Samstag, 15. Mai 2010

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking
shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless,
structureless groups as the main form of the movement. The source of this
idea was a natural reaction against the overstructured society in which
most of us found ourselves, the inevitable control this gave others over
our lives, and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among
those who were supposedly fighting this over-structuredness.

The idea of 'structurelessness', however, has moved from a healthy
counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The
idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an
intrinsic and unquestioned part of women's liberation ideology. For the
early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early de-
fined its main method as consciousness-raising, and the 'structureless rap
group' was an excellent means to this end. Its looseness and informality
encouraged participation in discussion and the often supportive atmosphere
elicited personal insight. If nothing more concrete than personal insight
ever resulted from these groups, that did not much matter, because their
purpose did not really extend beyond this.

The basic problems didn't appear until individual rap groups exhausted
the virtues of consciousness-raising and decided they wanted to do some-
thing more specific. At this point they usually floundered because most
groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their
task. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of 'structurelessness' with-
out realizing the limitations of its uses. People would try to use the
'structureless' group and the informal conference for purposes for which
they were unsuitable out of a blind belief that no other means could
possibly be anything but oppressive.

If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development,
it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organiz-
ation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these.
They can be and often are misused, but to reject them out of hand because
they are misused is to deny ourselves the necessary tools to further
development. We need to understand why 'structurelessness' does not work.

Formal and Informal Structures

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as
a 'structureless' group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming
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 and 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 easily be established because the idea of
'structurelessness' does not prevent the formation of informal
structures, but 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 it is usually most
strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are
conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are
known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who
know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal. 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 every-
one, and this can only happen if they are formalized. This is not to say that
normalization of a group structure will destroy the informal structure. It
usually doesn't. But it does hinder the informal structure from having
predominant control and makes available some means of attacking it.
'Structurelessness' is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether
to have a structured or structureless group; only whether or not to have
a _formally_ structured one. Therefore, the word will not be used any longer
except to refer to the idea which it represents. _Unstructured_ will refer
to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular
manner. _Structured_ will refer to those which have. A structured group
always has a _formal_ structure, and may also have an informal one. An
unstructured group always has an _informal_, or covert, structure. It is
this informal structure, particularly in unstructured groups, which
forms the basis for elites.

The Nature of Elitism

'Elitist' is probably the most abused word in the women's liberation move-
ment. It is used as frequently, and for the same reasons, as 'pinko' was in
the '50s. It is never used correctly. Within the movement it commonly refers
to individuals though the personal characteristics and activities of those to
whom it is directed may differ widely. An individual, as an individual, can
never be an 'elite' because the only proper application of the term 'elite'
is to groups. Any individual, regardless of how well-known that person is,
can never be an elite.

Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over
a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility
to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A
person becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating, the rule by such
a small group, whether or not that individual is well-known or not known at
all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious elites
are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent
elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well-
known. When they become known, they are watched, and the mask over
their power is no longer firmly lodged.

Because elites are informal does not mean they are invisible. At any
small group meeting anyone with a sharp eye and an acute ear can tell who
is influencing whom. The member of a friendship group will relate more
to each other than to other people. They listen more attentively and
interrupt less. They repeat each other's points and give in amiably. The
'outs' they tend to ignore or grapple with. The 'outs' approval is not
necessary for making a decision; however it is necessary for the 'outs' to
stay on good terms with the 'ins'. Of course, the lines are not as sharp as
I have drawn them. They are nuances of interaction, not pre-written scripts.
But they are discernible, and they do have their effect. Once one knows
with whom it is important to check before a decision is made, and whose
approval is the stamp of acceptance, one knows who is running things.

Elites are not conspiracies. Seldom does a small group of people get
together and try to take over a larger group for its own ends. Elites are
nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to
participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain
their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities;
they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they
maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena
which creates elites in any groups and makes them so difficult to break.

These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside
any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up
by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks
of communication. Because people are friends, usually sharing the same
values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and
consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people
involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who
don't. And it is a rare group that does not establish some informal
networks of communication through the friends that are made in it.

Some groups, depending on their size, may have more than one such
informal communication network. Networks may even overlap. When only
one such network exists, it is the elite of an otherwise unstructured group,
whether the participants in it want to be elitists or not. If it is the only
such network in a structured group it may or may not be an elite depending
on its composition and the nature of the formal structure. If there are two
or more such networks of friends, they may compete for power within the
group thus forming factions, or one may deliberately opt out of the
competition leaving the other as the elite. In a structured group, two or
more such friendship networks usually compete with each other for formal
power. This is often the healthiest situation. The other members are in a
position to arbitrate between the two competitors for power and thus are
able to make demands of the group to whom they give their temporary

Since movement groups have made no concrete decisions about who shall
exercise power within them, many different criteria are used around the
country. As the movement has changed through time, marriage has become
a less universal criterion for effective participation, although all
informal elites still establish standards by which only women who possess
certain material or personal characteristics may join. The standards
frequently include: middle-class background (despite all the rhetoric about
relating to the working-class), being married, not being married but living
with someone, being or pretending to be a lesbian, being between the age
of 20 and 30, being college-educated or at least having some college back-
ground, being 'hip', not being too 'hip', holding a certain political line
or identification as a 'radical', having certain 'feminine' personality
characteristics such as being 'nice', dressing right (whether in the
traditional style or the anti-traditional style), etc. There are also
some characteristics which will almost always tag one as a 'deviant'
who should not be related to. They include: being too old, working
full-time (particularly if one is actively committed to a 'career'),
not being 'nice', and being avowedly single (i.e. neither heterosexual
nor homosexual).

Other criteria could be included, but they all have common themes. The
characteristic prerequisite for participating in all the informal elites
of the movement, and thus for exercising power, concern one's background,
personality or allocation of time. They do not include one's competence,
dedication to feminism, talents or potential contribution to the movement.
The former are the criteria one usually uses in determining one's friends.
The latter are what any movement or organization has to use if it is going
to be politically effective.

Although this dissection of the process of elite formation within small
groups has been critical in its perspectives, it is not made in the belief
that these informal structures are inevitably bad Q merely that they are
inevitable. All groups create informal structures as a result of the
interaction patterns among the members. Such informal structures can do
very useful things. But only unstructured groups are totally governed by
them. 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

This has two potentially negative consequences of which we should be
aware. The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be
like a sorority: one in which people listen to others because they like them,
not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not
do significant things this does not much matter. But if its development is
not to be arrested at this preliminary stage, it will have to alter this
trend. The second is that informal structures have no obligation to be
responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it
cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the
group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does
not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are
concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible.
The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the
interests of the elite.

The 'Star' System

The 'idea' of 'structurelessness' has created the 'star' system. We live
in a society which expects political groups to make decisions and to select
people to articulate those decisions to the public at large. The press and
the public do not know how to listen seriously to individual women as
women; they want to know how the group feels. Only three techniques
have ever been developed for establishing mass group opinion: the vote or
referendum, the public opinion survey questionnaire and the selection of
group spokespeople at an appropriate meeting. The women's liberation
movement has used none of these to communicate with the public. Neither
the movement as a whole nor most of the multitudinous groups within it
have established a means of explaining their position on various issues.
But the public is conditioned to look for spokespeople.

While it has consciously not chosen spokespeople, the movement has
thrown up many women who have caught the public eye for varying rea-
sons. These women represent no particular group or established opinion;
they know this and usually say so. But because there are no official
spokespeople nor any decision-making body the press can interview when
it wants to know the movement's position on a subject, these women are
perceived as the spokespeople. Thus, whether they want to or not, whether
the movement likes it or not, women of public note are put in the role of
spokespeople by default.

This is one source of the tie that is often felt towards the women who
are labeled 'stars'. Because they were not selected by the women in the
movement to represent the movement's views, they are resented when the
press presumes they speak for the movement...Thus the backlash of the 'star'
system, in effect, encourages the very kind of individual non responsibility
that the movement condemns. By purging a sister as a 'star', the movement
loses whatever control it may have had over the person, who becomes free
to commit all of the individualistic sins of which she had been accused.

Political Impotence

Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about
their lives; they aren't very good for getting things done. Unless their
mode of operation changes, groups flounder at the point where people tire
of 'just talking' and want to do something more. Because the larger movement
in most cities is as unstructured as individual rap groups, it is not much
more effective than the separate groups at specific tasks. The informal
structure is rarely together enough or in touch enough with the people to
be able to operate effectively. So the movement generates much emotion
and few results. Unfortunately, the consequences of all this motion are
not as innocuous as the results, and their victim is the movement itself.

Some groups have turned themselves into local action projects, if they
do not involve too many people, and work on a small scale. But this form
restricts movement activity to the local level. Also, to function well
the groups must usually pare themselves down to that informal group of
friends who were running things in the first place. This excludes many
women from participating. As long as the only way women can participate
in the movement is through membership of a small group, the non-gregarious
are at a distinct disadvantage. As long as friendship groups are the main
means of organizational activity, elitism becomes institutionalized.

For those groups which cannot find a local project to devote themselves
to, the mere act of staying together becomes the reason for their staying
together. When a group has no specific task (and consciousness-raising is a
task), the people in it turn their energies to controlling others in the
group. This is not done so much out of a malicious desire to manipulate others
(though sometimes it is) as out of lack of anything better to do with their
talents. Able people with time on their hands and a need to justify their
coming together put their efforts into personal control, and spend their
time criticizing the personalities of the other members in the group.
Infighting and personal power games rule the day. When a group is involved
in a task, people learn to get along with others as they are and to subsume
dislikes for the sake of the larger goals. There are limits placed on the
compulsion to remold every person into our image of what they should be.

The end of consciousness-raising leaves people with no place to go and
the lack of structure leaves them with no way of getting there. The women
in the movement either turn in on themselves and their sisters or seek
other alternatives of action. There are few alternatives available. Some
women just 'do their own thing'. This can lead to a great deal of individual
creativity, much of which is useful for the movement, but it is not a viable
alternative for most women and certainly does not foster a spirit of
co-operative group effort. Other women drift out of the movement entirely
because they don't want to develop an individual project and have found no
way of discovering, joining or starting group projects that interest them.

Many turn to other political organizations to give them the kind of
structured, effective activity that they have not been able to find in the
women's movement. Thus, those political organizations which view women's
liberation as only one issue among many find the women's liberation
movement a vast recruiting ground for new members. There is no need for
such organizations to 'infiltrate' (though this is not precluded). The
desire for meaningful political activity generated by women by becoming
part of the women's liberation movement is sufficient to make them eager
to join other organizations. The movement itself provides no outlets for
their new ideas and energies.

Those women who join other political organizations while remaining
within the women's liberation movement, or who join women's liberation
while remaining in other political organizations, in turn become the
framework for new informal structures. These friendship networks are based
upon their common non-feminist politics rather than the characteristics
discussed earlier; however, the network operates in much the same way.
Because these women share common values, ideas and political orientations,
they too become informal, unplanned, unselected, unresponsible elites Q
whether they intend to be so or not.

These new informal elites are often perceived as threats by the old
informal elites previously developed within different movement groups.
This is a correct perception. Such politically orientated networks are
rarely willing to be merely 'sororities' as many of the old ones were, and
want to proselytize their political as well as their feminist ideas. This
is only natural, but its implications for women's liberation have never been
adequately discussed. The old elites are rarely willing to bring such
differences of opinion out into the open because it would involve exposing
the nature of the informal structure of the group. Many of these informal
elites have been hiding under the banner of 'anti-elitism' and 'structure-
lessness'. To counter effectively the competition from another informal
structure, they would have to become 'public' and this possibility is fraught
with many dangerous implications. Thus, to maintain its own power, it is
easier to rationalize the exclusion of the members of the other informal
structure by such means as 'red-baiting', 'lesbian-baiting' or 'straight-
baiting'. The only other alternative is formally to structure the group in
such a way that the original power is institutionalized. This is not always
possible. If the informal elites have been well structured and have exercised
a fair amount of power in the past, such a task is feasible. These groups
have a history of being somewhat politically effective in the past, as the
tightness of the informal structure has proven an adequate substitute for
a formal structure. Becoming structured does not alter their operation much,
though the institutionalization of the power structure does not open it to
formal challenge. It is those groups which are in greatest need of structure
that are often least capable of creating it. Their informal structures have
not been too well formed and adherence to the ideology of 'structureless-
ness' makes them reluctant to change tactics. The more unstructured a
group it is, the more lacking it is in informal structures; the more it
adheres to an ideology of 'structurelessness', the more vulnerable it is
to being taken over by a group of political comrades.

Since the movement at large is just as unstructured as most of its
constituent groups, it is similarly susceptible to indirect influence. But
the phenomenon manifests itself differently. On a local level most groups
can operate autonomously, but only the groups that can organize a national
activity are nationally organized groups. Thus, it is often the structured
feminist organizations that provide national directions for feminist
activities, and this direction is determined by the priorities of these
organizations. Such groups as National Organization of Women and
Women's Equality Action League and some Left women's caucuses are
simply the only organizations capable of mounting a national campaign.
The multitude of unstructured women's liberation groups can choose to
support or not support the national campaigns, but are incapable of
mounting their own. Thus their members become the troops under the
leadership of the structured organizations. They don't even have a
way of deciding what the priorities are.

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 be.

As long as the women's liberation movement stays dedicated to a form
of organization which stresses small, inactive discussion groups among
friends, the worst problems of unstructuredness will not be felt. But this
style of organization 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.

The informal groups' vested interests will be sustained by the informal
structures that exist, and the movement will have no way of determining
who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately
not to select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power.
All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise
power and influence be responsible for it. If the movement continues to
keep power as diffuse as possible because it knows it cannot demand
responsibility from those who have it, it does prevent any group or person
from totally dominating. But it simultaneously ensures that the movement
is as ineffective as possible. Some middle ground between domination and
ineffectiveness can and must be found.

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 overwhelm-
ing 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 organized 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 usefull,
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 Qthe 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 Qwithout 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 institutionalize 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.

- Jo Freeman

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