Can the Centre Hold? (book review)

January 19, 2017 | By: James Whelan


Joel Dignam reviews Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s ‘The Starfish and the Spider’.

Decentralisation is so hot right now. People are talking about swarms, distributed leadership, horizontal learning. And it’s not the only thing that’s so hot right now. The new pro-coal Turnbull Government is attacking renewable energy. People over the world are feeling climate impacts at increasing intensity. The whole problem is almost overwhelming. We want a thread we can pull until it all unravels. There’s an understandable appetite out there for a new paradigm: one that promises scale, faster results, momentum and social upheaval on the scale needed to solve the climate crisis. Is this what decentralisation offers?

Well, I’m sceptical. Partly it seems to me that people want a panacea that doesn’t need hard work – it’s nice to think that the reason things aren’t changing quickly enough is because we’re going about it the wrong way, and we just have to change our approach. But I also come steeped in the tradition of what is now being called ‘structure-based organising’. This tradition prioritises a long-term investment in relationships and structures to lay the foundation for social change. It’s challenging for me to grapple with a new way of doing things, and the possibility that I have based my practice upon some false assumptions.

This is why I began reading Ori Brafman’s and Rod Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider. Reading books is my jam, and this text was mentioned in a course on decentralised campaigning. I was sceptical. But, I wanted to test my scepticism and to see how I could work better by drawing upon this emerging (or re-emerging) cluster of ideas.

The Starfish and the Spider isn’t written for campaigners. It has the flavour of a business textbook and, written in 2006, it is aimed at businesspeople trying to understand the nascent internet and new ways of doing business. It still has a lot of value. It popularises a shared language for talking and thinking about decentralisation, it highlights the benefits of this approach, and it recognises the value of a hybrid approach. It’s very well structured and concise, which makes it easy to read and learn from.

Starfish and spiders

The Starfish and the Spider offers a compelling visual language for understanding decentralisation. In Brafman’s and Beckstrom’s book, the spider is the centralised organisation. Everything is in the head. The spider can live without a leg, but no leg can live without the head. This makes the spider organisation vulnerable to attack: one thump on the head and it’s gone (or one hit with a rolled up newspaper, as many an arachnophobic Australian could attest).

The starfish, in contrast, is a neural network. There is no central brain. In fact, the five legs work interdependently. The starfish can regrow any lost leg and, in some species, a severed leg can become a new starfish. If you believe the authors’ pop-zoology, starfish legs make decisions by some sort of proto-consensus, with an individual leg moving in a particular direction and then the other legs sort of catching on and deciding to follow it.

I have a lot of time for a good metaphor and I’m on board with this. It’s a useful visual language for thinking about decentralisation and understanding different approaches. It also gives rise to wonderful metaphors like “spider organizations weave their webs over long periods of time, slowly amassing resources and becoming more centralized.” Great.

Brafman and Beckstrom build upon the starfish metaphor for decentralisation to argue that there are five “legs” to a starfish. Although not all legs are necessary, having all five working together makes decentralisation flourish.

The five legs are:

  • Circles. “Circles are important to nearly every decentralized organization we’ve explored.” A circle is an independent and autonomous group of people who are all peers and in which leadership happens by example, not coercion. Circles depend upon norms which are enforced within the group by the group. They are bound together by trusting relationships.
  • The catalyst. “In open organizations, a catalyst is the person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.” Basically, the catalyst is a Tyler Durden, or if you hate pop culture, an architect who designs the house but doesn’t move in. The catalyst may remain for some time, but they are a peer within the group, and enable the group to flourish in their absence. (Arguably, traditional organisers act as catalysts – or aim to.)
  • Ideology. “Ideology is the glue that hold decentralised organisations together.” Shared ideology is what makes people join a circle and spend time and effort participating. The most resilient starfish will stand for something.
  • The pre-existing network. “The Quakers weren’t just decentralized themselves: they served as the decentralized platform upon which the antislavery movement was built.” Brafman and Beckstrom argue that most decentralised organisations start by piggybacking on existing social infrastructure: another example they give is Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who piggybacked on “The Oxford Group”.
  • The champion. Ok, it’s not entirely clear how this differs from “the catalyst”. But the idea is that catalysts are charismatic organisers or connectors who establish networks and foster relationships, while the champion is more like a salesperson who aggressively proselytises the ideology outside of the circles. “Champions are inherently hyperactive. Like catalysts, they operate well in non-hierarchical environments, but they tend to be more like salesmen than organizers or connectors.”

I’m afraid we’ve lost some of the visuals here (unless you can picture a starfish with Tyler Durden as one of its legs) but these ideas are still useful to think about what decentralisation needs and what it looks like. Hang on though – what are these starfish good for anyway?

The benefits of decentralisation

While Brafman and Beckstrom aren’t cheerleaders for decentralisation, they do argue certain benefits. The primary benefits of starfish are their resilience and mutability, and how they foster participation and creativity.

Resilience and mutability

Starfish organisations are able to quickly change, adapt, and enact decisions. Also they don’t have a single central leader or base of operations. This makes them powerful and hard to defeat.

The Starfish and the Spider opens with the example of the Apache Indians. Spanish colonisers encountered the Apaches but couldn’t defeat them because Apache civilisation was a starfish. The Apaches didn’t have a hierarchical society with a single leader or capital. Instead, their society had many different circles, and they had Nant’an, “spiritual and cultural leader[s]”, who “led by example and held no coercive power.” The Spanish could defeat one group of Apache, but that wouldn’t harm any others. Even if they executed one Nant’an, another one would step up.

Because decision-making was decentralised, the Apache could also innovate in response to the Spanish attack. An attack could come from anywhere, even if the Spanish had just crippled one Apache circle. Open systems made use of every member’s knowledge, which allowed individual Apache to easily collaborate and act together. It is this mutability – the ability to change quickly and easily – that makes starfish so resilient and so capable of taking advantage of opportunities. In contrast, decision-making in spiders is not only slow, it can be ignorant of the knowledge on the fringe that may be too far away from the centre to be incorporated.

Participation and creativity

Starfish organisations also enjoy greater participation and creativity. The open, collaborative model creates space for people to experiment and take risks, while the flatness makes it easier for people to contribute and have their contribution valued, encouraging participation.

Part of the logic is that “When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity.” Members of a circle share an ideology – but beyond that, they are free to be creative and experimental in their approach. This inspires lots of different approaches which makes life very hard for the starfish’s enemy. It also serves as a laboratory to develop and hone the most effective tactics. An example of this could be the Voice for Indi campaign, which facilitated a great degree of creative participation, or the way that the divestment movement has marketed a particular theory of change (“If we divest, the fossil fuel industry has less power”) and used it to foment circles which pursue their own campaigns.

What helps this to work is a “hands-off approach”. Member of a circle want to achieve their ideology. But nobody is standing over their shoulder, watching and monitoring them. This encourages risk-taking because there is less fear of failure. Accountability can still exist within the circle, of course, but it’s from peers who have more understanding and context to the work, and who’ve made mistakes themselves.

This benefit is empowerment. Decentralisation empowers members because they have more responsibility for local decision-making. This encourages participation and means that people can make better use of their own resources.

Decentralisation in practice

The Starfish and the Spider’s real payoff is in the rules and the roadmap it offers for decentralisation – whether starting a decentralised organisation, or changing a centralised one. Besides the benefits and “legs” I’ve described, the book also mentions eight “principles” and ten “rules”.

So what could this all look like in practice?

Imagine there was a catalyst who thought that Westpac should commit to not funding the Adani coal project in Queensland. Maybe this catalyst thinks a great way to put pressure on Westpac would be through disruption – say, shutting down as many Westpac branches as frequently as possible.

A highly-centralised campaign could be a single small group that plans the whole strategy down to the individual tactics – this is the branch you’ll target, this is how you’ll target it. Maybe this group couldn’t coerce volunteers into participation, but they could present the plan as non-negotiable – this is what we are going to do, be part of it, or leave. As the campaign rolled out, all decision-making and adapting would happen through the core team which would then tell other groups or volunteers what to do. This core wouldn’t necessarily have access to the best possible information, and there is a real risk that a formulaic approach could be easily countered – or that the group/organisation itself could be targeted.

What would a starfish campaign look like? Instead of one group making the plan, a catalyst could seed ideas throughout a pre-existing network. The catalyst could find an existing network of people wanting to do something about Adani, and it could give them this idea and lead by example – organising and participating in actions to show what it looks like and how it could work. As a circle formed around the catalyst, every member would be assumed to be equally knowledgeable and they would have equal power in making decisions and contributing ideas. Circles could develop support materials like manuals or guidelines, which could be shared, remixed, and adapted. Communication between circles would foster further learning and sharing. Supporters could form a new circle from hearing about the campaign and wanting to do something themselves.

The advantages of this starfish would be that it’s much more resilient. Westpac is highly centralised and would struggle to respond to a decentralised opponent that has a very clear ideology but no clear single leader who could be co-opted or intimidated. The model would also situation decision-making within a circle, where member would have the best information and experience to draw upon. And by enabling a diversity of approaches and facilitating the sharing of information, experimentation could lead to greater creativity and continuous improvement. On any day, Westpac might be the target at any number of branches of any number of people in any number of ways. Scary stuff.

Is it all too good to be true? What could go wrong?

The limits of decentralisation

Of course, it’s not all that easy. Decentralisation has benefits, but it also has pitfalls.

The first challenge that comes to mind is the challenge of starting circles. In short, it isn’t easy. While Brafman and Beckstrom can wax lyrical about historical geniuses who made circles as easily as a Play School presenter, experience would suggest that it’s actually bloody difficult. Establishing a single circle with the mindset and capacity to act autonomously can be a huge struggle. The idea that scores of circles could somehow come into being and work effectively with each other is incredibly appealing. But it is just that – incredible.

Secondly, not all tactics are created equal. The fundamental weakness of total decentralisation is that most people have a flawed power analysis and belief that education or advocacy is enough to change the status quo. Traditionally an organiser would play a critical role within a group, facilitating people to engage in self-radicalisation and gradually perceive their own power and the self-interest of existing power holders. Given that this a large and risky leap for most people to take, it’s hard to know how this would play out in reality for an independent circle. In my experience, autonomous groups do like autonomy – but they also often yearn for some guidance and strategic direction from someone with a bigger picture view of things.

Finally, decentralisation has the real risk of oligarchies forming. A small autonomous circle without any central oversight could be a potent and adaptable vehicle for transformative and empowering change. Or it could become the plaything of an annoying tyrant who thinks they know everything. In effect, any individual circle in a decentralised organisation could become highly centralised – a tendency described by sociologist Robert Michels as the “iron law of oligarchy”. We’ve all seen those people who think everything would be better if they were in charge. Decentralisation risks having that happen. And then maybe it’s too late – although the group would probably wither, it may prevent a more effective circle from getting established in that site.

Decentralising insight

I’m glad I read The Starfish and the Spider. It is a good delve into ideas and language around decentralisation. There are useful examples from history, social movements and commerce. There are neat lists and guidelines – things that would be useful if you wanted to put decentralisation into practice. It’s a book that flows and offers something, without claiming to offer everything.

I appreciate this, because one of the things that irks me in discussions about decentralisation is people’s appetite for a Gospel. People want a grand unified theory that has all the answers, that they can adopt without question or critique. People want to know what works so they can do it.

But this isn’t possible. Except for the ‘Getting Things Done Method’, no approach can remain forever correct in its original form. The Starfish and the Spider shouldn’t be treated as gospel, and neither should the work of Saul Alinsky, Mark Engler, or NetChange Consulting. As critical practitioners, we should engage with new ideas, experiment with new approach, and always be willing to adopt what works adapt what doesn’t. We should be not scholars of any single form of organising, not fanatical about momentum or structure, but practical students of social change itself.

Read more of Joel’s blogs here >

About the Author

James Whelan

James Whelan

James is founding co-director of the Change Agency and co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship.

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