The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Contact & presentation
Mejl: Per.Herngren (snabel-a) gmail.com
by Per Herngren
Being involved with civil disobedience and nonviolence, we experience the same problems with power as other groups. When informal organisations are idealized, power, dominance, and microaggression become camouflaged. To counter this, we use feminist and egalitarian meeting techniques. Participants take responsibility for different functions: the facilitator chairs the meeting, the power intervenor distributes power and intervenes in microaggressions, the time facilitator unburdens the group from stress and distributes time for different decisions, the vibes facilitator uses the room to make the group more creative. In order to have an equal dialogue we alternate speaking rounds and free discussions. And we use small work groups rather than large group discussions. These methods work quite well, I think, to create democracy and egalitarian organisations. People are tired of ineffective and boring meetings, and there is still a strong demand for more efficient and democratic methods. Last summer, I was invited to Kyrgyzstan to train democracy activists in feminist methods for democracy. Jo Freemans analysis of the tyranny of structurelessness is still very much alive.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness
One of the feminist texts that has meant the most to the nonviolence movement is Jo Freeman’s The tyranny of structurelessness from 1970. The text is a glaring showdown with the myth of the leaderless and structureless groups within feminism. There are quite simply no structureless groups (1). The whole idea is a smokescreen for the powerful to establish hegemony without being questioned. The idea of structurelessness prevents formal structures but not informal structures from being created. You can never make the decision to not have any structures, only to not have formal structures.
Structurelessness leads to only a few knowing how decisions are made. If everyone is to be able to participate, the structure needs to be explicit. The rules for decision making will be open and accessible to all. And this can only happen if they are formalised.
Informal structures are the basis for elites. An individual can never be an elite. An elite is always a group. Jo Freeman defines an elite as a smaller group that has the power of a larger group. The most dangerous elites are those that are not known to the larger group. Structureless groups create just such elites. These elites hide behind slogans such as anti-elitism and structurelessness.
Elites in structureless groups are based on friendships. Friends relate better to each other, listen more. They have their own communication channels that are not available to others. Friends place more importance on each other’s opinions than on those of other people. Outsiders must stay on good terms with the in-groups.
Elites seldom conspire. They are just friends who happen to be a part of the same movement. There may well be several friendship groups vying for power. The friendship can be extended to a wider inner circle that has the right style. The right style may be to be available, unmarried or married, a lesbian, between twenty and thirty, cool, have a certain political position, a style of dress, or be a vegetarian.
A common criterion for elite groups is that only the popular people are respected. Those who are not allowed entry are people who are not sufficiently refined, are too old, too difficult, or are busy with other commitments.
Power is virtually limitless in a structureless group. There are no boundaries that limit power. Nor is there anyone who is accountable to someone else. Anyone can take on tasks, take the initiative, create new activities and drop out, thus sabotaging, without being held accountable.
Structurelessness creates a turnover of participants. There are no paths for the majority to continue on. They leave the women’s group or movement altogether. Some start to work on their own projects. Only the strong are able to start new groups.
Structurelessness is in that way inefficient.
Jo Freeman suggests that we should not blindly imitate traditional structures, nor blindly reject them, but experiment with different techniques.
She suggests seven criteria as essential for democratic structuring.
1. Delegate specific authority to named individuals.
2. Make sure that these individuals are responsible to the group for performing the task according to the groups wishes.
3. Distribute authority among as many as possible. Avoid power monopoly.
4. Rotate tasks. Rotate, but not too often. Otherwise, the individual does not have time to learn the task and does not get any satisfaction from it. Discussions within the Plowshares Movement (2) have emphasised yet another problem with overly frequent rotation. The formal group becomes weak and power reverts to informal groups.
5. Allocate tasks along rational criteria. To select someone for a task just because the group likes her or him, or to assign a less popular person with worse tasks, is harmful both to the group and to the individuals who were assigned the tasks. However, participants must have an opportunity to learn skills. Some sort of apprenticeship system is needed rather than a sink or swim system.
6. Disseminate information to all participants.
7. Equal access to resources. Someone who, for example, has access to printing presses through their spouse can influence the group’s use. Keep in mind that skills are also resources. To share ones knowledge is therefore a criterion for Jo Freeman.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness and Resistance
Jo Freeman’s text has gained tremendous importance. It could almost be called the Feminist Nonviolence Movement’s manifesto. It has been printed and referenced repeatedly in Germany and Sweden, among others. In the seventies, advanced structures for consensus with many participants solely in small groups in the form of a star net or a mesh net were developed, chairpersons were replaced by meeting facilitators, vibe-watchers, timekeepers and, in the nineties, sexism-interveners and power-interveners were added. Different forms of formal networks and coalition-building have been designed, and with also advanced forms of agendas that are much more sophisticated than the traditional ones.
The battle for or against structures, however, is repeatedly being fought in the nonviolence movement as new individuals and groups join. The large Road Block movement and Animal Rights Movement in England that use nonviolence and civil disobedience are clearly anti-structure. In a discussion in December 1995 (3), an activist from England argued that the feminism that had been so strong in the peace movement was being swept away in the radical environmental resistance groups.
Within the Plowshares Movement in Sweden, there has sometimes been a fear of including other formal groups in the planning process. The power of the elites is threatened.
Although the forms for meetings, cooperation, and organisation are sophisticated in large parts of the nonviolence movement, especially in the US and Germany, the forms for sharing responsibility are not as developed. Many activities are sabotaged simply by the fact that those who have taken tasks upon themselves disappear or drop out.
These groups are not under the same sort of win or disappear pressure to continuously hone their organisations as are, for example, capitalist enterprises. Nonviolence groups can sometimes stagnate or be dissolved unexpectedly simply because the group encounters problems or because new organisers are not recruited.
Is it that the social movement commitment, with its perseverance, loyalty and readiness to contribute money is disappearing within the peace and solidarity movement? Has continuity been replaced by emotion? Is commitment something for our personal development or for those who are being killed by Swedish weapons?
1997, version 0.2.
1. Jo Freeman, Cathy Levine, Untying The Knot Feminism, Anarchism & Organization, London, Darkstar Press / Rebel Press, 1984 p 5-16.
2. The Plowshares movement is a nonviolent resistance movement that uses hammers to disarm weapons in the tradition of civil disobedience, nonviolence and openness. Founded in the USA in 1980, the plowshares groups get imprisoned for damaging weapons and military property.
3. Discussion at the Hope & Resistance retreat, in Kiel, Germany, December 1995.
A printed object consisting of two parts: a book dedicated to critical thinking in the field of dance and choreography and a tablecloth of topics. It is a tool for continuing dialogues, putting dance discourse, literally, on the table.
In Dansbyrån wechoreographers, employees and collaboratorshave worked to provide a platform that can operate in a transparent, nonviolent, and fair way in relation to our field, the people we work with, and between us. In the organisation we created a clear structure with contracts, code of conducts, delegated tasks, and formalised meetings. At times we were seen as promoting a business approach to the management of art because of these formalities. Rather, we were driven by a will to avoid the tyranny of structurelessness and to keep good personal relations. With a formal structure we could allow the informal talks, ideas, and actions to flourish in between.
Per Herngrens text from 1997 outlines in a poignant way the core ideas of the Tyranny of Structurelessness that originate from Jo Freemans talk in 1970. We still find it highly relevant in an art context today2040 years laterand therefore it is also significant to present a translated version in Dansbaren – The Mob without Flash.
Ingrid Cogne, Marika Hedemyr
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