Hierarchy is Inevitable, Its Dysfunctions Aren't

What happens when you get rid of an hierarchy? Unofficial hierarchies inevitably arise in the absence of official ones. They are worse because they cannot be held accountable (since they don’t officially exist). That’s the insight of an influential essay about the feminist movement of the sixties. Titled as “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, it therefore argues for formalizing hierarchies and building accountability in. Some excerpts:

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 be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.

As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules…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 essay goes on to describe principles for a democratic structuring of activist groups but that is not so relevant for a business context.

Evgeny Morozov references the above essay in an article arguing why social movements shouldn’t bank too much on the internet:

…social movements will never be able to transcend hierarchies and replace them with horizontal networks. [This view] was cogently expressed by Jo Freeman in 1972 in her landmark essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman argued that hierarchies are bound to emerge anyway, and that pretending that they do not exist simply lets unacknowledged leaders escape accountability.

He goes on to quote a participant in the Occupy protests:

One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media … they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other … you know what’s worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can’t ever be called to account.

And so, in our present, collective state of evolution, we inevitably end up with decision making hierarchies one way or another. It is tied to our need for control. Large organizations made up of self-organized teams inevitably end up with hierarchical (implicit, if not explicit) decision making structures. Cleararchy accepts this reality and provides ways to make decision making rights explicit, transparent and most importantly, accountable. It is not pro-hierarchy. It is pro-dealing-with-inevitable-hierarchy.

Organization is necessary and organization implies hierarchy. At best, we can try to keep the hierarchy honest and accountable. Eliminate hierarchy and you eliminate organization and thereby the effectiveness of a group. An article in The Nation touches on this issue in a different context and quotes Robert Michels, a German social theorist on the nature of organization:

In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right. Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable.

For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process.

Cleararchy attempts to stem the natural corruption process described above with the help of clear articulation of the decision making hierarchy and with decision records.