Has Technology Changed Organizing? A Conversation with Movement Scholar Marshall Ganz
Stay tuned for an understatement: the events in North Africa this Spring were surprising.
Entrenched heads of state with tight, repressive grips on power were ousted not by opposition groups or sectarian interests but by people. It was, in the formulation of organizing and social movement scholar Marshall Ganz, a David versus Goliath moment.
In Ganz’ book, “Why David Sometimes Wins,” he describes how the battle between two biblical characters, the battle-ready Goliath and the poorly equipped David, yielded an unexpected outcome - David’s victory - because David approached the situation from a different perspective and drew from a non-traditional toolbox. Goliath expected him to draw a sword but, instead, he chose a slingshot. He hit Goliath in the forehead with a stone and knocked him out.
The basic tenets of Ganz’ scholarship on organizing are borne out in the recent examples of Egypt and Tunisia: an outside-the-box-perspective, a new toolbox and a unifying public narrative to hold people together. They're all there. I wanted to know, though, if Ganz thought the new ways that Arab Spring protesters have harnessed new media will influence future scholarship on movement building and organizing. Has it taught us anything new? Here are some of his thoughts.
Has your thinking on the training of social movement organizing changed at all based on what you’ve we’ve seen happen this spring?
I mean it’s classic social movement organizing. Social movements are at the intersection of intentionality and opportunity, intentionality and contingency, and that’s how it works.
It’s clear that there were people working, building infrastructure and looking for opportunity and all that. And then Ben Ali takes off out of Tunis and all of a sudden there’s a spark, and the Police Day demonstration [in Egypt] turns into something quite different.
It’s like you’re carrying around this little balloon and all of a sudden it’s full of air and you’re like “Oh my God, this is going to carry me into the sky. My god! Better see where I am!” That’s how it’s always happened.
In 1848, every country in Europe had a revolution. And they happened very quickly one upon the other. People were riding on horses with broadsides to the next town. It’s not like social contagion is a brand new thing. And I’m not saying that to minimize the significance of the new things, but just to put them into context to appreciate what they enable us to do and what they do not.
I think new media facilitates the process enormously. To me it’s more: “how does it enhance, how does it create new possibilities.” There was this whole period where new media seemed to have agency. People would say “the internet does”. That’s not it. It’s a set of tools and a medium of communication that is incredibly useful to skilled people who want to use it skillfully and purposefully. I think we’re learning more about that every day.
21st century revolutions have yielded big crowds but few leaders with the interest or capacity necessary to build on success and prevent a backslide. I wonder if you think there’s an interaction between that trend and the new tools that people are using to mobilize these revolutions?
What you just described could have described the first two years of the French Revolution. People mobilize, and the opposition collapses, and it’s like “oh my God, what do we do now? Who’s really in charge?” The person with the most radical program usually has a big advantage because maybe they’re more militant, but then there’s the pushback and there’s all this confusion and then you wind up with Napoleon. This is again not to minimize the ways in which it is different. How can I put it? The internet can create a sort of effervescence, like “Woah, we didn’t have to do two years of house meetings to get all these people to show up.”
On the other hand, when you read the history of these other social movements and revolutions there are always people are working at it forever and then there are these tipping point moments where people seem to come out of nowhere and everybody’s blown away. Then everyone’s in confusion because they don’t know how to handle it. I think you’re pointing to a really crucial challenge. I mean, now in Egypt, how do you translate mobilization into organization?
It’s hard. In this country, if we didn’t have social movements we would never have had any change in the United States, because our electoral system is so sclerotic. In other words, it was designed by people afraid of majoritarian governance, because they needed to preserve slavery and hold on to all that stuff, so government is so fragmented here. Now, in a parliamentary system, you get somebody in power and they can actually do some stuff, like we see in Britain, whether coming from one side or another. I think you really need to look at what the institutional context is to answer those kinds of questions. You really have to understand the nature of the system being designed and what the cultural and social instructions are that are being drawn upon to design it.
You teach a "snowflake model" of leadership, with one person in the middle, who is connected to different people around them who are, in turn, connected to more people around them. Has this model evolved at all considering the avowedly leaderless nature of this year's revolutions, can we still expect (or hope) to find the one person in the middle?
What we have found is that it’s important to distinguish leadership as position from leadership as practice. Because people hear “leadership” and they think “authority,” and so they think traditional authority structures. And we were sort of saying “well no, we’re approaching leadership as a practice, not leadership as a position, and as consisting of these skills, these five practices that we teach.” It’s about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty, that’s our little mantra.
Now, if a person is leading a campaign, if it’s a leadership team, which I think is really great to lead a campaign - somebody’s still got to coordinate that team. Which doesn’t mean that they’re the charismatic leader-boss-dominator-exploiter. It means that the buck stops with them for a particular piece of leadership work that has to be done. I just haven’t found any other way.
I put them in the center of the snowflake because it’s sort of imagined as a team. My role may be strategy and somebody else’s role may be storytelling and somebody else’s role may be money and fundraising. But somebody’s role has got to be seeing to the whole.
I think crafting forms of collaborative leadership and authority are really important. But we also have to be realistic about them. My generation went through a whole thing of being so mad with structure that it just said “all structure oppresses”, so then it all became structurelessness, and that was chaos. So it’s figuring out how to craft this interdependence of individual and collective, and that’s where I think the action is.
What I’ve seen in the Arab world is that the traditional leadership structures are extraordinarily unitary and top-down, and so coming up with a snowflake model is quite novel.