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The Tyranny of Structurelessness (1972) (jofreeman.com)
98 points by hargup on May 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

This brings to mind something I said a while ago about Holocracy. Holocracy doesn't get rid of your managers. Rather it just prevents you from knowing who your manager is. Instead of having clearly defined priorities (e.g. I need to handle requests from person A before I handle requests from person B), you have to do a subtle political calculation, evaluating the relative social capital of person A and person B before choosing who to listen to or follow. And if you guess wrong, then you end up marginalized and fired, often without knowing precisely why.

The challenge for society going forward is to recognize this and to not reflexively try to remove all authority and hierarchy.

OSS does well with the BDFL model ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benevolent_dictator_for_life ). The people who practice it best use their authority to set tone and agenda and then step back to let people own their participation. They step back in only when they have to.

In universities today the idea of a "safe space" is in vogue. We might recognize that safe spaces require some sort of protection. It can come from campus police, in online communities it can come from people who are charged with that role, and in companies it can come from managers and executives.

Not all overt power is abused.

There are two aspects to the BDFL model: 1) a BD, 2) FL. There are several OSS projects with a BD, but who is not FL. For example, I co-founded the Biopython project, which has rotated through several leaders.

Jo Freeman encourages several principles, one of which is:

> Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person's "property" and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.

This is an argument against a BDFL. Note that even in Python development, van Rossum does not always have the final say. Mark Shannon was the "BDFL-Delegate" for the type hints PEP 484.

The main point of the essay is not that overt power is inherently abuse, but rather describes methods to limit abuse of both overt and implicit power. Emphasis mine in the following:

> If the movement is to grow beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organization 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.

The point is that we can decide not to fix what isn't broken. Rotation of leadership is a great solution if you have a problem that calls for it. If you don't, then it's not worth it.

Society going forward is not going to need producers. Most of the jobs are going the way of the dodo along with the concept of management, etc. Going forward, we need better political structures that don't need to feed egos of sociopaths. Corporations by their very nature are tyrannical dictatorships. Human society should be more about humanism and less about sociopaths and production and consumption.

> Corporations by their very nature are tyrannical dictatorships.

How so? A boss can only ask for so much before people leave.

(And yes, bad management of the economy can make it hard to find a new job. That's a wider political problem.)

BDFL is actually very primitive model - it is really very much alike some ancient kingdom system - it only works because it is counterbalanced by forking.

Why the implicit dis against primitive things? They work.

A clear structure does not relieve us from social power or political power or information power. It may be that A is the manager of B, but right now, concerning you B has more power over you than A, so you better follow B's wishes instead of A's. It may even be that you are both people's manager and still better follow their desires at this point in time.

It does not relieve us entirely from social or political pressures, but formal lines of authority can serve as a bulwark against capricious turns of political luck. In an organization with formally defined management responsibilities, you know who to escalate to when you get conflicting requirements. If A has formal authority over the group, and tells you that you should be focusing on, say, improving the build system, but then you get a request from B (who is influential, but does not have formal authority) asking for help improving the UI, you always have the option of asking A. At the very least, if you don't ask A, you know you're taking a political risk by completing B's request before you complete A's. In a holocracy, you can take on massive political risks without realizing it, simply by misjudging the political dynamics of a group that you're new to.

I don't dispute that informal power structures exist even in organizations whose hierarchies are formally defined. However, a formal hierarchy serves as a baseline, and one can measure the level of political risk they're taking by noticing how much their actions are diverging from the formal hierarchy. If I bypass the chain of command, so to speak, and bring my concerns directly to a high-level executive, I can roughly judge who I'm going to be offending by taking that step. How does one do that in a holocracy? How do I even know who the "high-level executives" are? The holocracy literature completely hand-waves this aspect of the organization. Holocracy advocates say that you shouldn't worry; with time it becomes clear who the influencers are and who one should talk to for various matters. I don't agree with that at all. As anyone who remembers attending a public high school can tell you, humans will naturally form cliques, and it's not always obvious who the influencers are for a given clique. Moreover, as Paul Graham points out, hackers are much less interested in social dynamics (i.e. "politics" and "drama") than average people, and so are much more likely to make political miscalculations in a holocracy. It is for this reason that I consider holocracy to be a form of organization that is inherently hostile to hackers. It's a form of organization that seems custom-designed to hit us where we're weakest.

So the difference between our opinions is basically that you think formal power is most important and informal power only a nuance to that, and I think informal power is most important and formal power only a nuance to that.

For me it's good to know that people still exist who can believe in the first. I also started out like that but the little experience I could gather from this world taught me otherwise.

I think what the GP is saying is that navigating through the office politics is like crossing a minefield; formal structure at least shows you where most of the mines are located; holocracy means you have no clue, no map.

Yes and I think the map is too old and outdated and lacks detail.

At least the map gives you excuses---ie harder to get fired for doing what your boss tells you. Your detractors will have to make up another charge.

That's true. It's harder to get fired following the map. Haven't thought about that, since it's not my preference. Thanks for the reminder. Now it makes sense to think that way.

Unclear and diffuse structure probably does insulate decision makers against legal action, blame, and other kinds of sanction though. It's the managerial equivalent of firing rockets from the roof of a hospital.

Perhaps I misunderstood Holocracy when I looked into it but I thought it was about being able to modify the structure of the organisation in real-time, so it had just the right amount of structure.

http://wiki.holacracy.org/index.php?title=FAQ says > Is there no hierarchy in Holacracy? Yes and no. There is no management hierarchy as we’re used to it, and no hierarchy of people/managers. However it’s not a structureless" structure either. Holacracy uses a totally different type of hierarchy: a holarchy of roles, and not a hierarchy of people/managers.

I guess being given tasks from more than one Holacracy role can lead to not knowing which to prioritise? Is that a fair representation of what you said?

Is this something you've witnessed first hand or heard about or is it just a hypothetical?

You're right Flenser. In fact there is typically more structure in a company running with Holacracy vs. a traditional management hierarchy. Or maybe more accurately, the structure is clearer and more explicit with Holacracy at play.

I wrote a post about this: "Holacracy vs. Hierarchy vs. Flat Orgs" https://blog.holacracy.org/holacracy-vs-hierarchy-vs-flat-or...

Thanks Olivier, interesting read. I particularly liked the second chart. I hadn't appreciated that holacracy had less hierarchy of people than flat orgs.

I had never had heard of Holacracy. But, this also commonly occurs in traditional organizational structures: the multiple bosses pattern. It results from a lot of different types of system dynamics, and although it inefficiently organizes resources, it seems innately baked into Human behavior.

Whenever someone wistfully posts about how great it would be if their > 100 (heck, even > 10) employee company had a flat structure like Valve, I can't help but cringe a little. If you don't have an explicit organizational structure, how is it not inevitable (if not present from the outset) that you end up with an implicit organizational structure, one that's even more based on socializing, old boy networks, etc.

IMO whenever someone speaks longingly for such a thing, they imagine a meritocracy in which they are somehow more valued/important/influential than they are at their current job. I don't think anyone would advocate a structure in which they themselves would be less valued than they are currently, that's for sure.

It's hard not to see calls for flat orgs as being much more than an unconscious expression of professional narcissism- "I know better than my stupid manager, if only I could do things exactly how I wanted to, on my own schedule, everyone would be better off!". I've got to think that that statement might be true in some cases, but for every valid case there are 100 or 1000 people who are thinking the exact same thing simply because they overvalue the things that they care about, undervalue the things that other people care about, and in general don't know what they don't know. Even dumber would be those who assume that they would end up at or near the top of the magical, Utopian meritocracy that would emerge from such an arrangement.

Or maybe it would validate the manager's value in the eyes of people who fit in the organization. Instead of having current managers / CEOs or whoever being the validating authority. Different values would grow; valve has a more engineering / artist minded culture than most other companies do.

Converting a regular organization to a flat one does sound particularly bad though.

>I don't think anyone would advocate a structure in which they themselves would be less valued than they are currently, that's for sure.

Except if they genuinely believe in equality and hate being above/managing other people, but rather be equal part of a team, even if that means losing their managing privileges...

It's not like there are no people who didn't dislike management and wanted (and some did) get back to plain programmer.

Except you probably can give up management if you really want to, but you'll probably have to take a pay cut. Which is kind of the OP's point.

It's not that you want to be less valued as a manager, it's that you want to be more valued as a programmer.

>Except you probably can give up management if you really want to, but you'll probably have to take a pay cut. Which is kind of the OP's point.

And I've seen people do that too, why the disbelief?

Turn down more highly paid managerial positions, because they'd rather not be leading people.

Sure, but if they're fully satisfied by that then they're not the ones advocating structural change, so they're not counterexamples to the OP's claim.

(Arguably changing an individual's role is still restructuring, but I think the OP was talking about more comprehensive restructuring suggestions.)

The Wikipedia article on this (famous 1972) article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tyranny_of_Structurelessne...

Short version: if you try to avoid the problems of existing organizations by not having an explicit power structure, you instead end up with an implicit power structure. That is not a problem at small scales when the organization is for discussion rather than for getting things done. But it has many subtle problems.

At the bottom, there's a nice list of things to experiment with as organizations search for useful explicit power structures: delegation, responsibility, distribution of authority, rotation of power, allocation of work, diffusion of information, and equal access to resources.

Since this article is about women's movement issues from 40+ years ago, it can seem irrelevant. But given how non-traditional organizational models are of the moment (e.g., open source projects, holocracy, Occupy, BLM, twitter organizing), I think it's useful material for anybody who's shaping an organization.

I'm in the middle of reading "Reinventing Organisations" and it's absolutely wonderful. It examines a handful of organisations that are doing it differently (including Holocracy) and takes notes about how their techniques compare and what they might have in common.

It's basically the blueprints towards building the next most efficient organisation. I highly recommend it. http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/

Not sure why you're being downvoted. I am running one of those companies. Calling it structureless is as misleading as calling agile chaotic.

The "Green" stage can feel a little like the tyranny this article describes, but the "Teal" stage is anything but. It's comparatively light on arbitrary rules compared to your traditional top down company, but it's certainly not unstructured.

I have written a numbe of articles on this topic at http://danieltenner.com/open-cultures/ in case you want to read more.

Does it cover the cooperative model, like the Mondragon Corporation, or the Wobbly shop? I can't find a table of contents, and DDG finds no reference to Mongragon or Wobbly on the web site. I figure that a book which doesn't discuss those two alternative forms of business organization is hiding something. For examples, hiding who owns and controls the capital, or hiding that it's not really a new model but has been around for a century.

Personally, I take the warning at https://books.google.com/books?id=IKZVKMPEQCEC&pg=PA131&dq=%... to heart:

> Industrial democracy: By analogy with political or state democracy, a description of democratic practices as applied to workplaces. There are two major ways of thinking about this concept. The first involved some liberal conception of representative structures that allow workers to have influence over decision making, responsibility and authority. The extent of such influence can vary substantially, from an employer's 'suggestion scheme' through workplace methods such as 'team-working', up to the various forms of consultation and co-determination exemplified by Kalmar, Semco, or the John Lewis Partnership and the Quality of Working Life movement. Whilst these examples provide illustrations of alternative forms of organizing, they all largely rely on the idea of empowerment as something which management does to workers. In other words, management and owners still have the ultimate sanction, and could withdraw democratic privileges if they wished.

> The more radical way of thinking about industrial democracy would be in terms of worker self-management. In this case a cooperative or an employee share ownership plan (ESOP) would mean that all those working for an organization would have a direct share in its profits and losses. As a result, they would have a clear interest in participating in democratic mechanisms to elect or deselect those who coordinate organizational activities; to dictate strategy; to take profits or reinvest, and so on (see Mondragon; Suma). Both forms of industrial democracy have been credited with increasing the motivation and commitment of workers, as well as increasing productivity and decreasing labour turnover. Whilst advocates of the liberal version might suggest that those were good things to achieve because they can increase shareholder or owner value, for the radicals all these would be secondary to the idea that labour might escape alienation in a Marxist sense. In other words, liberal ideas about job satisfaction are pale reflections of the conception of work as a form of human expression (see Fourier).

I'm about a third of the way through the book. It's tough to say whether it covers 'the cooperative model' because so far, it approaches aspects of business quite individually.

Here's the table of contents: https://i.imgur.com/OS9XGhN.jpg

Thank you! It's hard to tell from the list if it covers coop models. It would be in Board/Ownership, starting on page 251.

One clue earlier might be if the workers can fire the CEO and decide CEO pay.

Well, in the context of traditional orgs, the board can fire the CEO. In this book, he speaks about making certain that the CEO & board members are all on board with the 'teal organisation' mentality.

In other words, I don't believe it addresses the legal structure as much as the organisational one. Unfortunately, I have to bring it back to the library today...but I'll be buying my own copy that I can cover in highlighter. It's really interesting for anyone interested in organisational structure and offers a lot of insights into potential workarounds to problems you might run into.

John Lewis is a coop like Mondragon - which makes me doubt the source your quoting.

Knew someone who worked for them years back. They said the co-op thing meant very little to individual workers like them, it basically amounted to a newsletter regularly. I don't know enough details to argue either way, except to observe that just because something says it is a co-op doesn't mean individual workers really feel empowered.

If its 50% plus 1 owned by the employees its a coop - and I think your forgetting the yearly bonus.

Not that JL was not a bit naughty in outsourceing its cleaners.

How does it relate to Elinor Ostrom ideas? I find her "Design principles for Common Pool Resource (CPR) institutions" much more applicable than just CPRs.


Here's a rebuttal to the original piece, The Tyranny of Tyranny: https://libcom.org/library/tyranny-of-tyranny-cathy-levine

> The omnipresent problem which Joreen confronts, that of elites, does not find solution in the formation of structures.

"Structure" covers a wide spectrum though, from formal and rigid, to unwritten or very simple and mutual rules. I think despotic and alienating structures being bad doesn't make structure as such any more bad than, say, a bad book would make books in general bad.

I personally like the concept "order within liberty" a lot:

> You don’t know what order with freedom means! You only know what revolt against oppression is! You don’t know that the rod, discipline, violence, the state and government can only be sustained because of you and because of your lack of socially creative powers that develop order within liberty!

by Gustav Landauer, who also said/wrote:

> One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but those are idle talkers and credulous idolaters of words who regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.

And I think the article you linked kind of agrees with that, even:

> While, ultimately, a massive force of women (and some men) will be necessary to smash the power of the state, a mass movement itself does not a revolution make. If we hope to create a society free of mate supremacy, when we overthrow capitalism and build international socialism, we had better start working on it right away, because some of our very best anti-capitalist friends are going to give us the hardest time. We must be developing a visible women's culture, within which women can define and express themselves apart from patriarchal standards, and which will meet the needs of women where patriarchy has failed.

Whether you call it culture or structure or organization, everybody seems in agreement that just wandering off and doing your own thing all the time will not yield great results, though one might argue about details. Is that impression wrong?

I read the first part of that, and skimmed the rest. It does not seem particularly convincing.

If you want to see staff withdraw, check out, or blow up at random, remove the consistency they use to self-assess their performance. A lot of tech companies are too young to understand that a meritocracy is more about leadership than trivia.

Flat organizations (as distinct from BDFLs) reward bullies and manipulators, consistently with the "star system" in the article, while punishing pro-social people who align based on principles and reasoned consent to rules.

Two years ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7409611 | 121 comments

I remember it coming up :)

I used to volunteer in an anarchist-led bookshop. "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" was one of the texts I was referred to upon starting in order to help me understand that one ought to spend a bit of time thinking about hierarchies (or the lack thereof) and their consequences.

This is my take on the topic given some reflection. Like money, hierarchies are not intrinsically bad. Like money, hierarchies are a tool for getting shit done. Money can be abused. Why? Because greed. Because the will to power. We know what money is good for, it is an abstraction that facilitates exchange and trade. What are hierarchies good for? Coordinated action via a chain of command. Hierarchies can be abused. Same reasons. Because greed. Because the will to power.

I've been thinking recently about a certain type of hierarchy where the stratification is highly ordered. Think military hierarchies. Each layer reports only to the one above. There is a strict chain of command. Orders must be followed without question. Because this special type of hierarchy emerges again and again (think about how we structure a very complex text even) I thought it must have a name. I couldn't find one so I'm suggesting isomerarchy. All from ancient Greek: we all know that iso means same, like isomorphic, isobar, and so on; meros is less familiar and means part or division, the study of parts and parthood is mereology[1]; finally, archon[2] means ruler from which we get monarch (literally rule by the one). Hence, isomerarchy. Funnily enough, both isomer[3] and merarch[4] are both existing concepts which rely on exactly this etymology.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mereology

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archon

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isomer

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merarches

Basically, if you give yourself freedom to act on your impulses then your impulses will own you. Managers are supposed to be the rational decision makers. That cannot be true of every manager. In my opinion, if each person acted rationally we would not need any managers and we would only have to deal with one tyranny: rationality.

This article is interesting, but too often misinterpreted.

People most cite it as an argument for why you need hierarchies in your organization. However, I don't think the article gets to claim such thing. Instead, it claims that one should not let structure be implicit, because then it degenerates in tyranny.

People are too used to think that structure == hierarchy that we assume that the corollary is that hierarchy is needed to avoid tyranny. David Graeber in his "Utopia of Rules" [1] makes a good counterargument: if your goal is to avoid tyranny it's little difference to have it implicit or explicit. In the later case, you are just giving some moral justification for it -- you legitimize it, in the most literal sense of the word. What you need is, if you want to avoid tyranny, a resilient and explicit flat structure, with mechanisms in place to identify and reject emergent tyrannies.

I understand, though, why we are becoming disillusioned about the word "flat" in the business world. Most businesses that try to go "flat" still have a vertical ownership structure. What "flat" actually means in that context is: "you have to figure out how to make money for me, but I'm not going to tell you how!" This creates a lot of anxiety, because at the same time that workers are told to feel empowered and take responsibility, everybody spends so much energy in figuring out what are the invisible walls of the cell, and what their patrons actually want from them. I think it takes a lot of alienation to really thrive in such environment.

That does not mean that flat is impossible in the business world, in my view, you just need an explicit flat structure that begins with your ownership model. A company that I know of that has such structure is Igalia [2] (discl: I don't work with them but have acquaintances there)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Utopia_of_Rules [2] http://igalia.com/

> Since the movement at large is just as Unstructured as most of its constituent groups, it is similarly susceptible to indirect influence. But the phenomenon manifests itself differently. On a local level most groups can operate autonomously; but the only groups that can organize a national activity are nationally organized groups. Thus, it is often the Structured feminist organizations that provide national direction for feminist activities, and this direction is determined by the priorities of those organizations.

A very interesting aspect of structureless entities is that it is very hard to form counter-narratives to them. If you look back at successful revolutions, then their rhetoric revolves around specific events that show everyone why something is unreasonable. For the American revolution, it was the Boston Massacre - a specific instance in time that the revolutionaries could use as evidence of injustice. The dismissal of Jacques Necker, a finance minister in Louis XVI's cabinet, led to the storming of the Bastille and in turn the French revolution. Change often revolves around a commonly shared notion of injustice.

Without an explicit power structure, it is hard to create the common ground necessary to ferment change. How can you find a specific experience that everyone can relate to when everyone's experience of the group is inherently different? How can you find that one thing within the structure that frames the overall problem, when there is no commonly agreed one to pin down? People will spend more time arguing about what the structure might be than finding practical solutions to problems.

This effect seems to be so powerful and unseen that it is becoming a fashionable method for preserving the status quo. It's popping up everywhere from businesses to nation states. My favourite example is the work of Putin's advisor Vladislav Surkov, a man who was once the publisher of avant-garde poetry and a patron of deconstructionist art. He has worked very hard to deconstruct war for Putin and create a structureless society. At its heart his doctrine is a heightened form of that same structurelessness this article discusses. Except its done at the national scale.

Inside Surkov's Russia, the Kremlin maintains control by ensuring that there is no explicit power structure - just shifting cliques in perpetual conflict with other cliques;


[..] The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.

One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions.

The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.



This is hardly a new idea.

I recommend the classic sociology paper Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400–1434, http://home.uchicago.edu/~jpadgett/papers/published/robust.p...

This reminds me of one particular video by Adam Curtis (he uses Serkov as an example, too): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyop0d30UqQ

Should switch the link to the author's own website: http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

Especially since she specifically mentions that this piece has been widely republished without her permission.

thank you dang!

The tyranny of "The Tyranny of Structurelessness".

You left out the predicate, you know, the part that makes this sentence worthwhile.

I assume the implicit subject-predicate structure here is something like: "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" itself exercises a kind of tyranny.

It would be interesting if the person you were replying to would expand on that idea.

Literally every problem mentioned is equally endemic to highly structured organizations. "Office Politics" did not enter common use from all of our experience with anarchist company offices.

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