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(en) wsm.ie: Thinking About Anarchism: Hierarchy - What it is and isn't by Asha Amargi
Mon, 18 Dec 2017 09:22:04 +0200
Wondering why your vote doesn't seem to make a difference, why your wages seem to barely
cover your costs, or why you feel like a second-class citizen? Then, you're thinking about
hierarchy. ---- Anarchists treat ‘hierarchy' as the central issue in society, as the
unifying theme in most of the problems we face. Then, the aim is to get rid of hierarchy
and replace it with something better. But what is hierarchy? It's not something which is
talked about in mainstream political discourse, and even anarchists themselves can
sometimes misunderstand it. ---- Anarchism is the only political philosophy which makes
hierarchy the main issue even though we are concerned with many of the same problems as
others. Others have a different focus. Most other socialists, e.g. most Marxists, see
capitalism itself as the main problem, that control of society is concentrated in an elite
class which exploits the rest of us and ultimately divides us across lines of gender,
race, and so forth. Liberals tend to see problems in society as poor management of the
existing institutions - greedy CEOs, backwards and corrupt politicians - and ignorance and
inequality amongst the public. ‘Conservatives' tend to see problems in society as a
failure of personal character and a drift away from the traditional values which
purportedly made us strong in the past. Nationalists see the problem as a lack of popular
patriotism, the meddling of other nations, and leaders too weak to drive society forwards.
These are simplistic portraits, but they give the gist.
So what is hierarchy and why is it a useful way of understanding our society? Most of us,
until we begin reading about anarchism, will think of monarchy, the Catholic and
Protestant church hierarchies, and a military command structure, when we think of
‘hierarchy'. We might imagine a pyramid, with the most powerful and prestigious at the
top, and the least powerful and prestigious at the bottom. In these cases, hierarchy can
be defined as a formal structure of rankings where certain positions within that list of
rankings have certain entitlements and abilities. We could call this a ‘formal hierarchy'
because the hierarchy is formally recognised and codified. These structures are indeed
hierarchies, but the concept is actually more general than that.
We can see though, intuitively, that it's not necessarily the formal ranking system which
matters but the question of power. Who has it, and why? A hierarchy can be more generally
defined as a relationship of power between people, specifically an imbalance of power.
This makes sense in the case of a king. The king has the power, and the people must do
what they say. But it also applies to less immediately obvious cases. In the workplace,
the boss is in charge and the employees aren't. It would be inaccurate to say the boss has
the same power as an employee. The boss can fire an employee, decide their days, hours,
and wages, and what they do at work. The employee can't decide these things about the
boss. That is a hierarchy, a hierarchical relationship.
Let's look at the ‘traditional' household. The man goes to work, comes home and is fed and
pampered by his wife. It would be inaccurate to say that the man has the same power as the
woman. The man makes the money which the woman depends on. He doesn't necessarily lord
this over her, but that's the fact of the matter. This dynamic really comes in to play in
an abusive relationship - a woman can be trapped in a relationship because she can't
afford to move out and leave the abuser. This is a hierarchy, and it's one reason
feminists have been keen on women being financially independent.
Now, how about rich and poor? Is that a hierarchy? Anarchists would say yes. Why? It's not
that rich people can walk around giving orders to poor people, unless there is a boss and
worker relationship there. How is this a hierarchy? Recall the definition above: hierarchy
is a relationship of power or imbalance of power. Do rich people and poor people have the
same power in society, and over their own lives? Some liberals would say ‘yes', that
everybody is equal under the law. But anarchists don't give pieces of paper much kudos
unless they reflect reality. As Anatole France put it ‘the law, in its majestic equality,
forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to
steal bread.' It's clear that rich and poor don't have the same power. How so?
Well that leads us to another interesting question: what is power? It's not that
complicated really. Power is broadly speaking the ability to do things. When people say
‘we feel powerless in our situation' that's what they mean. If you have power over your
own life, you can do what you want. If you don't have power over your own life, you can't.
But we also talk of power in another way. Power, in this sense, is the ability to make
others do what you want, whether by influence or by force. If a king is powerful, that
means he can command many other people to do as he pleases. So we can see that power
splits into two categories, power ‘to' and power ‘over'. Power to do what you want, and
power over other people. Of course, we can see that these are related.
How does this explain the hierarchy between rich and poor? Rich people have quite a lot of
power ‘to'. Because of their wealth, relatively speaking they can do a lot more than
others can, because it takes money to do things, to have the home you want, to pay for
healthcare, to do pursue hobbies. This is not true for poor people. If you're poor, you
find yourself locked out of a lot of life because you lack money. Everything costs money
in this society. You feel more pressure to take a crappy job so you don't lose your flat,
if you get ill you worry you won't be able to afford the treatment, you have to pass up
meeting friends at the pub or a restaurant because you don't have the cash right now. It's
not that the rich person is there controlling the poor person like a puppet. This isn't
like a king ordering about his subjects. But ask yourself if a homeless rough sleeper has
the same power as a billionaire, and suddenly the monarchic analogy doesn't seem far off.
It's an indirect hierarchy. The class system, the monetary system, capitalism, produce
this imbalance of power between rich and poor.
However, sometimes it becomes direct when the rich person is an employer and the poor
person is an employee. Or it becomes more direct when the rich influence politicians to do
something which ends up hurting the poor. Or even we can see hierarchy at play when the
politicians just generally pander to the wishes of the wealthier people to the exclusion
of the poorer. Look at the Dáil and Stormont and ask yourself how many politicians in
there are from poor backgrounds. You're much more likely to end up in positions of power
over others if you have lots of money. Here we see power ‘over' entering the fold as well
as power ‘to'.
Unfortunately there are no shortage of examples to give of hierarchy in our society.
Indeed, this is why anarchists sometimes use the term ‘hierarchical society' as shorthand
for the very unequal and unfree society we live in for now.
We've seen direct examples like boss and employee, husband and wife, and a more indirect
example of rich and poor. Let's look at some more indirect examples. But note that the
point of this article isn't to list all of the hierarchies in this society - you can find
all sorts of hierarchies dissected in other WSM material - but by way of illustrating the
Men and Women
Consider men and women again. We are raised to take men more seriously than women, even
when we aren't overly told ‘men are more important than women' (life isn't that simple).
We develop prejudices that men are smarter, funnier, and generally more competent. This
brings to bear when you're trying to get a job, but also in daily life. To take an example
from the left, a common occurrence is that a woman will suggest an idea at a meeting and
be ignored, only for a man to repeat the same idea a while later to great acclaim. This
inability to be heard is just one ‘small' example of a relatively lack of power ‘to'.
Relatedly, women are brought up to be meek and ‘ladylike' while men are brought up to be
staunch and ‘manly'. This often ends up with a man in the dominant position in a
relationship and the woman socialised to put up with it, for example with all sorts of
misgivings about fidelity, lack of respect, effort around the home, and so on. This is
something many of us like to pretend doesn't exist, for somewhat understandable emotional
reasons, but it is a form of hierarchy.
Citizenship and Race
In Ireland people fleeing war zones end up in detention camps called ‘Direct Provision'
centres. They live in much worse conditions than the vast majority of the population and
have much less freedom to live their lives (by working, going to school, even cooking)
because they were born in the wrong place. That is a hierarchy between citizens and
non-citizens, and also between white Europeans and brown and black people from the Middle
East and Africa. If you look the wrong way in this country - as in, the ‘wrong' race -
white Irish people might think you're mentally inferior or more likely to be a criminal.
That is a hierarchy. But also Travellers are commonly looked down upon by settled people,
and have been persecuted at the state level. That is another hierarchy.
Gender and Sexuality
We'll look at three more examples because the point isn't an exhaustive list of examples.
We know there is inequality in Ireland between LGBTQ+ people and straight, cis, people.
The Marriage Equality referendum in the south was part of addressing that, by removing a
law which represented a formal sexual orientation hierarchy and by changing attitudes.
Another example is that teachers aren't protected by legislation on these matters and
often have to pretend to be straight so not to be fired. The next one applies to trans
people and lesbian, gay, and bi, people. Not being able to be yourself is a lack of power
‘to'. Trans people can be beaten off the street for dressing in a way that makes them
comfortable. As a minority population without overwhelming popular support, cis people
have a dangerous form of power ‘over' trans people. The same is true of straight and LGB,
but it isn't as severe as it is for trans people today.
The State and ‘Democracy'
The last example is the state. Anarchists are democrats. We want more democracy in
society, and better democracy. Unfortunately what is usually called ‘democracy' is more
like a temporary oligarchy. Some of us elect a set of rulers, and then four years later we
get the opportunity to elect a very slightly different set of rulers. We are then told how
lucky we are to have this opportunity. This is a very obvious imbalance of power. We take
it for granted, but why are a small group of strangers (e.g. 166 TDs in the Dáil, 90 MLAs
in Stormont) allowed to decide what happens for the rest of us? We don't even get to chime
in as they make decisions. They have full discretion (usually) within the law. But the law
itself is written by these ‘policy makers'. The result is many of us become deeply
cynical, and might even write off politics as a whole as a phony game, a circus which has
little meaning for the person on the street. We will return to this issue later.
Hierarchy and Changing the World
It should be clear by now that hierarchy is an active part of our society today in many
forms. Whether at the workplace, by wealth, race, residency status, gender, sexuality,
disability, age, religion, political office, or many other ways there wasn't enough space
to mention. It's good to point out what's wrong in the world, but the point is to change
it. So what is the solution? What is the opposite of hierarchy?
Well it's not too hard to see that the opposite of hierarchy is equality and freedom. If
hierarchy is an imbalance of power, then we should be aiming for a balance of power
between people. Rather than one person or group of people being able to control another,
or one group of people having lots of control over their own lives and another group
having little control, we should be aiming to level the playing field.
How to level that playing field is what the entire movement of anarchism is dedicated to,
and what the entire body of written work on anarchism is trying to explain. So it can't
all be covered here, but a sketch will do. Humans can all be equal in a meaningful way.
The dignity of all matters. We are not each the exact same, but we can treat each other
with respect and look each other in the eye rather than looking down on others. We should
each get the opportunity to shape our world the same as the person next to us.
Anarchists reject the very obvious hierarchies, like a king or queen ruling over their
subjects. We don't recognise the titles of lords and baronesses, or ministers of the
state. But we are consistent in our opposition to hierarchy, we oppose it across the
board, even hierarchies which aren't immediately obvious. Rather than accepting the
hierarchies around us as ‘natural', we should subject them to questioning. Why does that
person get to tell the other what to do? Why does that person live with ease while the
other doesn't? Why does that person enjoy a higher status while another puts up with low
status? If you continue this process of questioning with enough determination, the
structure of society as it is will vanish in a puff of smoke. Men and women, citizen and
non-citizen, queer and straight cis, in short, all people, can live without false
divisions and the institutions which carve those divisions into stone.
This leads to the last issue to be discussed in this article. Removing hierarchies doesn't
mean disorder. Really, the task is to replace the order of hierarchy with the order of
freedom. This idea has been long recognised in the phrase ‘anarchy is order'. That's what
the ‘Circle-A' symbol means.
The New Economic Order
To do away with hierarchy in its many harmful forms means organising society on different
lines. In a word it is democracy, in two words it is democracy and freedom.
There is no need to have boss and employee. Rather, there should only be workers. People
who get the job done. Any administrative role the boss fulfilled can be taken over, and
any bossing around role the boss fulfilled can be gotten rid of. Workplaces should be run
as economic democracies, something which as it happens is not a sacrifice of efficiency.
Workplaces would federate together in order to secure supply lines, distribute resources,
and co-ordinate the production of things which require multiple inputs. Note that this is
a new order, rather than a lack of order.
There is no need to have rich and poor. This division isn't a fact of nature, it's a fact
of society. And facts of society can be changed. There is enough food, water, clothing,
shelter, electricity, heating, and even internet, and entertainment, to go around
everybody. A society which freed itself from the dogma of an arbitrary property regime
could provide a good life for everyone. People would contribute as best they could, and
could partake as they needed. Again, a new order, rather than a lack of order. No more
homeless and billionaires. To put it crudely, everyone would be ‘middle class'. Unlike
today where almost everyone pretends to be ‘middle class'.
The New Political Order
Continuing in this democratic bent, the political system would have to be changed in a big
way. Politicians are useless. They make sure to be elected next time and anything on top
of that is a bonus for society. We should have a proper democracy which begins at the
local level, where we meet face-to-face, bringing back the human element to politics.
Political life would be vibrant and participation widespread. Politics would become the
popular pastime since we could actually have a say. It would be practical rather than a
game show for the newspapers.
It would begin in the neighbourhoods, and for decisions and tasks that involve larger
areas, we would delegate some people to take care of that. But these delegates would be
more like administrators than politicians. They would work according to a strict mandate,
and would be recalled if they strayed too much from it. In this way, democracy could
extend from the neighbourhood, to the district, to the region, to the province, to the
country. Yet again, a new order, not a lack of order.
The citizen / non-citizen hierarchy would be eliminated by widening citizenship to
everybody who lived in the country (in practice, anyone there for, say, a few months).
People seeking refuge would be given refuge, and congratulated for surviving their
People would compensate for the inequalities created by a history of hierarchy, with a
view to looking past these differences entirely once the power balanced out. That is,
balanced out in practice, not just on paper. People of all genders, sexualities, races,
abilities, and ages, would for once in history be free and equal. That is to say, humanity
rather than being an ideal would have been created. A new order, not a lack of order.
This gives a flavour of what it would mean to replace hierarchy with a free and equal
society. These issues have been written about in great detail elsewhere.
To complete our discussion, let's look briefly at how anarchists propose we get there.
For a Society without Hierarchy, Use Methods without Hierarchy
The above sketch is a very appealing vision of the future. The question is how do we get
there without screwing it up?
Anarchists make a big deal about the methods we use to achieve this. To those unfamiliar
with anarchism and the ideas, it might seem a bit obsessive. But there are very good
reasons. You only have to look at the USSR to see an example of a humanitarian project to
transform society gone horribly wrong. Anarchists had predicted this for many years. The
famous (for an anarchist) Michael Bakunin said roughly fifty years before the October
Revolution in 1917 that if socialists attempted to force revolution from the top down by
seizing control the state and issuing orders from there, the result would be a ‘red
bureaucracy' possibly worse than anything seen before. Oscar Wilde warned twenty five
years after Bakunin that ‘if the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments
armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to
have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first''.
So anarchists try to replace hierarchy in society using methods which themselves aren't
hierarchical. If you want a democracy, be democratic now. If you want to be free, treat
each other as equals now. Basically, be aware of the link between the methods you use and
the goal you're working towards.
Anarchists don't try to seize the state or existing institutions. We try to convince the
wider population of our ideas and encourage people to take an active role in shaping their
future, especially by joining with others in campaign groups and trade unions. The
transformation we're working towards is one we envisage being made by people at large, not
by an elite of political masterminds. Though we do try to have an influence on things.
Organisation isn't Hierarchy
As you've noticed, anarchists aren't against forming political parties. The WSM is one
such ‘party'. But we are different from other parties. We try to signal this difference by
calling ourselves an ‘organisation' rather than a ‘party'. This is because we don't run in
elections or want to control the state at all. We don't have a party leader, or a central
committee of leaders. We are an organisation of equals. ‘Ordinary' people attempting an
But we are careful to not mistake organisation for hierarchy. Organisation is healthy, it
is doing things systematically, accurately, coherently. Hierarchy is an imbalance of
power. In fact, organisation can help reduce hierarchy. As you no doubt have seen
yourself, even in a group of friends where there are no formal leaders, there can still be
an imbalance of power. Formal organisation and structure can help reduce that as a factor
in a political group.
In the WSM we have ‘officers'. These are people who are delegated by the membership to do
certain administrative tasks. They makes our work run more smoothly because you know
someone is responsible for doing the basics. We practice the same democracy we advocate
for wider society. Directly recallable, mandated, delegates. We think this is the best
balance between getting the job done and people having an equal say. Another important
factor is that the officer roles are rotated. The same person can't hold one role for more
than 3 years in a row, but usually they hold it for less. This is so that skills are
spread around the group rather than a few people becoming administrative experts the rest
have to depend on.
This topic is a very important one for the anarchist movement, but for the sake of brevity
it will not be continued here.
This has been an overview of hierarchy, what it is and what it isn't. Hierarchy is about
power, the power ‘to' do things, and the power ‘over' others. These imbalances of power
are numerous in our society, and they exist formally and informally, in direct ways and
indirect ways. They exist not just in our economic system and political system, but in our
interpersonal dealings. The opposite of hierarchy would be a balance of power. This is why
anarchists seek to de-centralise power, to spread it across society rather than let it
concentrate. The aim is a society of freedom and equality, characterised by democracy
rather than aristocracy, respect rather than command.
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