‘The People, Related, Will Never Be Defeated’: The Autonomous Power of Networks

This paper was co-authored with Peter Case. Comments and criticisms would be greatly appreciated and will be taken into account (email benoit [at] riseup [dot] net). If preferred, a word version of the paper can be downloaded on my academia.edu profile page.


Positioning itself at the intersection of political sociology, social movement studies, the sociology of nonviolent action and organization studies, this paper theorizes the endogenous power of social movement networks. First, it sets out to derail Manichean power/resistance dichotomies and heteronomous theorizing of power, which have come to dominate social scientific and popular understandings. Actor-network theory is then synthesized with Arendtian and Spinozan insights to develop an alternative theory of autonomous (self-ruled) network power in the context of oppositional politics. In contrast to established conceptions of power, which are heteronomous (other-ruled) and fuel sad passions, autonomous power is characterized by voluntaristic coaction and invigorates participants through joyful and embodied interactive experiences.

Keywords: power, body, networks, actor-network theory, social movements, oppositional politics, Arendt, Spinoza, Machiavelli


More than thirty years ago, Michel[2] Callon and Bruno Latour (1981) launched actor-network theory (ANT) by arguing that sociologists have systematically consolidated institutionalised ‘macro-actors’ by taking them for granted. Instead of studying the very processes through which they emerge, grow, re-produce, deploy power in actu or end up appearing inexorable, Callon and Latour argued that sociologists have continuously acted upon and consistently for Leviathans by ‘filling’ their analyses with interpretations, including taken-for-granted entity-like nouns such as ‘society’, ‘state’ or ‘organisation’ that are (also) effects of power. However, to this day, ANT’s fundamental charge has not been addressed by political sociology, a discipline that differentiates itself from sociology by claiming ‘power’ as its core subject matter (e.g., Graham Taylor, 2010; Kate Nash, 2010; Thomas Janoski, Robert Alford, Alexander Hicks & Mildred Schwartz, 2005). This state of affairs has far-reaching implications for research itself, for the political function performed by and through conventional social sciences and relatedly the debilitating rhetorical power-effects of studies premised on inexorable powers. In other words, according to ANT, power has had its way in the social sciences since, as stressed by Stewart Clegg, “The greatest achievement of power is its reification. When power is regarded as thinglike, as something solid, real and material, as something an agent has, then this represents power in its most pervasive and concrete mode. It is securely fixed in its representations” (1989, p.207).

Siding with ANT on the deception and the ideological function of conventional sociology we note that Manuel Castells treats ‘network’ as a “type of material” that qualifies society’ (2010) or ‘power’ (2011), thus prolonging the same foundational fallacy of established sociology (Latour, 2005, p.1). As a result, his recently outlined Network Theory of Power (2011) delineates and, in turn, naturalises the kind of empirical realities that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri referred to as ‘Empire’ (2000; 2004). Conversely, Castells’ theories also considerably distort, downplay and suppress crucial aspects of reality. First, it is intrinsically blind (and blinds readers) to cross-cutting power dynamics arising from systems of oppression, including those based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or class (Patricia Hill Collins, 2008) often rooted in colonial legacies. Second, it writes off the very tangible challenge posed to such-defined ‘powers’ by crucial contemporary social movements such as the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, or the alterglobalisation movement. Third, it overlooks the specificity of social movement networks, which are premised on voluntary co-action. Fourth, and relatedly, it fails to understand that anti-systemic currents of the alterglobalisation diaspora (David Graeber, 2002; Geoffrey Pleyers, 2010) deploy themselves – including but not limited to their ‘confrontational’ power – through a networking praxis premised on “self-organisation, autonomy, and emergence” (Jai Sen, 2010, p.994). We note that such power is sufficiently strong for U.S. national security experts and RAND Corporation analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt to consider such networked struggles as threats, not only to powers-that-be (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1997; Ronfeldt, Arquilla, Graham Fuller & Melissa Fuller, 1998; Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1999[3]; Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 2001), but also to hierarchical forms of cooperation (e.g., Ronfeldt et al., 1998, pp.17, 127).

Such networking praxis has far-reaching implications for understanding the terms ‘organising’ and ‘power’. Most importantly, movement networking praxis is not only against ‘the system’, nor is it only against the very practices that perform the system. Such networking evinces collective phenomena whereby actors are co-acting and yet are not (metaphorically or otherwise) ‘organised’ – that is, governed (mentally or through ostensible leaders) by a part/whole circumscribed model. Rather, the praxis is radically open-ended, relational and processual. Moreover, such networking currents incarnate the actuality and the possibilities of what we refer to below as ‘autonomous power’. This also encompasses what Todd Hamilton and Nate Holdren (2007, p.62) refer to as ‘compositional power’, a phenomenon they define as “the individual and collective ability to organise” that “is increased or made more effective by its use, like a muscle”. Taking a critique of Castells’ theory of power as a point of departure and developing a modified version of actor-network theory, our paper aims to outline a theory-analytics of ‘networking power’ premised on an ‘autonomous’ concept of power; one that facilitates improved comprehension and, relatedly, the expansion and intensification of the power inherent in such networks.

The paper pursues the following interrelated trajectories in pursuit of its aims. Firstly, it exposes fundamental conceptual problems interwoven within what we refer to as the Manichean ‘power/resistance’ dichotomy. We argue that popular and academic thought relies on heteronomous assumptions about ‘power’; assumptions that necessarily place ‘resistance’ in a subaltern position and that embody a sentimentalism that demonises ‘power’ and celebrates ‘resistance’. We seek to destabilize heteronomous notions of power and supplant them with possibilities and an imaginary of ‘autonomous’ power, offering examples of how this operates empirically. Building on Hannah Arendt’s (1973) and Benedictus de Spinoza’s thought on power ([1677] 2000; Colectivo Situaciones, 2007a; 2007b), the next section of the paper develops a theory of the incarnated power of social struggles, grounded in voluntary, interpersonal, affinity-based ‘social’ bonds which are constituted through rationally and emotionally-charged, as well as embodied, experience. A critique of Michel Foucault’s and actor-network theory’s analytics of power from the ‘Arendtian’ and ‘Spinozan’ position we develop then enables us to advance our own analytics for comprehending autonomous networking power. Building on the distinction made by Stewart Clegg in his Frameworks of Power (1989), we situate our analytics in a Machiavellian ‘interpretive’ (rather than Hobbesian ‘legislative’) tradition of inquiry. It is a position that enables us to analyse issues of (not so strategized) ‘strategy’ and (not so organized) ‘organization’ in pursuit of a wider aim of unleashing a different kind of power for the (not-so) ‘powerless’ instead of serving the taken-for-granted (not-so) ‘powerful’. We conclude by summarising our argument, examining its limitations and outlining some of its implications for research and movement praxis.

Wrecking the Manichean ‘power/resistance’ dichotomy

‘Power’ is not only a core notion across the humanities, especially within political sociology, it is also inherent to political practice. Indeed, perspectives on power constitute what is (not) perceived as ‘political’ and orient politically motivated action. Theoretical and conceptual analyses of ‘power’ thus attract considerable debate because, whether they make it explicit or not, they are underpinned by assumptions about ‘power’ that have profound implications. Understandings of ‘power’ fundamentally prefigure and configure what politics is, what issues are foregrounded, enlightened, clouded and concealed; how ‘we’ ought to relate and live together (including a concept of who or what constitutes this ‘we’). It underpins how proposals are judged, informs how lived situations are experienced, or drives how and what can or should (not) be done. Like interrelated concepts of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ for ontology and epistemology, a practiced and/or theorised concept of ‘power’ thus cuts to the root of what is performed as discourses and practices of ‘politics’. As such, we are all politically-ideologically radical, in the etymological sense of the word. Conceptual exegeses of ‘power’  thus contribute to establish the inherently normative basis of ‘politics’ and, depending on parameters including their ethical and political (in)sensitivity, substantive focus and argumentative stance, studies dealing with ‘power’ confine or open up, reify or sensitise, legitimate or challenge, facilitate or frustrate the ‘status quo’ and/or ‘alternatives’, and vice-versa.

Spelling out prevalent inclinations towards ‘power’ and ‘resistance’

Even though ‘power’ is ostensibly celebrated and widely desired, it also typically arouses rampant negative mindsets and feelings, possibly tied to embodied memories. Such sentimentalism about stereotyped ‘power’ arises from the idea that it refers to ‘less than favourable’ asymmetries of influence and thus draws on our immanent or emphatically lived experiences of ‘powerlessness’. Exceptions to this sentimentalism would include use of the term ‘power’ in the context of ‘radical activist’ or neoliberal discourses as ‘empowerment’, where it respectively co-exists with or supplants the prevalent meaning (Collins, [1990] 2008a; Srilatha Batliwala, 2007; Cecília Sardenberg, 2008; Aihwa Ong, 2007). The point is, however, that ‘power’ is typically thought of as heteronomous, from the ancient Greek heteronomous (literally other-ruled) as opposed to autonomos (self-ruled). The notion of heteronomous power typically invokes negative attitudinal reflexes, in the form of images, emotions and possibly embodied memories. Indeed, the ‘power/resistance’ dichotomy is not just a mental device but also operates in the body through feelings and by recalling frustrating or painful embodied experiences with power. The important analytical point, though, is that power is seen as operating on (though not necessarily ‘over’) others and ‘from the outside in’; it is thus conceived, experienced or remembered as a frustrating interference with individual or collective self-rule and thus arouses suspicion and contempt. Reformulated and extended through Spinoza’s terminology, such characterizations stage a kind of ‘power’ referring to a cause whose “effect cannot be understood through itself alone” – labelled as “inadequate” cause, and contrasted with “adequate” causes “whose effect can be clearly and distinctively perceived through itself” – thus producing specific emotions referred to as “passion[s]” ([1677] 2000, p.164). As we will specify, passions may not be problematic, yet interferences of established heteronomous powers on self-rule produce debilitating sad passions.

Such a heteronomous view has inspired, and is reflected in, social research. In particular, sociology’s seminal definition of ‘power’ was coined by Max Weber (Nash, 2000, p.1) for whom it is “the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action” ([1922] 1946, p.180). Weber’s definition informed subsequent specifications and elaborations about ‘power’ across time and across the political spectrum in sociology, as demonstrated by a sweep from Robert Dahl (1957) to Castells (2009), or from Nikos Poulantzas (1973) to Foucault (1981, 1982). Moreover, according to Pierre Clastres (1974), knowledge of the dangers of such-defined ‘powers’ was already deeply implanted in the cultures of “primitive societies [sic]” that granted chiefs with narrow tasks such as conflict resolution, chose them based on the (revocable) prestige that they were endowed by the group. Required to be recognised, chiefs existed to serve the group and, conversely, tribes prevented the emergence of a state logic premised on coercion and violence that would have enabled a ruler to submit them” (ibid, esp. pp.174-77, first author’s translation)[4].

Explicit in Weber’s definition is that ‘power’ has its way despite the possible resistance of participants, a view that typifies mainstream popular and academic understandings of ‘resistance’. Through this dichotomous definition, ‘resistance’ is made powerless, secondary and reactive in a dualist or dialectic (Dennis Mumby, 2005)  relation to power. However, as Christine Delphy theorises, subaltern classes are discursively constituted in societal divisions that are dichotomous and exhaustive; through such devices, division constitutes itself simultaneously with, not before hierarchy (Delphy, 2008). Positioned as secondary, relatively weak(er) or even reduced to a mere possibility, ‘resistance’ is thus subordinated to ‘power’ and conceptually given a limiting (Jack Barbalet, 1985) if not parasitic role or potential. Thus confined, oppositional politics largely becomes about communicative protest towards power and ‘radical’ politics becomes defined and driven by the ‘hollow’ aim of ‘setting free’ from power. Such imagined powerlessness limits the ambitions of ‘radicals’ to “microemancipation” by searching for interstices in an inexorable system (e.g., in organization studies through poststructuralism, Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott, 1992). This view, however, has been conceptually disrupted by Latour in a radical, positive and ‘textured’ way when he insists that emancipation “does not mean ‘freed from bonds’ but well-attached” (2005, p. 218), contrary to the term’s etymology[5].

A collection of writings by Zapatistas Subcomandante Marcos (2004) opens with the Ethiopian proverb that says “When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion”. This saying echoes the image of Gulliver pinned to the ground by numerous strings tied by the tiny people of Lilliput (Swift, [1726] 2012), an allegory that is pivotal to how Michel Onfray presents radical oppositional politics (e.g., Onfray, 2012). These references are indicative of a popular ‘common sense’ view that ‘resistance’ is weak relatively to problematic ‘powers’. As shown by the sources from where we reference these myths, it is one that also extends to conceptions prevalent amongst self-defined radicals. Another narrative of such ‘resistance’, this time more profoundly foundational to Western culture, is the biblical story of the battle between David and Goliath. With “five smooth stones” and a “sling”, David, a young shepherd of Israel who “went among men for an old man in [those] days” and had no fighting experience promptly and confidently brings down Goliath, the champion of the Philistines; a terrifying giant armed with a “spear”, a “helmet” and a heavy “coat of mails” (King James version, Samuel 17). David’s self-righteous confidence is grounded in the belief that he was chosen. The otherwise inevitable tragedy becomes a self-fulfilling victory through the agency of the almighty “LORD” who protects the chosen people of Israel, in this case against oppressive and “uncircumcised” Philistines. Three millenaries later, George Lucas’ Star Wars starts with a totalitarian, ruthless and power-hungry empire established after a coup plotted against the (‘democratic’) ‘Galactic Republic’. This time, the struggle is led by a small, ill-equipped, reckless and improvising group of rebels who are not as self-assured that they will have the upper hand. Indeed, the struggle is long, difficult and at times desperate yet, with the crucial help of the mystical ‘force’, they prevail.

Even though the stories of Starwars and David versus Goliath differ greatly in many respects, their narrative structure is very similar when it comes to the dynamics and the appreciation of power and resistance. Both focus on resisters undertaking seemingly hopeless tasks (due to wide power asymmetries) in the name of some honourable greater good. Indeed, both have a Manichean structure opposing ‘good’ against powerful ‘evil’ in a military (thus dualistic) struggle. Since there are little (Starwars) or no (David vs. Goliath) ‘neutral’ or ‘observing’  actors ‘unaligned’ with either one or the other camp, the social field is fully polarised and circumscribed. Put differently, there is no potential to change the balance of power through ‘networking’ which, in turn, imposes a military rationale. Moreover, resisters are and remain marginal. In Star Wars, even though there is a wider ‘Rebel Alliance’, the leading vanguard willing to defy the greatest dangers and tackle the most difficult tasks is a small clique whereas the struggle between David and Goliath is a duel of individuals. Most importantly, resisters’ heroism arises from the quasi-impossibility of their undertakings and subsequent achievements. Finally, both are premised on a belief in transcendental forces lurking to support ‘good’ against ‘evil’ and, in both cases, the ‘good guys’ are ultimately victorious. As such, both stories embody typical sentiments and views where ‘resistance’ is celebrated while power’ is demonized, yet resistance’s very heroism sets it up to defeat. Indeed, were it not for some transcendental agency, those weak worldly resistances would inevitably be crushed. In other words, those myths constitute what Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough theorise as self-defeating control narratives that “shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions” (2009, p.8).

Peter Fleming and André Spicer stress that, once a fertile area of studies, resistance became confined within a marginalised realm of Marxist scholarship. It has been recently revived, however, through a widening of the concept’s definitional scope from overt class-based manifestations to more mundane, quotidian, diffuse, clandestine and scattered phenomena. This trend, they suggest, runs the “risk of reducing resistance to the most banal and innocuous everyday actions” and “strip[ping] the concept of its more striking connotations” (2008, pp.301–03)[6]. Fleming and Spicer claim, furthermore, that “To map the more complex, confounding, and co-opted forms of opposition, it is necessary for us to think once again about how we frame the very notion of resistance” and suggest the concept of struggle “for thinking about power and resistance as an interconnected dynamic” (2008, pp.304-05). By merely reframing and thus reproducing the Manichean power/resistance dichotomy that maps power/resistance phenomena to sentimental notions of heteronomy/autonomy, however, Fleming and Spicer perpetuate conceptual problems that have interrelated epistemological, political, intellectual, aesthetic and practical consequences.

Towards autonomous and instituting power

At an imaginary or epistemological level, as previously argued, power is implicitly qualified as being heteronomous, thereby masking the possibility of self-creative understandings of power as well as their theoretical exploration. ‘Resistance’ is conceptually self-defeating because it is subordinated to, confined by and debilitated in relation to ‘power’. In other words, not only do heteronomous notions inflate ‘powers-that-be’ and deflate oppositional politics through the concept of ‘resistance’ but, most worryingly, they minimise or conceal the possibility of autonomous institutions (Cornelius Castoriadis, 1975). Actual and potential autonomous achievements are based on (individual or collective) self-ruled acting and relating, as well as self-creative coaction – possibly entangled with a hostile other – but not founded on nor driven by such an antagonism. At an analytical level, several empirical studies offer accounts that turn the power/resistance dichotomy upside down and frustrate its stereotyped sentimentalism. For example, Karen Lee Ashcraft (2005) shows how pilots resisted organizational efforts to empower (relatively less privileged) crews by embracing and reconfiguring mandatory changes. Conversely, Jesus Casquete (2006, p. 45) expounds how political demonstrations are not only elite-directed ‘protest’ phenomena but also function as mass rituals that “create and reinforce enduring bonds of solidarity”. In the first case, ‘powerful’ ones resist, while in the second case ‘powerless’ ones deploy power.

More fundamentally, RAND Corporation’s research on ‘netwars’ acknowledges that some social struggles represent fundamental threats to established institutions if not to hierarchies themselves, forcing them into reactive ‘counternetwars’. This disrupts the idea that movements have a marginal or symbolic power and that they react, since RAND’s theory grants the ‘powerless’ an offensive role in the dynamic of struggle, forcing the powerful to react. According to Arquilla and Ronfeldt “Institutions can be defeated by networks. It may take networks to counter networks. The future may belong to whoever masters the network form.” ([1993] 1997, p.40). Moreover, since “Hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks” (Ronfeldt et al., 1998, p.17), counternetwars “may require very effective interagency approaches, which by their nature involve networked structures” (ibid, p.18). They go on to warn that “A new concept, akin to the Zapatista movement, is emerging that aims to draw on the power of “networks” and strengthen “global civil society” in order to counterbalance state and market actors” (Ronfeldt et al., 1998, p.5) and further stress that “Social netwar is fundamentally antiestablishment. (…) It is more likely to be used against states, rather than by states” (Ronfeldt et al., 1998, p.127).

Finally and beyond the dynamic of struggle, the examples of the Zapatistas in Mexico, of the Landless Workers’ Movement, and of the non-hierarchical networks of the alterglobalisation movement all demonstrate the capacity of some movements to incarnate and further autonomous, self-ruled social experiments. They do so by resisting management or leadership, especially through vanguard parties (George Katsiaficas, 1997, p. 232), and are capable of physically confronting a hostile other. Confrontation helps ensure survival of the movement, forging coherent individual and collective identities and sometimes furthering social relationships which help address problematic ‘internal’ power dynamics. Such struggles thus manifest a power that encompasses what Hamilton and Holdren refer to as ‘compositional power’.

Struggle changes us, makes us different, recomposes us. When we organise on the job something is ruptured. This happens to individuals and to organisations, whether informal, like a group of friends and co-workers, or more formal, like a union. If struggles are widespread or circulate enough, they begin to effect what can be called a recomposition of the working class. The most important effect of this is to increase ‘compositional power’ – the individual and collective ability to organise. Compositional power is increased or made more effective by its use, like a muscle: solidarity unionism is one way of doing this. (2007, p.62)

Even though some struggles manifest such antagonistic ‘compositional power’, the power of social movements largely exceeds what is made visible through antagonism. Indeed, their primary achievement is to incarnate – thus produce – an alternative social reality.

The Manichean ‘power/resistance’ dichotomy functions as sentimental myth, typically demonising ‘power’ and romanticising ‘resistance’, while confining ‘resistance’ in a subaltern relationship and dynamic of struggle with ‘power’. Across political sociology, such a conception of power grounds the view that it is a heteronomous phenomenon acting from the outside-in on actors and thus experienced or thought of as problematic because it frustrates autonomous self-rule. Conversely, by confining and celebrating oppositional politics to/as resistance, it aesthetically and conceptually configures oppositional politics in a powerless and reactive stance in relation to power. Such conceptions, however, are eschewed by studies of the powerful who resist, of the powerless who deploy power and, more fundamentally, by contemporary social movements who, according to national security experts, fundamentally threaten both the status quo and the hierarchical form of organisation upon which it is premised. The next section of this paper advances a theorisation of the source of movement power for the purpose of comprehending and further facilitating such networks.

Theorising the power of social movements and non-hierarchical networks

To theorise the power of social movements and then further explore the strength and potential of non-hierarchical networks, we must inquire into the ‘texture’ of ties. This exploration will emphasise the importance of face-to-face, incarnated interaction. It will also try to offer new theoretical and analytical avenues for political sociology, organisational studies and social movement studies, that have typically overlooked the importance of embodiment (Karen Dale, 2000, p.8) until a recent ‘corporeal turn’ (e.g., in organization studies see Alexander Styhre, 2004; Torkild Thanem, 2004; Kirstie Ball, 2005; Carl Rhodes & Alison Pullen, 2009). Specifically, we aim to highlight the potential of Spinozan thought to theorise collective coaction and to deepen ANT’s sensitivity with such theory. We start by summarising Arendt’s conception of power since it is one that grounds the power of social movements on voluntary co-action. Through the thought of Spinoza as well as Miguel Benasayag and Colectivo Situaciones – contemporary militants inspired by Spinozan thought – we suggest that the bonds connecting actors to each other are, and may be intensified through, joyful embodied interactional processes. The strength of these ties is dependent on the passions that circulate through relationships. Our central theoretical contention is that the power of such networks is grounded in these voluntary interactions and that it expands and deepens through passionate, albeit sometimes fleeting relationships. Relational intensities characterize and constitute the strength of the ‘threads’ that weave the open-ended ‘fabric’ of such struggling networks.

Arendt’s cooperative and movement-based concept of power

In her essay entitled On Violence, Arendt argues that “The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All” ([1969] 1973, p.111). She observes, furthermore, that “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (ibid, p.113). In other words, her concept of power disrupts the premises of the ‘power/resistance’ dichotomy and explicitly foregrounds and celebrates the power of social movements. Indeed, the voluntary, ‘horizontal’ and relational (Remi Peeters, 2008) view of power she outlines takes ‘resistance’ out of its conceptual ghetto, demonstrating the impossibility of peoples’ impotence against the prevalent view asserting the inevitability, or the inevitable possibility of resistance. This, we argue, opens up the realm of autonomous ‘people power’.

Indeed, Arendt’s iconoclastic view of power provided the basis for a research programme focusing on the power of social movements. Arendt herself never pursued this task, and her conception of power has been systematically overlooked in political sociology (e.g. Clegg, 1989; Nash, 2010; Janoski et al., 2005; Nash & Alan Scott, 2004), social movement studies (e.g. Donatella della Porta & Mario Diani, 2006; Karl-Dieter Opp, 2009; Bert Klandermans & Conny Roggeband, 2007; Nick Crossley, 2002; Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, 2006) and the sociology of nonviolent action[7] (e.g. Gene Sharp, 1973; Brian Martin 1989; Stellan Vinthagen 2000, 2006). More strikingly, Mark Haugaard’s (2003) Reflections on Seven Ways of Creating Power substantively draws on Arendt yet proceeds to ignore her without justification when outlining a series of theoretical  power-creation rationales. Perhaps surprisingly, Herbert Blumer’s very first words on social movements are that they “can be viewed as collective enterprises seeking to establish a new order of life (…) As a social movement develops, it takes on the character of a society” (1969, p.99). In the late 1960s, however, when us scholars sought to renew ways of knowing social movements against derogatory ‘collective behaviour’ approaches portraying social movements as pathological, they lumped the symbolic interactionist research programme (Blumer, 1969) together with ‘collective behaviour’ approaches (Steven Buechler, 2004) due to their shared origins in early European social psychology of crowds (Robert Park, 1972). As a result, academics have yet to explore the autonomous power of mass collective voluntary action unleashed through social movements.

How does the kind of national security and police interagency networks advocated by Arquilla and Ronfeldt to facilitate the management of new forms of crime, terrorism and social activism by the State, or the kind of powerful networks described by Castells, compare with networks of social movements? The State may achieve more effective and adaptive interagency collaboration by giving more autonomy to its organs and by ‘reducing’ their hierarchical relationships to each other. Yet those are bound to remain networks of hierarchies. Similarly, actors engaging with business networks are driven by economic rationales. Social movements, on the other hand, are realms of voluntary coaction that aggregate individuals, groups and (hierarchical though generally ‘flatter’) organizations. They are often partly if not largely premised on voluntary participation. So, to state the obvious, there is something fundamental about the voluntary nature of association—i.e. an association that is not premised, coloured or tainted by ‘exchange value’ nor by actual or threatened violence. In fact, it is this very characteristic that distinguishes social movements from other realms of co-action. To quote della Porta and Diani (2006, p.21) on this crucial point:

Dense informal networks differentiate social movement processes from the innumerable instances in which collective action takes place and is coordinated, mostly within the boundaries of specific organizations. A social movement process is in place to the extent that both individual and organized actors, while keeping their autonomy and independence, engage in sustained exchanges of resources in pursuit of common goals. The coordination of specific initiatives, the regulation of individual actors’ conduct, and the definition of strategies all depend on permanent negotiations between the individuals and the organizations involved in collective action.

For this reason (and especially contrary to networks of States, businesses and organisations) social movements are profoundly social, self-propelled phenomena whereby networks “are not only a facilitator but also a product of collective action” (della Porta & Diani, 2006, p.115).

The intensity of bonds: Spinozan passions and the embodied basis of struggling networks

However, there is another possible difference between such networks; one that further limits the potential of struggles, and also reveals a crucial assumption limiting most contemporary thinking about oppositional politics, including social movement research. Both mainstream sociology and recent anthropological literature see social movements as forged through collective identity (e.g. Nash, 2000, pp.100-155; Della Porta & Diani, 2006; Dorothy Holland, Gretchen Fox & Vinci Daro, 2008). A branch of social movement studies emphasises the rational and emotional role of communication frames (e.g., James Jasper & Jane Poulsen, 1993 ; Benford & Snow, 2000; Melucci, 1995) in social network recruitment (Della Porta & Diani, 2006, pp.121-26) as well as their roles in mobilising, motivating and strengthening commitment. In other words, this stream of theory assumes that social movement processes are primarily mind-mediated phenomena. There is no question that such mind-based processes are crucial to the dynamics of social movements, yet the intense voluntary, informal interaction that goes on to enable and sustain coaction also fundamentally constitutes them as embodied socio-aesthetic processes (including but not limited to mind-based processes). This would suggest that social movements are not only ‘ideologically integrated’ but also largely constituted through interpersonal affinities formed through incarnated interactions.

Geert Lovink claims that “A key moment for any social movement is the initial contact between two or more seemingly autonomous units” (2011, p.165). This phenomenon can be further comprehended through Spinoza’s thought on mind and body (Spinoza & George Parkinson 2000; Gilles Deleuze, 1988, p.17). Indeed, Spinoza makes a distinction between “will” that is exclusively mind-based and “appetite” that “is related to the mind and body simultaneously” (Spinoza, [1677] 2000, p.172). Accordingly, Lovink’s use of the word ‘contact’ to situate the crucial ‘metamorphic’ event suggests that it does not merely correspond to a meeting of minds but also coincides with a physical meeting of bodies. Understood as vast and intensive ‘networking’ activity taking place through socio-aesthetic interactions, it is unlikely that social movements can be traced back to a single event and also probable, if not self-evident, that such events are frequent features of ‘affinity’ within social movements. Moreover, the sensual notion of ‘appetite’ sensitises theory and practice to the ‘centrifugal’ or the ‘centripetal’ effects of the aesthetics performed by activists own bodies on others they interact with.

An articulation of Spinoza’s theory to militancy can be found in the work of Colectivo Situaciones. This group’s ‘militant research’ methodology aims at fostering experiential, embodied and affinity-based bonds by resisting the projection of a priori certainties and beliefs into movement-building interactions. Eschewing the instrumental logics and hierarchical effects of communication-based approaches and deploying Spinoza’s work they imagine that:

[T]he experience of research-militancy resembles that of the person in love, with the proviso that love is what a long philosophical tradition – the materialist one – understands by it: it is not something that just happens to one with respect to another, but a process that requires two or more (2007a, p.193)

Colectivo Situaciones (2007a, p.193) argue that such a pre-intellectual process constitutes power [potencia] by incarnating strong and joyful bonds that can not only “constitute, qualify, and remake the subjects they catch” but also “renders undefined what until that moment was kept as individuality, composing a figure comprising more than one body”. By doing so, they point to the crucial importance of the quality and intensity of the social ties that weave a collective: “the collective body composed of other bodies does not increase its potencia according to the mere quantity of its individual components, but in relation to the intensity of the tie that unites those bodies” (Colectivo Situaciones 2007a, p.193). Similarly, X. Papaïs states that “if association is a power [puissance], and creates existence, then the connections that take beings place them in a destiny that, in a separate state, they did not possess” (1995 in David Vercauteren, 2011, first author’s translation).

Miguel Benasayag articulates such a micro-level theorisation with a society-wide political sociological analysis (e.g. Benasayag & Diego Sztulwark,  2002; Benasayag & Dardo Scavino, 1997). Through a revision of the relation between ‘the social’ and ‘the political’ aligned with Gramscian notions of ‘civil society’ and ‘superstructure’, Benasayag primarily views ‘the superstructure’ as an effect of the quality of social relationships at ‘base’ level. The point is “not to underestimate – as ‘vulgar marxism’ used to – the sphere of the superstructure, but on the contrary go back over and accentuate the critique of current superstructural forms, from the inevitable excess of social practices against dominant forms of representation” (Benasayag & Sztulwark, 2002, p.37). Benasayag also disrupts the ‘systemic’ conceptions of systems of oppression. For example, writing about capitalism, he states that it

does not realize itself in a single institution nor in a limited set of institutions. Capitalism “is” not a situation. If that were the case, anti-capitalist resistance would be simple. In fact, capitalism’s mode of existence disperses itself in the infinite of situations, it lives through situations as the hegemonic element of the current situation. And its most concrete effect is that of separation, of the spectacularisation of life and, in Marxist terms, the commodification of social relations (Benasayag & Sztulwark [2000] 2002, p.40, first author’s translation)

Accordingly, “Emancipation is thus first and foremost ‘existential’ and not simply economic or political. It emerges not in the name of a hypothetical ‘duty to be’ but, as shown today by thousands of practices throughout the world, in the name of a genuine joy that can beat our society of sadness” (Benasayag & Sztulwark, 2002, p.7).

Dispelling Foucault’s overwhelming ‘power’

Comparing it with Arendt’s disruptive concept of ‘power’, we discover that certain rhetorical and epistemological effects of Foucault’s analytics appear problematic. By asserting that “resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” due to “the strictly relational character of power relations” (1998, p.95), Foucault enables ‘his’ governing power to  fully ‘occupy’ relations and subordinate resistance. Similarly, through the expression ‘power relation’, Foucault crushes resistance. In other words, the Manichean ‘power’/‘resistance’ dichotomy resonates through Foucault’s work insofar as he reproduces the ontological and sentimental dichotomy relating power and resistance. ‘Resistance’ is conceived as being in a mutually constitutive relationship with, but subordinate to, ‘power’, thus atomising human subjects (like the very rationalities he denounces) and cutting off both the possibility of a dynamic emerging within an interaction between humans, and the nascent possibilities of such relationships.

Such heteronomous bias within the concept of power, which is foundational to Foucault’s analytics, has far-reaching consequences both for his studies and for those of the many scholars who have worked in his shadow; not least in the field of organization studies. Indeed, even though he often insists on the possibility of resistance inherent to his relational formulation, Foucault’s most famous studies are framed by an interest in new forms and operations of (heteronomous) government. Even his late ‘care of the self’ inquires exclusively into individual possibilities of autonomous self-government (Foucault, 2010). Through an analytics honed to explore the microphysics of heteronomous power, he only allows ‘government’ to network. Vast networks are pitted against, and soon submerge, atomised human subjects (1982); governmentality restricts humans’ ability to self-constitute in folds of power (Deleuze, [1986] 2004); and, most fundamentally, if one pursues an Arendtian line of thought, it prevents humans from building power through networking.

Despite its far-reaching problematic implications, including its profound self-defeating effects, the potential of Foucault’s activist and intellectual work to ‘operational’ oppositional politics is just beginning to open up. At an intellectual level, Black feminist Collins (2008, p.292) distinguishes ‘Foucault-style’ analyses where power is embedded in knowledge and constituted through discourse, with dialectic approaches linking power and “activism”. In this paper, we conceive autonomous power within a such-defined dialectical framework. However, Foucault’s writings have important implications for governmentalities driven by movements’ self-constituted rationalities, a line of inquiry pursued by Nate Eisenstadt (2010). His research exposes how such discourses and practices that proclaim to be emancipatory often actually oppress their users. Ironically, they undermine (post)anarchist philosophy-as-a-way-of-life. As a participant of the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (gip), an anti-prison activist group, Foucault also co-pioneered and co-experimented with a networked technology of struggle whose effectiveness retrospectively surprised its members (Gaston Defert & Jacques Donzelot, 1976) and whose lessons remain to be drawn[8].


Honing actor-network theory

Through agnosticism initially based on methodological axioms such as “follow the actor” – the principle of generalised symmetry or the principle of free association (Callon, 1986, p.196) – ANT proponents have outlined a relational analytics that seems capable of exploring the fabrics of power. It is an approach, moreover, possessing appropriate nuance and sensitivity to probe and comprehend the power deployed by social movements in action. It offers a way of examining both the status quo and oppositional political phenomena without conceptual, sentimental or analytical asymmetries. In fact, this approach even suspends Arendt’s romanticisation of people power; an ANT study of such phenomena would leave the question of qualifying the threads that make the fabric of social movements open to empirical inquiry. Despite ANT’s potential and promise, however, problematic traces and prevalence of a hierarchical view and a restricted technology-based ontological materialism are evident in Latour’s work. For example, Latour (1986) identifies the following paradox: “when you simply have power – in potentia – nothing happens and you are powerless; when you exert power – in actuothers are performing the action and not you” (1986, pp.264–65). In other words, even though ANT itself, as an analytics, is not affected by this paradox, Latour is nonetheless replicating a Weberian conception of power in this formulation. It is a conception, moreover, that is inconsistent with the theory that the power of social movements (including the power to defend themselves from other threatening, or possibly coerce other actors) emerges ‘internally’ from voluntary bonds and does not depend on the coercion of any participant or group of participants.

The profoundly ‘social’ (in the classical, pre-ANT, non-technological sense of the term) basis of the bonds that constitute the fundamental threads of social activist group’s power fabric also challenge technology-based materialist ontological claims (e.g., Latour, 2005, p.35; Latour, 1992) and related methodological injunctions to focus on what makes society durable (e.g., Latour, 2005, p.68; Callon, 1987[9]) made by actor network theorists. Even though ANT may make visible the effects of technologies on and for movements (e.g., as done by David Knights & Darren McCabe, forthcoming; Stewart Lockie, 2004; Israel Rodriguez-Giralt, 2011), it misses embodied socio-aesthetic dynamics that are, we contend, central to the constitution of social movements (especially those deploying non-hierarchical networks). Using ANT, Paul Routledge advances some important theoretical points about alterglobalisation networks and also makes the crucial methodological suggestion that researchers ‘act in the network’ to weave struggle in parallel to their movements as researchers. However, he limits the possibility of ANT-inspired inquiry by assuming classically defined ‘social’ interactions devoid of technological influence (Routledge, 2008; Routledge, Andrew Cumbers & Corinne Nativel 2007).

Ironically, through such an incarnated yet ‘social’ theory of power, participants of social movements start to resemble Shirley Strum and Latour’s  (2006) ‘non-technological baboons’ who can only count on their body, their memory, their skills and the respect that fellow participants grant them in order to widen their influence. Incidentally, a consideration of social movement phenomena reveals that ANT’s technology-based materialism only captures forms of power inscribed and reified into technology. As with Foucault’s heteronomous framing of power, ANT’s technology-based materialism thus ends up privileging established powers, reified and delegated through technologies, over a theorisation of more emergent and fleeting forms of power. This danger was anticipated by Arendt who wrote “The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments” ([1969] 1973, p.111, emphasis added). By ‘widening’ and ‘deepening’ ANT’s sensitivity to encompass Spinozan materialist understandings of power, we also revive Diderot’s (1990) incarnated concept of ‘network’ which Latour (1996) claims as the root of ANT’s concept of ‘network’.


Conclusions: Power dynamics within struggling networks

Arjun Appadurai once contended that “Although the sociology of these [contemporary transnational networked politics] emergent social forms—part movements, part networks, part organizations —has yet to be developed, there is a considerable progressive consensus that these forms are the crucibles and institutional instruments of most serious efforts to globalize from below” (2000, p. 15). Throughout this paper, we have sought to elaborate a theory for comprehending, analysing and facilitating precisely such phenomena. Clegg (1989) argues that Hobbes and Machiavelli prefigure two traditions that inform academic thought about power. In his view, most theories inhabit and relay a “modernist” narrative premised on mechanical causality as well as a sovereign conception of power that can already be found in Hobbes. However, a second approach rejects such conceptions and insists instead on the local, contingent and achieved pragmatics of power. Foregrounding organization and strategy, this analytical orientation is characteristic of Machiavelli and explicitly served to inspire both Foucault (1981, p.97) and actor-network theory (Callon, Law & Arie Rip, 1986, p.5). Pursuing Clegg’s (1989) distinction, we suggest that it is possible to place ANT within the Machiavellian analytical tradition. Furthermore, ANT can be honed and refined in order to form a praxis through which collective autonomous power can be developed. Challenging the notions of powers premised on a Weberian coercive logic, such network power would be based on voluntary, mutually respectful cooperation and intensified through joyful practices capable of invigorating participants, and inspiring bystanders and observers. In Spinozan terms (Spinoza & Parkinson, 2000), network power entails a move from a will to struggle to an appetite for struggle. However, contrary to the normative position tying Machiavellian and Hobbesian analytics to princes or would-be princes, this framework would adopt an Arendtian line of thought and a Spinozan philosophy fashioned to inspire and facilitate the (not-so) powerless.

The relational ‘bundled’ conception of network power that arises from our theorisations derails analyses framed through the ‘power/resistance’ binary and resists the problematically bounded and more static notion of ‘systems of oppression’. Instead, such a meshed conception is more conducive to an understanding of situations whereby oppressive forces combine, intersect and interplay with resisting power in a relational, dynamic and situated process. However, in this paper, we focused on the power of, and emphasised the power deployed by, social movement networks. This led us to consider previously overlooked power dynamics within struggling networks. A more comprehensive analysis would at least require: (1) acknowledging cross-cutting power dynamics arising from systems of oppression including those based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or class (Collins, 2008) also at work within movements; (2) widening the theoretical scope beyond the interpersonal level of analysis to account, following Joreen Freeman (1972), for asymmetries of influence arising from movement participants’ differentiated quantity and quality of ties (some actors know relatively more people, better and are more closely connected to them); and, (3) addressing knowledge-based governmentalities that also constitute (sometimes consciously chosen, sometimes non-consciously inherited) paradoxes of anti-authoritarian oppositional politics (Eisenstadt, 2010).

This paper has sought to derail both imagination and strategic thought about oppositional politics. Eschewing self-defeating tendencies, it attempted to broaden understanding of empowerment from a mind-based to a relational and embodied interactional process of collective networked action. From this position we offer the optimistic thought that ‘The people, related, will never be defeated’ insofar as the power of social movements can be grounded in the very social fabric of the struggle, and without necessarily being ideologically or otherwise unified.

The swarming, decentred, hybrid and rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980) formation that emerges through such theorising supplants systemic and organismic figures[10] that have become axiomatic and unavoidable within the study, modelling and enactment of collective cooperative phenomena. We have become incapable of doing things together without organising ourselves, that is, patterning our coacting networks after circumscribed, quasi-static and hierarchical organismic figures. Such a theory also possibly makes such networks more actionable for their proponents and more legible for allies, friends, commentators and spectators. It also allows participants to recognise that struggle is not only, or perhaps not even primarily, about what happens in extraordinary, ostensible and frenzied ‘activist’ situations and events, such as, protest or direct action; that is, those which are commonly delineated as ‘political’. Nor is movement-building only or even primarily about rational processes which hinge on debates, identities or stories. Instead, it suggests that living and struggling power [puissance] is simply constituted through our voluntary coaction. It grows through “active micropolitics” (Deleuze & Guattari, [1980] 1987, p.292) when we initiate and intensify joyful relationships with each other. Struggles are not merely intellectual but also profoundly socio-aesthetic processes. Through ‘networking’, in the usual sense of ‘making new contacts’, the aesthetics of movement participants and the aesthetic sensitivities of the people or audiences they engage play a non-negligible role. As such, this conception of power decentres the antagonistic ‘struggle’ dynamic and encourages us to pay more attention to immediate and joyful challenges and possibilities afforded by radically opened networks.


The first author’s work was partly funded by a doctoral bursary from the University of the West of England and partly self-funded.



The first author would like to acknowledge that this work heavily draws from, and articulates, insights and conversations from many friends beyond academia, especially from within movements. However, such contributions are impossible to trace back accurately. Moreover, merely listing names would be problematic since some actors expressed concerns (also considered legitimate by the first author) about such practices for political reasons, or reasons related to movement if not personal security.


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[1] Corresponding author

[2] We mention first name of authors the first time we cite them to make more visible some inequalities, especially those based on gender, and to highlight our (sometimes reflexive and probably often problematic) citation and writing practice.

[3] We cite this text referenced by Arquilla and Ronfeldt (2001, p.3n) due to its unique title, even though its authors demurred our request to circulate “unpublished drafts of old work” (email communication between Ronfeldt, Arquilla and this article’s first author on 9 October 2013).

[4] Clastres (1974, pp.177-180) maintains that military endeavours are exceptions to this rule (with tragic consequences for leaders) yet Raúl Zibechi (2010) demonstrates that fierce mass struggles of the Aymara people in recent Bolivia had leaders who “lead by obeying”.

[5] We simultaneously distance ourselves from actor-network theory for several reasons. Most importantly, on the one hand, it does not recognise cross-cutting oppressive forces and thus does not sensitise researchers to how such forces influence assembling processes and, on the other hand, Latour (2005) advances a politics of constructing – through reassembling – that prevents from seeing challenges to ‘powers-that-be’ as political (Laurent Mermet, 2007).

[6] Perhaps the tendency to ‘individualise’ resistance is the most debilitating one since, as we will see, following Arendt, the possibility to deploy power in order to radically challenge the status quo is based upon the possibility to relate, enabled by living together and diminished when “whoever, for whatever reasons, isolates himself and doesn’t partake in such being together” ([1958] 1998, p.201).

[7] This sociology advances a relational framework of power according to which ruling power arises from the voluntary cooperation of ruled actors. Such an analytical and theoretical focus on movement opponents limits its potential to subvert and produce crises which have the potential to destabilise self-defined ‘targets’ (typically a state). Beyond such a methodological critique, drawing from Béatrice Hibou (2011a; 2011b), we contend that the methodological individualism of such accounts leads them to theoretically and empirically ignore political economic and psychological mechanisms of domination. At an ethical level, such approaches dictate and legitimate the view that activists ought to accept the possibility of most extreme sanctions on themselves and their bodies, implicitly perpetuating a sacrificial Judeo-Christian ethos. It implies that they have no ethical responsibility to others and that their life is basically reduced to struggle. At an operational level, these approaches assume a dynamic in which activists follow strategists and organisers who lead.

[8] Like the sociology of nonviolent action, the approach and lessons of the gip nevertheless remain limited by a subversive logic.

[9] In this chapter, Callon even suggests that sociologists turn to engineers for inspiration and that they use technological controversies to evaluate sociological theories in practice, including theories of social movements.

[10] As José Malavé (1998, pp.112-113) notes, the main difference between them is merely that “organization has a specific referent: a living being”.