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Dignity in the Workplace

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Facilities are a major part of just about every organization's cost structure. Because we have no headquarters, we can put the money saved into benefits for staff. Since we live wherever we want in the country and work at home, this saves hours of commuting time.

In addition, MoveOn reimburses people for home office space and expenditures, which helps them afford a good place to live. Benefits like these are a great recruitment tool. They enable us to hire the best applicants for the job, no matter where they reside.

It's very important that we are not centered in Washington, D.C., and that we are truly populist. MoveOn staff are "embedded" in the communities that make up America. Our work is not our entire life.

As social beings, we pursue the healthy development of community and connections outside work. This delivers the extra benefit of helping us avoid the trap of hyper-activism in which our only experience of the world is with people who think like us.

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We believe that decentralization works--but we are not inflexible. There are times when employees do need to be in the same place at the same time. We make exceptions for (1) periodic retreats for developing strategic plans and reconnecting as a team, (2) training periods for new staff, and (3) crash projects. But these times must be short and defined, and do not lead to the establishment of hub offices. No power centers are permitted--a practice which fosters fair and equal treatment for everyone.

One of the pitfalls of political activism is assuming an elitist posture toward the rank-and-file membership. MoveOn's commitment to a flat and decentralized organization supports us in approaching our members the same way we must approach each other--respectfully.

In addition to flattening unnecessary hierarchies, there have been some dramatic examples of flattening illegitimate hierarchies by what can perhaps be described as an "over-my-dead-body" strategy. This occurs when a somebody comes to the defense of a nobody who is being abused by another somebody, and in effect, says to the bully, "If you attack him, you attack me. I stand with those you are victimizing and together we shall stand you down."

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In his book Exodus, Leon Uris tells the story of King Christian X of Denmark, who adopted this strategy to undermine the imposition of an illegitimate, rankist social hierarchy under the Nazi occupation. As the author tells it, when the German occupiers ordered Jews to sew yellow Stars of David to their sleeves to mark them for discrimination, expatriation, and as we now know, extermination, the Danish king had the star sewn on his sleeve and encouraged all Danes to do likewise.

The veracity of this story has since been questioned, as the Jews in Denmark were evidently never forced to wear the Star of David. But another tale, which is accepted as truth, tells of King Christian's successful resistance to the swastika being flown over the Danish parliament. The king summoned a senior Nazi official and told him to take down the flag. When the official refused, Christian is reported to have said, "A Danish soldier will remove it."When the German replied that the soldier would be shot, the king's reply was, "I think not. For I shall be that soldier." The German flag was removed.

I mention these stories not simply because they are moving but to demonstrate two things: First, we love people of high rank who use the power of their rank to serve a group for which they have responsibility, especially when doing so places them in jeopardy; and second, there are times when the only person who can challenge a rankist offense is someone who outranks the perpetrator.

10. Consider Peer-to-Peer Organization

Networks are replacing hierarchies everywhere you look. Michel Bauwens sees peer-to-peer (P2P) networks as the premise of a new mode of civilization. He describes them as "a form of organization which rests upon the free cooperation of equipotent partners performing a common task for the common good, without recourse to monetary compensation as the key motivating factor, and not organized according to hierarchical methods of command and control."

Examples of this kind of collaborative peer production include the Internet, digital file sharing, grid computing, blogs, open source operating systems such as Linux, the open access encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, and web-based organizations such as Meetup.com, Newstrust.net, Worldchanging.com, and Sourceforge.net. Intelligence is located everywhere within these entities.

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P2P networks have antecedents in human history. Juries are a form of peer governance of long standing. In classical Athens, as well as medieval Florence, issues of war and peace were decided by public assemblies. An emerging noxious kind of P2P organization consists of networks of small, autonomous terrorist cells. Their non-hierarchical structure makes them less vulnerable to attrition and decapitation, and presents a resilient, robust target for the militaries charged with neutralizing them.

In business, two new developments--the abundance of information and new digital technologies--are making P2P networks competitive with, if not superior to, the centralized hierarchical models that now predominate. Bauwens sees P2P networks as the technological framework of cognitive capitalism--the successor to merchant and industrial capitalism. He argues that they signal the emergence of a new form of power in which expertise can unexpectedly announce itself as needed, and in which participants are rewarded for giving knowledge away because doing so builds their reputation. Individuals who join a P2P project subordinate personal gain to building a common resource that is legally protected from usurpation by any one contributor. Eventually, common ideas emerge that represent a synthesis of the contributions of the many.

The characteristics and architectures of P2P networks, as well as their limitations, are not yet fully understood. But it is already clear that in some contexts, the budding open source movement is giving traditional hierarchies a run for the money.

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Robert W. Fuller is a physicist, a former president of Oberlin College, and author of The Rowan Tree: A Novel. He has consulted with Indira Gandhi, met with Jimmy Carter regarding the president's Commission on World Hunger, worked in the (more...)

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