“The Tyranny of Structurelessness”


in Politics, The environment

Since incorporating as a non-profit, Toronto350.org has been going through some serious growing pains, particularly when it comes to governance and decision-making structures. The group seeks to be profoundly democratic, with open membership and a philosophy where people choose their own level of involvement. At the same time, we have been experiencing difficulties deciding which individuals or sub-groups should make particular decisions, and through what method.

In order to help play a constructive role in the group’s evolution, I have been reading about non-profit and NGO governance, both from an official and legal perspective and from a more theoretical one. Jo Freeman’s 1970 article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” makes some interesting points about groups that are consciously or unconsciously becoming more formalized:

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. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.

Toronto350.org has had some sort of formal structure for a long time. Initially established as a University of Toronto club, there has long been an elected executive and a constitution which, among other things, defines their roles. Still, one of the main challenges facing us now is professionalization and working out a more effective division of labour. In order to achieve those things without abandoning democratic ideals, we need to take ideas like Freeman’s seriously.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan August 27, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Thanks for posting about this.

“Tyranny of Structurelessness” is a text which I’ve heard reference to over the years, but have never bothered to read. Now that was clearly a mistake. The analysis here is something that myself and others have been trying to develop over the past several years – and uncannily the answers we came to are very similar to what I read here. Goes to show that reviewing the literature can beat trying to re-invent the wheel.

That said, I’m trying not to accept this text uncritically. Or rather, I’m trying to avoid the confirmation bias which occurs when you read something with which you already whole heartedly agree. I’ve found a few self-identified Anarchist critiques of this text, but I find them mean-spirited. For instance, Jason McQuinn’s 1989 review, subtitled “An organizationalist repudiation of anarchism” argues,

“the essay reads like a closely argued, but incomprehensibly unreal and illogical stab at sociology by a paranoid schizophrenic. The fear of freedom, friendship and community, as well as the fetish for sterile, reified, rule-bound relationships (drained of all spontaneity and vitality) oozes from almost every page. It goes without saying that the author is not, nor has she ever been, an anarchist.”

To be honest I had trouble taking the rest of his review seriously after he called Jo Freeman a “paranoid schizophrenic”. Seriously though, the rejection of this text from an Anarchist perspective is endemic, I think, of the right-wing libertarian tendencies in Anarchism. Not because McQuinn’s self-identified values are in any way right-wing (the review was published in the Irish “Workers Solidarity Movement” publication), but because the denial that humans have tendencies towards domination that are not reducible in their origin to the imposition of a dominating structure is the argument not only for the abolition of class but also for “small government”. To call it the “fear of freedom” to express concern at the organic emergence of power struggles within a private group is not “right” or “left”, but simply wrong; a poor understanding of freedom, the denial of truths which ideological commitments blocks out.

Cathy Levine’s “The Tyranny of Tyranny” makes some of the same points as McQuinn, but manages to do so more persuasively. Which is not to say I’m persuaded, but at least I find here a serious attempt to articulate the counter-argument. Levine argues not so much against the need for formal organization as activist groups grow and move beyond the “consciousness raising” stage, but rather that the need for consciousness raising and small groups might persist longer than Freeman recognizes. It’s not so much that Levine thinks unstructured groups can become large and tactically proficient, but rather that there is a particular need for the creation of a “revolutionary culture consistent with our view of a new society”. The need for this new culture comes from Levine’s diagnosis of the problem of Tyranny – not that we are subject to some particular tyranny which needs to be thrown off, but that we live in a culture of tyrannies, the “tyranny of tyranny”:

“Psychic crippling of its citizens makes its citizens report to work, fight in wars, suppress its women, non-whites, and all non-conformists vulnerable to suppression. In our post-technological society, every member of which recognises this as being the most advanced culture, the psychic crippling is also the most advanced – there is more shit for the psyche to cut through, what with Jonathan Livingston Seaquil and the politics of ‘You’re okay, I’m okay’, not to mention post-neo-Freudians and the psycho-surgeons. For the umpteenth time, let it be said that, unless we examine inner psychic shackles, at the time we study outer, political structures and the relationship between the two, we will not succeed in creating a force to challenge our enemy; in fact, we will not even know the enemy. The Left has spent hours and tomes trying to define the ruling class; tee ruling class has representative pigs inside the head of every member of society -thus, the logic behind so-called paranoia. The tyranny of tyranny is a deeply-entrenched foe.”

At the base of it, I believe that Levine’s argument suffers from the same delusion as McQuinn’s: the view that all tendencies towards domination can be traced back to some form of socialization. I think this is wrong. Tendencies towards domination are not merely socialized into us; they emerge at the intersection of nature and nurture (or Being and Becoming if you prefer your metaphysics Nietzschean). The belief that we can build a a better society by tearing down this one and creating a state of nature from which a new society can emerge is one that I well hoped we had left behind with the 1960s, but alas perhaps we are condemned to have that same mirage emerge over and over again.

Milan August 31, 2015 at 11:58 pm

Also interesting:

For those groups which cannot find a local project to which to devote themselves, the mere act of staying together becomes the reason for their staying together. When a group has no specific task (and consciousness raising is a task), the people in it turn their energies to controlling others in the group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate others (though sometimes it is) as out of a lack of anything better to do with their talents. Able people with time on their hands and a need to justify their coming together put their efforts into personal control, and spend their time criticizing the personalities of the other members in the group. Infighting and personal power games rule the day. When a group is involved in a task, people learn to get along with others as they are and to subsume personal dislikes for the sake of the larger goal. There are limits placed on the compulsion to remold every person in our image of what they should be.

. February 25, 2017 at 12:46 pm

“Robert Michels claimed that a tendency toward elitism is inevitable within all organizations, including political parties, giving rise to his famous iron law of oligarchy. Even in parties that seek or profess to operate democratically, a small elite invariably develops such that rank-and-file party members have little real power. As organizations grow and attract more members, according to Michels, they become so complicated that the only people capable of understanding them are the people who work full time within them. The rank-and file “amateur” members become dependent on full-time officials for information about the party, thus enhancing the officials’ power. Similarly, a small group of executive members often seek re-election for many terms and use their experience, access to party information, connections, control of party funds, and influence over party policy to do so. Member apathy is also a factor, for the great bulk of party members are inactive and quite happy to have a handful of activists take charge.”

“Political Parties and the Party System” in Cochrane, Christopher, Kelly Bildook, and Rand Dyck. Canadian Politics, Critical Approaches, 8th edition. 2017.

See also: Michels, Robert. Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1966.

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