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Social ecosystem thinking and the politics of transformation

The context for social ecosystem thinking - the Age of the Anthropocene

The development of SET is not only a response to the worn-out binaries of top-down managerialism and exploitative markets that typify neoliberal thinking; SET is fundamentally a response to the Age of the Anthropocene.  While the concept of the Anthropocene is contested, here it is used to signal a new era in which humans are capable of massively re-engineering the planet.  Thus far, their transformatory effects have been largely destructive, creating inter-locking existential crises of global heating, resource depletion and mass extinctions.  


Added to political economy concepts such as Late Capitalism and Disaster Capitalism, the Age of the Anthropocene adds a distinct ecological dimension.  In this sense, socio-political ecosystem thinking attempts to relate an analysis of modern capitalism and the ways in which it is compounding social, economic and ecological crises with ecological and democratic perspectives focused on societal transformation.


This form of alternative thinking is not simply a response to the crises of neoliberal capitalism and the spawning of Right populist politics; it is also a response to the historical failures of the Left - of social democracy (Labourism) and state socialism (Stalinism) to be able to respond to intersecting crises and to pose a viable alternative view of the future that can capture the imaginations of populations that are crying out for change.


A historical perspective – organisational ecosystem thinking as a higher stage of human consciousness 


The history of organisations - Frederick Laloux

Here I attempt to relate the work of Frederick Laloux, a historical analysis of the evolution of different states or stages of organizational development over the last 10,000 years since the birth of agriculture, to Gramscian Marxist analysis.

Frederick Laloux, in his work Re-inventing Organizations, analysed the evolution of different stages of organisational development since the final glacial retreat and the birth of agriculture (the first evidence of the impact of humans on the landscape).  Each stage is symbolised by a colour and metaphor:

  • Red (leader/tribe/fear/chaotic – wolfpack)

  • Amber (formal/hierarchical/stable – army)

  • Orange (competitive/innovative/rigid – machine)

  • Green (top-down/empowerment culture – family)

  • Teal (self-management/trust/organic – ecosystem)

Figure 1.  Laloux's historical stages of organisational development












Laloux argues that each of these organisational types exist in current society, often in hybrid forms, but that Teal (a blue–green colour) is the future necessary state of consciousness based on sharing ideas and self-management for evolutionary purposes.  


Laloux’s work is significant in several respects.  It shines a lens on work organisation, both private and public, thus providing a way of thinking about the evolution from neoliberalism into a more socialised form of capitalism and beyond to post-capitalist forms. It can also inform the development of new types of ethical-political behaviour and the development of radical civil society and this is this contribution that is explored in the final part of the think piece.


Re-inventing Organizations, however, does not discuss the relationship between the evolution of different stages of organisational development and changes in the mode of production (a material Marxist analysis).  Nevertheless, it is not difficult to conceptualise a broad correspondence between each of his organisational stages and evolving economies and types of ownership – red/ slave; amber/feudalism; orange/capitalism; green/ socialised capitalism and teal/post-capitalism.  Laloux's work also a practical quality because its main purpose is to examine different types of organisation (and organisational combinations) that exist today in what could be understood as ‘prefigurative’ forms.


The Teal organization (Laloux lists several leading-edge companies in both Europe and the Americas) operates from the premise that organizations should be viewed as living organisms and should, therefore, function more like complex adaptive systems (ecosystems) than machines.  This new organizational form is based on a structure of flexible and fluid peer relationships in which work is accomplished through self-managed teams.  Laloux argues that ecosystem types are emerging due to the constraints of preceding modes of organisation (including those considered Green), a desire to harness all talents to respond quickly to emerging needs and to achieve a higher level of human consciousness that can coexist within a fragile world.  Accordingly, Laloux’s concept of the TEAL organization has drawn attention from both progressive private organisations, because of its capacity to make the most of human creativity, as well as those on the radical Left who see in the social ecosystem conception a more social and democratic politics and an ecological future.  Laloux also observed that the rate of organisational change was accelerating, with significant changes taking place in decades rather than centuries or millennia.

Reinventing Organisations has drawn criticism - notably that TEAL companies are not as self-organised as Laloux makes out or that the identified evolution of organisational consciousness is very context-dependent.   However, these do not in themselves compromise the usefulness of Laloux's work for the development of progressive organisational thinking.  What is required is that his organisational concepts are placed within a wider political economy and the actions of the state since no organisation, private or public, is entirely autonomous of these wider forces.  This connection to wider political and economic analysis is vital in terms of opening up the possibility of Stage 4 of ecological theory evolution – its application to wider economic and societal change. 

Relating the horizontal and vertical - 45-degree transformational politics

Teal-like organisations can be seen as part of the horizontal, relational and civil society dimension of the expanded state.  Here horizontal political, ideological, organisational and socio-economic structures and activities associated with civil society are related to the vertical structures and processes of the governmental state.  

The radical horizontal

While the pandemic has dominated all economic, political and social life over the past year or so, it is important to recognise the vitality of new progressive activisms that have emerged since the 1990s.  Many of these are international (e.g. Occupy and Avaaz); others
are national (e.g. 38 Degrees) and web-based (e.g. Open Democracy).  Anti-austerity protests such as the Indignados (15-M Movement) in Spain have given rise to new political parties such as Podemos. In the UK, some of this energy and innovation was channelled into the Corbyn’s Labour Party, although most have found their form through radical civil society campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion, UK Uncut, East London housing campaigns, the struggle for disability rights and Take Back the City. The new activisms manifest not only a hopeful militancy, but also use of new forms of digital media with which to communicate.


Responding to the multiple oppressions of neoliberalism and setting in motion alternative ways of thinking and practice (a
new prefigurative ethical politics), they have become vibrant sites of political participation with a devolutionary logic focusing on creating new political formations and forms of governance at the local and regional levels. They could be viewed, therefore, as a dimension of a democratic revolution helping build radical civil society.  These components of radical civil society are also astonishingly diverse, relating to many different aspects of economic, social, cultural and political life. Some operate as social movements, others as think tanks and networks of information exchange mainly, but not exclusively, through small organisations.  According to Laloux, innovative private organisations can also be seen as part of the radical horizontal.

However, radical civil society movements and organisations, that function on the horizontal terrains of civil society, can suffer from quite short lifespans.  Campaigns can react to particular political moments and once a crisis has passed, often through some form of accommodation being made by the dominant bloc, the movement may fade.  Moreover, forms of organisation that are characterised by horizontal relations can be constrained by vertical powers, whether these be funding or accountability measures.  Other civil society activities may be more prefigurative and have some permanence because they signal a new way of doing things and leading lives.  But while they may have a longer lifespan they can remain relatively isolated from other neighbouring initiatives.  All of these examples beg the question as to how radical civil society activities can become more permanent, connective and impactful.

The facilitating vertical

The effects of the national or governmental state on local civil society, through the policy and governance styles of successive governments, have been broadly negative.  There are, of course, exceptions.  In England, for example, there has been the introduction of mayoral elections and the formation of combined authorities that have reinforced local politics following years of decline.  Despite these, governments of all shades over the past four decades have not been particularly disposed towards the local, despite the constant rhetoric about devolution.   But as the experience of Nordic countries, for example, shows it does not have to be this way.  


Central government can function in a way that is helpful or even nurturing of local civil society. This is what I am referring to with the term 'the facilitating vertical'.  Instead of trying to micro-manage from the centre, national government would be guided by the subsidiarity principle - that powers should be devolved unless there is very a good reason not to do so.  And, this devolution should be genuine and not simply a way of devolving financial pain. Genuine devolution and facilitation has to be accompanied by serious nationally-led investment in order to guarantee equity.  Put another way, a S-PET perspective links the activities of the macro to the micro, with a crucial role for the middling layers of governance. 

45-degree mediation and the political Double Shuffle

In Figure 2, the horizontal is associated with lateral and collaborative activity that occurs broadly in civil society and shared in everyday life. The vertical, on the other hand, concerns hierarchical forms of structure and activity that is regulated directly or indirectly by the governmental state.  In reality, however, all forms of thinking and activity are hybridized.  Activities generated horizontally and vertically are involved in a dynamic relationship to produce multiple combinations (MCs).  

Figure 2














In terms of ideology, politics and policies, these combinations can be viewed as a deliberate strategic exercise by political parties to broaden their electoral appeal.  This 'combinational politics' was conceptualised by Stuart Hall and his idea of the Double Shuffle; a metaphor based on ballroom dance movements of dominant large steps and subordinate small steps.  His original concept was used to analyse the ways in which Tony Blair and New Labour combined dominant neoliberal approaches (e.g. the emphasis on competition and top-down managerialism) and subordinate social democratic policies (e.g. minimum wage) in order to broaden its appeal to different social groups (and crucially Murdoch's media empire and sections of capital), while retaining its core working-class vote.  In his analysis, Hall was very critical of New Labour by arguing that its combinational politics were so shaped by neoliberal assumptions as to dilute its reforming capacities.  Elsewhere I have argued that the concept of the Double Shuffle plays a more widespread role in political life and has been used by the Conservatives to adapt to new political environments and to build regressive political blocs (see Shapeshifters, 2019).  A key question is whether there can be a progressive Double Shuffle?

45-degree politics and the role of organic intellectuals

The 45-degree model contains a dimension to analyse the role of key intellectuals.  Their most effective role can be seen to operate at the intersections of the vertical and horizontal, described by Lawson (2019) as 45-degree politics.  


Here it is possible to make a distinction between the 45-degree functions of organic intellectuals of the regressive dominant bloc and the progressive subordinate bloc.  Using these fundamental ideological and political dimensions, it can be suggested that the combinational organic intellectuals of the dominant bloc comprises mostly vertical activity emanating from the governmental or political state.  By this I am referring to the fact that even so-called horizontal activity that would normally be located in civil society, such as the use of the media, takes on a vertical style if the aim is to persuade rather than to genuinely educate.  Any form of manipulation of the imagination can be regarded as top-down insofar as it comes from without and seemingly from above.  


The role progressive organic intellectuals, on the other hand, can be conceptualised as predominantly horizontal even if the individual intellectual is located in a vertical structure such as a university.  The criteria for progressive intellectuals emanating from the horizontal is that their activity be genuinely educative.  This suggests a more direct and social connection with sections of the people with the aim of expanding their overall consciousness.  In other words, a prominent role of progressive organic intellectuals is to develop the 'General Intellect'. At the same time, progressive organic intellectuals have to be part of a vertical world insofar as they can and must be specialist in some way.



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