My notes and other stuff


Paper: The Tyranny of Structurelessness

This week I decided to read an old classic essay from the 70s, which then gathered hundreds of citations; it's the kind of text whose ideas are so ingrained into modern theory about organizations and political groups that I believe I knew many of them without having read the original. It's therefore a great time to go read the source material, specifically Jo Freeman's Tyranny of Structurelessness.

The text was written as a comment on how various feminist groups early on would take a "leaderless" or "structureless" approach, often as a counter to established political and patriarchal groups: the looseness encouraged discussion and participation, but the author asserts that often, little more than insights would come out of these groups. In this essay, she covers what exactly tend to be the problems around structureless groups—which I think is what people quote a lot when referring to the tyranny of structurelessness as a catch-all phrase—and then ways in which groups could more effectively be structured for democratic purposes without necessarily replicating existing structures. This latter part, a much shorter one, seems to be remembered a bit less.

But let's start with the problems. The big obvious one is that there is no such thing as an actually structureless organization: any group of people that comes together for any purpose eventually has some structure emerge. Any interaction, conversation, skill, distribution of tasks, or variations in power will end up creating an implicit, possibly flexible structure that may change over time.

The issue, then is that a group aiming to be structureless:

... does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. [...] Similarly "laissez faire" philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women's movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). 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.

Basically, the assertion here is that as you eliminate the explicit control structure, an implicit, hidden one still exists, and can still exert itself, except that it is not bound by clear rules, and there are very few ways to know it is even there. An implicit structure therefore may in practice limit open participation, rather than encourage it. Particularly, while formal structures won't destroy the informal ones, it will prevent them from becoming dominant, and will have tools to "attack" them if they aren't acting in the interests of the group at large. The author repeats, however, that most organizations with an explicit structure still contain many implicit structures within themselves.

Jo Freeman takes this opportunity to define what Elites are about. Specifically, she points out that elites are not individuals; they are instead small groups wielding power over larger groups they have no responsibility toward, and who often does not have their consent or knowledge to do so. They are not conspiracies, and she describes them as "groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities." Many such groups may exist within a larger one, and so organizations can have multiple elites jockeying for power at the same time.

She mentions that elites are often more formed based on background, time, or personality than actual talent, competence, or dedication to the cause. The former is how you make friends whereas the latter is what an organization needs. Once the pattern is established, looking for people who "fit in" when recruiting tends to sustain it. If you're outside the elite, the only way in is to find a "sponsor", become their friend, until they bring you into a sort of inner circle. By comparison, having explicit decision-making processes (requiring some structure) will make it easier for someone to participate if they are outside the elite(s).

For what it's worth, she mentions that the elites aren't inherently bad, they're just inevitable. They can be useful and do very useful things as well. In structured organizations, these elites are less likely to govern than they are in unstructured groups. Particularly, since they haven't been put in power by anyone in structureless groups, there's also no one who can take their power away. They may try to act responsibly to keep their influence, but it is at their own will and interests that they may be: the group can't demand it of them.

The author also looks at the concept of "stars", volunteers or people who become very popular with the public or the media. She states that this is a sort of natural outcome, because the public expects a spokesperson to represent a group:

But because there are no official spokespeople nor any decision-making body that the press can query when it wants to know the movement's position on a subject, these women are perceived as the spokespeople. Thus, whether they want to or not, whether the movement likes it or not, women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.

This is due to external expectations, and when these de-facto spokespeople are "chosen" by the media, they become "stars" who risk being resented by the people inside the group or movement, and they in turn risk feeling alienated and eventually leave the cause. By not having any mechanism to choose their spokespeople, the group implicitly lets the public decide, and they lose any control over it.

Other problems happen when people get tired of "just talking" and want to turn to political action; many structureless groups are incapable of it. Those that can function often have some very specific properties:

  1. The group is task-oriented, and the task determine what needs to be done and when (e.g.: "organizing a conference")
  2. It is small and relatively homogeneous; it has a common language, which limits confusion—diverse people interpret words and actions differently, which requires more discussion and repair.
  3. There is a high degree of communication, and larger groups often succeed if made of smaller groups with partial overlap (~5 people per small groups, maybe up to 15 for large ones)
  4. There is a low need for skill specialization, and anyone can do anything

The larger the group, the less likely it is for all these conditions to be met. Organizations that struggle to turn a group's motivation into action are likely to see their members poached by other groups who can better harness the motivation of individuals. They can also be "infiltrated" by external groups wanting to take over, which may do so by establishing their own new elite.

Specifically for this latter case, the older, established elite has few ways of discussing it in the open to prevent it without exposing their own covert structure. Anti-elitism and calls for structurelessness are often the best way for them to go, while also trying to exclude their opponents, possibly by re-defining the existing purpose of the group to align with the existing elite or by re-defining the opponents as bad actors (for example, by Red-baiting). This, basically, means institutionalizing the elite's power structure, which isn't always possible. She adds that the less structured a group is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and in the projects it engages in:

If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.

I should point out that through the text, she mentions that none of these criticisms by any means imply that structured organizations are immune to these problems. They however may have defined means of dealing with them.

Jo Freeman then gets into the concepts required to properly structure power, without necessarily replicating existing (often problematic) structures. She mentions a need for continuous experimentation and re-structuring, with various approaches possibly being needed for various situations. The principles are:

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures
  2. Require those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them (any power is exercised at the will of the group)
  3. Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible (avoid monopolies and require consultation)
  4. Rotation of tasks among individuals (balance letting people develop skill and avoiding people "owning" tasks)
  5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria (ability, interest, responsibility are key factors that should be kept in mind; developing new skills should be done through apprenticeships)
  6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one's power (people can be more effective with more information and more power)
  7. Equal access to resources needed by the group (e.g.: someone having a monopoly over a printing press, specialized skills they won't train others in, or information they'll withhold can wield undue influence over the group)

(the bits in bold are literal quotes)

On these principles, she concludes:

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.

To me, a lot of the comments ring true, and it's obvious that many of the criticisms applied to feminist groups in past decades apply pretty directly to corporate environments as well. I'm not surprised to see a lot of the discourse borrowed elsewhere (nor am I surprised to see some anarchists who dislike the text; others, including communalists, seem to take it as evidence of a need for "federation"). I do appreciate the last bits on the theory of how to better apply power, and the call to experiment with structure more actively, rather than trying to throw it away altogether.

All in all, and if I can be personal here, I'm a bit relieved because it seems like the paper at least did not preemptively discredit my whole talk on feedback loops and complexity that has a whole bit on "nominal" vs. "emergent" organizational structures and the need to align actions on both levels when trying to enact change. It would have felt a bit embarrassing to give the whole speech in front of crowds to find out it had been proven to be wrong decades before I was born (which, of course, doesn't mean I'm right either).