The Tyranny of Structurelessness

One of the interesting posts over in that thar LiveJournal I’ve been reading was one from 2002 in which Gordon ranted engagingly about the pleasure of good honest sarcasm and pointed comments when compared with the "passive aggressive, new age, pseudo-therapeutic, bullshit masquerading as ‘communication’" found in some hippie groups.

My frustration with this zine [Communities Journal of Cooperative Living] is that I agree with the importance of
communication and process (I work and live collectively myself), but
this issue mostly presents issues of power and language in a way that
would make any sane person run for their lives. Words and phrases like
"having a clearing", "checking out a fantasy" (not as titillating as it
sounds), "non-violent communication" and "pushing my own buttons" do
damage to the language and, in my humble opinion, hide the power of
skilled manipulators by creating a new set of rules in the name of
clarity and process. Unintentionally funny at times, but mostly useful
as a flashing neon sign saying "DANGER! If you’re not a hippie,
new-ager, or needy process queen STAY AWAY!"

Go read the subsequent example if this kind of stuff entertains you as much as it does me.

In fact, the answers to most of the problems posed in these pages are
all about looking within for answers. Introspection and
self-examination have their place of course, but inward looking thought
combined with a paranoid obsession with process and "non-violent
communication" always leaves me looking for who’s really in control.
Tools for "democracy" can become tools of manipulation rather easily,
especially as language is rarefied into more and more esoteric
constructions. In these situations, it’s usually the most skilled at
word games who can keep deflecting issues away from their own actions
and towards their feelings.

"When you got mad at me for partying
and waking you up, it made me feel that you don’t appreciate all the
work I do to make Commune X a wonderful place. It makes me feel like
you think I’m a bad person. Do you think I’m a bad person?"

As for process, read "The Tyranny of Structurelessness"  and move on. Even if the author is some reform Democrat these days, It’s the best thing ever written about collective process.

So I did go off and read that fascinating 1970 contemplation of the influence of group structure (or lack of it) on the women’s movement. I thought this was a particularly interesting insight and a suggestion as to how the internet may enable the kind of individual communication which promotes philosophical change, but not necessarily political change:

The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over
the directions in which it develops and the political actions in
which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread.
Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the
appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be
diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are
implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can
be applied individually they may be acted upon; insofar as they
require co-ordinated political power to be implemented, they will not

This ability to apply ideas individually is certainly a big part of the success of projects like and its counterparts elsewhere in the political spectrum, but I don’t think the internet solves all problems and allows informally structured groups to apply tremendous and sustainable power.

Consider this:

As long as the women’s liberation movement stays dedicated to a
form of organisation which stresses small, inactive discussion groups
among friends, the worst problems of unstructuredness will not be
felt. But this style of organisation has its limits; it is
politically inefficacious, exclusive and discriminatory against those
women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks.
Those who do not fit into what already exists because of class, race,
occupation, parental or marital status, or personality will
inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate. Those who do
not fit in will develop vested interests in maintaining things as
they are.

Is that like or unlike what we find on the Web?

Published by

Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

  1. Have to share here the end of the Tyranny of Structurelessness for those who might not want to read the whole thing:
    These problems are coming to a head at this time because the nature of the movement is necessarily changing. Consciousness-raising, as the main function of the women’s liberation movement, is becoming obsolete. Due to the intense press publicity of the last two years and the numerous overground books and articles now being circulated, women’s liberation has become a household word. Its issues are discussed and informal rap groups are formed by people who have no explicit connection with any movement group. Purely educational work is no longer such an overwhelming need. The movement must go on to other tasks. It now needs to establish its priorities, articulate its goals and pursue its objectives in a co-ordinated way. To do this it must be organised locally, regionally and nationally.
    Principles of Democratic Structuring
    Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of ‘structurelessness’, it will be free to develop those forms of organisation 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 organisation. But neither should we blindly reject them all . Some traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations. The ‘lot system’ is one such idea which has emerged from the movement. It is not applicable to all situations, but it is useful, in some. Other ideas for structuring are needed. But before we can proceed to experiment intelligently, we must accept the idea that there is nothing inherently bad about structure itself – only its excessive use.
    While engaging in this trial-and-error process, there are some principles we can keep in mind that are essential to democratic structuring and are politically effective also:
    1 Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks by default only means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot easily be ignored.
    2 Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to all those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has the ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
    3 Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people an opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn specific skills.
    4 Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s ‘property’ and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire a sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.
    5 Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group, or giving them hard work because they are disliked, serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of ‘apprenticeship’ programme rather than the ‘sink or swim’ method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralising. Conversely, being blackballed from what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history – the movement does not need to repeat this process.
    6 Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion – without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work, the more politically effective one can be.
    7 Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press or a darkroom owned by a husband) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills and information can be equally available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.
    When these principles are applied, they ensure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and be 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 institutionalise 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.


  2. Part of the dilemma faced by feminism in the 70s, and by every successful grassroots action, is that when the movement moves — from criticism of the existing order (which brings together a wide range of people disadvantaged by that order) — to some degree of effective power making decisions about where to go (which exposes the variety of opinions about solutions among the variety of disadvantaged people) — the sense of unity is challenged, perhaps shattered. Many organizations disintegrate at that stage. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t achieve anything, but it’s almost always painful and disillusioning.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s