New York City and Harvard: competitive, glamorous, heartbreaking environments that together formed the landscape of my youth. In college, I used to brag ironically, “I’m miserable in the most prestigious place in the world!” Then as now, I took some satisfaction from the fact that I’d never have to wonder “what if”. I had been to the mountaintop, and although life still held a lot of suffering, at least I wouldn’t be tormented by regrets for some road not taken to the Big City.
Legendary places like these, with their gambler’s promise of insider success, continue to exert a magnetic pull on me, stirring hope and self-recrimination (what if I tried harder? what if I changed my whole personality?) despite knowing full well that their path to the top is neither possible nor enjoyable for me. I’m not a greyhound, and the racetrack’s metal bunny wouldn’t taste good if I caught it. But I can’t stop the twinge of wishing for it.
At such times I think back to one of my favorite C.S. Lewis essays, “The Inner Ring”, a lecture he gave at the University of London in 1944. Lewis points out the universality of the discontent and self-blame I felt in college–the intuition that someone, somewhere, has discovered the secret of belonging in this community where you remain an outsider. However, this intuition is illusory. You will never actually arrive at the center of society because it doesn’t exist: it is a “place” wholly defined by your fear of missing out. “The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident; it is the essence.” Moreover, in the process of trying to get there, you will inevitably make moral compromises to please higher-ups, and turn into someone you never planned to be. “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
However, there is one secret society worth belonging to, Lewis says–the modest company of people who care about their work for its own sake, and do it well. The size of the group is self-limited by the number of people who share these values, but it’s not intentionally exclusive. Only there will you find the real sense of belonging that is friendship.
Oddly enough, though their ideologies and backgrounds are in most ways quite opposite, this was also the central message I found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead when I first read it at age 13. With no hope of popularity, I was free to go gonzo on my art. This may be one reason I am not tormented by anxieties about success or audience reach, as a poet–whereas I am very much haunted by them, as a fiction writer. My poetry-writing self was born a lot earlier, in the solitude of pre-adolescence, while my fiction-writing self dates from my 30s, when I had relationships that could be lost.
Lewis’s piece pairs nicely with feminist theorist Jo Freeman’s 1970 lecture/article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Reacting against the aforementioned ills of hierarchy and elitism, progressive and feminist communities have favored nominally egalitarian “structurelessness” without defined channels of authority. (I can attest to the popularity of this approach, with all the flaws that Freeman describes, in my K-12 education in the 1970s-80s.)
But, says Freeman, no group can truly remain unstructured. Organizing principles and power centers inevitably emerge. The problem is that when structure is entirely covert, there is no way to hold it accountable. Power acrues to those who already have more social capital than other members–for instance, the ones who are more popular, better connected to other members, more charismatic, or advantaged by class and education.
Moreover, a group that wishes to have a political impact cannot remain at the level of a “structureless” clique. (Freeman was specifically discussing how to turn women’s consciousness-raising groups into effective feminist activism.) Either the local group disintegrates, or it becomes subsumed into the agenda of the few national-level organizations that do have the structure to collaborate on a task.
As long as the women’s liberation movement stays dedicated to a form of organization which stresses small, inactive discussion groups among friends, the worst problems of Unstructuredness will not be felt. But this style of organization has its limits; it is politically inefficacious, exclusive, and discriminatory against those women who are not or cannot be tied into the friendship networks. Those who do not fit into what already exists because of class, race, occupation, education, parental or marital status, personality, etc., will inevitably be discouraged from trying to participate. Those who do fit in will develop vested interests in maintaining things as they are.
The informal groups’ vested interests will be sustained by the informal structures which exist, and the movement will have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it.
Freeman’s piece concludes with guiding principles for a democratically structured group. These include clearly delegated and distributed authority, rotation of tasks, equal access to resources, and widespread sharing of information. Her recommendations are still relevant to activists today.