The Wonderful, Messy Process of Self-Organization


pedestal left after statue of slave trader was removed in Bristol, UK; image from NPR taken by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

We humans seem to like order, and there are several ways of achieving it. We are inclined to prefer simpler, easier-to-understand processes, such as the mechanical processes involved in designing, building and operating automobiles. We can design an automobile to be functional and beautiful, and know how every part was designed to work. So we may be inclined to try to design everything that way, as if everything could be, if done properly, perfectly functioning, perfectly controlled. We too often forget that things produced by mechanical processes are also incredibly fragile, inexorably decomposing and beginning to fall apart from the very moment they are created.

By contrast, self-organization is the undirected, emergent way in which order comes about. It is a complex way of achieving order. We tend to distrust complex processes, perhaps because they are messy and often uncontrolled. The bodies of even the world’s tiniest creatures have ‘evolved’ as self-organized organisms over billions of years, and they are staggeringly, unknowably complex, and horrifically messy, full of discarded pieces, and amazingly resilient. We can’t fix them like we fix our cars, since almost all of what happens in them is autonomous, unconscious, entirely self-organized.

So it’s not surprising that when it comes to social systems (notably political, economic, educational, and health care systems) we are inclined to prefer systems that, at least on the surface, are designed for control. Such systems are almost invariably hierarchical, led by those who presumably know best how to control them. We may design them with some resiliency — checks and balances to prevent bad decisions and abuses of power — but mostly we design them for efficiency, because that is the cheapest and simplest (least complex) way.

No matter that the creatures these systems attempt to govern are undesigned, unimaginably complex, and evolved for resiliency, not efficiency or control.

It is telling that our favourite modern business word is “management”, which comes from an old French word in horsemanship meaning “to control by hand”. In that sense, the term “self-management”, which is supposedly the antithesis of hierarchical control, is actually an oxymoron. That’s why in this article I use the term “self-organization” instead (the etymology of organ is “that with which one works”).

Life on earth is pretty much entirely self-organized; that’s how the rules of evolution have apparently played out. What we might incorrectly perceive to be ‘leaders’ in the natural world are really just specialized roles that the group has self-organized for the benefit of the whole. The labels of alpha male and female, and “leader of the pack” we apply to wild creatures are mostly misunderstandings and myths we have invented to rationalize our own abandonment of self-organization in favour of hierarchy and control.

Just as the organs in our bodies have evolved to serve specialized purposes, so have social roles of specialization evolved in wild creatures, so that each does what they are best at, for the benefit of all. Internal violence and selfishness are unnatural phenomena — evidence of social breakdown in situations of extreme stress and scarcity, not of hierarchy being in any way natural. Rats only start to hoard and kill each other when the only alternative to some of the members of the group dying, is all of the group dying.

With few exceptions, hierarchy is a spontaneous and aberrant behaviour that has evolved to enable a quick and drastic culling of excess numbers in times of extreme crisis, when gentler means of reducing the size of the group to fit with the rest of an overburdened ecosystem have failed. (Yes, I know, we’ve argued about whether hierarchy is natural or inevitable or useful before; I remain so far unrepentant.)

Our modern ‘civilized’ (ie crowded into cities) culture has, just in the last few millennia, created a near-constant state of crisis, imbalance and scarcity, so this unnatural last resort of vicious hierarchy and endless violence has become, I think, the hallmark of our cancerous species. We have seemingly now institutionalized violence, inequality, control and the absurd concept of ‘leadership’, which presumes that a few of us are so much smarter than others that they can effectively tell the others what to do, better than those others can figure out among themselves what is best to do. Like crowded rats in a tiny cage, we in our “civilized” world live in a world of constant stress, violence and madness.

This civilization is, I believe, in the advanced stages of collapse, and one of the apparent manifestations of its decline is the simultaneous emergence of psychopathic populist autocrats and the abandonment of the responsibility for leadership that is commensurate with the enormous authority ‘leaders’ have been given. Whining and snivelling on Twitter is no one’s idea of leadership. Platitudinous self-congratulatory mission statements by obscenely overpaid business executives who add no more value to the organizations they leach off than the cleaning staff, are only leadership to the clueless.

There may be no better symbolism for the abdication of responsibility and our growing loathing for useless self-aggrandizing ‘leaders’ than the recent spate of destruction of statues of old white racist misogynist ‘leaders’. And the empty pedestals left behind after their toppling are perfectly representative of what this abdication has left behind — a power vacuum, and a statement that we are through being ‘led’.

So in the absence of leadership and the disarray of massively dysfunctional hierarchical systems, what do we do now? We do what any society of creatures does when it faces a sudden power vacuum — we self-organize. We collectively rearrange the roles we each play so that we are each contributing maximally to the benefit of the collective whole.

This would be fine if we knew how to do this. But, having lived so long under the foot of useless hierarchical authority, we are seriously out of practice at self-organizing. There are groups that have at least started to relearn the skill — co-op businesses, housing and social co-ops, intentional communities, and some focused movements, unions and alliances. But it wasn’t and isn’t easy for them, and it takes enormous patience and perseverance.

There is an organization called Beautiful Trouble that held workshops a few years ago on how to self-organize. It was all interactive exercises: practising, learning-by-doing and by making mistakes. The two women who ran it, Diana Pei Wu and Brigette DePape, did so brilliantly.

But there is very little collective knowledge about how to relearn the skill of self-organizing, and a discouraging number of those teaching it are old white guys. Too many of the teachings are concessions to hierarchy and ‘leadership’.

Self-organization, the way in which just about all other-than-human creatures collectively sort out who will do what, actually requires neither. Attempts to ‘reform’ existing hierarchical controlling systems like education, police, and government have arguably all failed — so abolition, painful as it may be, may be the only path to truly self-organized systems that actually work for us all. After all, these systems are collapsing anyway; rather than trying to fix them we might be better to just let them fall, and collectively self-organize (not create, not design) new ones.

Anarchy is not chaos, and it is the way most creatures coexist with each other and with the rest of life on earth. And abolition of a malfunctioning system isn’t an act of destruction; it’s an act of pruning what is dead or dying or diseased, to help make way for what is to follow.

Despite the lack of collective human memory on how to self-organize, it is clear, especially from the climate marches and the BLM protests, that we can self-organize if we have to. Leaderless organizations like Take Back the Night and XR have sprung up to reach out, coordinate and enable people to work towards desperately-needed collective goals, when existing political and social structures prove incapable of addressing them.

Philosopher and author Bonnitta Roy talks about collective insight practices (not that different from what Bohm and Schmachtenberger have described) as a part of how self-organization happens:

People often think there is just one specific outcome that results from self-organizing processes. For example, people have long argued that hierarchy is the predominant outcome of social processes in nature. But this has proven to be untenable. Nature self-organizes in complex, multivalent patterns. What we see depends on the way we investigate the patterns… For example, we used to think that the herd was dominated by the stallion, at the top of a simple hierarchy. Now we understand herd dynamics as much more sophisticated, overlapping and complex… What pattern emerges is also dependent on key features of the agents themselves — how they express their autonomy, relationality, and agency.

Bonnitta stresses how our modern coercive control culture has clouded our capacity to be authentic (“don’t want to upset the boss”), to be self-aware, and to belong, and how we might practice to recognize and free ourselves from the buried, limiting qualities in ourselves, such as our modern tendency to distrust and to hold ourselves emotionally at arms’ length from others. She talks about how these disconnecting and sovereignty-damaging qualities have been “self-intrajected” as “malware” and what it will take to untangle ourselves from them. She also asserts that self-organizing, once successful in one location, isn’t something that can be replicated from place to place: “Coherence only happens locally”.

Stuart Kaufmann’s book At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity explores this in depth, and explains how self-organization emerged and is an essential element of all life on the planet.

Sometimes, alas, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to self-organizing. The current infighting among radicals and progressives, for example, has pitted us too often against each other and sapped much of the energy that could be directed to the abolition of dysfunctional systems. This is understandable: Centuries of oppression and trauma, fear and distrust of power have made us cautious and intemperate, and easily triggered. And those with power are skilled at “divide and conquer” tactics that undermine and fragment our attempts to self-organize and to confront oppressive power together.

And often it takes a catalyzing event, like the murder of George Floyd, to overcome that fear, caution and division.

One reason it’s so much harder to self-organize now is that most human systems are overgrown, too large in scale for self-organization to be practicable. I think it will take system collapse before much post-civilization self-organization can then happen.

Three factors are likely to make any post-collapse self-organization a slow and painful process:

  1. Those attached to the dysfunction, those with power who benefit from it, and who are nostalgic for what they thought it once was, are likely to put up a fierce resistance to dismantling the existing system to clear the way for something that actually works.
  2. We have largely lost the sense of community — the knowledge of how to work together, and about each other’s skills, strengths, needs and weaknesses, that comes from living and working with a small cohesive group of people towards a shared objective.
  3. And as noted above, we have forgotten the skills and practices of self-organizing.

Wild creatures can teach us what we’ve forgotten. Wolf packs, flocks of geese, and whale pods are vastly more complex social organizations than the hierarchical lens through which we are taught to see them would have us believe. From them we can learn how to self-organize around roles, about succession of responsibility, about taking turns, about the value of matriarchy, about adapting to crises, and so much more.

Each of us can relearn what strengths we offer the others, skills we might not even be aware we have — and what we’re not very good at, which we will have to learn to entrust to others in our community. Those skills, strengths and energies, importantly, vary as we age: We need both the intense, harder passion of the young and the more measured, quieter and more self-assured passion and resilience that comes with age and experience.

We will have to let go of our idealistic passion for design — this rebuilding of radically relocalized self-organization is an emergent process, not an analytical one with “best practices”. Emergence happens best in an atmosphere of trust, attention, fast learning, and consensus-seeking. It happens when instead of too-big-to-fail or fail-safe, we evolve systems that are “safe-fail” — able to learn and improve from collectively recognized mistakes before those mistakes create new dysfunction and sclerosis. That capacity is what most differentiates resilient, organic complex systems from the fragile, rigid, complicated ones human-designed for hierarchy and control (and failure).

It is human nature (and perhaps the nature of most creatures) to try to sustain and adapt to what currently exists, rather than hurrying along their collapse when they have ceased to serve us well. It will take a while for us to abandon what is familiar, no matter how dysfunctional it has become. We are seeing in the streets that abandonment, that readiness for abolition, from those who have the least to lose. In many cases, those who have never been served by existing hierarchical systems can show us the way, as they’ve been self-organizing, mostly on a very small scale, to make things work for themselves, even as the existing systems continue to oppress them.

There is a much-viewed video that shows simply how systems collapse: A castle of sugar cubes is inundated by a flood. The cubes at the bottom start to crumble first, and slowly the decay works its way up. Slowly at first, and then suddenly, with the spectacular collapse of the top cubes into the water in the final few seconds. The cubes at the top fall farthest, fastest and last. But once the structure has become hopelessly compromised, it is madness to try to keep it standing. Best to actually encourage its collapse, and to start again.

We can learn about self-organizing from the residents of hardscrabble cities like Lagos, Nigeria whose governments long ago abandoned them to their own devices; we can learn from those who make do for themselves in villages and farms far from the big cities in struggling nations; we can learn from inner city workers worldwide; and of course we can learn from wild creatures who have always naturally self-organized.

At this stage, with most systems teetering but not yet completely fallen apart, we can at least start rehearsing for collapse — or more precisely, rehearsing adapting to each of the stages of collapse, and relearning the skills needed to self-organize resilient local systems to replace them.

This includes relearning the art of community-building, which requires self-organizing and many other forgotten skills, and also starting to identify those who of necessity, wherever we may be when the opportunity to start again presents itself, will be part of our suddenly-again-important community. If we don’t particularly like our neighbours where we’re living now, this might be an appropriate time to move. If we can’t find our intentional community, we may have to get ready, as collapse deepens, to make a life with our accidental community, those with whom we find ourselves as everything falls apart.

Dmitry Orlov in his book Communities That Abide tells the story of how birds self-organize in the face of collapse, adapting easily without needing a ‘leader’:

Fifty blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.

It’s not hard to see what is going on in the streets of North America and Europe this year, and what is going on in the hospitals, as a rehearsal for collapse. Sooner or later, we will relearn how to self-organize, most likely, finally, in radically relocalized communities, but in the meantime, in all sorts of ways, contexts and situations.

It’s going to be hard, and wonderful.


Thanks to Kelly Gavin for many of the thoughts and ideas in this article, and for wading through my long-winded and impenetrable prose to make it better, and to Alberta Pedroja for the toppled statues metaphor.

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2 Responses to The Wonderful, Messy Process of Self-Organization

  1. Fred says:

    Lovely, well meaning prose.

    Lagos is a hellhole, not a shining light of self-organising enterprise.

    The BLM protests were well organised and funded and triggered by a carefully planned psyop that entrained a horde of useful idiots.

  2. Sue says:

    Gotten a bit behind in reading your posts, so just now getting to this one. This is extraordinarily insightful and chock full of important ideas. Your points about “post-collapse self-organization” remind me of some themes in David Brin’s post-apocalyptic novel The Postman: that most of the damage done to attempts to rebuild community and society after massive EMP attack that wiped out all electronics and computer records came from hyper-aggressive militia groups using force to impose hierarchical patriarchal control.

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