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Malcolm Gladwell's Soft Authoritarianism

Malcolm Gladwell has folks in a bit of a tizzy over his latest New Yorker essay, "Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted." A lot of excellent writing has come out as a result. Zeynep Tufekci makes a whole slew of good points, especially with her analysis of strong and weak ties. My friend Angus Johnston over at Student Activism offers a corrective to Gladwell's narrow understanding of 1960s history and expands the notion of "social networking" to come to more interesting conclusions about activist organizing, past and present. There's also a great discussion going on in the comments section of thisAtlantic review of the essay.

In the interests of not reinventing the wheel, I'd like to do my part by taking a crack at one aspect of the essay I haven't yet seen anyone specifically take on, and it goes to the core of many of his assumptions about the nature of humanity and society.

In "Small Change," Gladwell presents us with a classic logical fallacy: the false dilemma. Inside the historical picture he paints, we can only choose:

  1. Decentralized networks, which are only good at tinkering with the system, or

  2. Top-down, hierarchical structures, which are all that can work if you want fundamental social change.

This, sadly, is all too expected for a writer like Gladwell, who cut his chops in large newspapers covering business news. (Imagine if this topic was written about by someone whose 10,000 hours were actually in social change organizing.) He constantly switches between critiquing social media and critiquing decentralized organizing, conflating them: he talks about Twitter in one moment and the PLO in the next. This allows him to construct some straw men that actually look like very convincing arguments, buttressing an altogether shaky proposition:

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn't need to think strategically. But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. [...]

Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell meant for that question to be a rhetorical one, but it's a question that gets answered every day by activists and organizers across the globe. It's a question I've had the privilege of answering with a dozen friends and comrades in cramped church basements, in huge meeting halls with hundreds of people, over email lists, and via phone.

Examples abound of powerful and often successful social movements that rely on decentralized and non-hierarchical structures. Stretching back in history:

  • The 2001 revolts in Argentina, which resulted in the toppling of three governments in as many weeks and the popular seizure and takeover of factories by their workers;
  • The 1999 Seattle WTO protests, which were successful by just about any measure (they shut down the WTO meeting and landed the first serious blow against the Washington Consensus);
  • The Zapatista revolution in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, which was fundamentally opposed to hierarchical models both in the society they desired and in the groups they used to fight for it;
  • The massive, nationwide strikes and protests in France, May 1968, which caught all the hierarchical standard bearers of social change by surprise (the French Communist Party and the trade unions), and used the social media of the time (broadsheet newspapers and short-range radio) to coordinate the actions of tens of thousands at a time;
  • The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, which, unlike King's SCLC, made decisions democratically among its members, using consensus process;
  • The early labor movement, which won great victories without any large institutional foundations or centralized leadership; and
  • The Underground Railroad, perhaps the best and most iconic counter-argument to Gladwell's insistence on the easy infiltration and defeat of decentralized networks.

Not only are there examples of democratic, decentralized social movements that succeeded, there are many counter-examples to Gladwell's paean to hierarchy. Just sticking to the Civil Rights movement: the Black Panther Party, which grew out of SNCC, was easily infiltrated and undermined in large part because of its rigid internal hierarchy and the secrecy among group elites that came with it. Gladwell's insistence that top-down is the only way to go has implications that reach far beyond the immediate subject of his essay. If the only functional organizations we encounter and participate in are hierarchical, then it's no surprise that we think such a model is a prerequisite for getting anything done. However history has also shown that anti-democratic means rarely result in democratic ends. How we organize is just as important as what we're organizing for, and thankfully we have plenty of more liberatory and empowering options than taking orders from the top.

I think Gladwell gets it right when he says that the revolution will not be tweeted. He is spot on when pointing out the media fabrication of the recent "Twitter revolts" in Iran and Moldova. Twitter and Facebook are tools that activists can use to supplement the tried-and-true tactics and strategies that have won victories for social movements in the past. They are a phenomenal way to access and augment the myriad weak ties that connect each of us to so many others. Any successful social movement will use these tools.

The revolution may not be tweeted, but I'm sure we'll get at least a few clever hashtags for it.

x-posted all over.