Are power hierarchies inevitable in human society?

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Posted Oct 25 2020 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Power hierarchies: a wooden stepladder

Just to be clear, I’m only talking about institutional, power hierarchies here, not hierarchies based on beauty, knowledge, intelligence, ability, respect etc. Those hierarchies are inevitable, of course, and life would probably be quite boring without them. Also inevitable are social hierarchies that are based on personality, but not official power. So for example in any social group, you could try to use strength of personality to get your way, but if someone who opposed your position digs in and doesn’t give way, there’s no way for you to force them to cede. Often people give way because they can’t be bothered to fight – the issue isn’t important enough to them. But if they do dig in, there’s nothing that anyone could officially do to punish them in any way.

What I’m questioning is hierarchy in which there are official positions, one above the other, and where people in higher tiers can force people in lower tiers to do what they want. In a power hierarchy, even though people might be given autonomy among their peers, if the people in the tiers above them give them orders, they have to obey or they’ll be punished in some way. These are the hierarchies I’m talking about – where orders go down and money goes up (at least in today’s society – in other societies, such as empires or feudalism, it’s other people’s work, or tributes of some sort that are controlled, rather than money).

So to be really, really clear, I’m not at all in favour of giving every child a trophy for participating in a sports event. Competition in sport is fun, and the winners don’t get to control the lives of the losers.

Is hierarchy ‘natural’?

You could say that it is, yes. Jordan Peterson likes to point out that every animal species operates in a hierarchy, all the way down the evolutionary ladder to lobsters and beyond, and he’s right. But first, there are plenty of things that humans do that are not ‘natural’ – like travelling into outer space, spraying crops with pesticides, using the internet, or just wearing clothes. If, with our comparatively massive frontal lobes, we decide to do things that haven’t appeared in nature before, then so be it.

And second, there are plenty of other things that animals do that I think most of us would agree we’d be better off without – having sex in the park, greeting each other by sniffing bottoms, pooping in the street and so on. Now, you may think it would be fun if humans did one or more of those, but animals also use extreme violence as a form of conflict resolution, and I think we’d do well to remove this one from our repertoire, considering the weaponry we’ve managed to develop. We don’t have to behave like other animals, is what I’m trying to say.

As animals don’t have the kind of formal institutions that we have, their hierarchies are based on the kind of bullying that we’re trying to eradicate from our schools – I’d say quite successfully. It’s not Tom Brown’s Schooldays any more.

I recently read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid for the first time. Although I agree with him that mutualism and commoning rather than hierarchy have produced better (as in more humane, less vicious, less environmentally- and socially-damaging) results for humans historically, I’m not so convinced by his insistence that this applies to animals too. Just because animals live in co-operative groups, doesn’t mean there isn’t a vicious pecking order within them. Kropotkin didn’t have access to wildlife documentaries, so he wouldn’t have known that in a pack of African hunting dogs, the alpha bitch often kills the puppies of the lowest-ranking bitches, based on a perceived slight – maybe the subordinate dog didn’t fawn sufficiently; this removes the weakest genes from the pack’s gene pool – important when there are strong, fast prey to catch.

But humans? I think our frontal lobes allow us to escape from the kind of ‘natural’ rules that apply to other animals. Whether we want to wear clothes, genetically modify ourselves, jump out of aeroplanes or live under power hierarchies is up to us; those things are not imposed on us.

Institutional hierarchy

In contemporary formal hierarchies, people higher up the ladder can force people below them to obey or lose their job, or be fined, or go to jail. Command and control comes down from the top (although groups at various points in the hierarchy can have their own autonomy); and money floats up to the top. I don’t think this kind of hierarchy is inevitable. Power hierarchy can be designed out, and it has been, and it works. It’s just hard to do it in capitalism, because all the money is sucked to the top of the hierarchy, and then leaches into the political hierarchy.

Murray Bookchin, in The Ecology of Freedom, posits that in hunter-gatherer society there was / is no official hierarchy. Men go hunting, women gather. The best hunters get respect, and are listened to, but they don’t have power to make other tribe members do what they want, apart from strength of character. They didn’t have bigger huts or more food. So official hierarchies developed after the Agricultural Revolution, with the first cities and empires, based on control of resources – land, food, and money once it existed. Power goes to the person or group that can feed the most soldiers and buy the most and best weapons. And that’s still the case.

Again, I think that Bookchin may have underplayed the power that strong personalities can wield in informal groups, but nevertheless, it’s not the kind of institutional hierarchy that I’m talking about here, in a world without formal institutions.

Examples of non-hierarchical institutions

Are there any organisations that operate without hierarchy? Yes –I want to talk about 2 types of non-hierarchical institution – one common (non-hierarchical economic entities) and the other not so common (non-hierarchical territorial entities).

Co-operatives are economic organisations that operate (at least at a certain scale) without hierarchy. There are over 2.6 million co-ops worldwide, with over 1 billion members and employing 250 million people. Granted, some of these have grown to a size that hierarchies have developed. I’d like to see federation as a way to scale co-operation – rather than giantism in individual organisations – as a way to further the non-hierarchical cause; but enough co-ops use non-hierarchical decision-making processes to be able to nail the question in the title of this article already – no, power hierarchies are not inevitable.

Then there are agreements between self-employed equals or just between individuals. This has happened forever – where the only sanction is the threat of not co-operating / trading / working together in the future, rather than coercion. This is a powerful sanction, however.

Are there / have there been any non-hierarchical territorial organisations? Yes, involving millions of people. Below is a list. I’ll let you look them up. But all of them (with the exception of Rojava, which is currently being attacked by Turkey), were crushed by hierarchical states, worried that their power would be challenged, or that they could provide a successful example to those interested in developing non-hierarchical alternatives.

  1. Frisian Freedom (lasted over 700 years!)
  2. The Diggers
  3. The Paris Commune
  4. Regional Defence Council of Aragon
  5. Maknovian Free Territory in Ukraine
  6. Korean Association in Manchuria
  7. Rojava

These are just a few examples. There have been / are many more, some large, some tiny, some ephemeral, none perfect, but in all cases, they show that non-hierarchial alternatives are possible, which is the question we’re looking at here.

Is hierarchy inevitable or desirable?

I guess if there have been, and still are, examples of non-hierarchical institutions, then the answer is obvious – power hierarchies are not inevitable. Hierarchy has been dominant since the first empires, and it’s brought us to the point we’re at now – facing ecological and civilisational collapse and possible extinction. So I guess I’m saying that they’re not desirable either.

It’s been said by some that if the right person gets to the top of the global hierarchy and takes total control, they could save us – in fact may be the only thing that can save us. This support of ‘benign fascism’ is very dangerous. What if the person or people who get to the top of the hierarchy are not good people? The qualities you need to get to the top of a power hierarchy are ruthlessness, cunning and selfishness, so no wonder good people don’t get to the top.

Strong countries can cause extreme violence to the populations of weaker countries. We should take that off the table as an option. But we can’t, as long as there’s power hierarchy. With power hierarchies, you can never guarantee that those who get to the top won’t use violence to get their way.

There’s a certain inconsistency on the left when it comes to hierarchy – business hierarchies bad / state hierarchies good – as though states don’t throw people in jail for victimless crimes, or bomb civilians in other countries, or destroy their environments, or elect ridiculously bad leaders; and as though it’s possible to extricate states from the power of business hierarchies anyway.

So, in my opinion, the situation is so bad now, that tweaks and reforms (or doing nothing at all) won’t work – which is why the situation gets worse every year. We need fundamental changes in the way we think about things, and I think hierarchy is one of them – as well as the money system and the way that it gets into the political system. And that’s because of hierarchy as well.

We need our wisest people in decision-making positions, and power hierarchies don’t deliver wise leaders. Think about it – are the qualities required for climbing to the top of the state hierarchy or the corporate hierarchy the right qualities for wise leadership? Also, I’d argue that in the west, the corporate hierarchy dominates the state hierarchy, making our problems much, much worse.

In feudalism and in empire, the ability to get people killed put people at the top of power hierarchy, resulting in unbelievable cruelty and suffering. So in contemporary capitalism, is the ability to make lots of money the most important quality we need in our (ultimate) decision-makers? I’d argue that it isn’t, and that we should intensify the development of non-hierarchical economic and territorial institutions.

[NB: often non-hierarchical co-ops struggle, due to internal disagreements, but hierarchy kills commitment, responsibility and psychological ownership – I’ll be interviewing people soon, to talk about what we might do about this, without hierarchy.]


Dave DarbyAbout the author: Dave Darby lived at Redfield community from 1996 to 2009. Working on development projects in Romania, he realised they saw Western countries as role models, so decided to try to bring about change in the UK instead. He founded Lowimpact.org in 2001, spent 3 years on the board of the Ecological Land Co-op and was a founder of NonCorporate.org. and the Open Credit Network.