What is the nature of hierarchy? and how does it square with anarchism, a philosophy that is supposedly firmly grounded in the idea of rejecting hierarchy. Of the latter statement, it is certainly true that anarchists of most shades reject hierarchy outright as a repressive social tool that holds down the weak. This is seen in the works of Kropotkin, Bakunin and modern anarchists like Black. However, what if the hierarchy is voluntary? How is it enforced then? Humans are social creatures, and some accept a lot in life that is subordinate to other individuals. Look at the present hierarchies. Employer-employee, student-teacher, parent-child. These are in many ways natural elements of society. The problem then seems that these hierarchies get embedded in coercive structures, such as government and the state. To be an anarchist, you must reject the state. But must you reject hierarchy when it is voluntary?
Hierarchy is simply a system of organisation where some are above, below and equal. There is no full equality, as this concept is flawed and frankly impossible. There are bosses, workers, apprentices, teachers and even voluntary rulers. Within this we see fealty, loyalty, trust and obligation. The most explicit form of social organisation seen that had these elements was feudalism. Now no one denies that within feudalism there were vile abuses of power, and the continued want to crush the rights of peasants and the common men via the monarchical state. However, there were also many voluntary, collective elements central to what is termed feudalism. For example, during the feudal era within Ireland, England and Iceland, we see conceptions of voluntary societies, with mechanisms of law being enforced by social trust and obligation rather than state violence. There were the rights of the commoners, as expressed in parts of Magna Carta and the common law system developed by Alfred the Great as well as in Ireland with Brehon law. The socialisation of rent within common land was also a present institution. Voluntary societies proliferated. Orders and guilds were a major form of economic organisation, creating careers through systems of trust and hierarchical loyalty. They were relatively decentralised, providing mutual aid through voluntary means. These are ideas and concepts that many modern anarchists celebrate while at the same time vilifying what they see as feudalism, with its hierarchy based around family and religion. However this is a confusion between feudalism and seigneurialism. The latter was enforced through the state. This can be seen with the repression of peasants rights during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, as well as the enclosures that began in the 15th century. The problem with hierarchy became its enforcement through state structures. Within traditional Hindu society, with its caste system, the battle of voluntary hierarchy vs. state-enforced hierarchy is largely observed. Without its state enforcement, downtrodden groups could develop their own communities as an alternative to the caste system-paradigm. Thus hierarchy, if placed in the constrains of voluntary relations much as it was in certain feudal societies, allows for the development of community and society free of a coercive state.
The family, the community and the court are pillars of a free society. Trust and obligation make up a free society, allowing individuals to develop informal and formal, contractual relations. One of the fundamental parts of these systems is hierarchy i.e. the recognition of individuals above and below certain levels of organisation. Law in anarchy relies on such a system. This can seen in the Icelandic Althing and the fiefdom systems in England and Wales. Hierarchy creates the tribal loyalties that make us respect law, order and community. They prevent not just the blatant disregard of negative freedom, but the development of atomistic individualism and state dependence present in nearly all Western societies. They create respect for institutions and past and future generations, developing said institutions and learning from the past. They become Burke’s little platoons that govern civilised society.
The question I have for anarchists who oppose the voluntary hierarchy I have laid out is how can you organise society without it? By what mechanisms do respect and trust come about if not through the natural hierarchies that have historically governed societies? This is the problem with human engineering that rips up historical significance. It assumes cultural positions based purely on intellectual abstraction, and then suddenly realises that these changes aren’t natural and aren’t possible without coercion. Thus the state rears its ugly head in the direction of forced cultural change, much as we see today with multiculturalism and the flooding of Western societies with immigrants who cannot integrate into Western values. We see schools teaching students how awful Western society is and why alien ideologies are much better. The end of community and tribalism occurs in favour of state-based morality. Natural hierarchies fight against this cultural engineering and ground society in historical morals and teachings. The decentralised economic organisation found in feudalism, as well as that theorised in distributism can fight against the state-corporate monopolisation of the means of production, re-embedding land, money and labour into their original social relations. It would allow for the re-socialisation of rents in the commons and the end of rent extraction, the end of usury through interest-free credit systems and the socialisation of labour by redeveloping guilds and hierarchical forms of employment, re-establishing the link of employer-employee relations. Let us end the destruction of cultural borders, the corporatising of markets and economic organisation and let us redevelop the hierarchies of family and community and the true democracy of fiefdoms and courts, as well as common land and the feudal agreements between common men and lords. Voluntary relations are not found in social engineering but rather in the historical teachings and the institutions of our ancestors that can guide our little platoons.