structure [and/of] structurelessness

I am thinking a lot right now about my work: what it is, certainly, but also what it’s for—where it fits not only in the now, but in times to come. Given that my work is focussed on futurity, this meta-level thinking frequently falls out of and/or collapses back into the more day to day methodological questions of what-to-do and how-to-do-it*.

Last night I went to a talk by Cassie Robinson, which provided plenty of fuel for the thinking already described. Much of her work currently involves trying to make changes to how wealth works, to the end of supporting necessary changes in the vast but poorly understood space of human endeavour that can be found between the state on the one hand, and the for-profit private sector on the other: “civil society” is one name for this zone, but I got the sense that Robinson finds it an unsatisfactory label, and I’m inclined to agree (though our reasons might differ).

I definitely agree that this space, whatever we call it, is the space of possibility for change. It’s also the space where I instinctively think my work fits, if only by a sort of deductive logic: my work doesn’t belong in the state or the private sector, so it must belong here (if it belongs anywhere).

But it is also, almost by definition, a space where clarity is hard to come by. What is to be done? That is the question—but I find myself distrustful, instinctively, of answers to that question provided from on high.


Having been sat with this question (and its problematics) this morning, it was timely to read this piece from Philosophy Bear, which I think is all the better for what its ursine author describes as its “difficulty”—a difficulty which is nothing to do with obscure philosophical concepts, of which it is mostly devoid, but rather to do with the unresolvedness of the issues for its author, and their choosing to sit with that.

I commend the whole thing to you, but I want to pull out this passage in particular:

It distresses me on a personal level that almost no one is fighting to win. Between sectarianism, atomization, moralism, etc. almost no one is acting as an agent for the left. Almost no one is asking themselves what they can do to win. Almost no one is doing even really basic stuff like trying to sell ideas and not just win arguments or look smart. What does this have to do with the kind of agency this essay is focused on? Unstructured organizations, loose social scenes without a sense of purpose- all of these things make people lose sight of larger goals and strategic agency, and retreat to abstract posturing. Agentive pursuit of values is replaced by agentic pursuit of social and communicative identities. Structure enables individual and collective agency in the pursuit of values, social scenes while good, cannot do this alone.

I have some minor beefs with this passage, as I do with the whole piece, but they’re mostly to do with problems of articulation that I have encountered in my own (rather less coherent) attempts to wrestle with the same issues. By way of example: it frustrates and worries me how seemingly necessary it is for what I will call “the small-l left” to fall into the use of metaphors and terms (e.g. “fighting to win”, “sell[ing] ideas”) which originate in the paradigmatic worldviews it’s trying to overturn (e.g. politics as war, politics as marketing).

But the stuff about structure and agency seems vital and important, and chimes not only with a lot of my work-related thinking but also with Cassie Robinson’s talk. Robinson spoke a fair bit about the work of supporting civil-societal institutions to die with dignity. It’s in part an ecosystemic argument, wherein said institutions become sclerotic, locked into (and indeed clinging on to) a place in the flow of resources which prevents new institutions, better suited to the transitional times, to develop and take their place. It’s also what those of us who use futures models would recognise as a “Horizon 1” issue—which is to say, an issue of infrastructures: concrete infrastructures, certainly, but also epistemic and even ontological-metaphysical ones.

I think my constructive counter to the Bear’s point would be to say that what they identify as an absence of structure is perhaps better seen as a structure of a higher order. If I were more confident in my reading of it, I might even point at Jo Freeman’s essay on the tyranny of structurelessness as an identification of the same issue which was written before I (and, at a guess, the Bear) were born. Which is to say: the structurelessness of which the Bear speaks is a structure (or is at least structural), and it is recurrent. It’s not that “we have been here before”, because this “we” was not “there”, or rather “then”; it’s rather a matter of (small-l leftist) history rhyming.


This is the point at which this sort of blog post would normally turn to the “what we really need to do is [x]” formula; I can feel that generic tradition tugging me toward it as I type. But I think that’s exactly the (infra)structure of structurelessness that I am at issue with, here: a paradox—perhaps impossible to resolve—at the heart of small-l leftism, to which the various god-trick flavours of Big-L Leftism have addressed themselves.

And so I find myself returning, as I so often do, to Donna Haraway—a harbour in which I strongly suspect Robinson, with her fondness for compost as a theoretical motif, has anchored herself from time to time. Structure is necessary, yes, and it provides the framework upon which agency might grow and exercise itself—but structure is, must be, can only be contingent, situated, of a particular place and time… and it should know when to die. Attempts to make it otherwise—to make it universal or totalising, to make it immortal—inevitably fail. The metastructure of structurelessness, with all the moralistic sniping and circular-firing-squad dynamics which the Bear discusses, is—paradoxically—the halting state of that failure.

(To borrow briefly from another of my theoretical vernaculars: structurelessness in small-l leftism results from attempts to impose structure “at scale”. And another: if you farm a monoculture for too long, the necessary application of pesticides starts poisoning the very ground.)

I don’t know “what we really need to do”—not least because I have no idea who “we” might be. But I think that today I feel a little more certain about what I need to do: which is, at least in part, the work of helping local, situated structures to understand themselves.

Perhaps, in the course of doing so, I will come to a better understanding of where I might fit among them.


* — This is perhaps both bug and feature… and I dare say that VCTB veterans might observe, as have a few people I’ve talked to about this recently in person, that it’s also a reflection of my mental habits: “that’s just what you are, Paul”. Well, selah: they’re not wrong, are they? Oscillating between the abstract and the concrete has become, without any deliberate decision, the main way I think; it may perhaps always have been so. But I digress**.

** — Yes, digression is also a bug/feature. Love me as I am, or not at all.

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