Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Self-Organizing Century?

Several leftist blogs I follow have been noting the self organizing behavior of the Wisconsin protests (and of course, the history of unionism itself is a history of self organizing). And it's not just in Wisconsin - there have been solidarity protests all over the country this weekend. The same has been noted about the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, and the spillover to Libya and other countries can be attributed to the critical mass reached by self-organizing systems. The self-organizing nature of the Tea Party has also been remarked on. And of course Obama's own meteoric rise is attributable to the grassroots nature of his base. This may very well be unremarkable - people who study social movements have noted the importance of spontaneous order for the robustness of a movement for centuries. But it may also be something that we'll see more of in the next century.

The primary reason is social media, which has played a major role in all of these movements. It's easy to forget what this accomplishes. Gary is somewhere out West - I don't know where exactly. Jonathan is in California, Mattheus is in Florida, Gene is in New York, Prateek I believe is in England right now (?), stickman is in South Africa (when he's not in Europe), and I thought Lee (who we haven't seen around for a while - anyone know what happened to him?) was down south somewhere, and Evan is in Chicago. The confluence of ideas on this blog are entirely due to social media. Even people I've connected with that live within a few miles of me, like Kevin Rollins and Jan Helfeld, I've connected to because of social media. My first article was published because a professor in New York saw it online and thought it was worth submitting. I've had an internationally known economist comment on this blog because I've linked to a lot of his work.

It's not a new observation, but we may be in for considerably more self-organization in the coming century. That's much like democracy (duh!) - it is both a good and a bad thing. It is certainly a better thing than less self-organization. But that doesn't mean it will always produce good results. I don't think the Tea Party is going to be good for the country in the long-run. I think the whole union movement in Wisconsin may or may not be a good thing (I strongly support the maintenance of collective bargaining rights where unions exist and make sense, but am not so sure a revitalization of the union movement will be a good thing). We all know about the risks posed by democracy in the Middle East too. It's easy to get caught up in the immediate negatives of, say, having a bunch of Tea Partiers in the Congress. But the point is - it's better to have an active citizenry than not have one. It's better to have Egyptians elect some not so savory leaders initially than have a not so savory leader imposed on them while civil society deteriorates. The trick is to educate and improve. Demonstrate to people who gravitate towards the Tea Party why they offer bad policy options. Make connections to Egyptians to foster liberalism there. Just because there's some work involved in making democracy work doesn't mean we should be suspicious of it. Just because there are some risks of it failing miserably doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing. What is the alternative?


  1. Actually, I'm in N.C. right now, but I will be in California by the end of April; then I'll be living in the rural NW after that (probably somewhere in the Willamette Valley where I grew up). Damn hipsters have ruined my fair city Portland (man, I sound like a cranky old dude).

  2. I am living in India.

    By the way, have you noticed that there are only two degrees of separation between Jon Catalan and Paul Krugman? Paul Krugman comments on Brad DeLong, Brad DeLong comments on Daniel Keuhn, and Daniel Kuehn comments on JonCatalan. Yes, power of social media.

  3. Prateek,

    I have plans to hike the length of the Himalayas in a few years. I have no idea if anyone has ever done this before. Whether I do it largely depends on the politics of the region, particularly in Pakistan and Nepal.

  4. Well, seeing as everyone's giving their locations... I suppose that I might as say that I've been more Europe than South Africa over the past five years.

    Currently staying in Lisbon until July, so if anyone wants to visit and see an IMF-bailout in action...

    (Actually, I'm being slightly unfair. The city is very cool so far and no outwardly obvious signs of imminent fiscal cardiac arrest.)

  5. On the subject of the actual post, I've been wondering how much the internet (and social media by implication) will contribute to the decentralisation of political power in the coming years.

    It seems to me that there will be some opposing forces in action. For example, on one hand it decreases transaction costs associated with communicating across distances. On the other, pooled information makes it much easier for people to access and monitor the behaviour of central organisation like national government.

  6. A good long-form treatment of this subject is Clay Shirky's 2008 book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.


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