pre-conference draft

E-rules for radicals?: community organising in an e-world.

Len Holmes, Management Research Centre, University of North London (at time of presentation)

Prepared for "Organization Theory in Transition: Transitional Societies; Transitional Theories", the 9th International Congress of Asia-Pacific Researchers in Organisation Studies, December 2001, Hong Kong


Introduction: the rise of e-organising

The potential of the internet and web for use by 'social movements against the new global order' (Castells, 1997) was vividly brought to public notice by the news media in June 1999. The 'J18' events, when a "Carnival Against Capitalism" in the City of London turned into a ‘riot’, was said to have "posed particular problems for the authorities because organisers used the Internet to communicate" ( This and similar actions in other cities across the world were covered not only by the conventional news media but also via the interlinked websites run by various groups engaged in the action ( ). The internet and web has been widely used in respect of subsequent actions, particularly at inter-governmental economic and trade meeting, and more generally by various anti-capitalist/ anti-globalisation and trade justice groupings, and also by anti-nuclear, antivivisection, anti-GM agriculture, amongst other campaigns. These groupings have no centre or ‘head’, and differ in many aspects of their analysis and views on what constitutes legitimate action (particularly in terms of the issue of violence and destruction of property), but have very quickly seized upon the potential of the new technology as an organisational and promotional tool. But the organisation studies literature has, as yet, given little analytical attention to this clearly significant feature of emerging modes of organisation.

One reason for the tardiness of the analysis may lie with the tendency for organisation studies to focus on hierarchy and ‘centres of power’, on organisations as entities characterised by the achievement of stability. Analysis takes the standpoint of individuals and groups who have achieved, or been granted, positions which purportedly make them ‘leaders’, determining the goals to be pursued and the strategies by which these should be achieved. As Becker (1970) argued, a ‘hierarchy of credibility’ pervades conventional modes of analysis. In a context where the existing technologies for communication could be controlled by those in dominant positions, such analysis may have apparent conceptual and empirical legitimacy. However, the rapid and widespread adoption of the new communications technology by radical groups suggests that such modes of analysis need to be reconsidered. This paper seeks to present a modest set of themes in relation to the need for such theoretical reconsideration.

The title of this paper is a play on the title of Alinksy’s second and final book ‘Rules for Radicals’, written just before his death in 1972. Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) the American community action organiser, was a key figure in the non-socialist left in the USA, initially gaining fame (or notoriety) for his role in organising the Back of the Yards in Chicago in the 1930s. Trained as a sociologist at the University of Chicago, Alinsky’s approach emphasised participatory democracy rather than an ideologically-led programme of political action. For Alinsky, social change could only be achieved by the mobilisation and organisation of people seeking such change, in their own interests and through their own action. Through various campaigns in which he was involved, particularly through the Industrial Areas Foundation which he set up in the 1950s, Alinsky refined and defined a distinctive mode of community-based organising for radical action. The principles of these were presented in his first book, "Reveille for Radicals" (Alinsky, 1946, 1969), and more systematically in "Rules for Radicals". The subtitle of the latter, "A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals", is a direct reference to his opposition to the revolutionary and vanguardist tendencies of many radical groups of the 1960s, of which he is highly scathing.

What Alinsky would have considered about the new information and communication technology can be only a matter of speculation, although his pragmatic stance suggests that he would have sought to utilise it as far as it proved to be useful. He worked and wrote in an earlier age, and particularly in the context of conditions in the United States. Moreover, his campaigns concerned action within urban localities, especially in neighbourhoods where the local community shared similar conditions such as employment within a single industry and/or employer, slum housing, and so on. A straight transfer of the ‘rules’ to the contemporary world is probably not advisable. The purpose here is to use the participatory orientation as the standpoint from which to explore what we might term ‘e-rules for radicals’, that is, emergent principles for the use of the distributed information and communication technology for organising radical action in the ‘e-world’.

Communicate to communify; e-communicate to virtually communify.

Although the word ‘communify’ does not (yet) appear in the dictionary, the Latin root, unus, in both ‘communicate’ and ‘community’ is the root of ‘unify’. The word ‘community’ has a somewhat static, entitative connotation, something which has boundaries and stability. In contrast, Alinsky’s philosophy, unsurprisingly considering that he trained at Chicago University, accords with interactionist, processual, relational modes of conceptualising and analysing society. Organisations and communities are constantly in the process being made, there is a constant engagement in organising and ‘communifying’, through communicative practices.

However, such communicative practices rely upon technologies for communicating, ranging from speech, writing, actions and pictures to mechanical and electronic modes, each having particular properties which afford varying degrees of efficiency of communication. The ephemeral and localised nature of speech was, historically, supplemented by the development of writing and later by mechanical, electronic and digital modes of recording. The distributive capacities of writing were accelerated by the development of moveable type printing, in fifteenth century Europe, resulting in major social, political and economic transformations (McLuhan, 1962). The invention of tele-modes of communication in the 19th and 20th centuries similarly had transformational consequences, on a more rapid scale. Now, the development of the internet, and particularly the world wide web, incorporates key communicative properties of previous developments:

All this is commonplace in discussions of the new world of communication, the 'internet galaxy' (Castells, 2001).

More significantly for the discussion here is the affordance of the new technology for the organisation of social action oppositional to the dominant social order and those who are in positions of power. Berners-Lee, the 'father of the web', makes that clear his vision was for a hypertext web whereby "a group of people of whatever size could easily express themselves, quickly acquire and convey knowledge, overcome misunderstandings and reduce duplication of effort" (Berners-Lee, 1999:174-5). This speaks of a knowledge-production model, rather than one of consumption, albeit that the majority of users of the web limit themselves to consumption via browser technology, exercising choice over what information they access. However, the potential of the internet and web is for voicing, for distributing knowledge claims relatively unfettered by the limited affordances of previous communications modes. The two key tasks for developing web pages and websites, ie the production of electronic documents in HTML form and the transfer of those to a host server connected to the internet, are easily learned by anyone with basic level of computer literacy. Entry and transaction costs are relatively very low, particularly as connectivity to the internet expands through public access points and in educational institutions, which do not even require direct connection on the part of an individual or group.

Furthermore, whilst earlier modes of communication by radical groups were highly exposed to obstruction by dominant groups, eg the seizure and destruction of printing presses and pirate radio stations, the distributed nature of the internet allows radical groups to increase the complexity and cost of such interference. The leveraging capacity of e-communications technology was effectively employed by the Zapatista movement in Mexico, "the first informational guerilla movement" (Castells, 1997: 79). Oppositional groups in Malaysia have exploited a dilemma inherent in the distributed nature of the internet: the Malaysian state's commitment to the development of the 'multi-media supercorridor' cannot control its availability to those who seek to challenge the government, particularly from outside the country's borders and the effective reach of state disciplinary agencies (Grieco and Holmes, 2001).

From divide-and-rule to multiply-and-organise

The traditional strategy by the powerful of divide-and-rule relies essentially upon separation through the production of difference and the obstruction of communication. In contrast, e-communication technology affords the building of alliances tolerant of diversity and the circumvention of communicative obstruction. A key aspect of this is the ability to develop multiple nodes, many websites on many host servers, dynamically linked through hypertext. The use of mirror sites, in effect the same website in respect of content but hosted on different servers, subverts attempts to close down oppositional voices.

The psychological effects of divide-and-rule tactics, the creation of an appearance of smallness, are capable of reversal through the technology. The mere existence of multiple groupings with similar aims and values is one aspect of this. This is further assisted by the multimedia capabilities of web technology. Embedding photographic, video and audio material enables physically separated groups to see and hear the actions taken by others. Whilst video and audio plug-in technology requires a relatively high degree of technical expertise, photographic images are very simple to use by anyone who has mastered the relatively simple basics of webpage design. Following the J18 action, when the City of London police published "a large gallery of suspects they wished to question", the J18 website published a "Rogues Gallery" of photographs of "suspects" who "form part of an extremist global group calling themselves ‘the Capitalists’ …[who] wreak havoc on the earth and create misery for millions" (

Similarly, in the anti-nuclear movement, Greenpeace has an online nuclear ship spotter guide, showing pictures of BNFL's 7 ships used to transport nuclear waste, their details and recent movements ( ). The Atomic Atlas Project displays maps showing the routes taken by nuclear waste transportation in the USA, enabling the viewer to identify routes local to their own state and area and their proximity to schools, colleges and hospitals (


Collect the history, collectivise the memory

The new communications technology challenges the old saying that 'history is written by the victors': now any previously subordinated group is able to place into the global record its own history in its own voice. One aspect of this social archiving potential of the web (Green, Grieco and Holmes, forthcoming) is to collect together disparate sources of historical record, particularly where these are in 'folk' forms such as stories, song and dance (eg The Miners' Campaign Tape Project; Scottish herring 'girls' website, ). Such collecting together may also then serve to collectivise the memory, enabling those who identify themselves with the experiences and struggles of a group either as participants or as inheritors of the experience. The African National Congress website ( ) has developed an archive of the struggle against apartheid, enabling the current and future generations of South Africans access to a history which the apartheid regime sought to suppress. The history of various industrial disputes is now being collected through the web, especially by groups who are not part of official trade union structures (see UnionsOnline website, The past history of the breaking of communities, through migration enforced by physical or economic measures, is now subject to new ways both to tell the history and re-communify the resultant diaspora (eg African Diaspora Links,

Moreover, the web affords not only the (re)writing of history of particular communities and events, and the potential to rebuild community: it enables linkages to be forged between groups and communities where there is seen to be commonality of experience. Search engine technology enables any group or community to find through the web any other group or community with similarities capable of expression through some key words. The likelihood that a significant connection may be discovered through such automated search may be enhanced through relatively simple methods, particularly through insertion of keyword metadata in a website. Once found, another website may then be easily linked to using hypertext, overcoming the isolation which resulted from the limiting properties of previous communications technology.

E-reflections on Alinsky's rules

The discussion above leads us to reflect on Alinsky's writings, from the pre-internet era. His first rule of tactics, 'power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have', remains valid and indeed is reinforced by the new technology. The difficulties faced by the law enforcement agencies in responding to the J18 action demonstrated the organising power of the internet. At subsequent events, major deployment of police and, in some countries, military forces, indicated that perceived power of the anti-capitalist/ anti-globalisation movement, particularly those groupings for whom violence and destruction of property were regarded as legitimate. These events also illustrated rule 3, wherever possible go outside the experience of your enemy. On Mayday 2001, after the movement's use of the internet had been recognised through earlier events, the diversity of groupings within the broad movement presented the UK Government and police forces with difficulties in planning for the situation. Participants in the Mayday 2000 rally ranged from those with religious/ spiritual commitments to notions of humanity's stewardship of the planet, mostly eschewing tactics of violence and property destruction, to radical anarchist and socialist groups prepared to engage in such tactics, with various shades between. Groups of various religious faiths engaged in communal prayer and singing, alongside 'eco-warriors' digging up the grass in Parliament Square to plant various crops, whilst some groups moved up to Trafalgar Square where several premises, including a branch of McDonalds, were vandalised. Faced again with such a coalition, the Government urged people not to take part in the events; even the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone issued such a plea, whilst the Metropolitan Police was said to be considering use of rubber bullets ( ).

On a less dramatic scale, the use of user-based monitoring of public service provision equally illustrates these two rules. For example, a community centre in a low-income area in North Tyneside, within the parliamentary constituency of the UK Transport Minister, is the base from which public transport service is being monitored through a website ( An online bulletin board enables anyone, anywhere, to post information regarding the bus services, and particularly the problems experienced by poor or non-existent service. Unlike a conventional public meeting, where attendance figures may be taken as an indicator of the level of effective support for any action, the web mode renders obscure the size of the constituency of support for action. This reverses the dynamics of surveillance, whereby the actions of the hitherto dominant agencies are made transparent whilst those previously subject to surveillance can use the distributed form to subvert, a 'reverse panopticon' (Holmes and Grieco, forthcoming).

Alinsky's second rule, 'never go outside the experience of your people', finds echoes in the work of Freire. The new technology provides a further development on this by expanding the range of experience available to groups and communities, particularly through its multi-media capacities. It is commonly recognised that film and particularly television have played a significantly role in spreading social movements, and is one reason why authoritarian regimes attempt to enforce strict control over such broadcasting and access to externally-originating broadcasts. The web can incorporate still and moving image with text, and can provide this from archive, enabling anyone or any group to selectively view in a visual form the events and actions of other individuals and groups. E-mail, bulletin board and online messaging facilities enable groups to interact with other groups, to learn from each other and mutually support each other. What constitutes the 'experience of your people' may be radically altered through the technology not available to Alinsky.

The affordance of the internet and web technology can also be seen in relation Alinsky's 5th, 6th and 13th rules. A spoof WTO website (, has for 2 yeasr exploited the ability to register a domain name that is not already taken. The site seeks to ridicule the discourse used by key figures in the pro-globalization agencies by extending the logic of their positions. For example, in what purports to be a 'news item' the patent enforcement position of the US Government is represented as regarding the number of lives lost to AIDS in the short term as acceptable as it would be "dwarfed by the number saved in the long term through a more efficient medical products market". The Yesmen, "a genderless, loose-knit association of some three hundred impostors worldwide", claims to have developed a 'parodyware' program, to copy existing official websites in order to produce spoof websites ( ).

Anti-pornography activists have developed a website which provides a toolkit for supporters to produce spoof pornography websites, using metadata to ensure that search engines pick up the fake sites when typical keywords are imputted by porn seekers (eg 'Horny in Hungary') ( ). The fake website then displays the campaign slogan: "porn's fake - girls are real".

'Culture jamming' and 'Hacktivism' are other well-developed examples of the use of ridicule and targeting/ freezing/ personalising. The former seeks to disrupt conventional media such as billboards, radio and TV as used in promoting consumerism; examples and instructions for others who wish to emulate are promoted via websites ( see eg ). Hacktivists, who have high levels of expertise with the technology, have decrypted copy protection software for DVD and disseminated the code via numerous websites (http:/// ). When the company eToys sought to close down, through litigation claiming trademark infringment, the pre-existing etoy website (formed by artists engaged in "experimental entertainment and cultural business operations") mounted a 'ToyWar' through the internet:

"TOYWAR worked on the base of self organized, multi-level intelligence - possible only on the net a swarm of bees, hundreds of well-informed people, industry insiders, kids and legal experts contested the aggressor on every level (filing counter court cases, infiltrating customer service, PR departments, the press, investor news groups and also on the level of federal trade commission etc.)."

( )

After eToys share value dropped by over 75%, representing $4.5 billion in value, the case was dropped. (See for other examples and further links).


In this paper we have seen many examples of the way that the new information and communication technology has been deployed to promote radical action against dominant discourses and centres of power. The technology makes possible such action because of its affordances, properties which have significant potential in relation to the aims of radical groupings and movements. A key property is the distributed nature of the technology, the lack of any centre or of a hierarchical structure through which such radical action may be easily thwarted. Moreover, the ability to communicate in a multi-mode fashion, using text and image, and to enable multiple routes through interconnected nodes enables the building of mass action in the virtual dimension as a component in mobilising mass action in the 'real' world. All this has been effected within a very short span of time compared to previous developments in communications technology. Whilst it is too soon to make predictions about future directions, such developments are clearly important for organisational theory and research.


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Alinsky, S. (1972) Rules for Radicals, New York: Random House

Becker, H. (1970) "Who's Side Are We On?", in W. Filstead, Qualitative Methodology, Chicago: Rand McNally

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Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity, Oxford: Blackwells

Castells, M. (2001) The Internet Galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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