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John D. McEwan’s article on anarchism and cybernetics

9 Jan

In the 1960s and 70s there was some small excitement among certain anarchists around the connections between anarchism and cybernetic theories of organisation. Cybernetics, originating in the work of Norbert Wiener but most interestingly developed by a series of British cyberneticians including Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, Gordon Pask and, perhaps most interestingly from an organisational perspective, Stafford Beer. John Duda has recently written on this history and his article, published in Anarchist Studies, is well worth a read.

Most of the key writings on anarchism and cybernetics, Duda’s article but also older sources such as Colin Ward’s ‘Anarchism as a Theory of Organisation’, Grey Walter’s ‘The Development and Significance of Cybernetics’ and Dolgoff’s ‘The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society’, are all available online. One of the most important and most interesting contributions, that of John D. McEwan, however, is not. McEwan write his ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ as a response to Walter’s article and it was published in the same journal, Anarchy, edited by Ward, a few months later, in September 1963 to be precise, the 31st issue of Anarchy.

Colin Ward's A Decade of Anarchy

Colin Ward’s A Decade of Anarchy

I’ve been tearing my hair out the last few weeks because I had a photocopy of McEwan’s article that I’d requested from the British Library but I couldn’t for the life of me find it anywhere. I spent quite a while searching for it online to no avail, despite it being republished in the books A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), also edited by Ward, and Participatory Democracy. Prospects for Democratizing Democracy, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos and C. George Benello. I tried the Anarchist Academics email list too, but no one had an electronic copy of the article. Well, I managed to get a copy of the A Decade of Anarchy book this afternoon from the British Library and I’ve scanned the McEwan article so that it now has a place online (I’d like to transcribe it so that it’s searchable but that would take ages and I don’t have that kind of time at the moment).

So here it is, John D. McEwan’s 1963 article ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ originally published in Anarchy number 31 (pages 270-83) but here scanned from A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), edited by Colin Ward and published by Freedom Press in London in 1987 (pages 42-58).

McEwan – Anarchism and Cybernetics – in Colin Ward ed. A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970) London Freedom Press 1987

Did you hear the one about the Anarchist Manager?

24 Sep

The 3rd Anarchist Studies Network conference took place between the 3rd and the 5th of September, at that network’s home, Loughborough University. As with the 2nd ASN conference two years ago, we organised a stream at the conference which invited participants to consider the relationship between Anarchism and (Critical) Management Studies (CMS). Over the past two years we also organised a similar event at the Manchester Critical Management Studies conference and a double book launch, here at Leicester. These various events, taken together, are leading up to a special issue of the open-access online journal ephemera, entitled “Management, Business, Anarchism”, due to be published this November. It has been an interesting two years.

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The Cybernetics of Occupy

21 May

I was re-reading a few chapters of Stafford Beer’s The Brain of the Firm the other day and I had what I think amounts to a breakthrough in my research on organisational cybernetics, social media and social movements. I say breakthrough; it wasn’t a brilliant insight by any stretch of the imagination but it did give me a solution to a problem I’d been concerned with for a while.

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#WhatisAnarchistStudies

18 May

This is a short video I recorded on the meaning of Anarchist Studies and the prefigurative relationship between activism and academia. The video is part of a virtual issue of the journal Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies, edited by Duane Rousselle. The full issue, available online, includes contributions from Ruth Kinna, Jacques Ranciere, Jamie Heckert, Nathan Jun, Jesse Cohn, Michelle Campbell and others, all answering the question, ‘What is Anarchist Studies?’

Cybernetics and Surveillance

5 Aug

In an article published last month in the journal Anarchist Studies, John Duda traced a part of the history of the relationship between anarchist ideas of self-organisation and those of the cybernetic tradition. It’s a very interesting article and sits well with a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the past year and a half. It’s also quite an important piece in that it goes some of the way to counter the claims that are often made about cybernetics as a science of authoritarian control.

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Final Reminder: Anarchism and Critical Management Studies

26 Feb

Please find below a link to the call for papers for the Anarchism and Critical Management Studies stream at the 8th International CMS conference to be held in Manchester from the 10th to 12th of July 2013. The final deadline for abstracts submissions is the end of this week (01/03/13), so please do get in touch and send us something as soon as possible if you would like to participate. You should email both Thomas (trs6 (at) le (dot) ac (dot) uk) and Kostya (ks302 (at) le (dot) ac (dot) uk).

One may get the impression with this initiative that we are trying to marry two mutually exclusive traditions: anarchism and management. We would argue that there is in fact nothing exclusive about the study of management, either as a phenomenon of capitalist society or as a mode of organisation, and anarchism. Sadly, the only points of contact between the two seem to have been in the co-opting of anarchist and other radical ideas into mainstream management discourse; for example, think of non-heirarchical, networked workplaces or canteens with vegan options. Is it the case that these and other examples have been deprived through their integration of their powerful ethical and political potentials, or can they be salvaged for radical political praxis?

To say the least, management annoys us intensely, primarily because it is more often than not the management of one group of people by other people: workers by managers, women by men, non-white people by white people, and so on. This is one point at which anarcha-feminism, queer anarchism and postcolinial theory can intervene in the debate around anarchism and management, and we would encourage anyone working on the intersection between anarcha-feminist theory, queer theory or anarchist race theory and how these relate to contemporary business and management to consider submitting an abstract. We recognise that our original call for submissions didn’t reflect this openness to a complete picture of the social and political struggle against capital and as a result perhaps excluded many non-male and non-white academics, but we assure you this was not intentional and we more than welcome submissions dealing with all aspects of anarchist theory and how they relate to management and business, both in terms of critiquing mainstream models and realities and defining alternatives.

Another thing we want to encourage is submissions that deal with topics that are perhaps sometimes considered peripheral to management but that are nonetheless crucial to the development of both business and anarchist struggle (if such a neutral appreciation of a means can be accepted); for example, marketing and PR, economic analysis, etc.

If you or any of your friends and/or colleagues are working on anything that would fit within this broad definition of anarchism and critical management studies, then please do get in touch with us as soon as possible.

The full CFP is available here: https://socialmediaandradicalpolitics.wordpress.com/2013-cms-conference-cfp/

Tweets, streets, strategy and tactics

28 Jan

A couple of weeks ago I received the good news that a review I wrote of Paolo Gerbaudo‘s Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism had been accepted for publication in Organization. At present I’m not sure whether the review will remain behind a paywall once it’s finally published. Only today I heard that Sage, who publish Organization, have decided to make all their content free for the time being, an obvious response to the tragic and scandalous death of Aaron Swartz. In any case, I’m including the full text of the last but final version of the review (the one I submitted) below. This is almost identical to the review that will be published and only a few phrases and wordings were changed by the editors for readability.

The most interesting thing about Gerbaudo’s book, so far as it relates to my own research on social media and activism, is his account of tactics and strategy. While he doesn’t explicitly develop either concept, the way he uses both is, in my opinion, spot on and gets right to the heart of the distinction and how it relates to organising. Authors such as Marianne Maeckelbergh (in her The Will of the Many) also include discussions of tactics and strategy, but seem to frame the distinction as one of ‘good’ practise which doesn’t reduce political actions to their ends versus ‘bad’ practise which does just that and potentially sacrifices any current concerns to some future goal.

Gerbaudo, instead, is correct to note that the distinction between tactics and strategy comes down more to the immediacy of the practice in question. Political activity that is spread over a long period, such as mobilising people for a demonstration, would be described as strategic, while activity that is concerned with minute to minute organisation, such as during a riot or when a demonstration turns into a running confrontation with the police,  would be described as tactical. The difference is a matter of degree, not quality. As I mention in the review, the clearest statement of this comes from a perhaps unlikely source: Carl Von Clausewitz, who writes: ‘tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy the use of engagements for the object of the war‘. Here the distinction is clear; strategy is involved in, for example, getting people to the demonstration, tactics is about what you do when you’re there.

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