For most Americans the idea that a bunch of gods are living in the sky who control things and have wills which they try to impose on humans is preposterous. The idea is that these gods in the sky want you to do something and if you don't do it you will receive some sort of punishment. And if you are obedient you will be rewarded. But to many folks this notion is more ridiculous than the belief in extra-terrestrials. But I'm here to show you that the gods are very real.
Today a few societies still hold onto this belief. And if you think they don't exist just see how the people in these societies alter their actions in accordance with the will of the gods. Almost every single decision they make is related to their belief in the gods. To tell you the truth, I don't think there are god's in the sky, but that does not change the fact that to these people they are very real and there are actual real world consequences to their belief. In other words, the gods "exist" within their minds, and whether the gods actually exist or not matters little because the peoples belief in the existence of the gods in the sky is enough for their whole society to conform their behavior to the will of the so called gods.
Thankfully most of the world has thrown off the idea of the gods in the sky, yet we cling to some other ideas that are equally delusional. I am speaking about the idea that hierarchies are systems which actually exist, like a living being which we can do nothing about. They always have been, and always will be. Hierarchies are spoken of as if they were not created and sustained by human beings. As if hierarchies and systems are facts of life that all of us must deal with whether we like it or not. In reality, systems and hierarchies are as much a man made idea as the idea that gods are living in the sky controlling everything. Like the gods, hierarchies only exist in our minds.
As demonstrated above, something does not have to exist in order to be a powerful tool with real world repercussions. Here's another example. My kids believe strongly that monsters are in the basement. As such, they adapt their behavior to match this belief. They don't go into the basement and they exhibit signs of emotional fear when near the basement door, despite my insistence that the monster do not exist.
Another example which is categorically similar to the notion of hierarchies and systems can be found in sports. I can remember playing soccer during recess in 5th grade. Before starting the game we would agree that the established boundaries on the soccer field would be our boundaries. If you are the last one to touch the ball before it goes outside the lines, the other team gets the ball. But this rule only worked if everyone went along with it. And in this case, they did not. At some point the borders became obsolete. The lines were still there, but they meant nothing because nobody stopped when they crossed over them. If an alien from Neptune had been observing our strange game from afar, she would conclude that there was no rule in existence which dictated that the lines around the field were borders which if crossed meant a turnover of ball possession. The reality of soccer is that every bit of the game is a mental contrivance. It exists in our minds. And if any part of it is collectively discarded in the players minds, it no longer "exists."
This can be applied to borders of cities, counties, states and even nations. If everyone ceased to believe in the border between the U.S. and Mexico everyone would freely walk between the U.S. and Mexico as if no border exists. And in actuality, there is no border. There is a fence. There are armed guards telling us there is a border. But the border only exists in our minds (and only in some peoples minds at that). Enough examples already, on to hierarchies.
Hierarchies come as natural to people as eating, breathing or using the restroom. My one year old has already begun to try and establish a hierarchy in which he is the head and my other three kids are beneath. All the other kids attempt this as well on a daily basis. A hierarchy does "exist" when one of the kids establishes and maintains a position of dominance over another. In that moment everything is very tense because as it turns out, carrying out a coup d'etat comes just as naturally as establishing the hierarchy to begin with.
But not everything that comes naturally is good or healthy. For instance, Jov, (my power hungry one year old) has already begun to hit his brothers when angry at them. This is a natural reaction. At some point, however, we realize that if we do not learn to resist this natural inclination it will one day result in murder. And it does, all the time.
Moments of peace come when my children all decide they don't care for their little hierarchy and find it much more fun to relate to each other as equals. During that time there is no hitting, kicking, name calling, toy throwing, or screaming at each other. There is co-operation. Admittedly, much to my kids chagrin, their hierarchy often stops when they realize that I, their dad, have established a hierarchy of which I am the head, and they are all on the bottom rung. They are smart enough to know that at this point my intelligence, strength and resources far outweigh theirs, and thus I am unconquerable. That's not to say they have not tried to establish themselves over me. They test me non-stop, and not a moment late, one day they will know they are a match for me.
But my question is this... Is hierarchy the best we can do?
If hierarchy only exists in our minds, then can't it be thrown off as easily as the 5th graders disregarded the lines around the soccer field? The answer is yes, it can be. That does not by default mean that it should be, only that if we decide that we don't want it, we don't have to have it. In a world ridden with constant strife, premature death, and injustice from competition, war and the establishment of power and dominance, shouldn't we at least explore some other options? I mean what have we got to lose? Seriously, if we are going to be honest here, there are few souls in the world who would say that the world is great, and nothing should change about it. Even those at the top of the hierarchies would breath a sigh of relief if they found out they no longer had to maintain a constant position of dominance, or hold so much responsibility on their shoulders. That's exhausting. But what would the world look like without hierarchy? Would there be chaos? Or perhaps co-operation?
Before we can even get to the point where we are willing to look at new possibilities, I imagine a few things must happen. First we must throw off our apathy toward the way thing presently are. One thing that tends to hinder this is although there is only one person or group at the top of hierarchies, almost everyone in hierarchies has someone to be over.
Second we must understand that hierarchies are social constructs which work for the greatest good of those at the top. For example, say you have a hierarchical system which contains 100 people. one man at the top, twenty five on the bottom and the rest in between. Consider the injustice of this situation, one man has ninety nine people working to bring about the best possible scenario for this mans life and that one man has only himself to care for. His primary goal is to uphold the hierarchy which sustains him. Thus any care that is taken for those underneath is for the purpose of making sure they stay alive so the system does not fail. Twenty five people have no one working for their greater good. In addition to not having anyone working for their good, they have to work for the greater good of all those who are over them. This may sound like a harsh accusation, and admittedly it is an over simplification for illustrative purposes, but you show me a hierarchy where the ones at the top earn less money than those on the bottom. Or the ones on the bottom have health insurance but the ones at the top don't. Or the ones on the bottom have more say or more power than those at the top. Let's face it, no matter what the intentions are of those at the top, things work out the best the higher you find yourself in the hierarchy, period.
Understand that I make this critique while being at the bottom, middle and top of various hierarchies. This is a critique of me as much as anyone else. I am a WHITE AMERICAN MALE. I sit in perhaps the highest seat of privilege of any group of people in history. As a father I sit at the top of the family hierarchy. As a white person I sit at the top of a racial hierarchy. As a male I sit at the top of a gender hierarchy. As a homosapien I sit at the top of the animal hierarchy. Economically I find my self in the upper lower part of an American economic hierarchy, but at the top of a global economic hierarchy. As a skilled worker where I am employed I find myself right in the middle of an occupational and organizational hierarchy. As a legal citizen of the United States with the power of one vote I am at the bottom of a political hierarchy. Most of these positions I didn't work for, or ask for, some I did. Either way, my critique is one that has a profound impact on my own positions and privileges in life. None the less, the potential good that can arise from a more Just way of living far outweigh the sacrificing of privilege we all enjoy to various degrees.
Returning to what needs to happen before folks would consider other options for organizing ourselves, we need to not only see that hierarchies lend themselves to unhealthy situations, but we also need to see the potential for a healthier way of relating to each other. A part of that is just trying out new ways. But we are fortunate enough to already have some excellent models of non-hierarchical living and organizing. I have personally been a part of and observed some non-hierarchical organizations and businesses.
Don't worry, I'm not not naive enough to be talking about creating utopia here. I am not saying we can establish a world or even a small community which is perfect where everyone is high on life and gets along with each other. No matter what we do, greed and hatred will persist. But I think we can all agree that there are ways of organizing ourselves that bring about more freedom and justice than the other options. And most of us have not considered much less attempted possibilities outside of hierarchical living.
In the next blog I intend on looking at some existing models of non-hierarchical organizing and living. My hope is to focus in on and imagine a new way of living where the needs and desires of each individual is held just as high as the need and desires of everyone. Where we organize and relate to each other as equals, as brothers and sisters who are all a part of the same mad world. Feel free to ask questions, and make comments, so we can respectfully dialogue and explore together.