Friday, August 12, 2011

Hierarchy and Anarchy

[Warning: this is tentative, exploratory material!]

It is not ‘human nature’—via the heady cocktail of ambition, greed and selfishness—which makes hierarchy inevitable, it is environmental complexity. ‘Human nature’, coarsely understood as just defined, is a variable-complex of low relevance in the generating of hierarchical social systems, and is meaningless when notionally removed from its supporting environmental networks in an attempt to see it ‘for what it is.’ I argue here that we need not refer to this Hobbesian ‘beast within’ when seeking to understand social forms. Another line of inquiry bears more succulent fruit.

Premise: Not only can there be no such thing as equality across the universal spectrum (except in the abstract world of language and imagination), we should never even try to establish such in pursuit of social good. Just as the Piraha cannot count above one—even when shown how by concerned anthropologists—so we should recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of every single thing, at every scale, everywhere. As one consequence of having begun to look at reality in this light, I am beginning to entertain the possibility that the hierarchy-anarchy dichotomy I have been battling with in my thinking for some time now, should be thought of as nothing more than a cultural illusion, a transitional conflict generated by ignorance. These supposedly antithetical social arrangements are but projections from out of our cultural knowledge of Universe, knowledge which is painfully incomplete, biased and inaccurate.

For example, isn’t it always and only the case that, as Universe generates more data-detail out of its ever-changing reality, ‘tunes’ its fractal-resolution ever finer, it consequently generates yet more data-detail in a perpetual, multifaceted whirring around dynamic ‘balance?’ (See note on entropy below.) On our scale (humans and human societies are embedded subsets of Universe), the more information we discern then process and manipulate, the more we generate in the very heat of our efforts to understand, interpret and ‘control.’ We are as much a part of Universe as stars, asteroids and planets. So isn’t it the case that society becomes more ‘complex’ necessarily (albeit not in a linear fashion, but over time)? Musn’t this complexity give rise to social hierarchies?

Therefore, and to focus prosaically on the theme at hand, the chance for small human groups to remain forever ‘egalitarian’—a societal mode we project onto them from within our cultural and historical experience of hierarchy—is, from my newly emerging point of view, zero, not because of human nature and ‘born greedy’ arguments, but simply because the wild mess of environmental (or bio-social) pressures, stirred up with a societal soup of any complexity, is totally uncontrollable. Inescapably, people (trees, flowers, lions, antelope, ants) of varying qualities emerge from the environment producing them, not because of genetics per se, but because of the necessary complexity and vital unpredictability of the web of life. Genetics are a subset of and are embedded in Universe. They mean absolutely nothing whatsoever outside their context, their enmeshed reality. The manner in which genes copy themselves into ‘endless’ iterations of themselves is powered and slowly altered by external environmental circumstances beyond their control. Indeed there is no control, there are no actions; there is only response and reaction. Agency is an illusion.

Let’s look at two of the techniques for sustaining egalitarianism. Teasing: How can teasing to suppress alphas be effective for all time in the face of all that information ‘out there,’ to be discovered and interpreted? No way can we all know enough about everything to deal with ‘experts’ from multiple fields. The ‘You don't know what you're talking about!’ card can be played, and defended, increasingly successfully, as societal complexity increases. Teasing is effective in small groups where there is open access to manageable amounts of culturally generated data about reality, thereafter it becomes ever weaker. Imagining for a moment I could get sufficient ‘face time,’ how would I tease a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair, a Joe Biden or Lloyd Blankfein to humility and humble acceptance of ‘egalitarian’ principles? Not only do I not have sufficient power, I have but limited experience of their worlds, and they would not understand where I was coming from. Killing: And as a pacifist, before even looking at the extreme difficulty and counter-productivity of such a solution, I cannot advocate killing people who disagree with me, or who have a more ambitious personality. Even people like Lloyd Blankfein. (You can relax now, Lloyd.)

Perhaps even more fundamentally, why would nature, via human behaviour, select for ‘egalitarian’ societies at the scale of hunter gatherers? Is nature moral? Does it care about fairness? Perhaps, but not as I caricature it here; nothing is that simple. Christopher Boehm confronts hierarchy and egalitarianism in “Hierarchy in the Forest”. He points out the life-and-death need for total trust among all members of the group, e.g., on potentially deadly hunting trips. If any member of the tribe has personal ambitions, that person cannot be trusted in such delicate situations and must therefore either be humbled out of their selfish egotism, or killed, for the sake of the group. ‘Primitive’ egalitarian societies are a harsh matter of survival in dangerous, non-surplus conditions, and have nothing to do with ‘rights’ or other political niceties. The egalitarian mode we perceive them as having 'adopted,' arises organically from the environmental conditions confronting the group. Hence, with the arrival of farming, surplus, private property, alongside the increasing complexity of social life, egalitarianism simply becomes the less effective social construct. For this stage of the analysis, morality is irrelevant, as is human nature, except that human nature is social and intelligently adaptive.

To recap, social hierarchy could be said to be an organic consequence of increases in generated intellectual information leading to increases in social complexity, coupled with changed environmental circumstances and challenges such as farming, surplus and private property. Over broader tracts of time, and speaking more generally still, the more complex things get, the more information we generate as we further understand Universe, cumulatively—standing on the shoulders of taller and taller giants—the less able we are to deploy effective teasing (and other) tactics to keep the playing field level, and the less appropriate egalitarianism becomes. An egalitarian social mode becomes an impossibility via person-to-person teasing in social and environmental conditions far different from ‘hand-to-mouth’ hunter gatherer tribes. Furthermore, as hierarchies establish, killing alpha males becomes harder, as they are surrounded by ‘hangers-on’, who become an early ‘army,’ ‘police,’ etc. Not to mention that specialization means upending the hierarchy sinks you too. Having specialized, you cannot survive on your own in the wild. Hierarchy breeds dependency on it. A hierarchy composed of equally abled jacks of all trades is illogical.

But of course the story does not end with the supposed ‘success’ of the hierarchical forms we see around us today. It just so happens that human social hierarchies such as nation-states and corporations are wired to grow perpetually as part of their design (and we should see corporations as a smooth ‘progression’ from the nation-state to a form that can grow beyond nation-state borders, while states provide the framework for population growth). They are therefore fundamentally self-destructive at increasing environmental cost, likely to the point of global eco-collapse if not arrested.

Today, we therefore have two (interrelated) choices if we wish to survive in civilizational form (facing, as we do, new environmental challenges such as peak oil, technological unemployment, peak debt, global warming, and other problems unprecedented in human history):

1. develop an anarchic socioeconomic infrastructure which permits the ad hoc emergence of (short-term?) hierarchical social organizations, which are systemically prevented (not forced) from bedding down, dominating and growing in reach and power (goal-oriented or project-based hierarchies); and/or

2. insist on pure anarchic social systems and work out new ways of preventing the ‘unwanted’ emergence of hierarchies in a modern, complex setting.

Right off the bat I have a problem with “insist” (a word I put there for precisely that reason!). It is totalitarian, profoundly divisive, is the deepest antithesis of what a new social form, from this point looking forward, ought, logically, to be about. Because it divides deeply to insist on a solution, insistence renders impossible the ever-emergent consensus, however fractious, an anarchic system would require, would strive to learn how to build. To insist on anarchy and only anarchy is to doom it at the outset. 'Mature' anarchy can only emerge organically from conditions conducive to its emergence (nothing unusual there!). And grass doesn’t grow faster if you shout at it. Hence my continuing interest in a resource-based economy, in which the infrastructure itself is sustainably organized (point 1.) to distribute the necessities (plus many luxuries) to all people everywhere. This infrastructure is a necessary precondition for generating the base conditions of anarchy (egalitarianism), out of which soil ad hoc and short-term hierarchical arrangements, perhaps even ‘institutions,’ can grow and then dissolve, at need, without being able to accrue power. Key is the ‘guarantee’ of a solid and environmentally friendly life-ground, a base providing everyone with the ‘equal’ opportunity to participate and contribute. The degree to which one enjoys one’s life will be up to each individual ‘equally’ (which translates to a loose definition of ‘freedom’ I can live with). The more one constructively gives, the richer one’s life becomes. Contribution rewards by definition, even when it includes failure and set backs.

Such a socioeconomics could include no fiscal debt in the formal sense, no private property, no bondage in the explicit sense of money and formal monetary accounting. Each of us would be obliged/free to play his or her part in the organic and ongoing rebalancings of Universe, adapted and reacted to in an emergent fashion. Without appeal to any sense of fairness or morality, we would get out, more or less, what we put in. And that is a morality I can believe in. A bio-diverse ‘equality’ I can take seriously.

However, in chicken-and-egg fashion, building such an infrastructure first requires what I’ve been calling here an ‘anarchic’ set up, that is, a society accustomed to and politically mature enough to cope with locally organized self-governance via direct democracy and consensus building. We are nowhere near that place. We are political and emotional babies. Before we can even begin to want to build a global RBE infrastructure, we have to re-localize, nucleate across the planet into a cultural sense of ourselves as but one species of many on planet Earth, and establish ‘self-sufficient’ communities interconnected via ‘harmonizing’ Internet-like software and databases capable of global resource tracking and management. Out of this a RBE might emerge, though the path will be stony indeed, before we even consider how difficult the first step will be.

To conclude, the two listed options are in fact one—minus the word “insist”— or are at least interconnected. We begin where we can, as discussed by David Graeber, to construct anarchic social organizations, slowly improve our consensus-finding techniques, and freely disseminate the wisdom we learn. Show ourselves and the world how it’s done. Invite participation from others. Remain open. Stay honest. Believe. And accept that hierarchical social organizations are unavoidable, even within anarchy. Nature is fundamentally anarchic with hierarchical arrangements arising from and collapsing back into it. Anarchy is the soil which enables hierarchy. Seeing them as opposites is wrong.

[Note to self: Complexity cannot increase infinitely. There will be retrenchments, failed-experiments, collapses leading to profound and broad changes of direction. In the manner of Keep It Simple, Stupid, systems can be too complex. Complexity does not equal wisdom. Accumulations of wisdom include rebalancings of complexity and simplicity as Universe ‘progresses’ ‘blindly’ through its many experiments with different forms of life.]

[Note to others: Entropy is not the sole fundamental property of Universe in my opinion. There are many, though change is the only constant! If entropy were the core property of Universe I could not be typing this. The self-organizational processes necessary, over the vast tracts of time from the alleged Big Bang till now, to engender life on earth and now human society and culture out of ‘chaos’ cannot be ignored. They’re here. We are it. Universe did this, and this miraculous (inexplicable) ‘accomplishment’ is not the result of entropy.]


Debra said...

This week we traveled down to Vaison la Romaine at the invitation of a friend who yearly hosts a classical theater festival : classical, as in classical Greece.
She organized a meeting among 15 of us, from different regions, different walks of life (not too different socioeconomic backgrounds...), ages, to talk about "does democracy need elites ?"
This ties into your hierarchy question, in my opinion.
It seems to me that hierarchy is a structural problem that we will not get rid of, due to THE NECESSITY FOR ONE GENERATION TO ASSURE THE SURVIVAL OF THE NEXT until the following generation is in a place to fulfill ITS obligations.
That age difference ensures that hierarchy, at least for the human species, will manifest itself IN ONE FORM OR ANOTHER.
I think that we would not be having so many problems on this issue if we were not busy trying to eliminate ALL DIFFERENCES between each other, because we perceive difference as inequality.
That is A BIG PROBLEM, that I have already addressed many times.
I am afraid that the Enlightenment blueprint, being constructed as it is, in the form of ANTAGONISM to our traditional, Christian heritage, idolizes artificiality in all forms, to the detriment of our "natural" world.
And by doing this, the blueprint ultimately ATTACKS our place in our natural world. It was not particularly evident in Descartes' time, but in ours, it is screaming in our faces.
Another extremely meretricious effect of the Enlightenment blueprint is to overly insist on the power of our WILL and EDUCATION to MODIFY our environment FOR OUR OWN GOOD AND BENEFIT.
Freud contested this, and his thought has been attacked principally for resisting positivism.
I really don't know how we're going to stop thinking that we can control everything by our actions, our inventions, etc.
It is a big problem. Maybe the biggest...

Frank Powers said...

The way I see it, "hierarchy" is closely linked to "authority". Now, there are different kinds of authority, most prominently those two identified by Erich Fromm, rational authority and irrational authority. The former is the authority of a master over his servant (which is a wonderful example for those hierarchies you so rightfully despise), the latter is the authority that can be found in a teacher-disciple-relationship. I think one could safely call that a kind of "hierarchy" as well, although a very different sort of: a rational hierarchy as opposed to all those irrational hierarchies we see all around us? Perhaps worth pondering a bit, at least drom a psychological/sociological point of view.

Also, welcome back! :-) I'm looking forward to meeting you again and harken unto your tales... All the best!

Malagodi said...

tentative and exploratory is good.

some of what you say is overly complex. organic systems move toward complexity when it is beneficial and when it is possible.

Nishida Kitaro puts it well when he describes life as 'moving from the formed to the forming'. That is, moving from something that has been formed into something else that is forming. In this process, we can observe that every living thing 'wants' to grow. This requires energy. Life itself is greedy.

This says nothing about a hierarchy of power, which is what I think you're concerned with.

Of course, hunter-gatherer societies encourage an egalitarian structure - there is no morality about it. And agricultural societies encourage hierarchic structures, most especially systems of slavery, because of their labor-intensive and stationary nature. Again, morality has nothing to do with it. Each society develops its charecteristics according to what is beneficial and what is possible for the organization as a whole.

One great criticism that I have about your post though is the apparent belief that we will decide the structure and nature of our future, post-collapse societies. This seems to me to be nothing more than hubris. Our futures, should there be any to speak of, will be the result of complex natural events that we do not control. We are not the center of the Universe. As you say, "We are as much a part of Universe as stars, asteroids and planets", and we may very well find some 'externalities' beyond our intentions to be the determining factors in what those futures are like.

Toby said...

Thank you everyone, excellent points.

@Stephen: I feel particularly caught in that weird place where I want to contribute, which implies that I, in some small way, 'control' events, while appreciating intellectually that control is an illusion. I perceive problems, feel compelled to act, so read, ponder and write. I see these efforts as Universe exploring itself, generating more data, yet at the same time equate the 'potential' success of these efforts as a test of my potency. Unlearning that is proving very difficult indeed.

I'm not sure I agree with your observation about living things wanting to grow always. There is such a thing as maturity. Perhaps they seek to escape their demise and decay, which is a different thing. Humans, e.g., living systems each, have developed the notion of minimalism. And nature produces large and small systems, each with advantages and disadvantages. Nor am I sure hierarchy and anarchy are understood deeply enough in human culture (because of its hang ups with superiority and inferiority, and value generally). When it comes to social systems, such as corporations and nation-states, we have a different problem, which is Perpetual Growth. Dealing with it is part of the mysterious unfolding of everything that is Universe. Interesting times.

@Debbie: I'm not sure hierarchy is a problem, which is what this piece tentatively probes at. Probably our fear-based relationship with value, with certainty, control etc., are the problem. The separation you talk of undergirds that fear, but I think the momentum is towards reunion as Charles Eisenstein suggests.

@Frank: See you soon. And good points about teacher-disciple master-slave (although even some slaves were allowed to progress through the ranks of society). As a parent I'm well aware of the need for hierarchy. And as Debbie says, equality does not equal fairness, if there even is such a thing as fairness.

Toby said...

I quickly want to address this point:

"the apparent belief that we will decide the structure and nature of our future, post-collapse societies."

We will, except that decide is the wrong word, and "we" means Universe. We are most definitely part of the process, and we influence our future strongly. Control-the-illusion is part of that too. Sleep-walkers can drive cars.