The proposition that hierarchies are immoral and must be eradicated is a fundamental Anarchist premise. It is safe to say that one cannot be an Anarchist without agreeing with it in some form. But it has occurred to me that I have never discussed the issue of what hierarchies are and why they are immoral. This is something that capitalists tend to ask, so it’s worth discussing if only for that purpose.
I would therefore like to present my definition of a hierarchy:
A hierarchy is any social system where control is used in a way that is both 1. systemic and 2. directed.
1. The use of control must be systemic, that is to say, part of the system, not incidental to it. For instance, a man may mistreat his wife at an amusement park because he has been raised to believe that women are inferior. In that case, the hierarchy is not the amusement park, but sexism: the control was incidental to the amusement park as a system.
2. The use of control must be directed, that is to say, from one specific person or group of people- the superiors- to another specific person or group of people- the inferiors. In the case of sexism, the superiors are the men and the inferiors are the women and intersexed.
As Anarchists eagerly point out, hierarchies exist everywhere in society. Here are the major ones.
* Government is the most acknowledged and the most demonstrative hierarchy. With pomp and circumstance, we elect presidents, prime minister, or crown kings, but we know that most of the power is vested in gigantic bureaucracies and agencies fighting a tug-of-war for resources and laws. The ordinary citizen-subject, who is subject to whoever wins, is the inferior. The aim of governments is the monopolization of a greater and greater amount of political power.
* Capitalism is the less acknowledged but just as important (if not more important) hierarchy. Here there is a clear distinction between the exploitative class of corporate managers and investors on the one hand, and their employee-subjects on the other hand, and also with the group of consumers (who are victims of the by-products of the activities of production). The aim of the capitalist hierarchies, generally big corporations, is profit.
* Religions and cults are another major category of hierarchies. Although they are of course different, I classify them in the same group because their aims (primarily, thought control) and structures (authorities which are deemed “closer to God” or otherwise more holy) are generally similar.
* Parenting and schools, which both aim to control children for the purposes of indoctrination and (in the case of parenting) status.
* Racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination.
* Prisons and jails.
If you look at this list, it’s clear that hierarchies are all-pervasive in our modern societies. How do we come to such a state of affairs? Is the root problem the State? No. While the State created or aggravated all of these problems, it is uncontroversial that eliminating the State alone cannot eliminate all hierarchies (discrimination, for instance, existed before the creation of States). My guess would be that some were initially caused by the necessities of pre-technological tribal life and have survived because they gave power to some favoured group, who became interested in maintaining that power.
Now I must address the statist objection: “we just need good people in place and everything will be all right.” Or in this case “hierarchies are not a problem if you have good people in place who know what they’re doing.” In the capitalist case, this is also expressed as “it’s unfair to punish a businessman for the risks he took and his hard work.”
I have addressed this point in my previous entry. In fact, as long as the actors in any hierarchy do not take responsibility for their actions, they will merely keep “doing their jobs,” which in practice means pursuing the aims of that hierarchy and the processes of control. “I have to do this because it’s my job, it’s what I’m supposed to do.” While “nice people” may improve other things in the hierarchy, they will not improve the existence and methods of that hierarchy.
The capitalist who argues for the triumphant-against-adversity, morally justified businessman working in a perfectly competitive environment, the religious believer who argues for a view of religion as a peaceful, purpose-giving institution, or the libertarian who argues for a minimal government concerned with other people’s welfare, are all arguing from “ideal scenarios.” Yes, it would be better for all concerned if these scenarios were paradigmatic, but they are not. In fact, these scenarios are very rare, and generally out-norm. You cannot use a scenario that is out-norm for a given system to argue for that system itself as being desirable! This can only achieve the opposite of the effect intended, which is to say “if there are so few good agents like those you mention, then the system must be pretty bad indeed.”
The other problem with this idea is that any “good person” faced with such systematic coercion would do everything he could to deconstruct it, if he is truly “good” and not merely “nice,” and thus be on our side. But the very nature of such systems is that they do not permit any of their members to deconstruct them, just as any successful system eradicates threats to its existence as much as it can. Any true deconstruction of a hierarchy cannot take place from within it, but rather from the outside, both because such deconstruction would not be permitted to exist and because the ideology of a person in a hierarchy is implicitly or explicitly molded by the aims of that hierarchy.
Furthermore, I will add that I do not believe that the “small business owner” is inherently immoral, although he is fully responsible for all his uses of control against his workers. One cannot hold it against them for using the only tools available to them in the capitalist system. What Anarchists say is not that we should burn all “business owners” at the stake, but rather that there are better ways of doing things, that are both more ethical and that still reward hard work and intelligence.
Another common capitalist objection is that participation to most, if not all, of these hierarchies is voluntary, and thus cannot be immoral. But this is a complete non sequitur: the fact that a system is voluntary does not make it moral. To take a banal example, becoming a soldier is voluntary, but that doesn’t make the murders you commit as a soldier any more moral, or the orders from your commanders any more moral. In the same way, we do voluntarily choose to work for a corporation, but that doesn’t make our actions, or those of the managers of capital, any more moral.
Hierarchies are immoral, not only because they are based on false fundamental premises, but also because they go against the values we must seek out in our society: freedom, equality, legitimate (i.e. non-statist, non-capitalist) property rights, and the elimination of control. We must build alternatives based on self-organization, where each individual has equal power with everyone else to participate in the system and change its rules.
The strength of any philosophical position is when it forces us to examine premises that had remained hidden, because those hidden premises have a fundamental influence on our beliefs. Likewise, Anarchy, as a position on social organization, forces us to rethink the purpose of society itself. What is the goal of social action? While mainstream political ideologies disagree on various issues, there is one thing they all agree on: they universally elevate economic and technological progress as an ultimate, unimpeachable goal, and that the only disagreement is how to effect it and how fast. But this goal is driven by hierarchies that concentrate power and seek to expand that power by all means necessary. Anarchists are the only people who pipe up and say “hey, maybe this whole idea of limitless progress at all costs isn’t so great- maybe the costs are greater than we’re ready to accept.”
In contrast, Anarchists believe that a society should be driven by the values of its individuals, and that by being free and cooperating we can build a better world than by hierarchies of power. Anarchists believe in justice and peace as the primary goals of a worthwhile society, not the accumulation of wealth or technology. But Anarchists are also pointedly conscious that, as long as hierarchies of power exist, the drive for the accumulation of power will continue to exist.