The Tyranny of Structurelessness

February 2nd, 2015 § 1 comment

[cross-posted from Edgeryders]

This classic essay has come up in a few conversations I’ve been having recently. It was written in 1970 in the context of feminist organizations, but it’s still a painfully accurate description of what can go wrong when groups try to abolish formal structures.

I’m going to paste some of the key passages below. But I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. As well as being valuable in its own right, it’s a useful reminder that many of our aspirations are not new, and that there is a lot to be learned from the history of non-hierarchical groups.

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved.

As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.

[In the absence of formal structures, decisions tend to be made by an elite of members with strong personal connections to one another.] So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join [the ‘elite’] simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.

Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement.
— from Jo Freeman (Joreen), “The Tyranny of Structurelessness

  • Alexander Harrowell

    Quality. an exercise for the blogger: how does this apply to the architecture of distributed computing systems?

    for example, if you have a web-of-trust, you necessarily end up with a highly-connected core group or “elite” and a periphery of the minimally trusted, and an insider attacker will be very hard to get rid of. if you have a mesh network, the routing updates will kill you unless you let some nodes act primarily as routers, and then it’s not a mesh network any more but rather a scalefree network with a clique of core routers.

    personally I’m coming around to the position that hierarchy is so great there should be many, many more of them, rather than [pretending to] flatten everything out. ISTR Jürgen Habermas thought something similar.

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