I believe that this fascination with “hierarchy” and “non-hierarchy” is a major problem. Focussing on “hierarchy” doesn’t just miss the point, it creates cover for extremely toxic behaviour.
I’m guilty of this myself: having declared ourselves to be a “non-hierarchical” organisation, I’m unable to clearly see the un-just, un-accountable, un-inclusive, un-transparent, un-healthy dynamics that inevitably emerge in any human group. Calling ourselves “non-hierarchical” is like a free pass that gets in the way of our self-awareness.
Jo Freeman named this beautifully in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, where she argues that the informal hierarchies of a “structureless” group will always be less accountable and fair than a more formal organisation.
Freeman uses the word “structureless”, which is specific to the context of her 1960’s feminism. Today, you could swap “structureless” for “non-hierarchical” and get a very accurate diagnosis of a sickness that afflicts nearly every group that rejects hierarchical structures.
We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of this essay, and still it seems the majority of radical organisations have missed the point.
So I repeat: I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.
I think words like “non-hierarchical”, “self-managing” and “horizontal” are kind of vague codes, pointing to our intention to create healthy power relations. In the past, when I said “Enspiral is a non-hierarchical organisation”, what I really meant was “Enspiral is a non-coercive organisation”. That’s the important piece, we’re trying to work without coercion.