By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin
There’s no such thing as a functioning group of human beings existing without leadership or structure. That sentiment, while exalted by many on the radical Left, is a fallacy. Whether or not we want it to be true, human beings are by nature social creatures and we learn by the example of others, which is to say we learn from those we look up to and from the customs of the culture we live in. Leadership and structure are inevitable. The only questions are by who? and how?
Sure, radicals can reject this notion and operate as if it didn’t exist—it’s what many are already doing. But, all the while, our groups still move in particular directions, and it’s the members that take them there. Those who wish to prohibit leadership and formal structure are really just spawning informal versions of both, with themselves at the helm of control.
There’s a long history of this. From the anti-war movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the anarchists and Occupy movement of today, “leaderlessness” is almost taken as a given; it’s praised as an obvious first step in challenging power inside and out. Again and again, however, we see this paradox’s predictable outcome: when structure is not explicit, it takes its own form—one usually shaped by those most willing to dominate the group.
This was the lesson of the classic Leftist essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” in which author Jo Freeman argues that, as movements “move from criticizing society to changing society,” they need to honestly and openly address how they will organize themselves. “[T]he idea of ‘structurelessness,’” she writes, “does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones.” So in all the backlash against formality, activists are only serving to undermine their own supposed ethics by contributing to unspoken rules and hierarchy.
Intentional organization may or may not lead to the egalitarian, functioning movements we desire—there are clear cases of both the success and failure of formally structured groups. Done well, however, structure can provide a means of accountability between members that their structureless counterparts inherently lack. In the best case scenario, the group’s expectations and rules (I hear the shrieking of purists already) are explicit and accessible to everyone, allowing leaders and followers alike to keep each other in check.
“A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society,” Freeman writes. “The idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others.” Too frequently the backlash against group structure is a deliberate attempt on the part of a few to maintain invisible and unquestioned authority over a group’s ideas and direction. So begins elitism.
Jo Freeman claims that elitism was possibly the most “abused word” in the movements of her time and I’d say the same is true today. The term is too often thrown out thoughtlessly and on any occasion of mere disagreement. It becomes a tool for those who want to destroy potential for leadership; public attention of any kind is in this case conflated with power-grabbing and exclusivity, with elitism.
Still, elitism is very real and has very real consequences. Freeman writes, “Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without the direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.”
There are numerous myths about what constitutes elitism: public notoriety, social popularity, the inclination to lead. But none of these are sufficient descriptors of the phenomenon. More than anything, accusing one of being an elite based on such qualities speaks to the paranoid and destructive tendencies of the accuser. As Freeman writes, “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.” She continues, “Elites are nothing more and nothing less than a group of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities.”
Not surprisingly, these friends will—sometimes unthinkingly, sometimes intentionally—maintain a hegemony within the group they are part of by agreeing with and defending each other’s ideas almost automatically. Those on the outside of the elite group are simply ignored if unable to be persuaded. Their approval, says Freeman, “is not necessary for making a decision; however it is necessary for the ‘outs’ to stay on good terms with thin ‘ins’.” She continues, “Of course the lines are not as sharp . . . . 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.”
Unspoken standards define who is or is not entitled to elite status. And they have changed only slightly since Jo Freeman brought activist elitism under the spotlight; most have endured the test of time, destroying our movements and inflicting pain on many genuine individuals. Such standards include: middle-to-upper-class background, being Queer, being straight, being college-educated, being “hip”, not being too “hip”, being nice, not being too nice, holding a certain political line, dressing traditionally, dressing anti-traditionally, not being too young, not being too old and of course, being a heterosexual white male. As Freeman notes, these standards have nothing to do with one’s “competence, dedication . . . . talents or potential contribution to the movement.” They are all about selecting friends and contribute little to building functioning community.
Of course friendships are crucial to resistance; they represent trust and perseverance between freedom fighters, an absolutely necessary quality for the high-pressure nature of taking on systems of power. But basing our activist relationships on who we pick as friends—those who pass the test of those arbitrary standards—creates circumstances ripe for nasty division and social competition. And, writes Jo Freeman, “[O]nly 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.” Friend groups must confront this potential disaster by being honest and upfront about their relationship to one another. Further, they should advocate for transparency and processes of accountability. It is up to such friend groups to ensure that they do not succumb to elitism.
The same transparency and accountability must apply to leaders and spokespeople. It is not entirely the fault of those who fill those roles when they are viewed as insular gate-keepers of the movement. Without a forthright decision-making process, there’s no way for other members to formally ask to take the lead on a project or to publicly represent the group at any given time. Yet, some are naturally inclined to take initiative, and because they are not explicitly selected by their comrades to do so, they become resented and, too often, ousted.
And what does this accomplish? The group is left without energy to move it forward and the activists kicked out are now even less accountable to the movement of which they were once part. This purging has no future. Instead, our movements should be open and honest about what we want to convey to the public, who will say it, and when. If anyone is to be ejected, it should be because they consciously betrayed the trust of their comrades, not because they took initiative.
Unstructured groups may prove very effective in encouraging people to talk about their lives; not so much for getting things done. This is true from the micro to the macro; whether we’re talking about facilitating meetings, getting food to frontline warriors, or planning a revolution. Says Freeman, “Unless their mode of operation changes, groups flounder at the point where people tire of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more . . . . 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.”
Much emotion and few results. This is the standard mode of radical subcultures.
Structurelessness may be a romantic idea, but it does not work. The floors still need sweeping, the food still needs cooking, and if tasks aren’t explicitly assigned, they will, without fail, implicitly fall on the shoulders of a couple tired leaders. Frontline combatants cannot afford that sort of confusion; they need a detailed plan of action. Going with the flow might work fine for a potluck, but in a serious movement the flow will only lead activists into dangerous situations, wasted time, and compromised actions.
Jo Freeman continues: “When a group has no specific task . . . . the people in it turn their energies to controlling others in the group.” She goes on, “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 criticising the personalities of other members in the group. Infighting and personal power games rule the day.” The forecast was dead-on.
What can we do to save our communities and movements (or even build them in the first place)? The answer seems crazy, but really it’s simple: work together. In this age of immense individualism and pettiness, it may sound impossible, but I truly believe that, despite a few (often insignificant) differences, activists really can find common ground and tolerate one another long enough to make some tangible political gains. Sometimes, all it takes is having something to do. As Freeman notes, “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 remould every person into our image of what they should be.”
By adhering to an ethic (or is it non-ethic?) of leaderlessness and structurelessness, we set our movements up for failure. The longer groups continue on such a basis (or is it non-basis?), the less likely the pieces will be able to be picked up after the project inevitably collapses. And, as Freeman points out, “It is those groups which are in greatest need of structure that are often least capable of creating it.” Tedious and unglamorous as the work may be, we desperately need to learn to develop structure from the beginning, rather than hoping and praying it will come together organically. The fact is it almost never does and the result is a take-over by elitists who only run movements into the ground.
Structuring groups is hard work. Without structure, our energy is diffuse and largely ineffective. But bad structure almost always leads to crisis and, like a building that grows and grows until it all comes crumbling down, it often does more damage to those involved than it would have had there been no structure from the outset. And yet, the resistance movements this world needs require a means to stay organized and effective.
Here’s a story from just this week: “[Britain’s] largest revolutionary organization has been shaken by the most severe crisis in its history, stemming from the failure of its leadership to properly respond to rape and sexual harassment allegations made against a leading member, and, in turn, from attempts to stifle discussion of this failure and its consequences.” One leading member noted that “the party’s internal structures don’t have the capacity to judge cases of rape.” Need I say that radical groups desperately need this capacity? If we don’t know how to handle sexual assault—or any sexism, for that matter—when it arises, if we don’t know how to kick out rapists from our groups, how are we supposed to have the capacity to work together in dismantling vast systems of power?
What’s the alternative? In “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Jo Freeman offers seven “principles of democratic structuring as solutions that are just as applicable now was they were then. The first is delegation: it should be explicit who is responsible for what and how and when they will do the task. Further, such delegates must remain responsible to the larger group. Accountability ensures that the group’s will is being carried out by individual members.
Next is the distribution of decision-making power among as many members as is reasonably possible. Following that, rotating the tasks prevents certain responsibilities from being solely in the domain of an individual or small group who may come to see it as their “property.” Allocation of these tasks should be based on logical and fair criteria; not because someone is or is not liked, but because they display the ability, interest, and responsibility necessary to do the job well. Next, information should be diffused and accessible to everyone as frequently as possible. And lastly, everyone should have equal access to group resources, and individuals should be willing and ready to share their skills with one another.
Such principles are easy to write or speak about, but much harder to put into practice. People without much power over this society are prone to grasp for it when they get a taste, but too often they are just stealing from yet another powerless person. Writes Florynce Kennedy: “They know best two positions. Somebody’s foot on their neck or their foot on somebody’s neck.” So, it is imperative that we safeguard against the pitfalls of horizontal hostility, especially as we work to create fair and effective structure. Leaders must be held accountable for the power they have. At the same token, we can no longer allow leadership to be systematically stomped out. We can no longer allow the tyranny of structurelessness.
Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.