The Story of Hierarchy
Richard K. Moore – 24 Jan 2014
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City-states: the first exploitive hierarchies
In a hierarchal society there are a few at the top, who make the big decisions – and everyone else, who are obliged to abide by those decisions. If the interests of those at the top are aligned with the interests of the general population, hierarchy can be a somewhat reasonable mode of organization. The few are able to reach coherent decisions efficiently, and the many can get on with the business of society.
In our very first hierarchical societies – herding bands ruled by a warrior chief – we had such an alignment of interests. The chief and the band shared the goals of obtaining the best pastures for their herds, and protecting their territory from competing bands. A strong chief improved their combat prowess, and the system worked well for the chief and band alike.
The chief enjoyed many privileges, compared to the rest of the band, yet his role was essentially beneficial to the band, not exploitive. He got the biggest slice of the pie, and his lieutenants did well too, but overall the pie was divided reasonably equitably.
Our second generation of hierarchical societies emerged when herding bands conquered and enslaved early agricultural societies. The few at the top were now exploiting the majority of the population, and most of the pie was now being shared by the new upper class, the members of the conquering tribe. The slaves did all the hard work and grew the food, and subsisted on crumbs from the pie that their labor created.
From our modern perspective, this was a radically different kind of society than either of its ancestor societies, the herders and the agriculturalists. We can appreciate that this was the beginning of exploitive hierarchy, something that has cursed us ever since. This is a perspective that would have made sense to the slaves of that time as well. They had become slaves on the very lands they had once proudly called their own. For the first time, the interests of those at the top were no longer in alignment with the interests of the general population of the society.
From the perspective of the conquering tribe, however, the new societies were in many ways very similar to the original herding societies. The chief – now king – was still the undisputed ruler, and he still shared the pie more or less equitably with his fellows, the members of the conquering tribe. The difference was that the slaves had now taken the place of the herds.
Throughout history, slaves have always been looked on as subhuman by their masters. To the conquering tribe, this first generation of slaves was simply a better source of food than the herds had been. A greater supply of food could be obtained, and without the need to stay on the move looking for green pastures. Slaves were property, just like the herd animals had been, and they could perform many other kinds of labor as well, besides just food production. The slaves were not people: they were multi-purpose beasts of burden.
From the perspective of the conquerors, the internal structure of society had not changed radically – because the slaves were not part of society. Such was the nature of the early city-states that arose in Mesopotamia. Historians consider these slave-based societies to be the beginning of Western civilization.
The new kings were in their hearts still warrior chiefs, but with food surpluses at their disposal, and a more solid base of operations to work from. They could now deploy armies on missions of conquest, to capture more territory and more slaves.
Once these city-states were established, they were characterized by regular warfare. Archeological excavations reveal that the cities were destroyed and rebuilt time after time, falling to successive waves of conquest.
The same dynamics of growth applied to city-states as applied to the herding bands. A larger city-state had a relative survival advantage, and there were still the benefits of alliances. In this way early empires developed, where one supreme ruler managed to gain control of a larger domain, including a collection of cities and their hinterlands.
Thus was born the mainstream thread of Western Civilization. A similar story can be told about the rise of Chinese civilization, or the Incas and Aztecs, all of which followed a similar evolutionary pattern.
This thread continued, with ever-larger societies, and ever-greater complexity. And always there have been the few at the top, exploiting the population as they would a herd of cattle, with the help of a stratified class structure. In that way we have reached a situation where a small clique is seeking to dominate the whole globe, while culling the herd in the process.
Paths that could have been followed
The mainstream evolutionary path we have followed was not inevitable. Hierarchy was not an unavoidable consequence of developing more complex societies. There were societies that showed us other paths, moving toward scale and complexity while avoiding hierarchy.
In her book The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler talks about the Early Civilizations of Europe. These societies developed partnership cultures, rather than hierarchies, to deal with the complexities of civilization. Their cities lasted thousands of years without being destroyed by warfare.
This is not surprising, because an agricultural society is inherently adverse to warfare. A farmer wants nothing more than peace and stability, so he can grow and harvest his crops. When the farmers are slaves, however, other forces are controlling their destiny.
Another example is provided by the Sioux Nation, one of the Native American tribes. The Sioux were made up of fierce warrior bands, with horses and hunting territories, in many ways similar to the warrior bands we discussed above. Like them the Sioux were plagued by ongoing conflicts among the different bands, competing for the best territories.
Instead of this leading to ever-larger bands under absolute-ruler chiefs, the Sioux found another solution – based on dialog. They worked out a system of councils, where representatives of the various bands could meet and work out their differences by reaching consensus. This is where we get the image of a pow wow, and smoking the peace pipe around the campfire. This was a stable system, which continued up until the Europeans invaded and destroyed the Native American cultures.
If the early herding bands had invented such councils, or if they had not conquered the early agricultural societies, mainstream civilization might have evolved on a non-hierarchical basis. Unfortunately, once exploitive hierarchies came into existence, they were destined to prevail – by virtue of their ability and motivation to mobilize and deploy military force. The pursuit of exploitation – the knowledge of good and evil – was our toxic Fall from Grace.
Paths that failed: the story of a republic
1776 was a pivotal year. In that year Thomas Paine published Common Sense, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, and the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. These events were related to one another in important ways.
The Wealth of Nations presents a very cogent argument for the benefits of an economy based on market forces. In fact, the argument is based on the existence of strong market regulations, but that part of the argument has generally been ignored. With the regulations omitted, Smith’s argument has been used as propaganda for totally unregulated markets – laissez-faire capitalism. Without regulations, capitalism inevitably leads to monopolies and cartels, the very things that Smith most adamantly opposed, and which his regulations were intended to prevent.
Common Sense was essentially an argument against the necessity of hierarchical governance. Paine made a strong distinction between society and government. He argued that society, what we might call civil society, does not require some monarch to manage it. Just as Smith explained how markets are self-organizing, Paine was explaining how societies are self-organizing. Common Sense broke all existing publication records, and was read on street corners throughout the colonies, as most people could not read.
The Declaration of Independence was signed nine months after Common Sense was published. The Declaration was both the articulation of a political philosophy, and the declaration of an intent to overthrow the rule of the Crown in the American Colonies.
The political philosophy claims that citizens have the right to replace their government if that government is failing to serve the interests of the people, and if that government fails to respond to petitions for the redress of grievances. The Declaration does not refer to Common Sense, but the philosophy would have made little sense to colonists if Paine’s thinking was not widely familiar to them.
Prior to the publication of Common Sense, the majority of colonists were not in favor of independence. They had strong complaints, and were calling for better treatment and for representation in Parliament, but they wanted to remain under the protection of the Crown. They believed a monarch was necessary for an ordered society, just as a captain is necessary on a ship.
Common Sense is perhaps the most successful revolutionary document ever written, as it succeeded in persuading an entire population that a radically different form of governance was possible. Paine planted the seed of independence, and after nine months of gestation that seed gave birth to a colony-wide revolutionary spirit. Without Common Sense the Declaration of Independence would have fallen on deaf ears, and the elite signatories would never have found the courage to sign it.
In actual fact, the colonies were already essentially self-governing. There were no Royal administrations or large garrisons in the colonies, only a Governor in each colony who represented the authority of the Crown. Each colony had some kind of representative assembly that had the responsibility for day-to-day governance. The leading elites in the colonies knew they could continue governing successfully if the Governors were expelled and the ties to the Crown were severed.
The colonial elites did not need Common Sense to awaken their revolutionary spirit. They were already governing the colonies, and they had long been yearning for independence. Their reasons, however, had more to do with economics than with the rights of man. This brings us back to Smith, and The Wealth of Nations.
Smith’s ideas did not have an electric effect on society, as Paine’s did. Nonetheless, The Wealth of Nations stands along side Common Sense – as the canonical embodiment of a successful revolutionary manifesto.
On the surface, Smith was expressing revolutionary ideas in the realm of economics, about the advantages of freer markets. But at a deeper level, Smith’s ideas led also to consequences in the political realm. Markets could not be freed without undermining the interests of traditional ruling elites. If the entrepreneurial spirit emerging out of the Industrial Revolution was to find its full expression, that could only lead to the destabilization of existing power structures based on noble lineage and inherited wealth.
Both Smith and Paine, each in their own way, were challenging the existing world order. They articulated two revolutionary threads, one economic and one political, both of which implied a radical shift in how power would be distributed in society. The two threads came together in the colonies, leading to a temporary alignment of interests between colonial elites on the one hand, and the general colonial population on the other.
The general population was responding to Common Sense, and they wanted an end to elite domination – by either the distant Crown or by local elites. The colonial elites, on the other hand, were motivated by the economic opportunities that would open up to them following independence.
They would be able to develop industry, free from restraints decreed by the Crown. They would be able to trade freely, without being forced to go through British ports and pay British tariffs. And a whole continent would be available to conquer and exploit, without needing to share the spoils with the Crown. The colonial elites were eager to expel the Crown from the colonies, but they had no intention of allowing their own privileged positions in the colonies to be undermined.
While Common Sense and The Wealth of Nations were both sincere expressions of revolutionary sentiment, the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a deceptive piece of propaganda. It capitalized on Paine’s ideas, translating them into bold rebellious phrases. It sent a message to the colonists: We are on your side. We will be your bold leaders. We have put our own necks on the line for freedom and independence!
Yes, they put their necks on the line – but only after there was general support for independence. And yes, they would be the bold leaders – because they didn’t want any kind of spontaneous leadership to emerge from the common people – what they contemptuously referred to as the rabble and the mob. And yes they would be on the people’s side – up until the time independence was achieved.
After independence, the thirteen colonies became thirteen sovereign States, bound together by the Articles of Confederation. Each State had a governing assembly, elected by the people, and a reasonable level of democracy prevailed. The assemblies represented grassroots interests – the power of the local elites was being undermined. Something had to be done! And so a conspiracy was hatched, a conspiracy known as the Constitutional Convention.
The Convention was chartered by the States, and was given the task of drafting a Constitution that would be returned to the States for review. It would only come into force if all thirteen States approved it. The Convention was to act on behalf of the States, not on behalf of the people directly. It had no standing, no authorization, to act on behalf of the people.
The Convention amounted to a coup d’état. The members of the Convention were all members of the original colonial elite; they met in secret, and they grossly exceeded their authorized powers. They began their Constitution with the words, We the people, which they had no right to do, and they declared that the Constitution would be approved if only nine of the states approved it, which they also had no right to do. Not only that, but the Constitution was rigged so as to ensure the elites would retain their privileged positions, and the forces of grassroots democracy could be held in check:
In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison argued that representative government was needed to maintain peace in a society ridden by factional disputes. These disputes came from “the various and unequal distribution of property.” “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” The problem he said, was how to control the factional struggles that came from inequalities in wealth. Minority factions could be controlled, he said, by the principle that decisions would be by vote of the majority.So the real problem, according to Madison, was a majority faction, and here the solution was…to have “an extensive republic,” that is, a large nation ranging over thirteen states, for then “it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other…The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States”.
— Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p. 96
The Constitution did not even contain protections for the rights of the people. The Bill of Rights was added only because popular opposition would have otherwise prevented adoption. Nonetheless, the Constitution had much to be said in its favor. There was a carefully worked-out balance of powers, aimed at preventing the usurpation of power by any one branch of government. And the powers of the Federal government were strictly limited, with the thirteen States retaining a great deal of local autonomy.
The Constitution was an admirable attempt to tame hierarchy, to prevent undue concentration of power at the top. At the same time, as cited above, it was also an attempt to prevent genuine democracy, the ‘undue’ influence on government from ordinary people, ‘the mob’. As history has shown, the protections against popular influence have been quite successful, while the protections against concentration of power at the top have failed utterly.
Not only has the Federal government usurped power over every aspect of society from the States, but also the Bill of Rights has been in effect declared null and void. The United States has become the very thing that both the ordinary colonists and the colonial elites most feared – a despotic tyranny exercising arbitrary powers over the people.
No King of England ever exercised such control over the daily lives of his subjects, or declared publicly that he had the right to imprison or kill any citizen, with no need for due process, as the government in Washington has recently declared. The Declaration of Independence speaks as loudly to us today as it did to the colonists in 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
– That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The dynamics of hierarchy
As we can see from the American experience, it is very difficult to tame hierarchy. It would be hard to imagine a more carefully crafted attempt, than the Constitution. Even its guards against influence from below, though undemocratic, would tend to stabilize the structure. And yet the attempt at taming failed.
When a hierarchy exists, it presents a focus of power that power-seeking individuals and cliques can over time turn to their advantage. In times of crisis, for example, there is always a case to be made that the crisis can be resolved most quickly by giving more powers to those at the top. Thus was lost the Roman Republic, and crises have played a central role in the concentration of power in Washington, and the same story could be told of many other nations as well.
Of what ultimate value are written constraints on a hierarchy, such as a constitution, when the only enforcer of those constraints is the hierarchy itself? No matter what is written, or what is sworn on oath, people remain people, subject to the weaknesses and vices of people. People are sometimes amenable to bribery, and people sometimes conspire to achieve their own advantage. Little by little the constraints are eroded, and the process is always cumulative.
The old saying, power corrupts, is familiar to all of us because it has so often throughout history proven to be true. It is true not only of individuals, but of institutions as well, and of governments. An agency such as the IRS can be just as tyrannical as any despot. A nation with overwhelming power, whether it be Imperial Britain, Nazi Germany, or modern America, tends to act with impunity toward other nations, initiating wars when it sees an advantage in doing so.
Just as water seeks its own level, power in hierarchies tends to concentrate toward the top. The tendency of people to seek their own advantage provides the force, a force as true and constant as the force of gravity itself. Each generation of rulers seeks to enhance their own prerogatives just a bit, whether for good reasons or ill, and in either case they leave in their wake a government where power has been just that bit more concentrated.
The same dynamics can be found in all hierarchies, not just in governments, more or less in proportion to the size of the hierarchy. Corporations, government agencies, intelligence services, even volunteer organizations, are subject to intrigues, power-grabs, covert arrangements, misallocation of funds, etc. The problem is made worse by the fact that those who most desire power, and who are the most ruthless, are the very ones who tend to work their way to the top of hierarchies.
In the opening to this chapter, I suggested that a hierarchy could be a reasonable form of organization – if the interests of those at the top are aligned with the rest of the people involved. But as we saw in the case of America, such alignments of interest are short-lived. The temptations and prerogatives of power eventually prevail.
And then there are the dynamics that operate among hierarchies. Those dynamics have not changed since the days of the warrior bands all those millennia ago. Hierarchies tend to seek their own advantage, much like people do, and thus there is a competition leading to bigger and more powerful hierarchies. The mechanisms of conquest and alliance-building can be seen among corporations and agencies, just as it can be seen among nations, and as it was seen among warrior bands.
Hierarchy always breeds greater hierarchy; every hierarchy provides a position of power for some clique, and power always corrupts, sooner or later. In an age of technology, the inevitable outcome of the hierarchical social model is a tyrannical world government, of one flavor or another. It was always just a matter of time, as was the end of growth.