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+6 votes
Why exactly is hierarchy bad?

edited to fix tags
edited by

2 Answers

+5 votes
to the extent that hierarchy is bad (there is a question of semantics here - see below), it's because it encourages (or forces) people into situations where they feel or are not responsible for their own lives and actions. the military is full of extreme examples of people doing things that ruin the rest of their lives because they were ordered to (not just ordered by their commanding officer, but by an entire social system that a) tells them they should be ordered, and b) forces them into situations like the military to be able to survive).
some people don't put the issue in hierarchy, but in domination, and argue that some amount of hierarchy is not a problem, as long as it's not institutionalized... like, it's ok if people pay more attention to you when regarding something that you're known to be good at. the problem, for example, comes when you start making people do things.

i think the valid critique that people bring to this question is that of relationship, and the idea that we are all in some kind of hierarchical relationship all the time (a la foucault), that power flows between people all the time, and that to resist hierarchy is to resist relationships... so the issue becomes one of context and degree, rather than simply a binary one.
by (52.9k points)
edited by
If I may, I would alter your question to read: Why is hierarchy considered to be detrimental to the positive principles of anarchism like mutual aid, direct action, and voluntary cooperation? With a simple understanding of what those principles are and what they look like, the question almost answers itself.

I would wholeheartedly agree with dot that it's a question of the institutionalization of hierarchy rather than hierarchy itself that is the problem, so a better way of discussing this issue is to call the problem domination -- or if you're feeling philosophical, call it Herrschaft, because all the really heavy philosophical shit sounds especially heavy in German.
dot, thanks for reactivating this question....i like it.

i don't consider someone having more experience at something as "hierarchy" (as in some people mentally placed "above" other people). i just look at it like people having different experiences, with various ways of understanding, expressing, and doing things. i may still admire, or feel interested in, or ask for help with what another person knows and does (especially if i'd like to do that thing and i have difficulty with it), but i don't see that as "hierarchy"...although i don't deny many people do look at it that way.

i like this answer a lot, dot. i definitely do not agree with the foucaultian idea that relationship means hierarchy (edit: i'm just using a shortcut there, not being literal), but it is very relevant to bring up for this question.

i also agee with the point ba@ makes. just as i do not see one with more skills or experience than me in a given area as an "authority", i do not see that as hierarchy. it is of course possible for that person's expertise in that one area to be extrapolated (by themselves and/or others) to a much broader context, or simply even making that into a more formal and static/permanent "role"; either of which would definitely lean towards what i think of as authority and hierarchy. 

+4 votes
I imagine a "hierarchy" in a simplified sense as a pyramid where each individual exists as a block in the structure: the closer your block’s position to the top, the less pressure you feel upon yourself and the more pressure you put on others. The pressure symbolizes authority. So this highly unequal distribution of force predictably breeds institutionalized privilege, envy, and competition for dominance, at bare minimum because of a want to escape the pressure. It seems like the privilege and envy, pain and fear, keep hierarchical institutions reproducing (as well as of course indoctrination, propaganda, denial, eradication of alternatives, addiction, etc, but those complicate the metaphor). At the same time, the pyramidal structure contains everyone in it, top to bottom, and this containment exerts pressure as well on everyone.

Now, beyond just intentions, and the way that power corrupts, we can emphasize the consequences of structures of hierarchical control, how they create incentives toward exploitation and obstacles toward accountability, and how such systems by definition entail finite positions of superior privilege and inferior classes held in subordination. Power hierarchies mean that those most allowed to change the status quo have the most investment in preserving it--their power, prestige, profit, etc. rely upon the disempowered not taking back their usurped initiative. Oftentimes even the mildest managerialism snowballs away from accountability and toward authoritarianism through "emergency" justifications that never roll back.

Systems that allow for and emphasize the role of hierarchical power have totalitarian tendencies. They have pyramidal structures, stacked ranks, centralized power, vertical organization. Their officials give commands supported by threats. This creates a delicate stability through a shared fear of repression. In this spirit, their decision-making tends to utilize massive restriction and coercion, representation, assimilation, and manipulation by force or by fraud. They develop impersonal bureaucracy, standardization, and conformity. But other and contrary types of relations and organizing exist, such as collaborative self-determination between peers, the kind that anarchists propose.

Power hierarchies undermine communication. Hagbard's Law shows that in a truly pyramidal structure, where authority figures create order through threats, subordinates tend to tell their superiors merely what the superiors want to hear. This filtering multiplies to the degree of verticality, by each level of mediation in that structure. Those at the top therefore lose connection from the reality below them. The (mis)information the authorities receive appeals to their confirmation bias (the things they want to hear), resulting in misguided intentions cloaked in truth, shielded by mistaken confidence, and armed with monopoly, allowing for no opposition. And so, because of the one-way decision-making and the filtered awareness, if those at the top of the pyramid actually made a deliberate attempt to represent the subordinates, they would tend toward a misrepresentation made invisible to themselves.

If people possess the critical thinking and character assessment skills to recognize in an authority the ways to lead competent, benevolent lives, why must we have to delegate this capacity outside of ourselves? Why do we need them to run our lives if we can tell how our lives should be run? And however will the disempowered find freedom, if in each instance where authoritarians act on behalf of the disempowered, to shape or shield or crush them, the will of the disempowered continually atrophies from lack of exercise? How else will the disempowered find freedom, if not in seizing the direction of their own lives, the very act that the authoritarians deny them? Stratification of power only exacerbates the predicament. We alone experience the peculiar circumstances of our situation. We alone bear the history of our aspirations and sorrows, our passions and eccentricities, our capacities and limitations. Our lived experience grants us more qualification at determining our path than any speculating manager could ever dream of. Further empowered by collaboration with one's peers, people can experience authentic freedom, and not the sad farce of begging those in power for mercy.

People may voluntarily seek for themselves a leader to guide them, but when they deny others the ability to live autonomously, it results in nothing but tyranny, no matter how many smily faces the tyranny hides behind. Those of us who by conscience refuse systems of hierarchical power will not voluntarily choose to opt-in and cannot opt-out without severe punishment. Those in power promise us the world but by design they must keep our lives out of our own hands, and regardless of whether or not they make decisions I would endorse--which they don't--I find the method irreconcilable with my conscience and my aspirations. And that is the inequality and the abusiveness of the "power" I refer to, that is the mechanics intrinsic to hierarchal order.
by (8.9k points)
I personally do not view hierarchy to be inherently "bad." People voluntarily enter into hierarchies, and freely leave hierarchies (as in  a group with a ranking system, or some perceived power structure) constantly. If you were working on building a bridge, would you tell the engineers to shove it because you are against hierarchy? If you do, what of it if the engineers and others work to prevent you from having a little bridge building coup?
Anarchy is simply "no enforced authority or political rulership." no "state/government." The state is an institution of people which attempt to force people into an involuntary hierarchy by imposing their decrees upon the people of whatever territory they are perceived to have 'authority' over and threatening them with violence if they disobey.
Hierarchy has it's roots in organization, and is inevitable even in groups which come together freely. The difference would be nobody is coerced into it, or prevented from leaving, nobody is outright commanded to obey the particular edicts of some group or hierarchy regardless of their consent.

lol, still moving my answers, huh? "the people" have spoken. lol smh.
"we dont like hierarchy, but we're gonna move 'the peoples' answers around if we dont agree with them. the department of truth is your friend." haha.
Other than the fact that dot and lawrence pretty much already hit on what RBBF said of hierarchy, I see no reason why RBBF's answer should be made a comment, if that is really what happened.
Also I feel Jaysthoughts and RBBF are the same person
vv, this site is for anarchists to answer people's questions. according to the definition set up on this site (read the "about us"), ancaps (despite the name) are not anarchists. therefore they do not answer questions. while it can't be guaranteed that all answers are from anarchists, since we don't know them all, once it becomes clear that someone is not, then their answers will be removed or changed to comments.
what difference does it make if JT and RBBF are the same?
An excellent answer, bordering on a manifesto.

I wonder though, it seems that the higher a person climbs the pyramid of power, the more closely confined are their range of actions (lest they be condemned as a 'class traitor' and cast out).  Shinier cages, longer leashes...
It would seem there are two pyramids - an upright pyramid of privelege as you described, of real life pressure and real punishments; and a second inverted ephemeral pyramid, bearing the entire social disapproval of the ruling class and the embodied social culture, down upon the singularity point of the other pyramid - be it a president, ceo, or high priest.

I make no excuses for those who step into this trap, reserve no pity for their suffering.  But i do note that these are individuals under extreme pressure, from above and below, acting in perceived isolation; individuals subject to bending and breaking when we have the opportunity...