“Hierarchies are natural!”

A common objection given by capitalists to Anarchist theories is that Anarchism is utopian because people will always form hierarchies, as much as we’d like them not to do so. In short, hierarchies are part of human nature.

There are two major problems with this assumption. First, if hierarchies were natural, then they would have been adopted by all societies. And yet we know this is not true, as there have been many societies which actively eschewed hierarchical decision-making (see for instance examples in People without Government: An Anthology of Anarchy, by Harold Barclay).

Second, if hierarchies were part of human nature, then everyone should desire them. And yet few people desire to obey others (who likes to have to work, pay taxes, and so on?). We obey for many reasons, but not out of a desire for the hierarchy itself. No other human instinct works in this way. We seek to have sex because we want to have sex, not because we’re forced to. We eat because we’re hungry. People follow some religion or spirituality, and don’t wish ardently that they were skeptics. In short, if hierarchies are natural, then why don’t we actually like them?

I said that we obey others for many reasons. This obviously needs to be explained before the argument takes its full force. There are three main reasons why we obey:

1. Because we have no other viable options (this is not true in some cases, but certainly true in others).

2. Because we can’t imagine things being any other way. This is especially true of hierarchies which have existed for more than a generation. This would apply to people who didn’t have access to education, despite the fact that we are now more educated, we are not taught about the different kinds of societies that existed before ours (as in the book I already referenced), or the alternatives which exist today (see for instance the examples from Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward).

Our education system is geared towards turning children into good citizens and good workers, not into informed decision-makers or people with any knowledge of society beyond the tyrannical concepts of our capital-democracies. Decision-making is, of course, to be left to the “experts” and “authorities,” leaving the people as a whole with token choices between pre-approved options. And because we are taught that “it’s always been that way,” we can’t imagine it being any other way.

3. We hope to, one day, be the ones who give the orders, either as an individual or as part of a faction. This is the goal of most hierarchical games conditions, including those of capitalism and democracy, and those that don’t have that goal still give an inbuilt sense of superiority (in Christianity, for instance, one cannot become God, but one can feel superior to others by worshipping God the right way and having the correct beliefs).

In fact, it’s interesting to note how little even true believers in this or that faction support the hierarchy that makes their factions possible, in democracy for example. The staunch Democrat or Republican does not believe in democracy, at least most of the time; he or she praises the democratic process only when their chosen faction wins. They want to impose their values on everyone else, not obey the results of the process as such.

The best argument against the “hierarchies are natural” position is the massive amount of indoctrination, threats and cajoling necessary to make people obey, starting from a young age all through one’s life. And yet, the moment their control weakens, widespread public resistance springs up almost by magic. In his famous work The True Believer, Eric Hoffer pointed out that dictatorships need not fear opposition as long as they maintain their iron grip, but that any relaxing of that grip is inevitably followed by public rebellion. If hierarchies were natural, this is the exact opposite of what we would expect.

To recapitulate, the proposition that hierarchies are part of human nature should entail the following:

* All societies in history should have hierarchies. (they don’t)
* We should all desire to obey. (we don’t)
* It should not be necessary to indoctrinate people to obey. (it is)
* People left to their own devices should naturally form hierarchies. (they don’t: see examples from Anarchy in Action chapter 2, notably the Peckham Experiment)

If hierarchies are not natural, then what is natural? As Kropotkin famously argued, mutual aid permeates the animal kingdom, including humans, and is probably a more important evolutionary factor than warfare between species or competition within a species. The faculties which led the human species to unlock the secrets of nature were social adaptations, not tools of war.

This is, of course, not a total vindication of the mutualist stance, but it’s something to consider. Tennyson’s conception of nature as being “red in tooth and claw” has been dominant in our psyches, Kropotkin notwithstanding, and the delusional Hobbesian conception of primitive anarchies as “nasty, brutish and short” has dominated theoretical politics. The position that mutual aid is the most important factor in nature and natural societies provides a strong counter-point to these assumptions.

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19 thoughts on ““Hierarchies are natural!”

  1. […] Are humans naturally hierarchical? […]

  2. Comrade N December 20, 2009 at 07:15

    I have to disagree. I think you are taking an absolutist approach to a situation that can only be interpreted statistically. Why? Because the emergence of hierarchies in animals (social or not) is the result of evolution, a process best understood using a statistical approach. Yes, I am saying hierarchies are natural in that sense. It can be observed in many species. (Pecking order?)

    “All societies in history have hierarchies. (they don’t)” According to a more statistical interpretation, societies in history should *tend* to form hierarchies. I’m sure that it’s reasonable to say that most societies in history had *some* form of hierarchy. There are definitely well-noted exceptions.

    “We should all desire to obey. (we don’t)” I don’t see how you can draw that conclusion from the proposition “hierarchies are part of human nature”. Obviously there are those who do not desire to obey. Those struggle to get to the top, leave, or die.

    “It should not be necessary to indoctrinate people to obey. (it is)” Not necessarily. If someone sees that it is in their best interest to obey, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they will, regardless of any indoctrination they’ve received.

    “People left to their own devices should naturally form hierarchies. (they don’t: see examples from Anarchy in Action chapter 2, notably the Peckham Experiment)” *Tend* to form hierarchies.

    I think the distinction is that in Capitalism an involuntary hierarchy is constructed such that “this person (the prime minister) is more important than this one (the labourer)” where it’s obvious that one has inherently more importance than the other. In an anarchy, there is no inherent hierarchy (if I understand correctly?), but it is easy to see that it is still possible for some form of informal hierarchy to develop independent of the anarchious model of the society.

    Keep in mind that I am an Anarchist and would like to see the positive development of this model of society as a viable alternative :)

  3. Francois Tremblay December 20, 2009 at 07:43

    “Yes, I am saying hierarchies are natural in that sense. It can be observed in many species. (Pecking order?)”

    I fail to see your point. Yes, hierarchies can be observed in many species, but mutual aid can be observed in a far greater proportion. The fact that any given trait exists somewhere does not imply that it is natural for humans.

    “According to a more statistical interpretation, societies in history should *tend* to form hierarchies. I’m sure that it’s reasonable to say that most societies in history had *some* form of hierarchy. There are definitely well-noted exceptions.”

    Societies in history do not *tend* to form hierarchies. For that to be true, you’d have to show that societies which do not have hierarchies have an innate pull towards forming hierarchies, which I don’t think is the case. Furthermore, whether “most” societies have hierarchies or not is irrelevant to that particular point.

    “I don’t see how you can draw that conclusion from the proposition “hierarchies are part of human nature”.”

    What do you mean? If something really is part of human nature, it’s a drive or an instinct or a bias or some such thing, it’s something that we want to do because the underlying desire is biological or mental, it’s outside of our control. That’s what it means. If hierarchies really were part of human nature, then we would seek them out.

    “Obviously there are those who do not desire to obey. Those struggle to get to the top, leave, or die.”

    I already addressed this in the entry. People practice obedience for various pragmatic reasons, not because they value it in itself or are driven to it.

    “Not necessarily. If someone sees that it is in their best interest to obey, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they will, regardless of any indoctrination they’ve received.”

    You’re merely sidestepping the point. You believe that it’s “in your best interest to obey” because you have been indoctrinated to believe that obedience is in your best interest.

    “*Tend* to form hierarchies.”

    They don’t.

    “In an anarchy, there is no inherent hierarchy (if I understand correctly?), but it is easy to see that it is still possible for some form of informal hierarchy to develop independent of the anarchious model of the society.”

    How does this “informal hierarchy” develop from a state of equality and what are some of its forms? You’re just throwing this in the air, but you need to be more specific.

  4. ray December 20, 2009 at 20:18

    A crystalized hierarchy which sustains itself decays over time, it is not natural.

    However some people emerge as leaders and some as followers and so long as their trade and business does not allow wealth to circulate only among the rich creating a oligarchy, there will be a flat society. This flat society will also become corrupt over time.

  5. Francois Tremblay December 20, 2009 at 20:22

    How so?

  6. Comrade N December 20, 2009 at 22:26

    “I fail to see your point. Yes, hierarchies can be observed in many species, but mutual aid can be observed in a far greater proportion. The fact that any given trait exists somewhere does not imply that it is natural for humans.”

    I’m not saying anything about mutual aid because its existence is mutually exclusive from a hierarchy. As far as traits existing somewhere, social hierarchies exist in most primates. No, that does not imply that it is natural for humans. I was simply using it to construct some kind of context

    “Societies in history do not *tend* to form hierarchies. For that to be true, you’d have to show that societies which do not have hierarchies have an innate pull towards forming hierarchies, which I don’t think is the case. Furthermore, whether “most” societies have hierarchies or not is irrelevant to that particular point.”

    I’m afraid it’s not, because you claim that ‘not all societies in history have hierarchies’. And I agree, not all do. But why do most, if it’s not natural for humans to form hierarchies? Why have they cropped up in isolated locations, independently, if they are not natural?

    “What do you mean? If something really is part of human nature, it’s a drive or an instinct or a bias or some such thing, it’s something that we want to do because the underlying desire is biological or mental, it’s outside of our control. That’s what it means. If hierarchies really were part of human nature, then we would seek them out.”

    It’s an aspect of social interaction, which we do seek out, I think. I don’t think we seek out hierarchy itself.

    “I already addressed this in the entry. People practice obedience for various pragmatic reasons, not because they value it in itself or are driven to it. … You’re merely sidestepping the point. You believe that it’s “in your best interest to obey” because you have been indoctrinated to believe that obedience is in your best interest.”

    I’m going to be imprisoned (or in extreme circumstances, killed) if I don’t obey. Whether or not I am indoctrinated to believe it’s going to happen is irrelevant. I think your reasoning is flawed somewhere if you think that is “pragmatic”.

    “How does this “informal hierarchy” develop from a state of equality and what are some of its forms? You’re just throwing this in the air, but you need to be more specific.”

    It’s as simple as someone’s reputation being passed along between members of the society. While there may be no official hierarchy, a person with a bad reputation is going to have less advantages than one with a good reputation.

  7. Comrade N December 20, 2009 at 22:31

    And I see that my argument regarding obedience falls under your “no other viable option” category. I should just be clear that I don’t think people naturally value obedience, anyway. I don’t think this is an important part of either argument.

  8. Francois Tremblay December 21, 2009 at 04:06

    “And I see that my argument regarding obedience falls under your “no other viable option” category. I should just be clear that I don’t think people naturally value obedience, anyway. I don’t think this is an important part of either argument.”

    What do you mean, not important? You’ve basically conceded the whole discussion. If obedience is not a natural value, then hierarchies can’t be natural, since hierarchies are basically a set of obedience relationships. (I realize there’s a lot more added to it, but that’s its simplest expression)

  9. Francois Tremblay December 21, 2009 at 04:12

    “I’m not saying anything about mutual aid because its existence is mutually exclusive from a hierarchy.”

    That was my very point. Mutual aid, not hierarchies, is the predominant form of relations in the animal kingdom, including in humans.

    “Why have they cropped up in isolated locations, independently, if they are not natural?”

    Can you prove that or are you just talking out of thin air? Certainly this is not true of the State. Which hierarchy do you believe has cropped up independently?

    But I should be clear that this fact alone would not make hierarchies natural. To prove that any property is natural, you have to show that they fulfill the criteria I posted in the entry. Hierarchies fulfill none of these criteria.

    “It’s an aspect of social interaction, which we do seek out, I think. I don’t think we seek out hierarchy itself.”

    Like I said, I already answered that in my entry, by addressing the reasons why people obey.

    “I’m going to be imprisoned (or in extreme circumstances, killed) if I don’t obey.”

    Which proves… what? That I’m right in saying that we obey for other reasons than because we have some biological or psychological need to do so? Why are you making my arguments for me?

    “It’s as simple as someone’s reputation being passed along between members of the society. While there may be no official hierarchy, a person with a bad reputation is going to have less advantages than one with a good reputation.”

    How does this make a hierarchy? You haven’t shown any obedience existing in this system.

  10. […] Anyway, and this seems to be the running theme here, the author completely fails to address the main issue, which is: is capitalism or socialism closer to the necessities and needs of human nature? The fact that capitalism is a very recent invention on the timeline of humanity seems to argue against capitalism. And as I’ve argued recently, all the evidence seems to show that hierarchies are not natural. […]

  11. Sue Denim February 12, 2010 at 22:46

    My definition of hierarchy is any organization in which the members have unequal influence on decisions making.

    That, I would argue, it certainly natural. Suppose we five workers who are sub-Saharan african from low IQ/low charisma families and two asian workers from high IQ/high charisma families.

    The asians will dominate because they have a higher racial average IQ. A higher actual IQ, are more attractive (natural charisma) and are more genetically capable and prone to leadership and creativity. The two will have an influence that outweighs the five. That is how I would define heirarchy.

    Or is we had a team 5’6″ norwegian females playing basketball against a team of 6’5″ black nigerian males. No one in their rational mind would bet on the short norwegian women over the tall black men. Therefore there is inequality coming from natural conditions. That’s what I call hierarchy.

    Generally I would like to see an anarchist-esque society where everyone has effective equal political power but I think that such a society will come to be dominated by those with better genes (higher IQ, more charisma, etc).

    • Francois Tremblay February 13, 2010 at 04:08

      You are confusing authority and hierarchy. As Bakunin famously pointed out, we Anarchists don’t reject the advice of those more qualified than we are. That’s besides the point, though. Hierarchy has nothing to do with receiving advice or any form of inequality. It has to do with decision-making: some people make decisions over other people’s lives. Inequality of power, if you want.

      And please tone down the racism. This is not a vulgar blog.

  12. […] 5. Why hierarchies are immoral… 6. “Hierarchies are natural!” […]

  13. […] given character trait as being part of human nature or not. I have laid out this case clearly for hierarchies, giving clear criteria on how one could evaluate such a claim, and the fact that the concept of […]

  14. […] hierarchies because they believe that hierarchies are a natural result of the free market and that hierarchies are natural. Marxists worship hierarchies because they think people can’t be free without being properly […]

  15. katrina January 31, 2012 at 09:06

    one word: Bonobos

  16. […] some cases, these propositions are just plain lies, such as the fact that hierarchies are not part of human nature or that people are not evil but rather act in the way dictated to them by the incentives in their […]

  17. […] Worshipping the magic hierarchies… Why hierarchies are immoral… “Hierarchies are natural!” […]

  18. […] have discussed these attacks in various entries, such as “Hierarchies are natural!”, “Greed is part of human nature!”, Against Psychological Egoism and The trouble with time […]

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