Thinking About Anarchism: Hierarchy – What it is and isn’t

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 other political tendencies. 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.

Formal Hierarchies
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.

Direct Hierarchy
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.

Indirect Hierarchy
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’.

Sometimes it is said that anarchists want to eliminate all power in society. That isn’t strictly true. Anarchists very much want every single person to have power ‘to’. That is, we want each person to be as confident and capable as possible and to be able to realise their wishes as long as it doesn’t hurt others. What anarchists do want to eliminate is power ‘over’.

More Examples
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 main ideas.

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. Unfortunately, hierarchies tend to be treated as ‘natural’ if they are even recognised at all. Just like the ‘divine right of kings’ justified monarchy, there have been a host of justifications given for the lower place of queer people, women, the mentally ill, migrants, and anyone treated unfairly. As history progresses, many of these reasons are debunked and we see past the prejudice. It’s quite like the ‘god of the gaps’. Church authorities told us that god had made the Earth and all the creatures on it. Then Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace showed that life evolved instead. So then the church authorities looked for another gap in our understanding to fill, such as the origin of the universe. This practice has a long history, for instance people believing the sun was a god.

As a species we can fall into a bad habit of assuming whatever exists socially right now is inevitable. 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. In fact, these hierarchies can make our lives quite chaotic – war is clearest example of that, but so is domestic violence, poverty, and a list of other situations. 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.Related image

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 hazardous journey.

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 extraordinary task.

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. Imbalances of power create the possibility of abusing that power. If people are equal, in this sense, then we will be much more likely to do right by each other. The big problem with institutionalised power imbalances is that no matter how nice a person is they end up hurting others by following the rules of the institution. The aim is a society of freedom and equality, characterised by democracy rather than aristocracy, respect rather than command. A world where each person has power ‘to’ but not power ‘over’. That world is possible, and we can build it by studying our current situation, spotting the hierachies, and working to replace them with a better way of behaving: inclusion, co-operation, and dignity.