cj#1004> Must hierarchies always be with us?

1999-10-30

Richard Moore

Dear cj,

Perhaps you recall cj#996, 'democracy & revolution - the means are the
ends'.  "M" and I had a chat about that, and I pointed out that in the
model I presented, there were no positions of power, no delegation of power
to leaders.  It's a non-hierarchical system.  People in positions of
responsibility have charters to implement - they don't have the latitude to
make deals of their own design.  M responded as follows:

    I feel that that is incredibly naive. There has been nothing
    historically to show that a lack of hierarchy is a means to
    achive more representation. There will always be hierarchies
    of power. This is less something I 'ideally' would like to
    see, and more a way of being ready, for contingent planning
    for factors that will happen in societies. There is nothing
    called an unhierarchial society. There are more or less good
    or bad hierarchies, hierarchies that are more or less
    representative, that's all. While I agree with you on the
    importance of 'subsidiary' and localized community
    development and decentralization, none of this will occur
    without a more representative structural hierarchy that
    includes (and creates through the inclusion) systemic
    community level power relationships.

Dear M,

In fact, there _are historical examples of non-hierarchical societies.  One
very good example was the Sioux Nation.  This 'nation' was made up of a
number of tribes, such as the Oglala.  The different tribes had a sense of
being 'cousins', let's say... they had an affinity, they were friendly, but
neither had power over the other, and they didn't necessarily have much do
with each other most of the time.  Within a tribe, the system was classic
anarchism.  No one had authority.  A chief was selected for his good sense
and leadership ability, but he couldn't order people around.   If he wanted
to lead a raid on a neighboring tribe to steal horses or women, he had to
persuade enough braves to go along.  If they didn't think it was a good
idea they could just say no.

One of the problems in fighting the white man, was the need to give chiefs
more authority, so that they could utilize modern fighting tactics against
the well-trained and disciplined whites.  Braves had a very difficult time
adjusting, and would often charge out prematurely, betraying a planned
ambush.  Personal freedom and autonomy - and a lack of discipline about
many things - was deeply embedded in their culture.  What we call
discipline, whether in a work or military setting, they would see as
unexplainable voluntary enslavement.  That's why they didn't adapt to the
white man's ways, and that's why they were wiped out.  They couldn't be
easily enslaved like the whites.  They weren't generally willing to submit
themselves to a hierarchy.

When the larger 'nation' needed to collaborate, as for example in dealing
with the enroaching whites, then they would convene an all-tribal council.
These councils were run entirely on a consensus basis.  They were
problem-solving sessions, with respectful listening to all points of view,
and with a mutual desire to reach an overall best solution.  When a plan
was agreed to, it was up to each tribe to take responsibility for its part
in the plan - there was no nation-wide command structure.    These
occasional councils were the only 'national structure' that existed.  Once
the council session was over, everyone went back to their own tribe and got
on with things.  There was no 'codification' of 'national policies', other
than specific agreements, for specific time spans, as agreed to in these
councils.

Each Sioux tribe was an autonomous, non-hierarchical society.
Collaboration among tribes was entirely voluntary, and there was no
hierarchical structure that linked tribes - they always related as peers.
Far from being 'hierarchical', the system couldn't even be called a 'loose
federation' - it was rather a 'community' of autonomous tribes.  Each had
respect for the others autonomy, just like people do in a small friendly
town.

Under the stress of white intrusion, these structures became distorted, but
that's another story.

---

So there _are examples of non-hierarchical societies.  I'd imagine that
they were very common up to a certain point in human history.  In some
sense, what we call 'history' is really the story of the rise of hierarchy.
We focus our historical attention on the early societies which pioneered
hierarchical structures, such as the Egyptians, Chinese, and Assyrians, and
we give a special place of honor to Rome - the historic climax of classical
hierarchy.  The story of civilization is the story of the development of
hierarchical structures.

Non-hierarchical structures naturally tend to be small-scale, and
localized.  Little large-scale structure is immediately apparent, and
historians don't have much to write about - its just people and communities
getting on with their lives.  There aren't any interesting wars to write
about, because big wars, or extended wars, require hierarchical
organization to support them.  Anthropologists seem to be especially
interested in naturally evolved societies, but to historians they are only
the canvas upon which _real history unfolds - the history of consciously
developed hierarchies.  Histories of democracy typically begin with the
Greeks, ignoring the richer 'primitive' experience, much the way
traditional Western medicine disdains traditional herbal treatments - which
are in fact often much more efficacious than our modern prescriptions.

Early societies which were hierarchical had a competitive military
advantage, because they could compel allegiance to a central battle
strategy.  Such societies also had an implicit motivation to aggrandize -
they had a hierarchy capable of being expanded.  Sooner or later hierarchy
- like kudzu - was bound to prevail everywhere.  Imperialism is the
aggrandizement of hierarchies, and big-power warfare the struggle between
competing hierarchies.  Globalization is the final and ultimate hierarchy -
a centralized world system, all pervasive, and under the control of a tiny
elite.  This is where hierarchy naturally leads.

If we accept the inevitability of hierarchy, then I'm ready to give up the
struggle.  I want more than submission to a hierarchy.  I think humanity
deserves better.  Under hierarchy, liberation is a constant struggle, and
gains can always be eroded by power-games at the top.

---

The question of whether we can achieve a non-hierarchical society today is
not a question of whether such societies have ever existed - they have.
Rather, the question is whether non-hierarchical societies can exist along
with modern technology, with its large-scale infrastructure systems
(highways, utility grids, etc).

My answer to this is to look at the role of bureacracies in modern society.
A highway commission, for example, doesn't really make policy.  To those
whose neighborhoods are destroyed to build a freeway, the highway
commission may seem like a force unto itself.  But in fact, it simply
carries out agendas set elsewhere, with budgets someone gives them, and
within guidelines defined by legislation.  There have been bureuacracies in
history that have been political forces unto themselves, but this is not
the situation generally in the West today.   The taming and and utilization
of bueraucratic hierarchies - toward defined political objectives - has
been part of the evolution of modern Western nations.

There are those who want to return to simpler societies generally - to go
back to small-scale economies and cultures.  This may or may not be
feasible, but I don't think most people in the West want that, nor is it
necessary.  The important thing is that the political decision making
process be non-hierarchical.

The Cuban and Brazilian examples I cited showed that non-hierarchical
political structures can work in harmony with hierarchical bureacracies,
within relatively modern societies.

It may not be easy to achieve, but it is possible, and it has worked.

---

But since hierarchies tend to aggrandize, non-hierarchy could not be
sustained for long in just one society.  If the condition is to last, it
must be achieved globally.  If hierarchy remains anywhere, it is like a
cancer cell, and the whole organism is threatened.

But a counter-revolution against capitalism cannot succeed in just one
society either.  If capitalism is to be overcome, and the world is to be
saved from an utterly dismal future, then the revolution must succeed
globally.  In the wake of a global revolution, the space is created to
restructue politics globally.  That's what revolutions are all about -
restructuring politics - and a global revolution does that on a global
scale.

If non-hierarchical politics is possible, and if overcoming capitalism must
necessarily create the space for global-wide changes, then it is not naive
to think in terms of a revolution which has non-hierarchy as one of its
primary goals.

In fact, the goal of a revolution should be - and typically is - to change
those fundamental arrangements which are most dysfunctional.  Hierarchies
are the bane of political life, and growth is the bane of enconomic life.
Why would we not want to build our revolution around overcoming these two
primary dysfunctional elements in our societies?

-rkm


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