Author: Stephen DeVoy
From Merriam-Webster Online
Main Entry: hi?er?ar?chy
Pronunciation: 'hI-(&-)"r?r-kE also 'hi(-&)r-"?r-
Inflected Form(s): plural -chies
1 : a division of angels
2 a : a ruling body of clergy organized into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it; especially : the bishops of a province or nation b : church government by a hierarchy
3 : a body of persons in authority
4 : the classification of a group of people according to ability or to economic, social, or professional standing; also : the group so classified
5 : a graded or ranked series
Anarchists, especially within American society, are often confronted with the argument that human society has always been hierarchical and, therefore, hierarchy in human society exists by nature. Put more succinctly, there is a natural law governing the organization of humankind such that any and all manifested societies will be hierarchical. This paper will address that argument.
Let's begin by asking ourselves what our detractors mean by "hierarchy." I've noticed a strong and unsurprising preference1 for dictionary definitions on the part of our detractors. Since they have this preference, we should analyze their argument paying close attention to the dictionary definition of the terms they use. From the definition listed above, the relevant definition of hierarchy is: "the classification of a group of people according to ability or to economic, social, or professional standing." When using the word "hierarchy" in this sense, we must keep in mind that these detractors are speaking of actual, existing hierarchies, not theoretical hierarchies, for they argue that they exist. Since the definition takes the form of a disjunction, let us eliminate those disjuncts that do not exist in practice.
Proof That, In Practice, Hierarchies Are Not Based On Ability
We begin with "ability." Consider this portion of the definition: "the classification of a group of people according to ability." While most of us believe that this happens in real life, let us reflect upon the assumption. Conceptually, there are many kinds of hierarchies and there is a definition for an hierarchy based upon ability, the meritocracy (a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement). Most American capitalists believe that the American system of capitalism is justly based on meritocracy and that the success or failure of any capitalist endeavor within American society is the product of the natural meritocratic forces within American capitalism.
Most of us who work for a living have seen American "meritocracy" first hand. As employees we have seen "meritocracy" from they belly of beast itself. While employers actively attempt to promulgate the virtues and existence of meritocracy, their attempts, more often than not, are purely propagandistic in nature. Few individuals, if any, find themselves within positions of the hierarchy based on merit. Indeed, one may, for a time, rise to a position based on merit, but one does not remain in a position based on merit. Similarly one may rise to a position for reasons completely unrelated to merit. The force behind both of these phenomena is not merit, but rather something other than merit. Let us consider the second phenomenon first for it says much about the first phenomenon.
Many individuals are inserted into positions of the hierarchy based on personal connections, influence or economic status. Their employer or boss chooses to place them into such positions because he hopes to benefit personally from the insertion of the individual into the hierarchy. This corrupts the "meritocracy" in three ways: it inserts a non-deserving person into the hierarchy, it displaces a better deserving person and it adds to the power of yet another (the boss or the employer) for reasons not of merit but of a lack of ethics, thereby adding greater hierarchical buoyancy to the boss or the employer for reasons other than merit. This one act negates the hierarchy qua meritocracy and reduces it to the classification of a group of people according to economic, social, or professional standing and NOT according to ability.
We could end the portion of our argument excluding ability from the definition of real hierarchies at this point, but for the sake of completeness, let us address the case of individuals that find themselves within positions of the hierarchy based on merit alone. No doubt, some individuals are inserted into positions within the hierarchy based on merit alone. As we've seen above, the hierarchy has already been corrupted by insertions other than those based on merit. Therefore, any individual inserted into a hierarchy based on merit is likely to have others above or below him that have not been inserted into their own positions based on merit. This, of course, violates the definition of a meritocracy. Furthermore, once an individual is placed into a hierarchy for reason of merit (or for any other reason), he obtains some level of power and access to that power becomes a factor in maintaining his position within the hierarchy. Over time, his level in the hierarchy is buoyed by this accumulated power and not by merit alone. Thus, any meritocracy, over time, becomes corrupted by natural forces. Meritocracy does not exist in natural human society.
Proof That "Professional Standing" Is An Euphemism For "Economic or Social Standing"
Due to the previous proof, our definition for real hierarchies has been reduced. We've eliminated ability from real hierarchies and are now left with the following working definition:
Hierarchy: "The classification of a group of people according to economic, social, or professional standing."
Let us now consider professional standing. What does professional standing really mean? The operative word in this construction is "standing." The relevant definition of standing, as used in this construction is "to have or maintain a relative position in or as if in a graded scale". There are various methods by which a graded scale is produced and then applied to professions. The most obvious, and in an ideal world (which does not exist) the most sensible, would be one based on achievement, both academic and professional. Let us consider academic achievement first.
In American society there is no doubt that having a degree from a prestigious university carries much more weight than an equal degree from a less prestigious university. Access to prestigious universities is not based purely on merit. To obtain access to a prestigious university one must obtain the funds to attend in addition to qualifying. Some individuals qualify for no reason other than being a legacy (e.g. George W. Bush). Therefore, economic and social status play a large role in the distribution of standing with regard to academics. We must, therefore, eliminate academics from our analysis because we can prove it to be based not wholly on merit. This leaves us with professional achievement.
Professional achievement is as much a function of the productivity and creativity of a professional as it is to access to power within the corporate hierarchy. For example, given two individuals that are equally productive and creative, one in a higher position within the corporate hierarchy, the individual with a higher position has greater access to power. His ideas will gain attention. If he is unethical, he will thwart the ideas of others or usurp their ideas as his own, thereby increasing his relative professional standing within the corporate hierarchy. Since, as we have seen in the previous section, his higher position depends upon accumulated power, economic position or personal connections, his greater professional standing is based on something other than his individual productivity or creativity alone (if at all). In fact, it is based, more than anything else, on economic and social standing. We conclude, then, that professional standing is an euphemism for economic or social standing.
We could go further than this. Professional standing is often the product of reputation alone. For example, within the field of Artificial Intelligence there are many famous individuals that have high professional standing but have accomplished very little. The little that they are said to have accomplished, more often than not, has been accomplished by others. I know this because I have worked for them. Nevertheless, they enjoy a great deal of uncritical press. The press they receive is, more often than not, a complete misrepresentation of their accomplishments. Often, in these articles, other professionals within the same field are quoted praising the professional highlighted in the article. This circle of mutual admiration creates an illusion of professional standing that attracts more funds in the form of investment and governmental grants. The influx of cash increases their social and economic standing. This increase of social and economic standing becomes the buoyant force that further pushes them upward in the economic and social hierarchy. Nevertheless, it is all based on hot air - not actual accomplishment.
In The United States, Economic Standing And Social Standing Are Often Interchangeable
We have all seen otherwise unaccomplished individuals catapulted within American society for no reason other than name recognition. For example, Monika Lewinsky went from being an unknown repository for a powerful man's long hard objects to becoming a television celebrity. Her fame is based not on her professional standing but on her willingness to recline (at least, her willingness to recline with former President Clinton). The resulting attention made her a name and that name has now attracted to her the attention of those within the hierarchy that hope to gain by using her name. This increase in social standing has translated, for her, into economic standing.
On the other hand, Paris Hilton, the child of a wealthy family, obtained fame by the release of a porn video ostensibly made for personal use. This has now increased her social standing, at least in terms of her name recognition.
The simple fact is that within American society being well known often translates into becoming wealthy and being wealthy often translates into being well known. While the two are not always interchangeable, they very frequently are. Each of them share something in common: power. In one case we have raw economic power and in the other psychological power. This common thread is revealing in that, as the basis for hierarchy within American society, it reduces rank within our system to one thing and one thing only: power.
The Proper Definition of Hierarchy
Since we have eliminated ability as a real factor in hierarchy, reduced "professional standing" to "economic and social standing" and further reduced the latter to "power", we now have a new and more accurate definition for hierarchy within American society:
Hierarchy: "The classification of a group of people according to their relative power."
The Implications of Hierarchy in American Society
Classifying groups of people according to the power is often expressed as "might makes right." This, of course, is an essential part of the ideological basis of fascism. As a society based on "might makes right", American society, at least as it stands at our present time, is fascist. Those who argue that American society, as it now stands, is based on notions of equality, liberty and merit have a delusional notion of American society. Ours is not the "land of the free and the home of the brave." Rather, ours is "the land of the powerful and the home of the slave." Is there anything wrong with this?
What does it mean to base a society upon power alone? By eliminating merit from the equation of social ranking we have removed the only possible ethical basis for hierarchy. "Might makes right" is not compatible with any real moral or ethical system, for it replaces reason with force and all systems of ethics, by definition, must be based on reason unless they are to become arbitrary and, therefore, meaningless.
From an ethical stand point, within human society, evil is the absence of ethical conduct. I am not employing the term "evil" in the religious sense. I am employing it in the ethical sense. As a system which orders society by a mechanism based on power and not on ethics, our American system is most appropriately viewed as a hierarchy of evil. While this may seem to be hyperbole to some, it is easy to demonstrate from our own personal experience that it is, in fact, an unavoidable conclusion.
Let us consider the individuals currently at the top of the American hierarchy. George W. Bush earned absolutely no professional standing. In fact, he failed as a business man, he was a poor student and he only obtained a degree from a prestigious university through legacy. His social standing was created by his father's influence. In the course of his life he avoided going to war based on his social and economic standing for which it is likely that someone else went in his place (and perhaps died). He lived a life of debauchery until, as a failed business man and failed human being, his social and economic status enabled him to pursue a career in politics. Eventually, because the oligarchy found him a useful instrument, he was inserted into the American hierarchy at the highest position where, through lies, deceit and manipulation he brought our country to an unethical war of aggression and, in the process, caused the death of thousands of Americans and many tens of thousands of Iraqis. Worse yet, his murder spree may have only begun.
Next in the hierarchy, at least officially, we have Dick Cheney. Current Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney is the former CEO of Halliburton. George Bush and Dick Cheney launched an unprovoked war of aggression on Iraq, but before doing so they committed the nation to billions of dollars in contracts, awarded uncompetitively, to Halliburton. In most countries, this would be viewed as a classic and indisputable case of massive corruption.
At the other end of the hierarchy, the bottom of the American hierarchy, we have individuals like the "American Taliban" John Walker who believed he had found a system of ethics in Islam, dropped his own life to serve his God and marched off in personal sacrifice to fight what what he believed in, only to find himself enmeshed in a war, arrested by the American hierarchy, tortured, abused, defamed and jailed. While I do not defend the ethics of Islam, at least it is a system of ethics. By choosing to follow a system of ethics rather than to buy into the "might makes right" evil of the American hierarchy, John Walker is now at the bottom of the American hierarchy.
Somewhere above John Walker, but well below Bush, we have the many Americans shot in the back by rubber bullets, pepper bullets and other projectiles for standing up for their ethical belief that wars of aggression are immoral. The peace protester finds himself or herself shot at and gassed by the tools of the American hierarchy. Even Bill O'Reilly, a high ranking member of the American shitocracy, is alleged to have described what only can be seen as a hierarchy of evil, though there is no indication that he has nothing by praise for it.
Is Hierarchy Natural And Inevitable?
There is no doubt that primates show an inclination to arrange themselves in hierarchies. As primates, there is no doubt (and plenty of evidence), that humans have also arranged themselves into hierarchies. However, is there any reason to believe that this may not always be the case?
Arguments from nature often fail when applied to the human species. This is not because we are "above nature," but because we have two natures: one genetic and the other memetic. The human genome appears to have changed very little, if at all, in the last 40,000 years. Yet, in the last 5,000 years we have seen the rise of advanced cultures and in the last 200 years we have seen humans leap from riding horses from town to town to riding rockets to the Moon. Clothing is not natural. Written language is not natural. Medicine is not natural. Much of what defines us as human being is not natural, at least in the sense of biological evolution. What defines us and differentiates us from other primates is the degree to which the evolution of memes has taken over the course of human development. Much of what has made our lives better and which has led us to greater discoveries about the world and ourselves is based on the evolution of consciousness and its associated concept space. We are no longer our biological selves only. As time goes on, the human species has become less a species than system of mutually supporting ideas known as culture and technology. This new area of evolution, the evolution of consciousness, implies that we are more what we think than what our genes define us to be. It is no wonder that we now contemplate issues such as the rise of artificial intelligences and the question of whether they, when they do come to exist, will be conscious. We seen existence not as defined by biology but by what it is like to be. This change in our world view is strong evidence that we are NOT following in the footsteps of our primate ancestors and have embarked on a different path - one guided by reason and intellect rather than brute force. If this is our reality then hierarchy may no longer be natural. Hierarchy may be a death sentence.
1. It is unsurprising that our detractors refer to and insist upon the dictionary definition of all terms. Dictionaries are an expression of authority. Some entity with sufficient economic backing at some point in history finds itself in the position of being able to afford to produce and publish definitions for some large subset of the words in a language without the consent of the users of that language. Since sufficient economic backing implies, more often than not, embeddedness in the ruling class of the society, dictionaries afford an excellent opportunity to shape human thought by casting words in a light advantageous to the ruling class.