Tyranny of Structurelessness http://www.midiaindependente.org/media/2001/07/203242.pdf

This is thinking in progress, for all of NatCAN to debate and toss around. But it got me out of bed at 5am on a Saturday bloody morning to get it out of my stupid head and onto a screen, so here you go....

At NatCAN conference this week, a number of people lit up when Jo Freeman's "Tyranny of Structurelessness" was mentioned; above is a link to a PDF download so we can all explore it.

In our afternoon workshop, sixteen of us talked about what sort of NatCAN we'd like to see evolving: we seemed to like how NatCAN's developing organically, without a script, and not being too formally structured (this freedom is its strength). We celebrated its diversity in people, in viewpoints and causes. We felt at home in many ways, able to be with people who "get us" when we spend so much of our lives feeling like "the outsider". Somewhere to bring our bad days and good days, knowing someone on NatCAN will understand where we're coming from or trying to get to. Somewhere to touch base, to make contact. We seemed to agree that NATCAN is a "broad church" – we don’t all have to agree as we can join our own discussion groups to pursue our interests and priorities. Or set up new discussion groups if our interests/views aren’t visible elsewhere on NatCAN. This difference in interests and priorities and perspectives is a strength, as long as we respect each other and don’t try to force a single line on each other. Difference won't tear us apart again (though Love might, if Joy Division are to be believed).

The Starfish concept of a leaderless organisation suggests that a group of people can connect together without a formal leadership, and indeed, like the doughty starfish, flourish without a head because all of its limbs are independent from the control of a central nervous system. Cut off a limb and it survives. Off with its head? Sorry, that won't stop the rest from moving. Goodbye to the old counter-revolutionary focus on destroying a movement by identifying its leaders and cutting them down. It's Negri, innit - loads of catalysts acting everywhere, very hard to pin down or kettle.

So how might structurelessness be a tyranny? Jo Freeman's work asserts that in reality there is no such thing as "structurelessness", however informal or hidden that structure is. But the claim of being "structureless" can conceal the way an informal leadership and structure exists, and can hide itself from control and accountability:

"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 only happen if they are formalised. This is not to say that normalisation of a group structure will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and makes available some means of
attacking it."

So if NatCAN is to be, like the Starfish concept , a leaderless organisation (with no hierarchy or competition for leadership) that doesn’t mean it has no structure or boundaries - we talked about how we have underpinning from shared values (which can give us a unifying basis for our ways of being together). Underpinning, eh? Sounds like a structure's in there somewhere..

And our workshop discussed a few safeguards which might enable NatCAN to evolve organically and freely without putting itself at risk from any member's actions, such as no one being able to take actions in the name of NatCAN. So NatCAN is a space, not an entity. So NatCAN is not a front organisation but a way of connecting.  We discussed a NatCAN which provides the platform for people to create many "power organisations" if they wish, using the discussion groups to evolve ideas for action and linking-up with other discussion groups for common cause. But that's different from having a single NatCAN line or a single leading organisation (unless we all choose on occasion to reach out to each other for the collective strength to pursue a particular cause).

So if NatCAN isn't an entity like a party or the organisation leading campaigns, what is it? Clearly, it's a home for many interests. How can that be its strength and not lead us to the fallling-out and mayhem which led past activists into writing books called "Beyond the Fragments" or "An Infantile Disorder"?

Can we be unified by shared values (for example, Social justice, equalities, working & learning together, community empowerment, collective action) ? What do those values mean to us (and what differences emerge as we discuss them) ? How can we keep the difference as our strength?

In this regard, we started to explore how we behave in this shared home, so that "implied structurelessness" doesn’t lead to inequality/dominant voices. Can we build greater equality and diversity within NatCAN by enabling alternative ways of doing things together. For example: hold some of our meetings in informal spaces; not having four blokes speaking in a row (not our intention this time but an important lesson for the future); having a menu of talks which invite a few conflicting messages to be aired for debate? Because we loved the debate which NatCAN engenders, and we want to be open to all issues and perspectives (and agree to disagree, with humour, a fair amount of giggling and a passion for putting this chat into action). So any of us is at liberty to say, for example, that Big Society is a turd or Big Society is an opportunity or Big Society is Me Baby, with a chance to be heard and have a "heated debate" (with that well-known leaderless-ness fan Mrs Merton)

And through this process, can we move towards shared vision as our eyes adjust to each other's viewpoints?

Final bit: Sun Ra, dictatorial leader of a free jazz big band, used to boast about how his musicians obeyed him as uncontested leader because they knew it led to a higher place in musical achievement: "They're in prison. The Ra prison. The best prison in the world!" He argued that freedom was impossible unless it was under-pinned by discipline - otherwise the musicians would be simply blowing away regardless of the collective, that their contribution would be self-centred rather than for the well-being of all. The Freedom of Tyranny, anyone?

My hope - that we find the Freedom of Freedom, by self-discipline informed by our values being put into practice. That we continue to evolve through our diversity and keep exploring what nurturing structures we can agree on openly, so that we have a home with a roof , an open-plan space, and lots of rooms without locked doors.

I wouldn't say any of this to Lenin if he was alive - just imagine the pamphlet, eh? And Milton Friedman would have simply stopped my funding (well. in effect he has, but that's for the CD Group)

What do you reckon?

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Comment by Pam Stewart on February 29, 2012 at 13:50

I agree with the principle of freedom, discussion, openess, shared 'space' and ideas and would lobby that this is the strength of NatCAN for the future. What kind of an organisation do we want this to be, evolving rather than prescriptive sounds good to me simply because I have been involved and associated with so many initiatives and organisations that spent the majority of their time and efforts on structure; the constitution is God and rules create order mentality that resulted in losing sight of what was important and they either lost their way or bastardised their principle to following a funding stream or tick a box. NatCAN does not need a structure it needs an ethos, a belief in what it is doing and an openess to listen and learn.

Comment by Nick Beddow on February 25, 2012 at 19:24

hi Lorna, your social media surgery nudge is very welcome, so in light of your comments here, maybe a webinar or skype discussion might give us chances for follow-ups? Or an NCIA session at Dudley sometime?  A bit more context re: NCIA is here http://www.independentaction.net/

Agree totally about "respectful debate" (I was flippantly quoting Mrs Merton and her absurd heated debates) Prat, eh? :)

Comment by Lorna Prescott on February 25, 2012 at 17:18

Hi Nick, I agree. And I would have loved the chance to stay in Preston for many more hours and have discussions to test out what speakers were saying and what over people think - perhaps not a heated debate, but a respectful debate. Lots of what Andy Benson was saying stirred reactions and questions in my head, but I didn't think a workshop was the place to start discussing them. A chance for a smaller discussion over coffee or a pint would have been brilliant so that I could have understood more about what he thinks and why he thinks it, and decide what of that is useful to me, perhaps to make challenges back at the ranch. And perhaps I'd decide that some of it isn't useful to me, and perhaps that I feel differently or see the world a bit differently, but no matter, the chance to discuss things and come to that place would be a really lovely thing.

On the matter of ways to connect and support each other, I've added an idea here.

Other ways to keep in touch:

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