The Tyranny of Structurelessness

February 26, 2009


In 1971 Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, wrote an essay directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” The essay was meant to challenge the unquestioning adoption of “structurelessness” by groups who did not want to replicate the structures of society they were trying to escape and change. “Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion,” she wrote. “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, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable.”

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness” accurately describes pretty much every collective I have been a part of. The language has changed since the 70s – now we say we’re “non-hierarchical” and that we operate by consensus. Yet consensus, as a tool for making decisions, is an ideal as much as a process. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a group in which all people honestly have an equal say and comparable degrees of empowerment. And rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge it. “The idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones,” Freeman says. “Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”

Because her essay was directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement, it doesn’t go into gender relations, nor does it talk about how race, class, and sexuality affect the formation of these informal structures. In my experience, all these social dynamics fuel the sort of power imbalances Freeman describes. Saying we make decisions by consensus does not make them disappear. Rather than just decide that we’ve moved beyond them it’s very necessary that we be careful, thoughtful, and intentional about how we handle them.

While it is not perfect, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” describes and makes suggestions for how to correct some of the problematic, hidden dynamics that are still around 35 years after it was written. It is a useful starting point for anyone who believes in the possibility of a truly anti-authoritarian approach to living, working, and doing.

Read the full text or download a pdf of a zine to print here (a much more pleasant read).

More articles can be found on Jo Freeman’s website.


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