Make ‘Hierarchy’ Neutral Again

Nick Hanauer–more jittery than ever about the fate of plutocrats in the aftermath of Trump’s election since this means “now the pitchforks are coming for us, my friends, from both the right and the left”–is again peddling minimum wage hikes to begin curing the disease of “radical, rising economic inequality” that is eating away at the U.S.’s social cohesion. He warns us that, if left untreated, this breakdown will inescapably lead to a repeat of the War Between the States:

“My own ideas about the effect of inequality on social instability align with the work of social scientist Peter Turchin. He and his collaborators use mathematical models to study the rise and fall of societies—an analysis that postulates a new American civil war arriving as soon as 2021.”

Turchin, in a response to Hanauer’s piece, agrees with him but doesn’t think higher minimum wage will fully eradicate the pathogens that afflict us:

“First, I’d use the term “immiseration” rather than “inequality.” Most Americans, including myself and (I am sure) Nick, don’t want radical egalitarianism. Some degree of inequality is fair. Of course, the level of inequality in the US is way, way above what the great majority of Americans consider as fair. But it’s worse than that. As Nick says later in the article, the growing inequality is resulting in declining well-being of large swaths of American population–in absolute terms. The technical term for this is immiseration. Second, as our historical research shows, popular immiseration is only of the general factors that drive political instability. The other, and in many ways more important one, is intra-elite conflict… What it all means is that the main threat to the American elites are not the “miserables”, but frustrated elite aspirants, who have always been the primary moving force behind revolutions and civil wars. It will be not peasants with pitchforks, but the Revolutionary Tribunal commissars with Mausers… This [minimum wage rising] is a great start, but it’s not enough. The fundamental social process that drives both immiseration and intra-elite conflict is the massive oversupply of labor that developed in the United States over the past 30–40 years…Something must be done about recovering the balance between the number of people who want jobs and the number of jobs available for them. And then there is the second problem of elite overproduction. These are all massive problems and I don’t have ready answers or solutions. Yet there are things that a group of researchers and policy experts can do—and the American elites can help fund it.”

But there is an obvious solution to intra-elite competition–one that Turchin refuses to contemplate because he takes “radical egalitarianism” off the table—and that is to get rid of the elites or, in other words, anarchism. Turchin and his proposed Foundation-ish conclave of stuffy academicians could study Structural-Demographic Theory for a thousand years and still not discover an alternate remedy to the cycle of conflict caused by class systems. The ironic thing is that although Turchin has criticized anarchism, elsewhere in his work he’s favorably expressed ideas that mesh well with anarchism:

“The group size grows by adding additional hierarchical levels. So far so good, but the great downside of hierarchical organization is that it inevitably leads to inequality. Once you allow a leader to order everybody around, he will use the power to feather his nest. This is sometimes known as the iron law of oligarchy…Thus, although highly effective on the battlefield, a centralized military hierarchy has several drawbacks as a general way of organizing societies. [Z-Curve]  …“This is a hierarchical organization in its neutral, informational (or, as my father would say, cybernetic) sense, which should not be confused with ‘hierarchy’ in its negative sense, that is, unequal distribution of power…The problem, of course, is that as soon as you put someone in a central position of a decision-making network, you give them a lot of structural power, and they can, and often will, attempt to convert it into more malignant forms of power: ability to order others around, and acquisition of a disproportionate amount of resources. If there are no effective checks on leaders, then hierarchy breeds inequality…Hierarchy (in its neutral sense) is the only way to organize large-scale societies. In itself, it’s not a bad thing. Abuse of power and gross inequality are unquestionably a bad thing. Evolution has been working to eliminate the worst excesses, but we need to help it along…So, what we need is not less hierarchy, but more control over our leaders to ensure that they govern for the collective good, rather than for selfish needs of themselves and their cronies. How we achieve this end is a big question, to which I don’t have a ready answer” [The Evolution of Hierarchy]

Opposing “gross inequality” and power disparities? Effective checks on leaders so they can only reflect the interest of the people they represent? With positions like these, how can Turchin have any issues with anarchism? It could stem a misconception Turchin has about anarchism–i.e. that it is opposed to all organization—or it could be that the differences he has with anarchism boils down to a matter of semantics. Anarchists wouldn’t object to neutral hierarchy, which sounds very similar—if not identical–to the bottom-up federations which they advocate but they’d never call such an arrangement a hierarchy. I, too, would agree that neutral hierarchy ought to be called something else because the etymology of the word ‘hierarchy’ implies sacred rule but, again, semantics. As for how to guard against negative hierarchy and snuff out the pretensions of would-be rulers, I think the ready answer here would be a revival of the “culture of egalitarianism” that was practiced by hunter-gatherer societies—updated and strengthened by anarchist thought. If we’re ever going to have truly stable societies–ones that aren’t trapped in an endless ‘rise-fall’ pattern–this is the direction we have to go.