This classic essay has come up in a few conversations I’ve been having recently. It was written in 1970 in the context of feminist organizations, but it’s still a painfully accurate description of what can go wrong when groups try to abolish formal structures.
I’m going to paste some of the key passages below. But I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. As well as being valuable in its own right, it’s a useful reminder that many of our aspirations are not new, and that there is a lot ot be learned from the history of non-hierarchical groups.
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. 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. 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.
As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. 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 everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.
[In the absence of formal structures, decisions tend to be made by an elite of members with strong personal connections to one another.] So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join [the ‘elite’] simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.
Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of "structurelessness," it is free to develop those forms of organization 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 organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement.
Fundamentally, Edgeryders “gets it”. Yes, we are trying to escape the ossified, hierarchical, inefficient structures of the mainstream. But we’ve also realised that it takes some kind of structure to build a community and to act together.
It’s a thread that runs through the unmonastery and the discussion of stewardship in particular – the attempt to find structures which can enable people rather than limiting them, and which can build a happy, productive community without turning to hierarchical power structures.
Dann, you are a programmer, and know better than anyone else that our interaction lies on a highly structured layer of computer code. No risk of thinking we (or any other community) could ever be “structureless”.
However, I think a common mistake of many groups (apparently shared by Freeman’s article) is to focus on high-level procedures like group democracy (“the rules of how decisions are made”) instead of low-level ones (like interaction affordances and common values). In my opinion, this produces two degenerations:
Veto power as "the" power. Doing stuff is hard, but preventing people from doing stuff can be really easy with the appropriate decision-making rule (for example consensus decision). If you hold veto power on what others do, you can easily become influential: just veto everything, and wait for people to approach you with a deal ("what do you want to OK this project of mine?"). This technique is scalable, unlike the technique of actually doing stuff. I have found opportunistic veto-givers to be often the most powerful people in real-world large organizations.
Exclusion. When everyone is thinking about how we make decisions, it is all too easy to build a narrative that says that only "we" (the people in the group at the present time) should be allowed to have a say. This produces a tendency to exclude newcomers, and therefore renounce their contribution of fresh thinking and delivery power.
Taken together, these two trends produce groups dominated by self-referential élites, where new people and ideas are dismissed and doers have to struggle to overcome cross vetoes. Edgeryders is trying very hard not to be a group of this kind. “Who does the work calls the shots” (i.e. our strongly do-ocratic ideology) is a barrier against the first trend; insistence on written documentation, transparency and our “Call a human” button are barriers against the second trend. And yes, all of this is more or less formal, consistently with the article.
But all that is no guarantee we “get it” and the whole thing will be long-run viable.
Systems of decision making and governance for democratic groups.
Btw. there are many systems of open, equitable, transparent and democratic decision making and governance. I think everyone should take a sociocracy course as it’s well known. Holacracy is an interesting one but needs more years of field-testing to see where it is applicable where not.
I think everyone should read “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness” by Frederic Laloux, AFAIK it is the best overview of how different organisations are doing this. There are also a number of talks by him online:
Oh, interesting thread. Looking forward to reading the essay. Before I forget, I wanted to share a link to a review of David Graeber’s new book which proposes a different, but related, argument which resonates with me because it is tied to the “how” of structure and rules:
“Bureaucracy lies. The point of coming up with rules is to ensure that they’re evenly applied. But everyone knows that rules aren’t evenly applied. When we replace informal, arbitrary systems with formal sets of rules, the arbitrariness moves up a level – moves up to “who has to follow the rules and who doesn’t.” Sell a joint, go to jail. Launder billions for the Sinaloa cartel, defer some of your bonus for a few weeks.”