Power and Hierarchy

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2022-07-18

Identifying inequalities of power, instances of domination which creates the space for hierarchies and other forms of authority and subordination, is one of the cornerstones anarchist political and social theory. In order to fight back against something, after all, you have to be able to identify it. I began this project from an unorthodox angle in my account of the anarchic encounter, but I think a few words (at least) are necessary concerning the nature of hierarchies, authority, domination, subordination, and power-over; after all, these are the structural factors which either create the space for, or preclude, the anarchic encounter, and which my theory of justice-as-balance is linked to, as a sort of test for.

Before I jump in, however, I need to set the table --- elaborate on some core concepts of my social critique in general, and relate them to this project of understanding power and hierarchy specifically.


Like my conception of justice itself, my conception of hierarchy (and henceforth also authority and subordination, which should be read implicitly whenever I mention it from now on) is not one based on a set of rigid rules or relations which are prohibited in the case of hierarchy just as they are prescribed in the case of justice. Hierarchy wears as many faces as there are human faces, as many shapes as there are places and times in the world where people interact. It is one of the most versatile things in existence. It is a description of a social relationship, and human social relationships are infinitely, fractally complex, an interplay between the endless subtle variety and detail of objective states of the world, and the infinite nuance of subjectivity, perception, and language. In fact, the existence of hierarchy is ultimately a subjective phenomenon, created by the feelings of those involved --- their feelings of choice or lack of choice, which motivate their actions with respect to one another.

This might sound unsettling, but it's okay to leave wiggle room, exceptions, spaces for exploration and situational decisions and subjectivity, in things like this. Social science is broad, deep, and ever-shifting. I think Wittgenstein's concept of [family resemblance](http: //fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/Class%20Readings/Wittgenstein/Philosophical%20Investigations%20(1st%20100).html#65) is something especially useful to invoke here --- I can present a sort of general ""example" of a lot of things that I consider instances of hierarchy by giving an abstract account, but specific instances are going to be related to this in different ways than each other or even only transitively related to the examples I give, related to each other and then some of their number related to the example. Indeed, there might even be tensions or contradictions between specific instances, even as they are related to each other or related to other common instances as well. Thus there is ultimately no essence to these things at all, no necessary and sufficient conditions that make something hierarchy or not-hierarchy, nor any "central example" that all other examples are directly related to even in diverse ways. Just the presence of a resemblance between one instance and another instance, in a criss-crossing quilt of such resemblances.

Any attempt to come up with a complete account of any ethical concept, such as justice, self-defense, hierarchy, or whatever else you please, is bound to fall afoul of exceptions, which one is either then forced to accept --- making that account a sacred idea that you bow down to, over and above your own intuitions, feelings, and needs in the moment regarding specific matters --- or which one is forced to accommodate by adding ever more epicycles to the theory until it is basically no guide at all (the way that guides is not the constant way).

Nevertheless I think it is worth taking a stab at it. Not as a complete description, but as a sort of generalized example which can serve as something to build a proper form of family resemblance off of.


Let's begin with a basic concept: coercion. Someone is coerced into making a choice when their list of acceptable alternative choices is so restricted as to make that choice the only acceptable one, or at least one of very few acceptable alternatives, especially when these choices themselves are not something one would choice were their choices not as restricted (when the choice is not choiceworthy in itself and is even an unnecessarily poor means of achieving its end). In other words, one can say one's choice to do something is less free the less freedom remains to you should you make each one of the alternative choices available to you, and still less free if the best choice you have leaves you little freedom as well.

As an analogy, I am less free in my choice of direction if, proceeding down a tunnel, I come to a fork, where one path continues on (if perhaps narrower), while the other ventures on a little way and then ends in a dead end. Likewise, if, continuing down the narrower tunnel, as I proceed, I find that I have fewer new branches to go down than I did in the tunnels I left behind, I am, again, less free, because my freedom of movement is more restricted.

You might notice at this point that this account of coercion implies that coercion is a spectrum --- the list of acceptable choices can vary in length (or they can even have no physical choice at all in extreme cases), the relative acceptability of the choices can change in degree, and the choices that are available to you in the future after you make the choice currently at hand might change.

Furthermore, this account of coercion implies that whether coercion is present or not is up to the person who is in the situation in question --- it is at least partially subjective! After all, how much someone is coerced into a choice is dependent not on the objective existence of viable alternatives or the objective freedom that different choices would allow in the future, as if we were able to somehow have insight into those alternate universes; it is dependent on the perceived choices, or lack thereof, and their perceived quality! This intuitively makes sense: if someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to do something, I am coerced into doing it even if, unbeknownst to me, the gun isn't loaded.

It should also be noted that coercion can be achieved actively, by the person benefiting from the coerced choice, as in the case of making someone do something by putting a gun to their head, or passively, by merely taking advantage of someone's already dire circumstances, their lack of alternative options. In either case the result is the same, and in many such cases the surrounding conditions which enable such "passive" coercion are in fact artificial and constructed for the benefit of the person taking advantage, and as such the lines between these two are also often blurry.

Note that saying that coercion is subjective and exists on a spectrum is not to deny that coercion not used in self-defense can't be distinctly pointed out, referred-to, and understood, or can't be treated as undesirable. This fear that if something is complex, multifaceted, and has elements of subjectivity in it, it must be invalid and disappear under investigation is simply the ludicrous result of modernist bastardizations of scientism and positivism, the hundred-times picked over crumbs of our "Enlightenment inheritance." We can still understand when something is clearly taking place from an external point of view by analyzing the factors at play, the structures, systems, and individuals which compose them; we can analyze the severity of what is taking place and decide for ourselves what is too severe; we can ask the people involved and understand and learn from their perspectives. After all, one can turn to a friend and ask them what happened somewhere, and believe them, without a scientific investigation.

To a certain extent, in a technical sense, we all exercise "coercion," because self-defense does exactly what I described above: it makes people that want to hurt us not do so by using violence or the threat of it. Likewise, we ""force" people to deal with us fairly, instead of dominating us or being tyrannical over us, through the threat of using violence if they don't. But this is merely the absolutism of the free absolute, the unique, which defends its own. It is in fact, in a sense, the precondition for the anarchic encounter at all!

The crucial difference between these kinds of "egalitarian," unobjectionable uses of "coercion" and coercion exercised in a way that leads to power over others, hierarchy, domination, etc. (which is typically what people are referring to when they call something coercion) is that in the second case, it's aggressive interference --- marching into someone's life and telling them what to do and not to do when otherwise they would've had nothing to do with you, or taking control of the things they use to maintain their lives --- while in the more common case it's a reaction, it's defensive --- we are controlling their lives in a sense, but only to get them to stop dominating and controlling ours. I don't want to become my landlord's landlord, I just want to get him to stop being my landlord, etc.

Whether someone is controlling others only to not themselves be controlled, or controlling others for the purpose merely of controlling them is a detailed, case by case thing, an area that I leave up to judgment, although I don't think it's very often a difficult thing to determine --- just ask whose life is effected more by the use of coercion. If what you want to control effects my life more than yours, then you are trying to control me --- if your life more than mine, you are more interested in controlling yourself. Thus for instance if someone is trying to outlaw public displays of affection on the part of queer people because they don't want to see it, they are trying to control queer people, because that effects queer people's lives far more than their own (not having to see something you can easily ignore, versus not being able to express affection toward a loved one).

The key here, ultimately, seems to be whether something is invasive or not, just as Tucker says in his writings --- but that itself seems to boil down to equality of a sort, so, the key to justice remains equality, as Proudhon thought.

Power-Over (Domination)

The next concept is power over, or domination. Power-over is constituted in the ability to get an advantage over someone else --- to get what you want out of some interaction or relationship with much less significant concern for the interests of the others involved. Power over someone or some situation lets you set the terms of a bargain unilaterally, or nearly so, to extract more out of the relationship than the other parties to a relationship get, makes one party more beholden to the interests of the other, and so on. Power-over is usually only possible when coercion is forcing people to interact with the person who wants it, so that they can't simply reject a relation which is inequitable.

One example is, for instance, bosses who have to care very little about the happiness of the employees under them, can ignore employee input, etc, while the employees have to worry a lot about displeasing their boss all the time, because they might lose their job, which is a seriously bad option much of the time. Another example is the classic example of capitalist profit: since capitalists own the means of production and people need to eat, they have extremely unequal bargaining power and so can get much more out of the deal than others.

Power-over is distinct from "mere" power because we all want, and possess, power to one degree or another. This is implicit in all of my previous discussion in this essay already --- we all possess a will to power, and varying degrees of ability to project that power into our lives and the world around us. The more capacity we have to express our will to power, the more self-actualized we are capable of being, and so empowerment itself is neither good nor evil, and when considered in isolation can indeed be a great, beautiful thing.

Power only becomes dangerous to anarchism, a servant of hierarchy, when there is an inequality of power between those who have competing interests in some affair. That is when power over someone is possible: when you exercise your greater power to get what you want in a situation where someone else is effected by what you are doing and has interests contrary to yours, but can't stand against you. Therefore, part of the project of anarchism is to empower everyone equally, so that everyone has power, which means that no one has power over anyone else. There are many ways of doing that --- a cultural commitment to leveling mechanisms that ensure that leadership and authority are at most temporary tools, decentralization of systems and distribution of decision-making power, providing support and mutual aid for people to multiply their power, proper tools for self-defense and security, etc.

This is opposed to the statist solution to power-over, which is to equally disempower everyone, subjecting them all to the same laws, rules, and regulations, so that they are all equally powerless in the face of forces that decide from outside what conditions must be like --- a self-defeating notion because it inherently requires an even greater power-over, which then creates exactly the sort of domination and hierarchy, exactly the sort of power-over, that one sought to avoid in the first place. Thus we go from the occasional thief or burglar to asset forfeiture.

Again the key seems to be equality and balance.

Hierarchy and Authority

And, finally, we arrive at hierarchy: hierarchy is the reification and perpetuation of power and coercion. Hierarchy, and its accompanying authority, takes relationships of power-over and legitimizes them, by constructing some sustaining myth about how they are inevitable, inescapable, good, or necessary. By this means, relations of power which are ultimately arbitrary, created by happenstance or particular contextual or environmental factors, are transformed into things that are preserved and actively perpetuated by both the people that benefit from them and those that are on the losing end of them. Thus we get the divine right of kings, social contract theory, natural law, etc.

Once legitimating myths concerning these relations of power are created, the processes of perpetuation and preservation of these power relations start to turn into patterns, and then these patterns themselves are reified into myths, traditions, norms, and, eventually, laws, further feeding the cycle. After that, the hierarchy is reified (thing-ified) and made into a solid, stable entity both conceptually and materially. The concept of the hierarchy is turned into something separate from the people and actions that actualize it into something with its own force, its own wants, needs, and obligations, while that concept is also given tangible reality which further perpetuates the myth of the concept's independent reality. Thus hierarchies can be understood in terms of the relatively stable patterns of behavior that they engender, distorting the social fabric around themselves, and also the physical, material changes they make to our reality: government buildings, road blocks, fences, ghettos, police cars. All of these things reinforce the hierarchy, make it seem all the more just part of reality itself, all the more inescapable and inevitable, in a feedback loop of self-creation.

At this point, once a relationship of power has been turned into a hierarchy, legitimized, and reified into a set of institutions, where this vicious cycle of self-reinforcement can begin, problems of coordination and collective action become serious. If a system has overwhelming power behind it, so that no single individual could stand completely against it for long, it becomes necessary to coordinate action; the problem is, such action is lethal and also largely pointless on the part of each individual, so each individual needs to be able to guarantee that the others will join in, and this can be difficult because there is an incentive for each individual to defect to save their own hides or even make a deal with the powers-that-be. How to resist this problem and powerful hierarchies themselves is far outside my wheelhouse, however.


This is by no means a complete account. Instead, it is a hasty sketch which grew out of a flash of inspiration while writing another essay. Nevertheless, I think it offers some useful conceptual tools in an accessible package and perhaps has some unique ideas about how to construct a framework through which to understand and critique power and hierarchy. That's all I aim to do, anyway.