Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization

Soledad Seville, untitled, 1977


Considerations about Rodrigo Nunes’ book

In the book Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization, Rodrigo Nunes states: “the best way to strengthen local activity is not to focus on building organizations alone, without a clear purpose, but to start from concrete strategic bets and let the work involved in their execution dictate organizational needs”.

This puts the emphasis more on strategy rather than organizational structures to achieve your goals. It promotes loyalty to a social base, an analysis and a general plan of action regarding the group's identity.

The important thing is that the work is done, not who does it. The strength of an organizing nucleus does not lie in the size of its members per se, but in what it is capable of accomplishing.

A strategic goal is partial not in the sense of being restricted to a small scale or a single local issue, but in the sense of not knowing how all the changes happen. In part, it's about information processing: there are only so many subjects that can be kept in focus at any given time.

You need to know where to start. Developing a more accurate understanding of specific parts of the social “puzzle” is also about the ability to act: dividing the broader systemic objective into specific interventions that can be planned, organized and developed.

The attentive reader perceives the science of complexity to support the political science used by Rodrigo Nunes' analysis. It is a transdisciplinary approach capable of exploring complex and dynamic systems and offering insights valuable for political science.

Complexity science allows the construction of analysis models, considering the interconnection and interdependence of different elements in political systems. These models can capture nonlinear and emergent dynamics, improving understanding of how changes in one part of the system affect the whole.

It is also useful in analyzing social networks, identifying patterns of interconnection between political actors, parties, organizations and citizens. This helps to better understand power relations, alliances and influences, which shape the political scenario in a dynamic way, that is, variable over time.

Complex approaches can be applied to the study of voting behavior, considering the changing and interrelated influences capable of shaping voters' choices. It includes factors such as public opinions, social networks and cultural influences.

The complexity science method helps to develop strategies for resolving conflicts, considering the dynamic and adaptive nature of social and political systems. More flexible approaches are developed to deal with complex situations.

Understanding political systems as complex systems allows us to develop more adaptable and resilient policies. This is crucial in a world where rapid and unpredictable change is common.

Complexity science offers insights on how to improve political decision-making, considering uncertainty, the variety of agents and the non-linear effects possible to arise from different courses of action. By analyzing social movements and political activism as complex systems, we understand how ideas spread, how groups form, and how political changes emerge organically.

Integrating the principles of complexity science into political science, as found between the lines of Rodrigo Nunes' book, enriches the understanding of political phenomena, providing a more holistic and dynamic view. This approach is useful in a world where rapid change and global interconnectedness plays a significant role in political dynamics.

He also examines the transformations that the idea of ​​revolution has undergone since the 18th century, to bring to light three characteristics: contingency, composition, complexity. They dominate the way we conceive it today.

Is a theory of revolution necessary for a theory of organization? The great disappointment of Really Existing Socialism (SOREX) made it clear: the so-called socialist countries were not, in fact, in transition to communism, according to Karl Marx.

For some dogmatic Marxists, unaware of the theory of systemic evolution, the revolution will be immediate or will never happen. However, “communism will not be achieved in the blink of an eye”, therefore, it requires a full transition of the entire society.

In its general sense of passage between states of affairs, “transition” is a broader concept compared to “revolution”. Therefore, the transition should not be a part of the revolution from which it starts, but, on the contrary, a revolution may act in the transition.

Systemic change requires a combination of reformist, interstitial alternative construction and revolutionary or disruptive logics, in other words, it is a “transition” process. Unlike the Marxist tradition, it is non-linear, uneven and conflictual, rather than continuous, homogeneous and managed from above by a single party.

Gradualist reformism modifies the capitalist system more appropriately, rather than facing a negative reaction, provoked by a revolutionary shock. Interstitial initiatives produce a functional alternative to existing circuits of production and reproduction. A wave of disruption institutes entirely new social forms rather than a disruption of everyday life becoming unbearable.

The alternative, proposed by Nunes, is to design a process in which destruction, construction and reuse happen in parallel. Rupture, as well as mediation, occurs on different scales at the same time.

A “transitional society” is understood as a social formation instituted following a major disruptive event to mediate between the social formation to be destroyed and that to be created by combining characteristics of both.

If the challenge of transition is essentially to manage the speed of transformation – not so slow that it escapes the mere reproduction of existing social forms, nor so fast that social reproduction is completely destroyed – the key issue is to coordinate multiple temporalities of rhythms shifting at variable speeds. It requires a constant and deliberate effort to play continuities and discontinuities in support of (to reinforce) and against (to correct the course of) each other.

Therefore, Rodrigo Nunes proposes the notion of “diversity of strategies”. It is difficult to imagine, given the current situation, that any single tactic or strategy could, by itself, prevent catastrophic climate change and create an equitable global system in the process.

Instead of incessantly multiplying action into countless individualized decisions and only local initiatives, the most reasonable bet seems to be to maximize the structural impact of limited action capabilities. Seek a combination of direct action, state intervention and construction of autonomous infrastructures.

For some time now, the left has artificially reduced its own options, insisting on treating new empirical problems as they exist a priori and thoughtlessly rejecting possibilities not based on situated assessments of the possibility of working, but for purely identitarian reasons. Rodrigo Nunes suggests this to be a melancholy symptom, associated with the defeats of the 20th century, which divided the left into two broad camps incapable of learning anything from failure, except the endless confirmation of the flaws inherent in the other camp's approach.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether we ever truly manage to end this anti-revolutionary gloom. It will be enough if we have done enough to get on with the work of investing finite resources to give the projects important to us the best possible chance of winning.

In summary from my reading of the aforementioned book, politically organizing social movements with manifestations of certain ideas requires strategy, effective communication and community engagement. It requires: (i) establishing specific goals and objectives for the movement; (ii) be clear about what you want to achieve to guide actions and mobilize support; (iii) develop a clear and accessible message to convey the movement’s objectives; (iv) leverage social media and other online platforms to mobilize supporters, share information and create awareness about the issues at hand; (v) collaborate with similar organizations, community groups and other social movements; (vi) engage the community through meetings, forums, workshops and other events; (vii) having capable leaders can strengthen the movement's ability to articulate its ideas effectively; (viii) the movement must be inclusive and representative of the community's diversity to strengthen its legitimacy and representation; (ix) plan peaceful demonstrations and protests because physical presence at public events attracts media attention and public opinion; (x) dialogue with interested parties, including government representatives.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP).


Rodrigo Nunes. Neither vertical nor horizontal: a theory of political organization. Translation: Raquel Azevedo. São Paulo, Ubu, 2023, 384 pages. []

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