Tonight Personal Democracy Media hosted a flash conference: From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street and Beyond: The Future of Networked Democracy. Memes were disseminated. One was the definition of an election as a “planned insurrection,” a phrase coin by the deathcore band Molotov Solution and improved upon by Clay Shirky. Another was “the tyranny of structurelessness.” Are we headed for a networked era that is no more democratic than the hierarchical and centralized one that preceded it?
The idea of a “tyranny of structurelessness” comes from a tract of the same title (PDF), originally a talk given by American feminist Jo Freeman in 1970. Then, in true meme fashion, the piece was written and re-written, published and re-published over the years. Had she written it in 2011, it would have been a blog post.
In the piece, Freeman criticizes feminists’ refusal to create formalized structures to achieve their goals out of a misguided belief that all structures oppress. Freeman flips this idea on its head. First of all, structurelessness is impossible: “Any group of people… coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.” Second, structurelessness can also be oppressive: “the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others.”
In a way, structureless power is even more dangerous than structured power because there is no official and public system of allocating power. Power still exists and is exercised, but informally and in the shadows, where it is more difficult to define, monitor, and challenge: “structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”
How does this power masking work in practice? Freeman explains that much of it comes does to decision-making: “The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules.” Though she does not use the term, Freeman is talking about the proverbial smoke-filled room, where important decisions are made informally by those with access and understanding of the informal process at play. It is far better for the group if “rules of decision-making [are] open and available to every-one, and this can only happen if they are formalized.”
The people who make the real decisions in an unstructured group are the elites, which Freeman eloquently defines as: “a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part… often without their knowledge or consent.” Individuals are not elites. You are only an elite through membership in a group. “When informal elites are combined with a myth of ‘structurelessness’, there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power,” she warns. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: “Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away.”
The feminists’ misunderstanding was this: structurelessness defeats not the concentration of power, but the accountability of power: “If the movement continues deliberately not to select who shall exercise power,” Freeman clarifies, “it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.”
Freeman also points out that unstructured groups, those unable to reliably make decisions in a manner that has legitimacy for all member, are unable to plan and execute actions in furtherance of their goal. Here she could very easily be talking about Occupy Wall Street:
“The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions,the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about.”
To what extent do these warning apply the today’s networked movements like #OWS and the Arab Spring? Are networked movements structureless? Using Freeman’s definition of structureless as groups with informal decision-making processes, then the answer is “yes.” But the question itself reveals the true complexity of the issue. To ask if networked movements are structureless is a contradiction in terms because networks are structures.
Yet political networks did not exist in 1970 as they do now. The focus of Freeman’s critique is the kitchen table “rap groups” of the early women’s movement, where friends would meet locally to discuss their lives and raise each other’s consciousness about the need for female liberation. According to Freeman, these groups found it difficult to move beyond consciousness-raising (much like Occupy Wall Street?), because they lacked structure and were isolated from one another. While the former problem of lack of direction is clearly still with us, the problem of isolation is not. Geographically-distributed self-sustaining cells would be an organizer’s dream today.
Today’s leaderless decision-making processes are different than those in 1970. Because of the read-write web there is much more equality of voice and the group can be endlessly expanded to counter the power of elites within a group. Though social media does facilitate preferential attachment (see Zeynep Tufecki’s work on this), that attachment is fluid. Many participants can blog or tweet, not just a de facto spokesperson and, if a group feels that one of their members is exercising undue influence they can use social media to challenge that person’s authority and bring popular opinion to their side.
In the 1970’s, the size and demographics of feminist rap groups were determined by those living in a given neighborhood. Elites had to be challenged within a group of fixed membership, which could be difficult, especially if people were challenging their friends and neighbors. The networked groups of today are much larger and group members may not know each other offline. Even though Wael Ghonim was an inspirational figure to many Egyptians, activists were quick to challenge his status through the Twitter meme “I unfollowed Ghonim because…” when he made statements against the interests of the movement.
In a 2010 paper entitled “Public as Politician? The improvised hierarchies of participatory influence of the April 6th Youth Movement Facebook Group” (PDF),Alix Dunn of The Engine Room described a different example of the fluidity of decision-making status, this time on the Facebook group page of the April 6th Youth Movement. When the page’s main organizers were offline attending a protest others stepped into their place in moderating the page and facilitating discussion. The task was more durable than the person fulfilling it, an age-old principle of democracy under the rule of law.
Unaccountable decision-makers can still arise in networked movements, but it is less likely that their authority will go unchallenged. Stability of power requires the stability of factors. It requires that those without power cannot easily challenge the elite member or defect from the group. In a nation state, these two actions are difficult: publicly challenging an autocratic leader or going into exile. On the Internet, they are easy.
While large and informal networks of peers may be difficult to wrangle into effective action (another critique of Freeman’s that is still true today), that very lack of control makes it less likely that unaccountable elites will arise. Where they do, they will soon find that they have been abandoned by their followers.
There is not only preferential attachment, but also “preferential detachment.” The Internet faciltiates not only group formation but group defection. One can unfollow, and unfriend. Even in an informal networked group members can “vote with their feet” and easily form a new group that better suits their needs. Imagine if this were possible in the nation state: “Take your country, Mr. President, we’re off to form a new one.”