Is It Possible to be an Anarchist Without Opposing Hierarchy?

Source: The Anarchist Library
Republished with permission.


No. We have seen that anarchists abhor authoritarianism. But if one is an anti-authoritarian, one must oppose all hierarchical institutions, since they embody the principle of authority. For, as Emma Goldman argued, “it is not only government in the sense of the state which is destructive of every individual value and quality. It is the whole complex authority and institutional domination which strangles life. It is the superstition, myth, pretence, evasions, and subservience which support authority and institutional domination.” [Red Emma Speaks, p. 435] This means that “there is and will always be a need to discover and overcome structures of hierarchy, authority and domination and constraints on freedom: slavery, wage-slavery [i.e. capitalism], racism, sexism, authoritarian schools, etc.” [Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics, p. 364]

Thus the consistent anarchist must oppose hierarchical relationships as well as the state. Whether economic, social or political, to be an anarchist means to oppose hierarchy. The argument for this (if anybody needs one) is as follows:

“All authoritarian institutions are organised as pyramids: the state, the private or public corporation, the army, the police, the church, the university, the hospital: they are all pyramidal structures with a small group of decision-makers at the top and a broad base of people whose decisions are made for them at the bottom. Anarchism does not demand the changing of labels on the layers, it doesn’t want different people on top, it wants us to clamber out from underneath.” [Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action, p. 22]

Hierarchies “share a common feature: they are organised systems of command and obedience” and so anarchists seek“to eliminate hierarchy per se, not simply replace one form of hierarchy with another.” [Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 27] A hierarchy is a pyramidally-structured organisation composed of a series of grades, ranks, or offices of increasing power, prestige, and (usually) remuneration. Scholars who have investigated the hierarchical form have found that the two primary principles it embodies are domination and exploitation. For example, in his classic article “What Do Bosses Do?” (Review of Radical Political Economy, Vol. 6, No. 2), a study of the modern factory, Steven Marglin found that the main function of the corporate hierarchy is not greater productive efficiency (as capitalists claim), but greater control over workers, the purpose of such control being more effective exploitation.

Control in a hierarchy is maintained by coercion, that is, by the threat of negative sanctions of one kind or another: physical, economic, psychological, social, etc. Such control, including the repression of dissent and rebellion, therefore necessitates centralisation: a set of power relations in which the greatest control is exercised by the few at the top (particularly the head of the organisation), while those in the middle ranks have much less control and the many at the bottom have virtually none.

Since domination, coercion, and centralisation are essential features of authoritarianism, and as those features are embodied in hierarchies, all hierarchical institutions are authoritarian. Moreover, for anarchists, any organisation marked by hierarchy, centralism and authoritarianism is state-like, or “statist.” And as anarchists oppose both the state and authoritarian relations, anyone who does not seek to dismantle all forms of hierarchy cannot be called an anarchist. This applies to capitalist firms. As Noam Chomsky points out, the structure of the capitalist firm is extremely hierarchical, indeed fascist, in nature:

“a fascist system... [is] absolutist — power goes from top down ... the ideal state is top down control with the public essentially following orders.

“Let’s take a look at a corporation... [I]f you look at what they are, power goes strictly top down, from the board of directors to managers to lower managers to ultimately the people on the shop floor, typing messages, and so on. There’s no flow of power or planning from the bottom up. People can disrupt and make suggestions, but the same is true of a slave society. The structure of power is linear, from the top down.” [Keeping the Rabble in Line, p. 237]

David Deleon indicates these similarities between the company and the state well when he writes:

“Most factories are like military dictatorships. Those at the bottom are privates, the supervisors are sergeants, and on up through the hierarchy. The organisation can dictate everything from our clothing and hair style to how we spend a large portion of our lives, during work. It can compel overtime; it can require us to see a company doctor if we have a medical complaint; it can forbid us free time to engage in political activity; it can suppress freedom of speech, press and assembly — it can use ID cards and armed security police, along with closed-circuit TVs to watch us; it can punish dissenters with ‘disciplinary layoffs’ (as GM calls them), or it can fire us. We are forced, by circumstances, to accept much of this, or join the millions of unemployed... In almost every job, we have only the ‘right’ to quit. Major decisions are made at the top and we are expected to obey, whether we work in an ivory tower or a mine shaft.” [“For Democracy Where We Work: A rationale for social self-management”Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), pp. 193–4]

Thus the consistent anarchist must oppose hierarchy in all its forms, including the capitalist firm. Not to do so is to supportarchy — which an anarchist, by definition, cannot do. In other words, for anarchists, “[p]romises to obey, contracts of (wage) slavery, agreements requiring the acceptance of a subordinate status, are all illegitimate because they do restrict and restrain individual autonomy.” [Robert Graham, “The Anarchist ContractReinventing Anarchy, Again, Howard J. Ehrlich (ed.), p. 77] Hierarchy, therefore, is against the basic principles which drive anarchism. It denies what makes us human and “divest[s] the personality of its most integral traits; it denies the very notion that the individual is competent to deal not only with the management of his or her personal life but with its most important context: the social context.”[Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 202]

Some argue that as long as an association is voluntary, whether it has a hierarchical structure is irrelevant. Anarchists disagree. This is for two reasons. Firstly, under capitalism workers are driven by economic necessity to sell their labour (and so liberty) to those who own the means of life. This process re-enforces the economic conditions workers face by creating “massive disparities in wealth ... [as] workers... sell their labour to the capitalist at a price which does not reflect its real value.” Therefore:

“To portray the parties to an employment contract, for example, as free and equal to each other is to ignore the serious inequality of bargaining power which exists between the worker and the employer. To then go on to portray the relationship of subordination and exploitation which naturally results as the epitome of freedom is to make a mockery of both individual liberty and social justice.” [Robert Graham, Op. Cit., p. 70]

It is for this reason that anarchists support collective action and organisation: it increases the bargaining power of working people and allows them to assert their autonomy (see section J).

Secondly, if we take the key element as being whether an association is voluntary or not we would have to argue that the current state system must be considered as “anarchy.” In a modern democracy no one forces an individual to live in a specific state. We are free to leave and go somewhere else. By ignoring the hierarchical nature of an association, you can end up supporting organisations based upon the denial of freedom (including capitalist companies, the armed forces, states even) all because they are “voluntary.” As Bob Black argues, “[t]o demonise state authoritarianism while ignoring identical albeit contract-consecrated subservient arrangements in the large-scale corporations which control the world economy is fetishism at its worst.” [The Libertarian as Conservative, The Abolition of Work and other essays, p. 142] Anarchy is more than being free to pick a master.

Therefore opposition to hierarchy is a key anarchist position, otherwise you just become a “voluntary archist” — which is hardly anarchistic.

Anarchists argue that organisations do not need to be hierarchical, they can be based upon co-operation between equals who manage their own affairs directly. In this way we can do without hierarchical structures (i.e. the delegation of power in the hands of a few). Only when an association is self-managed by its members can it be considered truly anarchistic.

We are sorry to belabour this point, but some capitalist apologists, apparently wanting to appropriate the “anarchist” name because of its association with freedom, have recently claimed that one can be both a capitalist and an anarchist at the same time (as in so-called “anarcho” capitalism). It should now be clear that since capitalism is based on hierarchy (not to mention statism and exploitation), “anarcho”-capitalism is a contradiction in terms. 


Freedom – Equality – Solidarity


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