Acephalous Organisation

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= 'headless' forms of organisation


PhD Thesis: CONVERGENCE AS AN EXAMPLE OF A MEDIUM SCALE ACEPHALOUS GROUP. Thesis submitted to the Arts and Business Faculty, University of the Sunshine Coast for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. by Victor MacGill. February 2016


Under the supervision of Dr Marcus Bussey, Dr Peter Innes and Dr Jose Ramos.


Victor MacGill:

"Acephalous structures have been evident in human societies for many thousands of years and in the natural kingdom for at least 100 million years (Ward, 2007). Humans gathered in family bands and ants, bees and other creatures lived in colonies in their millions without any centralised control. Acephalous structures evolved because they were effective in the environments in which they arose.

The term acephalous has been used to describe such societies as ancient Greek cities (Castoriadis & Curtis, 1997; Rhodes, 1995), traditional African tribal groups (Daannaa, 1994) and Pacific societies (Currie et al., 2010). Athens was a good example of a Greek city state that has been described as acephalous (Castoriadis & Curtis, 1997). There are a number of crucial differences between the functioning of Athens and Convergence. In ancient Greece individuals were not equal. Slaves, freed slaves, foreigners and women had no say in the state. This meant only around 20% of the population were citizens with the right to vote.

The assembly was formed by the citizens, who could be voted onto the senate. They could only serve on the senate for a certain length of time, stopping individuals from becoming too influential. Any citizen could attend the assembly and take part in decision making; however wealthier citizens had more free time to attend the assembly. Athens was, of course, much larger than Convergence and its activities far more complex. What was pioneered in Athens, and the democratic process in particular, has in many ways become the foundation of modern civilisation. In Nigeria the Igbo people are often classified as acephalous (McIntosh, 1999). They are a loose confederation of over 200 villages, each with a population of a few thousand up to 26,000. Each village has their own culture and customs. They are noted for their democratic, peaceful rule.

Currie, Greenhill, Gray, Hasegawa, & Mace, (2010) looked at the traditional social structures of the Pacific area and they used the term acephalous to denote a society without any permanent leadership, with the next level up being a simple chiefdom.

King (2000) wrote of the Moriori people of Chatham Islands to the east of New Zealand. The Chatham Islands had a far less hospitable environment so the social structure regressively adapted from an agrarian chiefly structure back in the Pacific to an acephalous hunter-gatherer society. Archeological evidence shows little difference between a chief’s house and any other house, which is in sharp contrast to what is found back in the mainland of New Zealand (MacGill, 2007).

The less complex social structure enabled them to develop a peaceful society. Particularly in the more heavily populated North Island of New Zealand, clear tribal boundaries were established that needed to be defended. A warrior culture predominated in the north and spread through conquest to the South Island. When Maori from the North Island invaded the Chatham Islands, the Moriori chose to die rather than fight and thousands were slaughtered."


Modern acephalous organisations:

Victor MacGill:

"Our lifestyle today is very different from the past and the social arrangements we enter into are every different. Dominance hierarchies have become the most common ways that organisations operate. Outside of the anthropological research on traditional societies, little literature was found on acephalous organization and nothing was discovered specifically written about the medium scale. Brafman & Beckstrom (2006) wrote the “Starfish and the Spider” comparing centralized decision making organisations to spiders, where the individual legs cannot operate independently, but rely on messages sent from the central brain in order to function. In contrast, the starfish has independently operating legs that can harmonise their activities so the overall starfish can move in a coordinated fashion without any centralized control.

They discuss examples such as peer to peer internet services like Grokster and Napster and sites like Craiglist and Wikipedia. They also investigated the Apache nation, which had spiritual leaders called Nant’an. Individuals had no compulsion to follow the Nant’an and could change their mind at any time. The Spanish conquistadors found this very difficult to fight against. When one Nant’an was caught another would arise from the people.

Brafman and Beckstrom also describe Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as a unique, long standing organisation with a high acephalous level of organisation (Glanville, 2013). It was established by Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith in 1935. Bill Wilson described the organisation as a “benign anarchy”. In spite of being a global organisation with 1.8 million members, there is no top-level organisation and each local group is autonomous. The international structure (General Services Office (GSO)) provides information and support to the local groups. As well as the international GSO there are GSO’s in each country that are themselves autonomous. Work is undertaken at the regional level through people being voted into positions they hold from three month to a maximum of two years. The bulk of the financing comes from the sale of publications.

The book “Alcoholics Anonymous comes of age” (Anon 1985, p103) tells the story of how it came to be that each local group should be autonomous:

The groups said to us, “We like what you are doing. Sometimes your suggestions and advice are good. But whether we take you or leave you alone is going to be our decision. Out in the groups, we are going to run our own show. We are not going to have a personal government in New York, or anywhere else. Services, yes. But government, no.” AA found they could not operate a global enterprise without employing people, but those employees do not have positions of power.

AA operates from a set of twelve traditions rather than rules to help guide the local groups in their operation. Several of the traditions focus on ensuring the prime function of the AA remains firmly on assisting alcoholics who wish to stop drinking. One outlines the spiritual beliefs in a God that helps provide as guiding vision. Several cover the non-professional nature of AA and how it relates to outside organisations, because they are aware of the threats to their autonomy. There is a tradition about anonymity and the remainder are about the autonomy of local groups and the need for local groups to be self-sufficient. These form the guidelines have kept them strong and connected over the years.

Nielsen (2004) in the “Myth of Leadership” discusses four acephalous organisations. Motek is a software company with a motto, “Fail sooner, succeed more often”. There are no leaders and there is a high level of trust in workers, including the trust that each person will acknowledge weaknesses and failures. They have only three pay levels.

W.L. Gore and Associates is another acephalous organisation worth 1.4 $billion in 2002. Every worker is called an associate. Nielsen quotes Laird Harrison (p153) as saying:

- Each worker at Gore enjoys broad discretion to make minor decisions. Bigger ones – hiring and firing, setting compensation are made by committees whose members constantly shift with the demands of business. Anyone can start a new project simply by getting enough people to go along with the idea. Even Bob Gore, 64 chairman and son of the founders has his compensation set by a committee.

Orpheus is a conductorless orchestra based in New York. It does have people taking on leadership roles, but only for a particular project. Those leading at the time see themselves more as facilitators. This places a greater responsibility on all members of the orchestra to be aware of their place and interact effectively with other orchestra members.

Finally, Semco is based in São Paulo, Brazil. It makes industrial machinery and has grown from a four million dollar company to a $212 million industry. Workers choose their own hours and pay rates. Subordinates hire and review supervisors. Ricardo Semler, whose inspiration changed the structure to be more acephalous has no more voting power than any other worker.

The movie. “The Take” by Alva Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein1 tells the story of workers from a closed down factory, who returned to expropriate the factory and run it over as a cooperative, saving many jobs. Many factories were expropriated after the financial collapse in Argentina in 2001.

The peer to peer (P2P) movement, championed by Bauwens (2005) allows people connect directly to each other as peers rather than being connected through a hierarchy that controls the interactions. Included in the peer to peer network are work co-operatives, transformational festivals like Convergence, internet Based networks from Wikipedia, Linux, Bittorrent and through to couch surfing, ride sharing, crowd funding, transition towns, eco-villages and intentional communities.. "

Having set the foundation of the wider range of acephalous organisations, the focus shifts to the Convergence gathering, which has been selected as a case study of a robust and resilient acephalous organisation adapting itself to the environment and times in which it operates."