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The Tyranny of Structurelessness

In the early 1970s, when feminism was just gaining steam, a woman named Jo Freeman wrote an essay that has since become a classic: “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Though Freeman's essay was a response to the informal nature of women's “consciousness raising” groups popular during that period, it's also worth noting that second wave feminism emerged partly in reaction to the implicit and oppressive misogyny of the New Left, which united around an idealistic vision of decentralized “participatory democracy.” 

We've chosen to include an excerpt of this groundbreaking essay for various reasons. First of all, it underscores the vital role the women's movement had in theorizing, developing, and promoting non-hierarchical models of social justice organizing, an innovation they rarely get credited for. At the same time, however, it articulates the limits of these methods from an explicitly feminist perspective. Freeman's point, radically simplified, is that the disavowal of power too often masks its covert manipulation; informal elites can be more pernicious than formal ones because they deny their own existence. 

It's no secret that software and technology industries are dominated by men, nor that many of the most visible figures writing about and promoting networked collaboration are male. We want to remind them that privilege is the product of complex social forces that cannot simply be wished away, no matter how loudly or frequently the word “open” is invoked. Those who like to believe that “on the Internet, no one knows you're a dog” are probably men (anyone remember that University of Maryland study reporting that chatters with female usernames got 25 times the number of malicious messages their masculine counterparts received?). The point is that offline prejudice, like offline privilege, carries over to our online relationships. The worry is that structurelessness can create a vacuum in which these imbalances and biases flourish. 

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. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness—and that is not the nature of a human group.

This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” 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. 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. 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.  

When informal elites are combined with a myth of “structurelessness,” there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious.

—Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” 1970

The Glossary of Tyranny

A deviate of a neutral glossary. See also Glossary.


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