From Kranky’s Cartoons.
A “laissez-faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez-faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, “laissez-faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus “structurelessness” becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). 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, as long as the structure of the group is informal…
“Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group; only whether or not to have a formally structured one.
Joreen Freeman, The tyranny of structurelessness
I pointed out in my previous entry how our society (with very minor exceptions, like Noam Chomsky’s work on the media) refuses to examine the sources of the narratives which mold our imaginary and, by extension, our political positions. This is a great example of “structurelessness.” Because no formal structure is imposed on this activity, informal structures dominate, and these informal structures always favor the powerful because the powerful are always the ones capable of imposing these informal structures. This is why the mass media inevitably pushes ideas and policies which favor the powerful (whether from the liberal side or the conservative side).
As Freeman points out, this is an attribute of all groups. Refusing to impose a formal structure on a group permits the most influential people to run roughshod over the rest (the Occupy movement being a good example of this in recent times). By extension, it applies to all areas of society. “Unregulated” is always a code-word for “manipulated by the powerful.”
It has often been said that governments themselves exist in a state of unregulated lawlessness (only mildly tempered by the possibility of rebellion, which in the United States is now completely non-existent), and this is why governments are run for the benefit of the richest and most powerful people in any given society: maintaining draconian property rights, being extremely tough on private crime but very lenient on corporate or governmental crimes, implementing sharply regressive taxation schemes, validating corporate personhood, and so on.
Freeman’s point about so-called laissez-faire economics is also quite correct, although she exaggerates when she states that “it… prevented the government from [establishing control over wages, prices and [the] distribution of goods].” Actually, the government has powerful controls over wages, prices and the distribution of goods. Wage inequality is motivated by the plunge in union membership, which is itself dependent on the government policies on employment. Prices fluctuate based on government subsidies (see this graph for one particularly salient example). The distribution of goods is of course closely tied to monetary policy and draconian property rights, which are the province of governments.
A more technically correct assessment would be that it permitted the government to establish control over wages, prices and the distribution of goods while maintaining the appearance of neutrality. This appearance of neutrality is one of the goals of “structurelessness.” As Freeman points out, “awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the [informal] rules,” and also by those who make these same rules. It is this lack of awareness of power which stultifies class awareness, and therefore effective action. In the case of government, the role of curtailing is assumed through the (extremely complex and mostly opaque) democratic process. In general, we cover this under the general name of backroom dealing.
Capitalism uses “structurelessness” in order to hide the fact that it is a planned economy centered around the corporate person and its decisions, all the while issuing propaganda against the planned economies of socialism and communism. But like structure, you can’t have an “unplanned economy.” If it’s not planned by the people for their own interests, it will be planned by those with the power to do so.
A related concept is that of spontaneous order. We always assume that spontaneous order will be beneficial, but it can be detrimental as well:
[I]f widely distributed forms of intelligence, knowledge, virtue, or prudence can add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into an benign undesigned order, then there’s no reason why widely distributed forms of stupidity, ignorance, prejudice, vice, or folly might not add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into an unintended but malign undesigned order. Moreover, if you consider that spontaneous orders can emerge as unintended consequences of certain widespread forms of violence, then it ought to be especially clear that not all undesigned orders can be considered benign from a libertarian point of view.
What links both concepts is a lack of conscious design. Spontaneous order is, one could say, a specific subset of “structurelessness” with certain kinds of incentives which give rise to some higher order. Conversely one could argue that the informal channels of power that arise under “structurelessness” are merely a detrimental form of spontaneous order. I don’t think it really matters, anyway.
Charles’ point in his entry is that the violence done to women, be it anonymous rape or spousal abuse, adds up to a spontaneous order which keeps women in fear and subjected to the “protection” of chivalrous men, in the same way that governments commit widespread crimes and then subject us to their “protection.”
Likewise, the individual decisions of firm owners add up to the exploitation of the workers, but there is no conspiracy involved, as it is the result of individual self-interested actions within a specific framework of property rights. The evils of capitalism itself are ultimately the result of spontaneous order.
What determines whether spontaneous order becomes beneficial or detrimental is the underlying rules of the system within which it evolves. This may seem to contradict the concept of “structurelessness,” but it doesn’t really. Groups operating under “structurelessness” still operate under social mores, the attitudes that people generally adopt towards each other, prejudices, and so on. These are the underlying rules on which the informal structure operates within “structureless” groups. The fact that “structurelessness” necessarily has detrimental consequences is not a universal fact but a social fact, because it depends on the kind of society one lives under.
Given the obvious fact that anomie leads to chaos and the tyranny of the strongest, it is especially strange that Anarchism, which is a strongly egalitarian and anti-tyrannical ideology, has been linked to anomie in popular discourse. This is obviously a case of projection. Statism is predicated on a monopoloid law system, leads to elitism and tyranny, and these are a source of anxiety for statists, therefore they deflect it by accusing their opponents of being elitists and tyrannical through the concept of anomie.
There does exist a strange belief in anomie as the default in human relations, that anomie somehow reflects what human nature is about, and that the failure of anomie therefore proves that humans are innately evil. But human beings do not naturally exist in a state of anomie: such a state has to be imposed on them (such as being made helpless by a hierarchy of force, and then having that hierarchy disappear). Humans are naturally social and, as has been demonstrated time and time again throughout history, form rule structures in order to preserve and share resources. No matter how far back in time we go, there has never been any such thing as an anomic society, except as a temporary condition.
The problem with any assertion about what anomie proves, is that anomie is itself is an artificial condition caused by human action. As an ideology, it means an active rejection of what makes human beings moral. Therefore, saying anomie proves that humans are evil basically reduces itself to “an illogical and unnatural social condition makes people do illogical and unnatural things.” This is not a surprising result. People respond to incentives. Present people with the incentive to be self-serving and they will be self-serving. Present people with the incentive to cooperate and they will cooperate. It’s really not much more complicated than that.
Freeman goes on to list a number of ways in which groups can structure themselves in an egalitarian manner. Her ways are: 1. delegation of specific tasks to specific people by democratic procedures, 2. accountability for those people, 3. distribution of tasks to as many people as possible, 4. rotation of tasks, 5. rational allocation of tasks, 6. constant diffusion of information, 7. equal access to group resources. These are all excellent ways to implement formal structure.
To these, I would add keeping groups small. It is well known that the bigger the group, the harder it is to maintain its egalitarian nature, and the more fragmented and unhealthy they inevitably become. And this applies to all groups, including schools, businesses, and geo-political entities.