Is Antifa or Boogaloo an organization or a movement, and why does it matter?

Organizations have two way communication, accountability, and purposeful strategy, but movements do not.

"Patriot Prayer vs Antifa protests. Photo 6 of 14" by Old White Truck is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Observers debate whether Antifa or the Boogaloo Boys are an organization or an idea. Questions about these groups’ structures even appeared at the presidential debates. For those who want a stable political environment, this may seem like a distinction without a difference. Nevertheless, I hear this question sometimes, because it intersects with my expertise. Knowing whether extreme online groups are ideas or organizations is crucial for determining how to counter those groups’ violence.

Antifa and the Boogaloo Boys seem more like movements than organizations. Movements arise when groups of people, each for their own reasons, pursue a shared political objective. No one in a movement is accountable to anyone else. Organizations, by contrast, create hierarchies and accountability. Hierarchical organizations can coordinate even without a shared political objective. Organizations are generally more efficient and more effective than movements. Movements are difficult to counter even when small. Countering violent organizations requires different strategies than countering violent movements.

Movements are Leaderless

The defining characteristic of a movement, in contrast with an organization, is that movements seemingly arise spontaneously, as individuals support the movement’s objectives. The women of Paris marching on Versailles over the high price of food. While there may have been a few “rabble-rousers” yelling “Hey, let’s march on Versailles!” there was no organization going street to street to gather marchers. The women were upset; someone started marching, and a lot more followed.

Movements only seemingly arise spontaneously, because there is almost always a precipitating event that allows movements to coalesce on a specific policy or grievance. Social movements, violent or otherwise, don’t arise out of thin air, in perfectly happy societies. There is some pre-existing discontent that a social movement attempts to address. Even if all of the movement participants don’t agree on a policy’s specifics, they do agree generally on what the problem is. In the Iranian Revolution, Communists, Islamists, and liberals all agreed the problem was the Shah, even though they each had distinct ideas on how to resolve the problem.

Movements are very common online, and in the early days of the internet, scholars were concerned they would become a social and security problem. Online communication, at least notionally, makes it easier to send out that initial “signal” for action. Whatever Parisian woman first complained about the bread being difficult hard to buy was probably only talking to herself, now she can talk to millions online.

The problem with movements as political change agents is that they are like a car with only a gas pedal and no steering wheel. It’s possible to accelerate the movement, but it’s hard—even for members and ideological leaders—to stop the process. People in movements can do whatever they want. For the most part, people just do what is easiest, or closest and not what might be strategically valuable. When police killed George Floyd in Minnesota, protests broke out all across the US, because people’s genuine feelings of outrage spilled into the streets, mostly where they were.

While movements’ spontaneity and adaptiveness is a feature many people either love or fear, lack of direction makes movements incapable of purposefully following strategies. People may waste effort and resources, engaging in fruitless or counterproductive activities, just because it is something they can or want to do. There is no way for a movement to direct even plentiful resources to strategic times or places. Members of movements often lose interest and leave the movement because participation is hard or inconvenient. Perhaps worst of all, it is impossible to have a negotiated, compromise conclusion since there is no way to rein in participants in the movement.

Organizations Have Accountability

Organizations are hierarchical and movements are not. Whereas in movements each person is roughly equivalent to any other, certain individuals in organizations have precedence over others and therefore can make decisions. A movement is a group of people who all show up at the beach, and may stay together or wander away. An organization is a club that goes to the beach, and lays out a beach volleyball court, and sets up a central BBQ station for food.

Hierarchy in organizations also creates accountability. The leader can reach out to subordinates and request that they do things they might not spontaneously do. Likewise, hierarchy allows the leader to impose costs on the subordinate for failing to accomplish assigned tasks. If people outside the group don’t like what the group is doing, they can go to the group and ask them to stop, and the leadership can stop it.

Organizations vary in how “hierarchical” they are, with some leaders exercising little control over their subordinates. Even weak hierarchies change the dynamics by creating obvious coordination points and enabling prioritization of objectives. Most churches don’t exercise a lot of authority over their members, but if the pastor says “We’re going to take down chairs, and then pick up trash,” the group is coordinating from the get-go.

Because organizations have accountability, they must have two-way communication. Identifying two-way communication is an excellent observable way to perceive an organization. Without information flowing both up and down the hierarchy there is no way for superiors to determine if subordinates have accomplished their assigned tasks. When people join movements, they need only have a reason, and can then do whatever they want, requiring no upward information flow. Organizations need to know that what the higher-ups have assigned has happened (or not) and consequently must complete assignments and report back.

Organizations Can Engage in Purposeful Strategy

The fear that online organizations would give way to decentralized movements never materialized, largely because organizations can be strategic in a way movements cannot. I poured a fair amount of cold water on this notion in my research, but many others recognized, at least empirically, that organizations could usually get out ahead of movements. Protest leaders, and even violent movements like al-Qa’ida, often stand around hoping someone will do something. Military commanders and chiefs of police just send people to do what needs doing.

Movements are usually only able to challenge organizations when discontent is widespread and overwhelming. If 20% of the population dislikes some specific policy, they may be able to protest or even cause some chaos, but organizations will almost always be able to outmaneuver them. Even if a movement has relatively broad support, the majority of the people who may notionally like an idea will not necessarily take to the streets, and the government can keep a lid on things. It is only when large majorities are discontent, and sizable portions of those majorities are willing to act, that the inherent advantages organizations have can no longer deal with leaderless movements.

Movements tend to turn into organizations if they are successful, or if they last. Since movement members can join whenever they want, they can also leave whenever they want and for whatever reason, and organizations are a way to slow attrition. During the Obama administration, the Tea Party emerged on the political right, while the “Occupy Wall Street” emerged on the left. Even though the “Occupy” movement received far more favorable coverage, the Tea Party transformed into organizations, but the Occupy movement never organized and disappeared. Also, eventually movement members tend to recognize that strategy requires organization. The American Civil Rights Movement, while very much a popular movement, was also steered and led by organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although many people participated in Civil Rights protests who were not part of any organization, the organizations determined what strategy to follow, allowing sequential Civil Rights victories.

Countering Organizations is Different from Movements

I sense both Antifa and the Boogaloo Boys are movements more than organizations. Mostly, they’re just LARP-ing revolution. There may be some small groups within those movements that form organizations, with few similarities other than their aesthetic and a loose set of ideas at the national level. Law enforcement would have tools to determine whether or not there are two-way communications and accountability, but if they have such information, no one is providing it. While movements pose somewhat unique challenges, I would rather deal with movements than organizations.

While organizations offer clear targets, and movements do not, organizations’ ability to disrupt political processes is far greater. A movement of 10,000 people might only be able to put a couple of dozen people into the streets at any given time, depending on how the people felt that day and where they lived. An organization of 10,000 can conceivably bring 10,000 people to bear at a time and place of their choosing. Organizations’ ability to act strategically also implies that forces of order can use strategy against organizations. While it is true that the accountability and structure of organizations are notionally easier to target than the amorphous blob of the networked movement, the threat is also exponentially larger.

We are better off treating movements like forces of nature or accidents than threats and planning accordingly at the national level. Forces of nature are relatively unpredictable, and the best we can do is to plan for general risk. We cannot deter a hurricane, or coerce an earthquake, but we can build stronger buildings and keep flood channels cleared to mitigate damage when disaster strikes.

In particular instances, such as the violence happening in some cities, there may be at least some loose organization in play. At that point, it makes more sense to address the specific instances with specific strategies, such as deploying police at strategic points to prevent violence from spreading. Taking an organizational approach at the national level would be a fool’s errand, likely to succeed only at frustrating the people tasked with the responsibility, and waste resources. While it may be challenging to differentiate the two, information flow patterns will point the way.


David Benson is a Professor of Strategy and National Security focusing on cyberstrategy and international relations. You can reach him at dbenson@osiriscodex.com.

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