Are assembly-based parties network parties?

It is difficult to put out a definition of the network party. Maybe — or mainly — because it is much a theoretical construct that does not exist purely in the real world. Any kind of human organization can be characterized, but it will rarely fit the theoretical model: the world is a world of grays.

New politics, technopolitics and political parties

The Spanish 15M Indignados Movement — and everything that came before it — brought new ways of organization which, later on, some of them, entered the political institutions. 2015 saw witnessed three important elections in Spain — municipalities, the Catalan Parliament, and the Spanish Parliament — to which some new and not-so-new parties concurred. A recurrent debate between new and traditional parties was whether these parties, respectively, were doing “new politics” or “old politics”.

One way to define “new politics” was that “new parties” were putting in the political agenda the quality of democracy, sometimes labelled as the “regeneration axis” (in addition to the social or right-left ideological axis). Little to be mentioned here. I personally believe that defending this new axis is a necessary but not sufficient condition or characteristic of new politics.

Another way to define “new politics” was that some political parties were assembly-based. That is, decisions are made at the grassroots level, in the party’s general assembly, and the representatives of the part translate them in the institutions.

In my opinion, this is not only not new politics, but totally misleading to what technopolitics is bringing to the political arena.

First of all, while unheard in most Western democracies, assemblies are anything but new. To say the least, they date from the late XIXth century. This is neither bad nor good: it is just not new.

Second, assemblies might by a part of new politics — or, better put, network parties — but the tool does not make the thing. Following, we will try to describe how three different organizations work: hierarchical parties, assembly-based parties and (despite the difficulty to come up with a proper definition) what a theoretical approach to network parties would look like. Please bear in mind what was said above: theoretical models of organizations do not aim at describing how specific organizations should be or work like, but to understand why the are or work the way they do. In a world full of greys.

Hierarchies

Let us propose a very simplified model where only three things occur: electing representatives, making decisions and executing them.

In a hierarchical party, most things happen in the upper layer of the organization: the lower layer elects their representatives (a secretary general, a secretariat, an executive committee, etc.) and, most of the times, remains outside of the general dynamics of the party.

The elected representatives, though, make all decisions and directly or indirectly execute them. Most of the times too — sad as it may sound — these elected representatives do not even inform the members and sympathisers of the party of the decisions made, and of course very rarely consult them on any issues at all.

At the end of the political cycle, the representatives are accountable for their successes and failures and can be replaced depending on their performance — usually measured in votes or seats, and not in the programme they put out and the actions they took (tough, of course, both of them had an impact that translated in votes, seats, laws passed, etc.).

Assembly-based parties

Assembly-based parties work almost opposite than hierarchical parties: the assembly meets, deliberates and makes a decision. Then, once the decision is made, the assembly elects some people that will carry on with the decision and put it into practice.

Oftentimes, these parties have to engage in conversations with other parties, translate the decision into an institution, or simply speak to the media. It is then usual that the same elected representatives emerging from the assembly also play the role of representing the assembly before third parties.

Note how the pair electing-deciding is inverted: if hierarchies elected people to decide what to do it and do it, assemblies decide what to do and elect the ones that will do it.

As we have already said, things in the real world are much more messy and much less clean. But, in simple lines, this is more or less how it theoretically works.

Network parties

Network parties also invert a pair of steps, but it is not electing of deciding, but executing: in network parties, executing comes first. How is that possible?

Levy, Himanen, Raymond or Benkler, among others, have explained with details the logics of free software and how they can be translated into other knowledge intensive projects. Like, for instance, politics.

In a gift economy, powered by meritocracy and led by do-ocracy people just can set the snowball rolling. If it catches, people will join and the idea, the project, will grow and become important. Otherwise, the idea will be tacitly abandoned and people will move onto other ideas and projects to join and contribute to.

In (pure) technopolitics, network parties emerge from people making decisions first and then executing them. If the projects grow and communities form, then comes the need for some coordination, for some “benevolent dictator” that may coordinate the efforts, make some punctual decisions. These coordinating person or body is elected by the participants on the project, either tactitly — based on her own merit — or explicitly, if there is a need to.

Sometimes the coordinating body will, as it happened with the assembly-based organizations, play the role of representing the collective. But sometimes it will not, as the collective will also have a collective identity and thus will represent itself without the need of intermediation from a specific body.

Following we can see the three (simplified) models for better comparison. It is worth noting how both assembly-based parties and network (or technopolitics-based) parties invert the relationships of power, bringing the decision-making to the bottom — and unlike traditional or hierarchical parties, which have decision-making at the top. But a crucial difference between assembly-based parties and network parties is where execution happens: in network parties, not only decision-making but also execution is distributed and takes place at the bottom. And this is what makes politics new: not only where decision-making takes place, but also where execution does.

As it has been said, these are “elements rarely found as pure substances”, that is, theoretical (and very much simplified) models whose aim is neither saying how things should work, nor how all parties can be distinctively and exhaustively categorized. On the contrary, we may find parties whose inner structure follows a different model depending on the stage, the level at which is is analysed, or even the time or specific task being developed. Thus, it is unlikely to find a party or an organization that perfectly fits the theoretical model, as it is likely to find many parties and organizations that embed in their organizational and operational design several bits of these models. Depending on which one prevails, or leads the culture of the organization, we will be able to generically label them one way or the other.

Towards a definition of the network party

Graphs of networks: traditional parties and the 15M movement
Traditional parties and the 15M movement according to Aragón et al. (2013) and Toret (2013), respectively.

Network Society sociologist Manuel Castells has often in his work talked about the concept of the network enterprise. Despite he does not actually provide a formal characterization of what a network enterprise is — or I failed to find one — the concept is very appealing. And is not only appealing when confronting it with aa Taylorist/Fordist model vs. a Kanban/Toyotist model, but because it is an open enough concept (its strength, its weakness) to translate it into other contexts. For instance, politics: is there something like a network party? Are many or some of the new movements that we are witnessing — the Arab Spring, the Spanish indignados, Occupy Wall Street, YoSoy132 — actually more than movements? Are some of the evolutions of these movements — in the case of Spain, Partido X, Podemos, Guanyem — not traditional parties but… network parties?

The network enterprise

Castells, in The Rise of the Network Society, defines the network enterprise as that specific form of enterprise whose system of means is constituted by the intersection of autonomous systems of goals. This idea of autonomy is essential as, on the one hand, it is one of the consequences of the detachment of the physical constraints once information and communications are digitized and, on the other hand, one of the main causes of the changes in institutions that we will increasingly be witnessing.

This autonomy enables a network made of firms or segments of firms, or from internal segmentation of firms that now have the project at their core. Projects, not assembly lines, are the operational units around which all actors and resources spin. The project is an independent partnership which can be accountable for its successes and failures, which has its own structure and its own developments.

And yes, projects can interact, leading to corporate strategic alliances and inter-firm networking, but always on the basis of horizontal cooperation. Thus, we leave behind industrialism to embrace informationalism, and we leave behind mass production to embrace flexible production.

Later, in Materials for an exploratory theory of the network society, Castells emphasises that the network enterprise is not about a network of enterprises, but about internal decentralization and partnerships with other firms having as a link, as a connector the project. Through this link, information flows: sharing information is the basis of co-operation. And when the exchange of information is no more needed, the project is dismantled and alliances are over… for that project.

Although not exactly related with the network enterprise, Castells partly depicts the impact of this change in the ways of production in society. In Local and Global: Cities in the Network Societyy, the author speculates on changes to the work-living arrangements which may be coming back to prior-industrial era times, transforming industrial spaces into informational production sites, in ways similar to how craftsmen shared knowledge and expertise.

The network party

So, can we translate these reflections into the political party arena?

I believe most of the aforementioned points can be put side by side in a comparison between traditional parties and (a mostly theoretical approach to) network parties:

Traditional party Network party

Network of (subsidiary) branches.

Network of cells, franchises.

Internal hierarchy.

Internal independence.

Internal centralization.

Internal decentralization.

Information is kept secret, even to insiders.

Co-operation based on sharing information, especially with outsiders.

The unit of production is the programme.

The unit of production is the project.

Hierachic system of procedures.

Autonomous system of goals.

Industrialism.

Informationalism.

Total planning.

Open social innovation.

Fordism:

  • Management-worker submission.
  • Especialized labor.
  • Message control.
  • Iincrease control.

Toyotism:

  • Management-worker cooperation.
  • Multifunctional labor.
  • Quality control.
  • Reduce uncertainty.

Mass production.

Flexible production.

Inter-firm chain of command.

Inter-firm networking.

Corporate competition.

Corporate strategic alliance.

Vertical cooperation.

Horizontal cooperation.

Party is your life/job.

Work-living arrangements, casual participation.

How to more thoroughly characterize the network party, and, most important, how to identify what parties and to what degree they share these characteristics is a work that surely needs being done. Especially to test whether any of this is actually true, or if it actually works. But, at least, I believe there is some pattern that strives to match this model.