Anti-hierarchical artifices for groups to use - Elena Jordan & David Vercauteren

The 1970s mark a turning point in the history of collective action: scalded by the hierarchical drift of the parties and the traditional trade unions, many collectives seek more horizontal forms of organization - not always successfully. The following could be the preface to an anti-authoritarian cookbook, whose writing depends on us.
How can an egalitarian group get rid of the sad passions that invade it whenever the hierarchical tropisms it believed to have banished resurface at its centre [1]?

Let’s specify the problem. The 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of political groups who distanced themselves from the vertical forms of organization inherited from the labor movement - parties, unions, tiny groups - and from the type of commitment that they are associated with, that of the "militant ", exemplary in his dedication, relentless in his demands. This movement carried on in the 1990s. Collectives that are triple-braced against the hierarchical deviation of the apparatus of yesteryear flourish in all fields of struggle. Feebly instituted, they try to prevent the risks of bureaucratization.

Based on a more individualised and intermittent engagement, they leave less room for sacrificial logics, sources of subjugation. And mindful of direct democracy, both in their forms of public intervention and in their internal modes of decision-making, they hinder the process that makes representatives autonomous, which threatens any organization that have a separate leadership. In one word, in the manner of the Guayakis Indians dear to Pierre Clastres, these collectives seek to curb the emergence of a separate power. They do not always succeed.

making culture

These groups - one could call them post-Leninist - in fact encounter three series of difficulties. The first is not really their own. As soon as a collective, whatever it is, is brought to establish a division of labour, be it one that marries the competences (whether former or acquired) of each one within it, or be it one driven by external imperatives (to designate official persons responsible for negotiation, funding, or a lawsuit),  the probability of vertical differentiation of positions increases. The history of La Borde clinic will provide a proof from a contrary position: it took five years and hard reflective work, from 1953 to 1958, to get rid of a persistent partition between care, animation and maintenance, and eliminate the hierarchies - wage, statutory, and symbolic – that they created [2].

The second series of difficulties is specific to the groups. Jo Freeman, an American feminist, formulated very early the danger that hangs over groups who are reluctant to formalize their “framework”. By refusing to make the roles and norms which de facto structure their collective functioning explicit, they are likely to leave free reign to forms of power that are literally indisputable, because they are without mandate: "When informal elites are combined with the myth of the absence of structures (where one pretends that no structure exists), it is unthinkable to put a spanner in the engine of power; it becomes arbitrary” [3].

The third is the reverse of the previous two. Even if these groups manage to overcome the hierarchical temptation, it is often difficult to avoid the anguish of its potential reemergence, the dark affects it carries, the practices that result from it: suspicion, resentment, dread of excessive leadership, accusations of narcissism or careerism, impulses to decapitate.

Far from us wanting to give lessons. It is from within this kind of groups that we pose the problem, not hanging over them, but from the experience that there is enough collective intelligence within them to face it. Yet, it is necessary that this problem gets to be stated, to be transmitted. It could well be that the recurring difficulties encountered by our collectives vis-a-vis the question of power are not the result of the sad “iron law of oligarchy” that an erudite glance might have revealed, so that there would be no more for us to do that to accept it as a necessary evil [4], but the consequence of our incapacity (provisional, hopefully) to transform these difficulties into culture.

Some people say that once upon a time, in groups known as traditional, there was a character with this function. Here he was called the "ancestor"; there, " the one who remembers"; elsewhere, "the memory caller ".  Often placed at the periphery of the group, he tirelessly told short and great stories. Sometimes they recounted the pitfalls in which the group had been caught, like many others before and around it, sometimes the achievements and the inventions which had made it possible to increase the collective forces. No one knows whether these characters ever existed. It does not matter.  This fiction invites us to ask a vital question: how can it be that in our collectives, the knowledges that could have constituted a culture of precedents are so scarce, especially when faced with the question of power? And what would happen if, from now on, we paid attention to them?

Undoubtedly, le vent nous soufflerait dans les plume: we would feel preceded, inscribed in a history that would make us stronger. Little by little, something like an ecology of collective practices would be built, one that is no longer focused on the macropolitics of groups (objectives to be reached, programmes to be drawn, diaries to be filled), but on their micropolitics: their fatigues and their “catch”, a rotten or grinning mood, the tone and the words we use, our bodily attitudes, the time that we give ourselves - - and our relations of power.

mapping the blunders

To achieve this, the first task would perhaps consist of tracing a cartography of blunders: to avoid making them again, identify the recurring ones committed by groups that concern us when the question of power arises between their mebers. We can identify at least four.
1) To psychologise the desires of preminence.  "In discussions, in debates, one should never psychologise, that is to say: one should never ascribe a difficulty to the intentions or weakness of a person. It is always necessary to remain technically around the problem discussed without ever going back to psychologising interpretations"[5].

This general warning of Isabelle Stengers is especially true for power struggles. Insofar as their object is the way in which a person, in the group, acquires an ascendancy, or seems to acquire it, it is tempting to read into it an effect of personality: but this is the best way to not understand or change anything there.

2) To ideologise conflicts that result from it. This mistake is symmetrical to the previous one: attributing the process of vertical differentiation not to the personality of the one who differenciates, but to the political line that he embodies. There, often, the properly “militant” affect re-appears, through a language inherited from 1905: if so and so betrayed the egalitarian ideal of the group, it is because he always was, wholly and truly, a social traitor or a Stalinist.

"I am convinced", wrote Guattari, “that phoneticians, phonologists and of semanticians will trace back to this event (1903-1917) the whole crystallization of a set of linguistic features and ways - always the same ones - to hammer out stereotyped formulas regardless of language from which they’re borrowed"[6]. Always the same ones, thus, a sideswipe of the specificity of the situation that creates this power struggle.

3) To naturalise the hierarchy, and its antidotes. To regard the hierarchy as natural, nothing comes easier: one can do it unconsciously (all our socialisation, from childhood to the company, through the school, is hierarchical), or deliberately, like a provisional concession, in the organisation of the group, in the order of the world: let us accept chiefs temporarily, since they are everywhere, but let’s work to gradually move towards equality.

However this conceals a second naturalisation, no less frightening than the first: believing that the good will and moral qualities of a band of friends of justice will be enough to get rid of the hierarchical fold is bound to fail. Not only because good feelings are likely to not withstand time, but because, like psychology, and like ideology, they crush (and are crashed on) a basic axiom - a group is more than the sum of its parts, as nice as these might be.

4) To substantialise power. This mistake underlies all the others. It is the belief that power is an attribute that distinguishes those who possess it (dominant) from those who are deprived of it (dominated), whereas we know at least since Foucault that power is a relationship, exercised before being possessed, and therefore requiring a dominated no less than a dominant: "This is the shifting foundation of relations of forces, that relentlessly give rise to, by their inequality, some states of power, but these are always local and unstable, mobile. [...] And "the" power in what is permanent, repetitious, inert, self-reproducing, is nothing but the overall effect that emerges from these mobilities , the sequence that builds upon each of them and seeks to fix them in return”. [7]

Substantialising power therefore entails a reversal of the order of causes: it means focusing on the consequences, knowing the asymmetrical positions of each other in a group, and ignoring the mechanisms and (necessarily collective) history that produced them.

de-multiplying differences

But we must not leave it to an inventory. These four errors certainly help us, superficially, to identify what they block: a common understanding of the differentiation process. Still, the reflexive effort is likely to be useless, even if it focuses on the right object, so long as it simply remains an understanding: we only moderately believe in the magic powers of consciousness raising. We strongly believe, on the other hand, in the invention of artifices, i.e. the creation of procedures and practices that make the group change some of its habits and open up to new potentialities.

We obviously do not have the recipe that would solve the problem of power in groups concerned with equality: each one must concoct its own. But we can put in the common pot one of the tricks that seems most promising: the invention of roles. The idea has something homeopathic about it, since the problem of power, in a group, is a pathology of differentiation, it is by differentiation that it must be treated: rather than becoming exhausted watching out for thes (horizontal). differentiation (vertical), let’s proliferate differentiation

A first series of artifices consists in identifying the implicit roles which the members of the group fill spontaneously (the "grumpy", the "star", the "shy", etc..), and seeking to push them  - gently of course out of their "nature". For example, what to propose to the "star", the one who always believes that meetings never really start until he arrives, and the one who takes the floor, literally? What function can he take up, to help put his known or unsuspected talents to the service of the collective energy? To identify these implicit roles, one could make use of tools that can visualize them. For example, by tracing a circle on a sheet and asking everyone to place themselves there, or by beginning meetings with a “weather forecast point”: what weather is it on my emotions today, which slope will I be tempted to let myself slip on, how do I help myself find an active and creative energy,  starting from which function?
A second artifice consists in being imaginative about the formal roles that structure the organization. In this regard, apart from increased attention to the roles that we are already culturally familiar with ("facilitator", "secretary", "coordinator", etc..),
a detour through the amazing bestiary of  Starhawk, an American exponent of  eco-feminism and reclaimed witchcraft, would do us great good. Would I be a dragon (taking care of the resources of the group, of its borders, and giving voice to its limits),  a snake (cultivating a special attention to how people feel, the murmurs, silences, emerging conflicts), a raven (keeping in sight the objectives of the group, suggesting new directions, drawing up plans, even when they’re just castles in the air), a spider (taking care that the communication and the internal interactions are multilateral), or a charmwhen it falters, to direct it when it is strong) [8]? (paying attention to the energy of the group, to reinforce it

The third series of artifices is to play incongruities between explicit and implicit roles, so that they are shaken and grow rich mutually.
For example: I am moody, a whinger and introverted, so here I have to be the "mood watchman ", attentive to the tensions that inhabit the group, to the style of exchanges and their effects. This will require tact and perseverance: a "quiet"or "shy" person will not become a seasoned facilitator overnight. But the experiment often leads to a salutary mockery which leads it to laugh at itself, its fears, and the roles. But the experience often leads to a healthy mockery that leads this person to laugh at herself, her fears, and at the role itself.

To egalitarian groups that want to stay so, we could thus propose the following ethics: to not reduce any force of internal differentiation, for fear that it becomes vertical, but instead to increase it in all directions, to enrich the range of identities available: this is probably the best way not to flatten the (many) relationships within the group and turn them into one two-term relationship - dominating, dominated. In this way, the construction of our collective histories can stand a chance of no longer being at the mercy of the passions that affect it, subjugate it, and often sadden it: it would play with these passions, which would become joyful - including, yes, the passion for distinguishing oneself.


[1]  This text comes from a reflective work conducted between 2003 and 2006 by some of the members of the Collectif Sans Ticket (CST) and the Groupe de Recherche et de Formation Autonome (GreFA). Faced with the experience of other Belgian, Spanish and French groups among which Vacarme  - this work has resulted in the publication of a book: Micropolitiques des groupes. Pour une écologie des pratiques collectives, HB éditions, 2007.
[2] See Recherches, « Histoire de La Borde, dix ans de psychothérapie institutionnelle », 1976.
[3] Jo Freeman, La tyrannie de l’absence de structure, 1970,
(For an English version of this article, see: Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness,
 [4] Roberto Michels, Les Partis politiques. Essai sur les tendances oligarchiques des démocraties, 1911.
 [5] Isabelle Stengers, seminar « Usages et enclosures », CST/GReFA, Bruxelles, May 2002
[6] Félix Guattari, Psychanalyse et transversalité, Maspero, 1972.
[7] Michel Foucault, in H. Dreyfus et P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault, un parcours philosophique, Gallimard, Paris, 1984. (In English: H. Dreyfus et P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, University of Chicago Press, 1983)
[8] Starhawk, Femmes, magie et politique, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2003. Also see her website:, at the annex of Micropolitiques des groupes (op. cit.), which lists five roles.