The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Letter from Scott Thompson to the community of Museum of Care:

Hello everyone, 

I have to admit I haven’t contributed to the Museum of Care as much as I could have or should have done. This sort of thing doesn’t come naturally to me – I’m certainly not a “core activist” with ambitions of “public recognition” – but I would like to say how much I have appreciated everybody else’s contributions so far, and how glad and thankful I am to Nika (and everybody else involved) that such a space exists, even for people like me, who have to be encouraged occasionally just to attend meetings. Since our reading group on “spiritual violence” in Bullshit Jobs –  where I didn’t personally agree with the “republican interpretation” – I’ve been thinking about David’s notion of ‘play’ and ‘games’ in The Utopia of Rules and how he suggests the opposing tendencies associated with them might be resolved: 

“In such arguments, we are witnessing a direct clash between two different forms of materialized utopianism: on the one hand, an anti-authoritarianism that, in its emphasis on creative synthesis and improvisation, sees freedom basically in terms of play, and on the other, a tacit republicanism that sees freedom ultimately as the ability to reduce all forms of power to a set of clear and transparent rules.”

The solution for David, I think, lied somewhere in between these two forms of “materialized utopianism”, and could only be realised through the directly democratic forms of organisation that anti-authoritarian movements had been developing all around the world – “new forms of consensus process, for example (that) create institutional forms that encourage, rather than inhibit, improvisation and creativity” – as an alternative to the structural violence of the state. However, while he recognises that there has been a lot of progress made in this direction, even here there are still inherent dangers. To get a better understanding of what they are he recommends Jo Freeman’s essay ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ – “the single most important essay in this whole activist tradition” – which not only highlights the problem of informal power structures and how elitism or cliques can arise in any group without sufficiently formalised structures or mechanisms to manage them, but also how “structurelessness”, while good for “consciousness building” or the exchanging of ideas, can result in “political impotence” when it comes to trying to get things done. Formal structures are not bad per se – it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve and how they’re being used, sometimes it’s necessary to change or adapt the structures you are using (ie seasonal variance) Informal structures – no group is ever entirely structureless because there are always informal structures – are perhaps more subject to abuse because they are hidden (ie not made explicit) behind a facade of structurelessness? As David would put it, when playing a game it is important that the rules are clear to everybody involved so that everybody can participate equally (ie in decision making) and has a fair chance of ‘winning’ the game (whatever that might mean in our context), most importantly it is crucial that everyone knows that the rules can always be changed and how to go about it. An understanding of the formal mechanisms available to us without inhibiting improvisation or creativity might also help to answer Helen’s question: 

“Can anarchists/socialists create a political party / movement that involves the features of both, horizontal free associations and bottom-up decision making with the rigid discipline and the top-down target-aiming design of policies?” 

It is only 12 pages long and could be worth considering for a future reading group, if not, then at least as part of our library of care. 

Kind regards