Tyranny of Structurelessness

Community Organizing

New Orleans       Having said for decades that in any group it is always possible, through observation and listening, to identify the organizers, the leaders, and the underlying structure, no matter how informal and supposedly anti-hierarchical and structureless the formation, I was thunderstruck to see the mention of an essay called the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” in an article I was reading recently.  This sounded like something from a fellow traveler worth tracking down.

The essay turns out to have been written and initially published or distributed around 1970 by the political and civil rights activist, feminist, and later scholar, Jo Freeman, originally under the nom de guerre, Joreen.  She had written the piece based on her experience and observation of early women’s liberation groups in that heady period as they sprang up and sought to find their way to making change for themselves and society.

It was easy to get several versions of the essay from a Google search, and I want to study it more carefully, but a quick read more than confirms my initial interest and expectations.  Freeman was no liberal and states plainly, there is always a structure, no “ifs, ands, and buts” about it.  The threshold question is simply whether the structure is formal or informal, and whether it is acknowledged.

She also correctly nails the fact that the more the structure is not formalized and recognized as such, the more power is concentrated and decision-making is either stymied or concealed.   ACORN always operated under a formal structure, but prohibited things like Robert’s Rules of Order as empowering only individuals operating with specialized knowledge or education which lowered the voices of others.  Freeman would have totally understood this.

Freeman also offers salient points about “elites,” clarifying that an elite is an operating entity in organizational space, but it is always a group within that context, and an elitist is an accurate descriptive only insofar as it describes someone who is an adherent or member of such an elite group.  Very interesting points.  She also, especially in the context of the women’s movement at that historical juncture, zings the “star” system as partially a conceit for individuals and outsiders to pretend organizations have no structure and thereby allow individuals to free float without accountability both within and outside of the organizational formation.  True that!

The final major theme of her critique is founded on the inability of such groups to make decisions and take action, especially public actions that are by definition political.  The problem of “pretend” structurelessness she argues, is that people, women in that instance, would migrate towards more and more formally structured groups when it came to action campaigns or political work, all of which would also tend to diminish the original groups.

This is heady stuff, but all social change organizations are more alike than they different when it comes to internal dynamics and the process of creating action and program, so finding this essay, even fifty years later, was like finding a gold nugget in a rock field.