Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Networked Social Movements and the ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’

Editors’ Note: Rhodri Davies reflects on the contemporary relevance of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

The recent success of digitally-coordinated protest movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has sparked a wave of interest in the potential for technology to transform the ways in which we organise. In particular, it has placed an emphasis on the idea of pursuing change through informal, non-hierarchical or decentralized networks rather than through formal, centralized and hierarchical institutions.

The idea of network models of organisation is not new. From mediaeval guilds to the anarchist movements of the early twentieth century, many have been drawn by the allure of working together without the need for centralization or hierarchies. However, these models have historically displayed key weaknesses – particularly when it comes to decision-making and coordination – which mean that hierarchies and centralized institutions have tended to win out. Yet some now believe that advances in technology may have fundamentally tipped this balance by overcoming many of the traditional weaknesses of non-hierarchical models; and that as a result a new era of networks is upon us.

Internet technology scholar Clay Shirky was one of the first to proclaim, in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, that we now have “the tools to make group action truly a reality” and that we are thus on the verge of a “new future of involvement”. More recently, books such as Machine, Platform, Crowd (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2017) and New Power (Timms & Heimans, 2018) have argued that people’s ability to coordinate and act effectively as loose networks or crowds is one of technology’s most fundamental social or political impacts in recent times.

If networked or decentralized models become as big a part of the landscape for driving social change as these commentators think, it will have major implications for philanthropy and civil society. A key challenge, then, is to understand where the relative strengths and weaknesses of these new models lie. That way, we can identify where decentralization or horizontal structure might bring advantages in effectuating social change, or where there is a case to be made for centralization and hierarchies.

Historical analysis has a significant role to play here. By identifying similarities between modern networked social movements and examples from the past, we can understand some of the challenges that these newer movements are likely to face. But the points at which historical comparison breaks down may also be illuminating if they highlight ways in which technology offers genuinely newpossibilities for social organising.

A good example of the sort of insight we can get through historical analysis can be found in feminist scholar Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”.  After getting involved in activism as a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, Freeman went on to be a significant figure in the global Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s. “Tyranny” began life as a speech given to the Southern Female Rights Union in 1970, but various versions have subsequently been published in journals, books and pamphlets around the world over the years. On the face of it, the essay is an exploration of the challenges faced by the Women’s Liberation movement in the late 1960s, and in particular the difficulties of relying on “structureless groups” as the primary mode of organising. Yet the essay’s enduring interest comes from the fact that it contains broader insights about the challenges of attempting to work without hierarchies or centralization, many of which seem highly pertinent to the current wave of attention on networked models.

There is no such thing as “structurelessness”

In “Tyranny,” Jo Freeman’s central point is that there is not a true distinction between “structured” and “structureless” groups. All groups have structure, but in some that structure is formal and explicit, whilst in others it is informal and hidden. The danger, she writes, is that “the idea [of structurelessness] becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others… [because it] does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones… Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful.”

The ‘power’ Freeman discusses reflects an imbalance between participants in a group and is largely dependent on prior status or connections. This is a helpful reminder for today’s social movement organizers and their funders, because although technology may democratise involvement to a great extent, the offline power dynamics between members of a group may still have a determinate impact on their position in the online network.

However, in the context of digitally networked movements, another dimension of power also emerges: namely, control of the platform on which the network operates. If there are some within the group who have the ability to control the very infrastructure that makes it possible, then any claims about the group being non-hierarchical or decentralized start to seem absurd.

Timms and Heimans, the authors of New Power and both leaders of online social movements in their own right, recognise this potential disparity when they identify “new power communities” as having three key groups of actors: ‘participants’, ‘super participants’ and ‘platform owners/stewards’, and note of the three groups that “[their] needs are often not aligned, and sometimes clash directly.The dangers of the power imbalance between those who can control the platform and those who merely use it can be seen in examples like the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests, where the Chinese government’s control of the social media platform Weibo enabled it to remove virtually all mention of the protests and thus minimise wider awareness and the risk of unrest spreading.

If you don’t choose leaders, they will be chosen for you

Another of Freeman’s key insights that resonates strongly today is that “The movement has no control in the selection of its representatives to the public as long as it believes that it should have no representatives at all.” As Freeman explains, groups that refuse to choose leaders do not become leaderless: rather, they leave it open to others to select the leaders they want. Often this is linked to the emergence of “stars” within the movement, who develop a high profile based on their charisma (or their ability to generate viral content) that may bear no relation to any legitimacy when it comes to speaking on behalf of the group as a whole.

This is a point that Turkish academic Zeynep Tufecki, an expert on the social implications of emerging technologies, highlights in her book Twitter and Tear Gas. Furthermore, she notes that canny governments or businesses who want to defuse attacks by a networked movement will simply select for themselves the most congenial figures from within the movement to recognise as leaders, a phenomenon she identifies as happening during the 2011 Gezi Park protests in Turkey.

Even where leaders are broadly accepted by a group, however, investing responsibility in a handful of people without clear accountability mechanisms can cause problems. The recent travails of the Women’s March in the US, where a small group of self-appointed leaders have become embroiled in a bitter row about race and anti-Semitism (as detailed in a series of articles by Tablet magazine), offer a stark illustration of the dangers.

Technology and new possibilities for organising

Beyond these two points that I have highlighted, Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny” offers many other valuable insights into the potential weaknesses of structureless groups. But there are also some points at which her arguments ring less true when set in a modern context. For instance, she argues that in order for any structureless group to take action successfully, it must be “relatively small and homogeneous… in order to make decision-making feasible and practical” and that “people [must] practically live together for the most crucial phases of the task… [in order to enable] a high degree of communication.” Yet this seems to reflect the limitations of communication at the time she was writing rather than an axiomatic truth; and the speed and ease of multi-party communication now seems to render her stipulations less relevant. Perhaps, then, this points to an example of how technology may have had a genuinely transformational effect on our ability to organise as groups.

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness” is a compelling essay, but it is certainly not unique as a piece of historical evidence that might have something important to tell us about modern networked movements. If we can find others and distil from them similar insights, hopefully we can further our understanding of what might be genuinely new about the ways in which technology is enabling us to organise; and also clarify where the strengths and weaknesses of these new models may lie.

-Rhodri Davies

Rhodri Davies is Head of Policy at Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), and also leads Giving Thought – CAF’s in-house think tank focussing on current and future issues affecting philanthropy and civil society. He is the author of Public Good by Private Means: How Philanthropy Shapes Britain (2015) and presents a bi-weekly podcast exploring philanthropy and civil society issues.

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