The tyranny of structurelessness

‘The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right…If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation 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.’

As Jo Freeman detailed in the classic essay from which the above quote is taken, in social networks which are initally informal and horizontal hierarchies tend to emerge. If this is not acknowleged and its implications considered in all their seriousness, the current trend for decentred models of political organisation will lead up a series of blind alleys, and two excellent articles from the last few days make this clear beautifully.

In the midst of the swarm of networked intelligence, centres tend to form, which connect to other centres. For example, to know in advance about the Netroots event yesterday, you had to be connected to the right people on twitter and facebook. All nodes are equal, but some nodes are more equal than others.

Organisations develop their own interests, and the initial objective tends to be principally obfuscated by the need to survive. Bureaucracies and hierarchies inevitably emerge. Most social movement organisations go from informal non-hierarchical organisations towards becoming institutionalised and formalised as advocacy groups and mass membership organisations. As they do so, they inevitably slow down and become less reactive, putting more emphasis on their long-term survival and effectiveness, partly because ‘Bureaucratic organizations often are more successful at gaining access to established political channels, being recognized as legitimate movement representatives and at sustaining ongoing interactions with diverse constituencies including “allies, authorities, and supporters”’.

This represents a constant problem for the fashionable model of informal, hyperreactive, mobile, non-hierarchical organisations. New, informal movements will spring up more or less on a whim to replace those that become formalised and hierarchical, but for example in this country no sustainable or effective anti-cuts movement can be built on the basis of a new UK Uncut-style group suddenly springing up every two weeks, while preceding mini-generations of previously non-hierarchical groups turn to the slow and morbid business of lobbying and advocacy work.

As Richard Seymour also points out, the fetishisation of the power of headless decentred networked movements to overcome the ‘old centralised, top-down, upright, phallic feudal army without contradiction’ ignores the fact that power itself is diffuse, distributed, with a multiplicity of centres. The future of the struggle against power cannot be left to the whims of those who are better connected. There is a need for explicit political leadership.

The best thing is for that leadership to be open, elected and accountable, rather than pretending it does not exist. Hence the need for consistent political organisation around a democratically agreed shared programme, on a regional, national and international scale.

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