, a time and a slogan or target for a protest) and invite other people to “work” within it, and success or failure is decided by how much cooperation is put into that framework.

Now, this mode of organizing has a number of problems, risks and inevitable crises built into it, but one thing that it’s very good for is for producing that “primitive accumulation of collective potentia” that is a precondition for launching a long-term organizing project. So it becomes a matter of how you make those big punctual explosions of protest feed into continuous spadework — as well as, obviously, how you make spadework feed into those explosions.

Oftentimes we look to particular forms or elements of struggles beyond our context and blindly try to make them work on our own. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to talks where people want something like Barcelona en Comú or Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortéz, and think all we have to do is copy a specific form. Rather than begin from the existing composition and balance of forces, it is not uncommon to begin from an abstract ideal. Can you tell us about your concept of fitness and how that might help us address the problem of power and the problem of governance?

The term “fitness” comes from evolutionary biology, of course, but the way I employ it is more indebted to network theory, in which it was introduced to explain a paradox in the dominant model of network-formation. If, as that model predicts, the tendency is always for the new nodes in a network to connect to those nodes that are the most connected (a “rich-get-richer” mechanism called “preferential attachment”), how to explain that some new nodes can grow bigger than even those previously existing supernodes?

The relevance of that question becomes obvious when we look at the internet: most of the companies that dominate it today arrived relatively late in the game or left other, earlier arrivals in the dust. The obvious explanation is that this must come down to individual qualities these nodes possess, and it is those qualities that physicists designated as constituting its “fitness.” Obviously, there’s something circular in this reasoning, since you’re ultimately saying that what gives Google its edge is that edge-giving property that Google possesses, as the character in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid would say. But what was a ridiculous tautology in that play is not so much here, because “fitness” is in fact a relational concept: it can only be specified in relation to an actual context. Nothing fits or is fit in the abstract; something might fit or be fit here and not there.

This means the concept can only be defined formally. There isn’t a set of concrete qualities that you could list to say, “this is what works every time,” because the idea that there are things that work every time is precisely what the concept denies. So how do we go about defining it? If we’re talking specifically about transformative politics, it strikes me that the most general way in which we could define fitness is to say that it is the capacity to mediate between what is and what could be (or what we would like to be) in such a way that takes us the closest to the latter.

It’s not simply a matter of being “pragmatic,” therefore, but neither can you just stake a position that is completely infeasible just to prove to others your true “radical” colors. The question at every step is: “what is the position that effectively takes us the farthest in these circumstances?” or “what is the most radical course of action that can get the best results in this situation?”

Naturally, the answer depends on how we evaluate the situation (its objective and subjective conditions) and can only be verified experimentally. Despite its abstractness, however, this way of posing the problem still has interesting consequences for how we conceive the relation between pedagogy and politics, for example, or what being “radical” (and “pragmatic”) means. The most important thing is that, in transformative politics, what is at stake is the limit of what is possible itself. You must work within existing constraints, but always in such a way as to change those constraints, to expand the field of possibilities.

The fact that fitness is always in relation to a concrete context also has consequences for how we “translate” experiences that are successful elsewhere. When trying to do that, the central question to ask is: what is generalizable from them to our situation? Since the way we think about politics has been so colonized by marketing, people will often stay at the most superficial level. They’ll say “what we need is a young woman of color,” for example, as if AOC’s success had nothing to do with the content of what she says, the authenticity with which she can say it, the forces gathered around her, and so on.

But finding what’s generalizable is not about the “optics” of what we’re trying to emulate, it’s more like trying to work out the equations that produced that situation: what relations, in what proportion, over what period of time… Once you identify the relevant variables, then you’re in a position to translate; but the actual value of the variables will be different, because you’re in different circumstances. If you try to reproduce exactly the same thing in a different context, it’s likely that it won’t work. But you can try to use the original recipe as a guide, as it were, adapting it continuously to ingredients, quantities etc. that aren’t the same.

The idea of thinking organization ecologically appears to tie several different threads in the book together: it’s the outcome of abandoning the assumption that the question of organization admits of only one answer; it responds to the challenge of replacing a unified revolutionary subject with a composite one; it’s the background for some of the key concepts you introduce, like distributed leadership and the vanguard-function; and it leads to your proposal that we move from diversity of tactics to diversity of strategies. Could you tell us more about this “ecological” approach?

From the start, it was clear to me that rehabilitating the question of organization depended on unmaking the automatic association between organization and any of the forms that it historically has taken — typically, the party-form. Ironically, this is an area in which “verticalists” and “horizontalists” often agree: when the former advocate a return to “organization,” they actually mean “the party,” and when the latter reject the very idea of organization, it’s also the party that they ultimately have in mind. On both sides, then, you have the idea that proper political organization is something that’s rare, that only exists once you cross a certain threshold: until you have a party, you’re not really organized.

The problem with that is twofold. First, it consigns a whole range of associative practices to the great, mysterious land of the “unorganized” and “spontaneous,” which is then made impenetrable to thought. Second, it makes people believe that the dangerous or pharmacological nature of organization applies only to certain forms (parties, trade unions etc.), which are all always equally corrupt, but not to others, which are naturally innocent and incorruptible — both of which ideas are false.

The best way to disarm these commonplaces is to move in the opposite direction and say that organization is not rare, but rather ubiquitous. Sure, there are thresholds that separate temporary or informal patterns and structures from permanent and formal ones, but anything that we can say something about is organized in its own way, and this organization is nothing mysterious or unthinkable: if you know where to look for it, it can be identified and described.

This means that organization comes in all sorts of shapes, forms and degrees. What’s more, these shapes, forms and degrees all coexist with one another, and so on top of the question of how different organizations or groupings are structured, you have the question of how these organizations and permanent or transient groupings, as well as scores of people who are unaffiliated or move between organizations and groupings, all interact. This higher dimension, then, is the ecology, and it entails that “organization” is never said only of an individual group or organization, but equally of the entire ecology to which they pertain. It follows that the “question of organization” can never be synonymous with “what is the one kind of organization that everyone should have or belong to?,” because it always supposes a plurality.

On one level, then, “thinking organization ecologically” means taking this description and way of posing the question of organization as a point of departure. On another level, however, it also means embracing the political attitudes that follow from it. If to act is always to act within an ecology, the question of organization ceases to be posed exclusively at the level of individual organizations only and comes to encompass this other dimension: how to make the most out of that ecology?

This supposes conceiving your relations to others in collaborative and complementary rather than primarily competitive ways. It implies willingness to work and share resources with others even if you don’t agree with them 100 percent, and caring for the rest of the ecology instead of only your organization or political position. You’re not racing against others to see who will arrive at the head of the revolution, but working to create conditions in which you can win together. This, in turn, implies developing a better awareness and understanding of where others are at and an effort to include them in your calculations, to conceive interventions that take existing differences — in political position, but also in social base, interests, capacities etc. — into account. Not just as absolutes that you politely skirt around, in a “lowest common denominator” coalition politics where everyone is merely doing their own thing, but as variables of the problems you’re trying to find a common solution for.

And this, finally, is the basis for how the question of strategy can be posed by a composite subject that may be more or less integrated, but is not unified: as the collective effort to develop concrete strategic wagers that overlap at different points without being either a single unified plan (which would be impossible) nor simply a proliferation of tiny “local” initiatives that never coordinate at higher levels nor scale up.

Daniel Gutiérrez

Daniel Gutiérrez is co-founder of Werkstatt für Bewegungsbildung and co-host of Spadework podcast. He researches working-class organization, strategy and power. He lives in Berlin.

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