I’ve been in a number of big organisations. In the ones large enough that they are made up of a number of smaller groups, there seems to be three basic ways the organisation can be structured: “centrally”, as a “federation”, or as a “network”. I will start by briefly explaining what I mean by “central” and “network” structures to give this some context. The main point of this article though is to talk about “federalism”. I will look at what it means (as I understand it), how it relates to direct democracy, how it is more than just a decision-making system, and what it’s advantages and disadvantages are.
If an organisation is “centralist”, all groups that make it up are co-ordinated by a “centre”. Normally this is called the “central committee”, the “national committee”, or something similar. Even if members of this committee are elected and their policies voted on, they will be able to make some decisions independently. The key point here is that the central committee has real decision-making power, even if it is limited by a constitution. So, in a “centralist” structure, the role of small groups is to carry out the will of the organisation – they are the platform that the centre uses to communicate with its members, and to co-ordinate their action. The opposite of this is a “network”. In a “network” the function of the organisation is solely to put groups in contact with each other, and to facilitate the sharing of resources between them. In a network there is no central decision making structure at all. So each group in a network stays completely autonomous (i.e. independent, and free from outside control), beyond what they agree to independently and between themselves. This means that in a “network” structure (if it is formal at all), the purpose of the organisation is to be a “communications platform” for the groups that are in it, and nothing more.
What about “federalism”? Federal organising is what happens when groups voluntarily get together to take coordinated action: working around what they have in common, based on an agreement between them (the word “federal” originally meant “pertaining to a treaty”). Each group that is federated remains completely independent. However, a federation will have a decision-making structure (such as regular meetings between representatives from each small group), that has been agreed upon by all groups that are part of the federation. Through this, collective action can be organised, efforts coordinated, and national structures formed (for example, an organisational newsletter). You could say that this is a middle ground between “network” and “centralist” structures: the groups in a federation keep their autonomy and individuality, yet clear and co-ordinated decisions are also made by the organisation as a whole. Continue reading