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Cole Wardell

Beware the tyranny of structurelessness

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In Sum

Sometimes the least structured group can be the most tyrannical. Counter by promoting accountability within the group.

Have you ever sat through an interminable meeting where everyone is theoretically on equal grounding, and yet only one or two people are doing eighty percent of the talking? Where there’s no facilitator, for fear of introducing hierarchy, and so the discussion goes in endless circles, never quite sure when it’s finished? Where new members lose patience because their suggestions are ignored and their ideas left to float in the ether?

Welcome to the tyranny of structurelessness.

Jo Freeman’s seminal 1970 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” put a name to the persistent problem that plagues decision makers in non-hierarchical groupings, organizations or collectives.[1] Freeman argued that by claiming to eschew hierarchy, or even leadership, activists are really unilaterally disarming themselves when it comes to identifying and correcting impediments to effective collective action. As she points out, “there is no such thing as a structureless 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… Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.

It would be bad enough if structurelessness merely led to bruised feelings and longer meetings, but there is a further problem: it simply doesn’t work for long. If you’re engaging in any kind of long-term campaign, a lack of accountability and organized incorporation of feedback will often prove fatal.

So what’s the way out of a structureless organization that is not working properly? The best cure is prevention: establish clear processes from the start. But if you’re stuck in such an arrangement, and wish to change the culture to something more democratic and participatory, the key concept to introduce and press for isn’t hierarchy per se, but accountability.

Accountability is what gives democracy its bite, distinguishing it from a rote exercise in communicating preferences. It involves the establishment of real consequences when the expressed will of the people is not implemented as promised. (By contrast, structurelessness provides plenty of ways to note collective preferences, but precious few equitable or effective ways to ensure they’re acted upon.) Hierarchy is a particular vision of how accountability is carried out, but for the hierarchy-adverse it’s by no means the only one.

There are as many organizational structures as there are philosophies of collective action. But they virtually all share one thing in common: for better or worse, they acknowledge their own structure, instead of hiding behind unlikely and obfuscating assertions of structurelessness. That acknowledgment, and the accountability it fosters, is the only way to ensure effective and equitable decision-making.

  1. [1] Structurelessness is often mistakenly conflated with absence of hierarchy, when in fact, effective non-hierarchical forms of organizing actually require a great deal of structure. Anyone who has participated in an effectively facilitated general assembly or spokescouncil meeting will well understand this distinction.

Josh Bolotsky is an online organizer, blogger, comedic performer/writer and occasional voiceover artist, currently serving as new media director for Agit-Pop Communications and its Other 98% Project. While at Agit-Pop, he has worked on creating and spreading projects that include the RepubliCorp effort for MoveOn, and Target Ain’t People, the very first Depeche-Mode-inspired take on the Citizens United decision to break a million views on YouTube. Josh also serves as part of the national volunteer collective that manages Living Liberally, a network of progressive social groups and activist resources in all fifty states. He enjoys vegan chili and writing about himself in the third person.


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