There have been a lot of comments on my blog recently about the immorality of hierarchies and why I am wrong. Amongst the nonsensical defenses of one’s parenting abilities and accusations that I want to force everyone to follow my ideology, Jeremy from Social Memory Complex made a comment on my post on hierarchies which deserves further discussion. It seems like most people who criticize my entry do so on the basis that hierarchies themselves are somehow not a problem in themselves. Jeremy also takes this tack, but in a more intelligent way. He did support a lot of what I said, but I am going to discuss the issues on which we disagreed.
After justly pointing out that hierarchies are an important moral problem that deserves examination, he says:
Somebody who has more knowledge of local wildlife or finance or computers has an advantage over me, and to benefit from that knowledge I may see it as in my interests to adopt their recommendations. I may even make this decision to obey without knowing the full consequences of my actions. In this sense, I have subordinated my autonomous volition to another’s direction, and created at least a two-level hierarchy. Yet is there anything fundamentally wrong with this?
No, there is nothing “fundamentally wrong” with it, but there’s also no hierarchy. As I stated, a hierarchy must be a use of control that is both systemic and directed. Following someone’s recommendations on the basis of knowledge is not inherently hierarchical. As Bakunin wrote in “What is Authority?”:
A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction.
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.
If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. ions and even their directions Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.
Here Bakunin identifies why hierarchies are a fundamental immorality- because they become instruments of accumulation of wealth and power- and the difference between following recommendations and being the subject of authority. The former is a rational act and the latter is an irrational act, either an act of faith or an act of imposition. The former is a natural desire to supplement one’s knowledge with the council of others, the latter is subjection and slavery.
If you are acting on the basis of supplementing your knowledge, then no hierarchy exists. If you are subjecting yourself to another, then you may or may not be forming a hierarchy (depending on the context), but it is definitely “fundamentally wrong.” How can it not be fundamentally wrong to attempt to bypass your own volition and subject your moral compass to that of another? How can it not be fundamentally wrong to willingly act without thinking about the consequences of one’s actions? That is the most basic, the most fundamental form of immorality that can possibly exist. It leads to the most violent forms of immorality: the murdering soldier, the assaulting policeman, the religious fanatic.
Do all instances of such subjection necessarily lead to violence? Probably not. But it is a fundamental moral error, whatever the context.
However, I think you hit the fucking nail on the head when you bring up the *systemic* nature of what you’re condemning. The problem with hierarchies, to me, is not that they are the direction of some by others, but that they seem to persist themselves beyond those circumstances where I might see it as in my interests to obey or direct another.
The fact that a hierarchy represents the subjection of one individual to another is very much the problem with hierarchies, or at least the origin of the long-term features that we find undesirable. It is precisely because of the fact that one individual subjects his values, his compassion, his time, his labour, his resources or his intellect to some cause or entity controlled by a specific class of people that inequality persists and grows, that immorality is allowed to persist and grow.
It is in this sense that I think we can understand hierarchies like familes better. Yes, they do require the surrender of volition from some parties to others, but they are also completely different than the impersonal hierarchies of government. The personal connection between nodes in the hierarchy – let alone the biological imperatives involved – makes it something much closer to spontaneity than the typical board of directors or military brigade. Love and trust is what makes people cooperate in groups, and while you can certainly find families that lack this, it seems that this personal connection makes a difference in whether or not the hierarchy works to the net advantage or disadvantage of the participants (keep in mind that being higher on the hierarchy is not necessarily an advantage – parents sacrifice much of their freedom to bring a child up, and out of love, not the need to perpetuate their self-image in the world, though I admit some yuppies do this).
Given the fact that the family structure throughout the eras has been the breeding grounds for systemic assault, rape and murder, I’m not sure how far you can make the case that the family structure is an example of a hierarchy that generally leads to “the net advantage of the participants.” In fact, it would seem to me, from having some knowledge about the mechanics of child abuse, that the “personal connection” between ruler and ruled, while it does make the good times better, also makes abuse and coercion that much worse.
This is not to say that most modern families are filled with violence. They are no more filled with violence than the average relationship a citizen has with his government or a worker has with his corporation. The fact that a hierarchy exists does not indicate a lack of cooperation or a lack of advantage for the ruled. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine how hierarchies could persist without offering some sort of perceived advantage (even if that advantage is manufactured by force).
I do agree that love and trust is what creates true cooperation. I would further say that love and trust are exactly what we need to change the world. We need more love and trust, less control and politics. We need an emotional liberation. But following the old ways will not get us there.