Counterpoint #2: In defence of hierarchies

El Castillo in Chichén Itzá - photo CC-licensed by Daniel Schwen

To a large extent, North is an attack on hierarchy. Or to be more precise, it’s an attack on the image of hierarchy. Its cosmological history uncovers the ways in which certain facets of the appearance of the world — especially the elevated centrality of the north pole star — are seized, amplified, embellished, and used to justify and naturalise social hierarchies.

However, while the prevalence of egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies features prominently, and resistance to hierarchies in civilisation is celebrated, at key points I hope it’s clear that social hierarchies of certain kinds and degrees are acknowledged as being useful — especially in managing large-scale societies. The primary attack on the image of hierarchy is intended to erode unwarranted support for oppressive hierarchies, to help expose the points where the oppression of ossified hierarchies is justified by appeal to an image inflated into a weaponised archetype. This attack on the image has to be forceful to break through the beguiling power of encrusted naturalisation. Nevertheless, this force, and the healthy anarchist resistance to actual oppressive hierarchies it enables, shouldn’t be mistaken for a naive anarchist opposition to every actual hierarchy imaginable.

A case in point arose for me in studying the famed royal hierarchies of classic Maya city-states. On the one hand, I pondered the complexities of the use made of this heritage by the radically egalitarian Zapatista uprising in the 1990s. On the other, I also tried to take on board the assertion by noted scholars of Maya myth and history, Linda Schele and David Freidel, that to a certain extent, Maya hierarchies of royalty formed in response to a period of turbulence, as a compromise trying to preserve as much egalitarianism as possible. They maintain that at the time the Maya institution of kingship arose, trade flows were getting out of hand, ‘upsetting the heretofore carefully maintained system of social egalitarianism.’1

Kingship addressed the problem of inequality, not by destroying or denying it, but by embedding the contradictory nature of privilege into the very fabric of life itself. The rituals of the ahauob [nobles] declared that the magical person of the king was the pivot and pinnacle of a pyramid of people, the summit of a ranking of families that extended out to incorporate everyone in the kingdom — from highest to lowest.

This is far from being a simple traditionalist response, justifying hierarchy as ‘natural’. Indeed, it highlights the constructed aspect of hierarchy in human life, while obviously acting as a defence against simplistic attacks on hierarchy.

And in the couple of years since the publication of North, the world has amply demonstrated the grave dangers of simplistic attacks on hierarchy. When distrust of authority degrades into the decadence of conspiracy theory, when anti-imperialist sentiment against one nation becomes a reason to celebrate the atrocities of another, when resentment of intellectual ‘experts’ is weaponised by authoritarians, and fury at financial elites is leveraged to gain more power for these elites — clearly the simple critique of hierarchy needs qualification.

Rather than write at length about this, however, I’ll appropriately (and conveniently, given my current schedule) defer to some experts. A group of philosophers, political scientists, historians and independent scholars have staged a level-headed defence of hierarchy over at Aeon magazine. I can’t say I agree with every point, but the debate seems vital at this juncture.

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