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On Hierarchy

By Kent Jewell

Posted on the IMBAS mailing list, Thu, 18 Dec 1997.

Ian Corrigan writes:

I think the hierarchic nature of humankind is pretty self-evident, not only has there never been a non-hierarchical society, but our relatives among the other primates are clearly hierarchic.

Hopefully without wrankling any feathers unduly and in the spirit of contributing more than just contending, I thought I'd throw in my proverbial two cents as someone who worked/co-owned in a pair of near-non-hierarchical, anarchist, collectively-run businesses (2 bookstores, and a book distrib. business). It was run (I left 2 yrs. ago -- the collective is celebrating its 25th year this year) in as near a non-hierarchical manner as was feasible -- all were paid equally regardless of "seniority" and all members come in putting in no equity and leave with none. Meetings were run by an informal consensus model when needed, though usually regular meetings could flow without too much structure -- facilitation and notetaking was rotated.

Did it always work perfectly? No. Aren't some people better than others at certain tasks and didn't we do some measure of splitting up of work/responsibilities? Yes, and yes we did. But, also I was continually amazed in my time there at the differences that that kind of work environment allowed all of us. The sense of shared responsibility, daily cooperation and avenues that were all opened to us were remarkable. The fact that all of us were ordering the books rather than the one or two people who do the ordering at even most large book stores allowed us a much broader and more backlist-oriented selection.

Of course, there were continual compromises and frustrations too -- non-hierarchical work situations also only work as well as the people who are actually there want to make them (this kind of egalitarian structure certainly doesn't ensure monetary success necessarily...) -- but luckily most everyone there while I was there found/created their own types of rewards there enough to pursue this very rare setup. It's also worth being honest to note that we also engaged in a lot of what some people would call "self-exploitation" -- we weren't there just to make $$ and some of us worked pretty darn hard. These tendencies -- as I'm sure most all here know from experience -- are quite common in pagan-focused projects as well...

...not only has there never been a non-hierarchical society, but our relatives among the other primates are clearly hierarchic.

I think that this blanket either/or statement about hierarchy in general here may not quite be so clearcut from anthropological evidence (see, e.g., Harold Barclay's People Without Government, or Marshall Sahlin's Stone Age Economics for some anthropological writing which blows apart a lot of "givens" which people take for granted in terms of social arrangements, early economics, the differences between small-scale societies, cultures, and nation-states, etc.).

Also, I think that just because different kinds of primates do indeed exhibit hierarchical relations in certain aspects of their social lives, this may not actually tell us that much about who we are as humans and how we should fully embody our best natures. I also think (though I am not really "up on the literature") that much of the trend of current primate research shows increasingly how primates are far more cooperative and egalitarian than had been previously thought...

Hierarchy means 'sacred order', it was the basis of every Pagan society.

I also think that something of fundamental importance is being left out of this useful discussion: scale. Hierarchy can look, taste and smell Very Differently depending on the scale in which it's happening/enforced/believed in. Following the leadership of a compassionate, responsible clan chief who always looked after friends and family and who willingly conceded others their special skills where they had them is undboubtedly far different from blindly submitting to abstract edicts from certain Fearless Leaders in Washington DC just because "hierarchy is natural", or "it's the law" (not that anyone is saying such -- I'm just drawing out an extreme example in terms of scale).

I think it's also useful and important to make distinctions in speaking of what type(s) of hierarchy about which one is speaking. I believe that there are somewhat "natural"/inherent hierarchical relations of sorts between us as humans and the bioshphere, the earth, deific energy forms, etc. But, IMHO, these above relations are far different in something of a fundamental sense from what hierarchies have been set up, constructed, enforced, torn down or changed amongst humans in actual practice over the millenia.

There's simply no escaping hierarchy. Groups that try only end up burying the facts of their hierarchy under a load of pretense. Of course it can be minimized, and controled, but it can't be avoided..

There may be no "escaping" of "hierarchy" across the board; but in our current world -- with all of the myriad abuse of hierarchy currently occurring in the inner and outer realms -- I think it behooves all of us to be compassionately and constructively critical of all instances where people try to set up new hierarchies or confer power upon themselves beyond what the situation or their abilities seem to call for. Real leadership must fundamentally involve service and a compassionate sense of inclusivity within a conscious context of non-duality -- our basic human and social needs should be filled responsibly as they arise/ over time ideally. When certain forms of hierarchy have outworn their usefulness, they may need to be dismantled/changed/transformed. This would seem to be very hard for humans from my reading of history in general.

That said I also think that people in any society/social arrangement have some responsibility to allow/support the natural talents of others amongst them who do have exceptional abilities in certain domains and areas -- this is a very grey and perenially tricky area though in terms what those particular special abilities really confer for individuals in terms of power over others' lives...

Well, I should probably stop rambling (and I haven't even touched on how the abstract, fetishized machinations of Capital -- built upon the legacy of Racist, Sexist Imperialism -- consign all of the huge global underclass to its sick, abstract anti-environmental Hierarchy!... but I digress).

I do sincerely hope that I haven't unduly stepped on any toes -- this post is sent in the spirit of contribution.

Beannachd ort,


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