The Dangerous Dream of Dismantling Human Hierarchies

The Dangerous Dream of Dismantling Human Hierarchies

Christoph Kletzer
Christoph Kletzer
18 min read

It is an idea that has always united radicals, from the sans-culottes of the French Revolution to current student activists at the University of Missouri: they have all detested the scourge of social hierarchy, the peculiar fact that some people rank higher than others and enjoy privileged access to some resources—be they power, esteem, attention or financial reward. It is, of course, not only radicals of past and present who shun hierarchies. Even in the more polite circles of newsrooms, sociology departments or centrist party academies, there is broad agreement that abolishing hierarchies has to be a moral imperative. Prestigious philosophers, like, say, Elizabeth Anderson, who can in no way be associated with the radical fringes, demand the dismantling of social hierarchies. In effect, the discourse of social justice is now largely synonymous with outlining what an abolition of status hierarchies would involve and if you ever wanted to make enemies and alienate people try to suggest at the next board meeting: “Well, let’s introduce a clear, steep hierarchy for a change!”

Yet at the same time, the attitude of ordinary folk towards hierarchies seems pretty relaxed. Undisturbed by the consensus on the intrinsic maliciousness of hierarchies, most people seem rather at ease with their given place in hierarchies and happily navigate their every-day lives therein, from the various ranks in their companies, over league tables of colleges or sports teams, to prestige systems in their gym, tiers in frequent flyer programs, or follower-number contests on Instagram. Unsupervised by politicians, philosophers or life coaches, most of us are perfectly happy to constantly add to the vertical dimension of our lives and to introduce ever new forms of social stratification, forms of super- and subordination to which we joyfully submit. I don’t even think that the most publicly committed status-egalitarians privately act any differently and the academic departments in which they operate tend to be the fiercest hierarchical environments. We are all engaged in status struggles, we orient our lives in relation to hierarchies, make sense of our goals and our world in their terms and perceive their absence as chaos and cacophony.

So, there’s the strange thing: the official and unofficial versions of our lives are miles apart, the sophisticated gloss we put on our lives does not look anything like the highly structured mess we are happy to navigate in and constantly add to. Who’s right?

I believe that the ordinary folk have it and that our desire to submit to some of our fellow humans and to dominate others or charm them into submission is not inherently evil. I will lay out my arguments for this broad claim and also some simple techniques of how to successfully navigate hierarchies in a book I am currently working on. The present essay, however, is dedicated to one particular argument which, I believe, can work as a tie-breaker in this debate: whether good or bad in themselves, we should not try to get rid of hierarchies in general as any such an attempt simply would come at way too high a moral cost.

These costs should be rather obvious. We do have, after all, a rich historic record of projects that seriously aimed at dismantling hierarchy: from the French and Bolshevik revolutions, to the Khmer Rouge revolt and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They have all failed. What we have not fully grasped, I believe, is why these attempts have failed so spectacularly: is it not curious that any attempt that was indeed serious about creating an egalitarian, non-hierarchical world has not simply fallen short or not lived up to what was expected, but rather has without exception failed in a cataclysmic way and apart from destitution and misery has produced the exact opposite of the original egalitarian goal? I wonder why this boggles so few minds. Most projects fail rather un-spectacularly. They fade out, get stuck half way, peter out, sand up, produce less than expected. In the non-hierarchy movement, however, every serious attempt to do away with hierarchy completely has led to death, misery and poisonous hierarchies at an epic scale.

There are four forces at play that can explain this strange fact and that collectively counter any attempt to get rid of hierarchies—call them the four seals of hierarchy:

  1. our human culture
  2. our animal nature
  3. the logic of conflict
  4. the nature of political action

Each of these taken by itself would make a political programme to dismantle hierarchies futile. Taken in combination they make such a project quite straightforwardly idiotic and, given the costs that overcoming these strong forces would produce, positively immoral.

So far, the focus of the debate has mainly been on the relation between the first two forces. People have argued ad nauseam whether the hierarchies we find populating our lives are the product of human culture or human nature. Strangely enough, many seem convinced that much hangs on this question. They seem convinced that if hierarchies turned out to be a cultural phenomenon then they could be easily gotten rid of, whereas if they turned out to be biological in nature, then they would stick with us.

I do not see why this should be the case. After all, it has yet to be demonstrated that it is easy or even possible to change culture. The belief, for instance, that Kosovo is part of Serbia is certainly not a biological given. Wherever one stands on this issue it should be rather clear that despite being under severe pressure this belief has remained largely intact since at least 1389 and will likely continue intact for at least another 630 years. Many cultural beliefs are just like that. So, the hope that identifying hierarchies as a cultural phenomenon alone will mark them out as malleable is rather mistaken, I am afraid.

To get a sense of the four forces at play, let’s try the following thought experiment: let us assume that the philosophers and politicians proposing to dismantle hierarchies were in earnest in their demand and truly wanted to get rid of all forms of social status. What would we have to do to create such a non-hierarchical, classless, status-free, equal, homogenous society?

The first thing that would have to go would be our culture. Our actual culture is hierarchical all the way down. The esteem we lend to artists, the shame and condemnation we afford to crooks of various kids, the wealth and opportunity we allot to doctors and models, the praise we heap on our own food, the ridicule we throw at theirs. Even the praise we afford to egalitarians implies a rank-order. The things we value, the things we spurn, the kind of people we collectively attend to and the ones we are happy to overlook, all of this is a product of and produces the cultural matrix of valuations and corresponding de-valuations, feeding into a hierarchy of esteem and ultimately domination. That the domination is sometimes consented to or happily entered into does not make it less of a relation of domination. One does not need to be a seasoned scholar of Foucault to see this. The common distinction between hierarchies of domination and hierarchies of prestige would only be of use in this kerfuffle if it played a role in sieving out good hierarchies from bad ones. But, unfortunately, it does not get the cut right. There are too many examples of bad prestige hierarchies (Instagram, academic star-cliques, suicide cults) and good dominance hierarchies (the family, the military, apprenticeship) for this distinction to carry any weight in our debate. Furthermore, the difference between social coercion and social seduction is one of degree, if not entirely elusive. It relates more to the aroma of the force at play than to its strength. It is thus better to leave these labels out completely. They do not help.

However, even if we were able to actively steer culture in a specific direction, it remains unclear what exact shape such a culture should take if it was to shake off hierarchies in a more than superficial fashion. After all, every culture known to man has so far been substantially hierarchical.

But what about all the hunter gatherer societies we hear about? Were they not by and large egalitarian? In a very limited sense, yes: in some of these societies there indeed was no permanent despotic leader, and all men were politically on the same level. Furthermore, leaders did not unilaterally direct the course of action but merely facilitated the process of finding a consensus.

However, on closer examination it turns out that these societies were by no means non-hierarchical. Rather the opposite. As early as in the 1960ies the Columbia University social anthropologist Morton Fried found that despite the surface appearance of equality these societies had intricate systems of rankings of skill, prestige, influence and authority. On top of that, they afforded the status of equality only to able-bodied grown men, whose authority remained relatively unrestrained within the household. Later on, the anthropologist Christopher Boehm showed that the egalitarian setup of those small tribes was owed not so much to an absence of an ambition to dominate, but rather to a very delicate balance of countervailing hierarchies. The egalitarianism was maintained by an intense and strategic use of ridicule, social ostracism, gossip, disobedience, and, in extreme cases, even the killing potential despotic leaders.

These were thus highly active, small-scale enterprises not of non-hierarchies but of what Boehm called “reverse order hierarchies” where the rank and file of the community balanced out the aspirations of domination with counter-domination. Such pockets of small-scale equality kept stable by mockery, gossip and shame still operate today in small, tightly knit communities like golf clubs, gym posses or bridge rounds. The equality found here, however, has little to do with the equality of a universal homogenous state but is rather an aristocratic equality of noblemen, much in line with what the famous English Judge Sir Edward Coke wrote in 1642: “every of the Nobles is a Peer to each other.” This kind of equality has a deeply aristocratic side to it. It is not a natural state, but a delicate and transient artifice found at the apex of society. Just as it was the case with the hunter-gatherers so, as the political theorist Theresa Bejan pointed out, in the case of English noblemen “respecting one’s equals equally was evidently a difficult, delicate, and elite business.”

It is, however, not only the small scale of certain societies that facilitated the peculiar counter-balancing of hierarchies and the aristocratic-egalitarian result. It is also the sheer lack of economic surplus produced: as soon as small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers became sedentary and started to store food, the egalitarian equilibrium of domination hierarchies and counter-domination hierarchies collapsed, and the more usual forms of top-down domination emerged.

Economic surplus is indeed the deciding factor here. You cannot have surplus and a flat hierarchy. Why this is the case has been repeatedly stressed by one of the most careful scholars of social domination and discrimination, the Harvard Professor of African American Studies Jim Sidanius:

Because of economic surplus, not all adults need to devote most of their time to food procurement and survival. Certain males are then freed to specialise in the arts of coercion (e.g., warlordism, policing) or spiritual and intellectual sophistry. These specialists are used by political elites to establish and enforce expropriative economic and social relationships with other members of the society. Even if attention is restricted to non-subsistence societies, one is truly hard pressed to find a society anywhere in the world that does not have an arbitrary-set stratification system. Furthermore, every attempt to abolish arbitrary-set, group-based hierarchy within societies of economic surplus have, without exception, failed.

It is thus safe to say that so far there has been no society, no culture that did not exhibit forms of hierarchy, status and domination. On reflection it is hard to even conceive in the abstract what a non-hierarchical culture would look like. After all, “a culture” is not much more than a status hierarchy based on a set of shared valuations and de-valuations.

The small hunter-gatherer tribes are thus not the counter-example they were hoped to be. But what about networks? Are they not the hailed alternatives to hierarchies? Could we not at least fulfil some of the cultural functions that hierarchies serve by means of networks?

Unfortunately not. After all, networks themselves are hierarchically structured. This might sound odd at first. However, if one looks at how real networks are structured, it quickly becomes clear that in those networks nodes never have equally as many connections. Not even closely: the distribution of number of links between nodes regularly follows a so-called power law, where the inequality of distribution of connectivity is often so extreme that the distribution of connections does not even have a mean or variance. The World Wide Web you navigate in, the wiring of your brain, the food web you hopefully sit at the end of, electric networks, citation networks, metabolic and regulatory networks, the web of language, and so on and on, they are all structured hierarchically: a couple of nodes have most of the connections and all the rest have very, very few. On reflection this is rather obvious: after all, the point of a network is to connect nodes; if a node wanted to connect with as many other nodes as possible, it best connects with a node that already has a lot of connections. This, however, inevitably leads to a situation where the more connections a node has the more connections it will attract. The logic of connectivity thus is multiplicative, not additive and if you leave a relatively non-hierarchical network to its own devices it will gradually and with increasing speed grow more and more hierarchical. The lesson is this: equality is never a result, it is always the starting point of an emerging hierarchy.

There is a further confusion. Most setups that might appear to be non-hierarchical are actually deeply hierarchical. We know this from the pseudo-egalitarian but actually despotic structures of small communes, communist party organisations and other so-called flat hierarchies. If you look closely, what you find is an informal hierarchy. Do not take my word for it, take the word of a famed feminist: the legendary women’s right activist Jo Freeman has aptly pointed to what she called the Tyranny of Structurelessness. When describing the faults of the early women’s right movement she rightly observed that the abolition of formal hierarchies did not at all lead to the abolition of hierarchies but only to the replacement of formal hierarchies by informal ones. These, however, were much more insidious as they were at the same time excessively inscrutable, exclusionary, and impractical.

Dismantling our historically given hierarchical culture would not suffice, however. Even in the infinitely unlikely case that we managed to overcome this hurdle a second force would immediately make itself felt: our animal nature.

The evidence here is, I believe, as overwhelming and universally accepted in the natural sciences as it is jolly well denied in great stretches of the social sciences. The scientific consensus runs roughly along the following lines: we humans are a sexually reproducing dimorphic species; we have agreed to call the sex that produces few large immobile eggs in need of gestation the female and we call the sex that produces a plentiful of small and mobile sperm the male. This sexual difference leads to a rather straightforward difference in parental investment strategies. Males bear comparatively fewer costs than females in producing healthy offspring. This, in turn, leads to somewhat differential mating strategies between males and females, where males will turn out to be comparatively less selective of their mating partners and females comparatively more so. This female selectiveness, in turn, leads to comparatively heightened competition between males for the few available reproductive slots; this competition, in turn, leads to the development of comparatively more aggressive and dominance behaviour in men; now, since the male’s reproductive success is increased by gaining access to females, by taking resources from other males in order to offer it to potential female mating partners, and by restricting other males from having access to females and to resources necessary to support their families, a social psychological disposition to social dominance is likely to develop. Or, to put it in the crystal-clear words of Jim Sidanius: dominance is adaptive.

Boehm, too, comes to the conclusion that there is a “universal drive to dominance” in our species. One could also call it a “predilection”, a “generic preparation”, or an “innate disposition”. What matters is that “we are talking about a behaviour that, because of our genes, is more readily learned in our particular species than it might be in another.”

Every one of these claims, especially the most basic ones, has been denied by some ideologically blinded hardliners. These people will not be convinced, of course. It is all a bit like the case of the infamous Soviet biologist Lysenko: since the brutally undialectical Mendelian view of genetic inheritance did not fit his Marxist politics, he clung to an absurd Lamarckism and thereby not only turned himself into the scientific fool of the century but also led to the death of millions by starvation.

It would be terribly funny were it not so terrible. But the real joke is that the whole debate between nature and nurture is moot, since what is doing the heavy lifting is yet to come.

So, whilst both culture and nature produce formidable obstacles to any attempt at dismantling hierarchies, they are by far not the greatest hurdles. The truly decisive blow to any such attempt is dealt by logic itself, namely, the logic of conflict.

To illustrate this point, assume the following: assume that our collectively directed re-education efforts had succeeded and that we managed to breed more and more egalitarian-minded humans disinclined to dominate and exploit their status advantage vis-à-vis others. Assume further that this flattening of hierarchies was not the result of a small-scale counter-domination but rather the effect of a true decrease in our interest in status and domination. As good as this might sound to many it would by necessity produce the following quandary: the more egalitarians there are the more potential easy victims a contrarian domineering strategy would have and thus the more lucrative in terms of reproductive success it would become to develop and cultivate such a domineering character trait. The more egalitarians there are the more offspring with equally non-egalitarian traits these non-egalitarians would have. Egalitarianism thus breeds non-egalitarianism. Jinxed!

A purely non-domineering, egalitarian strategy does not present what the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith called an evolutionary stable strategy. Since the “dovish” egalitarian strategy can be easily invaded by its “hawkish” counterpart, the former’s spread is nothing that could reasonably be expected or even maintained without constant external coercive interference.

There are thus higher-order forces at play that have formed not only our culture but also our nature. In the end, it thus does not matter whether our hierarchical inclinations, our propensity to dominate and submit are culturally created or whether we are so genetically disposed: they will emerge as soon their pay-off matrix will make them profitable.

But do not be fooled: there will be egalitarians who will be utterly unfazed by all of this, who will resort to any form of sophistry necessary in order to avoid the conclusions any reasonable person would draw. Those should heed the fourth seal of hierarchy: the iron force of hierarchy.

This force is based in the fact that any project to create and maintain an egalitarian society has to itself be organised hierarchically. The attainment and maintenance of social equality is an infinitely difficult task that surely will not come about spontaneously. The implementation and conservation of equality rather requires complex and powerful institutions. These requisite social institutions, however, are inconceivable without leadership, authority and ultimately far reaching coercive powers. As a matter of fact, the monstrosity of the task at hand would require a dense, and very likely military organisation of society. The dark sorcery of the iron force is this: when we try to implement egalitarianism, we have to make use of tools that by necessity push us away from egalitarianism. The political form which is required for the realisation of equality stands in strict opposition to the content of the goal to be achieved. Equality is thus not only inherently unattractive it is internally incoherent and thus structurally unsound.

It is no coincidence that Marx predicted that on our way to equality we have to first expect a steep increase in inequality, that we have to be prepared to enter the dictatorship of the proletariat.  Before it gets better it gets worse. This is what every crook will tell you when pitching poisonous snake-oil as medicine. But don’t be fooled! It will not get better.

I have pinched this idea of the iron force of hierarchy from the work of the German sociologist Robert Michels, friend and protégée of Max Weber, who in 1911 formulated what he called the iron law of oligarchy: whatever the outer form of government, he argued, behind the scenes there will always be an oligarchy in place. A few dominating the many. It cannot be otherwise. After all, even the most egalitarian democracy is inconceivable without organisation. And organisation is always oligarchical. Or, put differently: in order to maintain its egalitarian setup an egalitarian society will have to make sure the weak can defend themselves against the strong. However, the only tool the weak have to their avail against the strong is to organise themselves collectively. Yet this organisation, according to Michels, is inherently hierarchical and thus anti-egalitarian. The only alternative to company bosses dominating is that party functionaries do and most of the time the bureaucratic plenitude of their rule dwarfs the power of bosses.

But could there not be non-hierarchical organisation? Can there not be a truly democratic organisation? Well no, argued Michels: first of all, democracies work by organising particular interests around parties. These parties, however, have to be organised hierarchically in order to be effective in democratic competition. It is hard to see how a non-hierarchical state governance can emerge from a deeply hierarchically, sometimes even militarily organised party. Secondly, even if one managed to get rid of parties (which would be a disaster for democracies), the democratically organised commonwealth would still have to reach its goals effectively. Now, the problem is that goals themselves are structured hierarchically. Each goal is made up of sub-goals and sub-sub goals and when their attainment requires coordination there by necessity will be leaders and managers in place that will direct the action of subordinates.

*   *   *

So how do these four seals of hierarchy explain the jinx of egalitarianism and the universal spectacular failure of any project that aims at seriously dismantling hierarchy?

A clue for an explanation of demonic jinx lies, I believe, in the second two seals of hierarchy. The clash of egalitarianism with culture and nature is a straightforward collision of two forces. Whilst the political goal of an abolition of hierarchy pushes in one direction, nurture and nature pushes in the other. This might make the abolition of hierarchy hard, but it is impossible to say in advance how hard it is. The failure of recent attempts might simply lie in the fact that we did not try hard enough. In the case of the second two seals, however, we face an entirely different situation: here we do not have the un-dialectical case of two forces pushing against each other, but we have the paradoxical, dialectical situation where the force pushing against hierarchies ends up pushing against itself and creating its own counter-force. The harder we push the harder it gets. This is a struggle we should know that we cannot win. The mind-boggling dialectic of this relation is, I believe, what again and again has led to the stupefying cold-bloodedness that develops in all the regimes that tried to be in earnest with the abolition of hierarchy and that has again and again led to this strange willingness to accept bloodbath after bloodbath. So, whenever people propose to dismantle hierarchies, from dinner parties to university seminars, let us hope they are not serious!

*   *   *

What, then, is a hierarchy? In the end, it is the records of a truce, the terms of a peace settlement. It represents the equilibrium of actual forces and is thus the manifestation of peace not as a slogan or a dream, but as a concrete reality. Getting rid of such an equilibrium does not by some kind of magic eradicate the forces involved. It unleashes them. One cannot undo hierarchies without undoing the peace accord they stand for. Sometimes, like in the case of slavery, the wrong of the hierarchy will indeed be of such magnitude that open conflict is better than a fiercely unjust peace. Most of the time, however, this will not be the case. If you get rid of formal hierarchies what you end up with is informal ones, which are regularly worse. And if you get rid of informal hierarchies you end up with war.

What then are these mysterious forces that push us towards ever steeper hierarchies? For all sober observers they are as easy to identify as they are hard to accept: these forces are peace, freedom and prosperity. If you leave people to their own devices, if you allow them to freely attend to their own businesses and associate as they wish, they will link up as they see fit and will coalesce around mega-connectors. People with many socially valuable connections will naturally attract ever more of those valuable connections and will accelerate to the top of the pack, form coalitions up there and will then start to monopolise access to resources. Usually, the older an institution is, the more hierarchical it becomes. Full equality is the form of a beginning, it can never be the result.

If this is true, if equality is always new and can be kept pristine ever only for a short while, then any sustained attempt to create and preserve substantive equality has by necessity to be this: first destroy all old institutions and then make sure that nothing new develops. This, however, means: to wage a constant war against your own people.

There will thus be no equality without destruction. I believe that the only morally acceptable way that leads to some kind of dispersed and controlled destruction of hierarchical imbalances is the market, the force that allows for a Schumpeterian creative destruction and that constantly sends some agents up the hierarchy and others down. Note that in a dynamic economy like the US, where the rich get poor and the poor get rich, 73 percent of the population will spend at least a year of their lives in the top 20 percent of income distribution, 56 percent will spend a year in the top 10 percent, 39 percent in the top 5 percent and 10 percent in the top 1 percent. Market capitalism is a dynamic system and makes sense only if looked at dynamically.

As soon as one knows what kind of obstacles to the dismantling of hierarchies exist and what kind of violence and excesses of force the complete overcoming of these obstacles would require, it becomes clear how deeply immoral advocating for such a course of action is. The warm glow of goodness that this wish certainly effects, cannot, I believe, make up for the actual evil it constitutes.

In the end, it has to be a well-balanced combination of hierarchies and markets, these two constants of the logic of human interaction, that will make our affairs go well. Markets and hierarchies are the prototypical forms of human interaction, they are not simply arbitrary institutions we at some point in time came up with on the drawing board and which we can either use or leave to one side. They are features of the logic of human interaction as such. This means that you cannot get rid of them, even if you tried, you can only employ them beneficially or harmfully. Markets and hierarchies are but the outer form of the complex interactions of actual human desires. They will cease to exist only when human desires cease to exist. Just as banning a market has never gotten rid of it but only ever pushed it out of public view and created a black market with usually worse consequences for the most vulnerable market participants, so the banning or dismantling of hierarchies does not really get rid of them but produces analogous black hierarchies, which harm all the participants. The beauty of a good nation, the art of its government, its constitution, its national wit and customs is to engage both hierarchies and markets in a productive and healthy way. Abstract egalitarian slogans certainly do not help but are merely the battle cry of the new pretenders to the top ranks available in society.

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