Book Review: Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization by Rodrigo Nunes
In Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization, Rodrigo Nunes challenges the binary that opposes verticalism to horizontalism, proposing instead that we approach political organization as a diverse ecology of different initiatives and organizational forms. It is a timely contribution to theoretical debates around the organization and global collective memory of political struggles, offering practical tools to activists and organizers while maintaining scientific rigor, writes Birgan Gokmenoglu.
Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization. Rodrigo Nunes. Back. 2021.
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Just over a decade ago, Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution spread across the Middle East and North Africa in what has been called the “Arab Spring”, followed by Occupy movements in the United States. United States, Southern Europe and the United Kingdom in 2011. , and in Turkey, Brazil and other countries in 2013 and beyond. As the world witnessed protests, uprisings and revolutions that spanned continents, the question of organizing resurfaced for activists and scholars, and continues to be central as we revisit the legacy of wave of 2011 ten years later.
The question of organization covers a range of practical and theoretical issues, often framed by binaries such as spontaneity versus strategy; communication versus antagonism; connected informal networks versus formally organized structures; self-organization versus organization; local versus global; process versus result; coordination versus centralization. In short, horizontalism versus verticalism. Reflecting on these concerns, Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization by Rodrigo Nunes is a timely contribution not only to theoretical debates around the organization, but also to a global collective memory of political struggles. It is therefore a book to be read by specialists in political theory, social movements, revolutions and controversial politics, as well as by activists and organizers with whom to reflect.
The organization has a bad reputation. It has become synonymous with ‘party’: now commonly understood as that hierarchical, centralized, vertical and – insofar as those are the three things – authoritarian political structure that is associated with ‘old politics’ or ‘old politics’. ” left. The book identifies the historical roots of this association between organization and party, and the ensuing aversion to the former which Nunes calls “organizational trauma” (chapter three). This term refers to a fear of the collectivity, of the structuring, of the permanence, of the institutionalization and of any type of organizational effort with a vertical sounding with which the movements of the 2011 wave, and the alterglobalist movement which ‘preceded, had to struggle. Nunes, however, reminds us that being vs organization is to be “so obsessed with the risk of its excess and its perversion that it becomes insensitive to the tragedy of its lack and its dissipation” (39).
Image credit: Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash
The trauma of the organization is linked to what Nunes calls the “double melancholy” (chapter two) of the defeats of 1917 and 1968 and the ways of doing politics attributed to them. 1917 refers to the old politics, encompassing the actually existing socialism, workers’ movements, trade unions and the party with its vanguard position and leadership, while 1968 is attributed the “new social movements” with their emphasis on minorities, identity politics, everyday transformation, struggles beyond the state, and hippies.
The two “monoliths,” Nunes points out, are historically incorrect generalizations, “a retrospective projection constructed after its loss” (26). His historical account dispels the long-held belief in social movement studies that “labor movements” have been replaced by “new social movements.” In fact, one of the major contributions of this book is its dissolving of the binaries that cause much division both in political theory and in left-wing movements, such as those mentioned at the start of this review. Instead of viewing political action as a choice between binary opposites, Nunes suggests that we think ecologically.
Thinking about the organization ecologically means thinking about the relationships that bring together different forms and levels of action, various forms of organization, different organizations collaborating or confronting each other, as well as individuals not affiliated with a political organization who support, engage or cooperate with these organizations in various ways. Nunes argues that a theory of organization must start from these relationships, and that organization “must first refer to this phenomenon, and only then to individual organizations” (27). Individual organizations, in turn, can range from loose networks of individuals to political parties, from urban gardens to affinity groups.
Rather than aiming for a specific target form organization that adapts to all uses at all times, ecological thinking aims to deploy different forces of organization, in different combinations and degrees, according to their ability to develop the capacity to act under specific conditions (Chapter Seven). Therefore, thinking about organizing ecologically requires being sensitive to the context, to the configuration of power relations at a specific time and place, and to the strengths and weaknesses of the various tactics, alliances, demands, scales of engagement and forms organizational.
While organizational ecology is the scaffolding of Nunes’ theory, it is backed by many supporting elements that help scholars and activists navigate political action. The second half of the book expands on these building blocks, which provide useful analytical tools and practical lessons for studying and engaging with social movements.
“Distributed Leadership” is one such element that relieves a particular organization or individual with leadership position and distributes it through the ecology of organizations to fulfill the a function of management. This shift in emphasis from position to function not only democratizes leadership, but also redefines radicalism (chapter seven):
To be radical is to be radical in relation to a concrete situation, identifying the most transformative action compatible with it. […]. Apart from that, “radicality” is a purely aesthetic gesture […] devoid of commitment to really producing effects in the world (271).
Once the action has come out of the limits of a predetermined and fixed radicality and submitted to a situated and empirical appreciation, neither a particular strategy nor a given form of organization appears as the all-encompassing choice. This allows another key element of Nunes’ theory of organization: the “diversity of strategies” to be taken up by political actors. Considering how the anti-globalization movement’s limited range of tactics (e.g. summit protests) and the wave of 2011 (e.g. square sit-ins) have hampered these long-term movements, Nunes’ theory provides a solid pathway for think about the construction of the movement. , strategy and alliances, in the short and long term, from the moment of action and after.
If Nunes relies on lessons learned (or not) from the anti-globalization movement and the 2011 wave, the parallels drawn between the two obstruct as much as they reveal. The book would benefit from a more explicit discussion of how larger political ecologies, such as political regimes, shape and are shaped by the dynamics of the organizational ecologies of the movements that operate within them. It would be a question of taking into account the global waves while being attentive to the specificities of each case; after all, neither the anti-globalization movement nor the wave of 2011 was “global” in the literal sense. That said, a case-by-case analysis would be beyond the scope of this theoretical work, and the theory itself is flexible enough to provide useful concepts and practices for thinking through movements.
Neither vertical nor horizontal offers a sober theory of organization that draws on an eclectic mix of theoreticians and historical experience. It does not provide an ideal model to follow but prompts the scholar/activist/organizer to ask: “what can we do now, in these circumstances? instead of the disengaged ‘what should be done?’ Indeed, the greatest strength of the book lies in the ability of Nunes to offer practical tools to activists and organizers while maintaining scientific rigor, without compartmentalizing theory from practice.
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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Birgan Gokmenoglu – LSE Sociology
Dr Birgan Gokmenoglu is a Visiting Researcher in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics. His work focuses on theories of (de)democratization, social movements, controversial politics, time and temporality. She holds a doctorate from LSE Sociology.