Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

The Sumerian Standard of Ur is 4,600 years old, showing the king in the top middle, standing taller than any other figure. Image: Wikipedia

 

We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago.  In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.

In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.

The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.

The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.

Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.

The anthropological record

Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.

David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.

In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.

Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.

So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.

The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.

With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.

Understanding the history of domination

The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.

Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.

Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home.

None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.

For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.

In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.

Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.

Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.

Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.

Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.

From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.

Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.

And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.

Social ecology and our present crisis

Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.

Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.

The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.

The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.

If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.

Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.

If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.

Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.

What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.

Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.

Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev

This article was written by Katie Horvath (@katesville7), Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

How to navigate the disorientation of a seismic world

Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Source: Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University

For many, the defining political sensation of our day is disorientation. We often feel torn apart in every direction. Even if we grasp the profound depth of the problems we face, navigating this seismic landscape towards something better always seems beyond us.

Complete ecological catastrophe looms into view – an unsettled future that is nevertheless approaching far too quickly. Climate change is our most obvious doom, without the democratic power – political or economic – to change course. Biodiversity collapse, soil degradation, and deforestation are comparable threats of similar causes.

Even as revolutionary new technologies appear – with the potential to free our lives from drudgery and connect us to one another in ways we had never imagined possible – our undemocratic economy has deployed them as tools of disruption.

Dreams of a post-scarcity technological future darken into one of permanent unemployment, while governments and companies develop unprecedented power for surveillance and propaganda. In a time when decisive marshalling of the public sphere for the public interest is more needed than ever, the state remains under near-total elite control.

And even as promising social movements are emerging from the UK, Latin America, Spain, Greece, Kurdistan, and elsewhere, reactionary movements of racism and hate are also on the rise. Our newfound uncertainty – amid refugee crises and economic restructuring – has fed vicious nationalist resurgences everywhere from Italy to India to America.

Collective action

How do we navigate this frightening and, yes, confusing new world? Even retrospectives on powerful movements of the past can be sources of despair. After all, it is tempting to think, how important and lasting could their achievements be if we’ve still been brought to this moment?

It is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement.

But it is worth recognising the truly extraordinary things that mass movements of previous generations have accomplished. Monarchy-toppling revolutions, international labour organising, decolonial struggles, the world-wide feminist movement – each has changed the world and each provides us with a wealth of practices and experiences for the present moment.

The international labour movement was built on the simple idea that even in a world where working people are ruled by others, they will always have the power to withhold their labour. Its strength came from the kinds of collective actions that anyone could participate in, which over time were scaled up to win sweeping changes for the lives of ordinary people.

Decolonial movements challenged and overthrew colonial apparatuses that had the weight and brutality of world empires behind them.

Feminist and antiracist movements across the world have demonstrated the ways in which social domination is rooted in the most intimate spheres of life and showed that a successful framework for social change must recognise the deeply entwined nature of the personal and the political. They have begun to reweave the entire social fabric of labour, families, and relationships.

Our situation may seem hopeless, but we have a rich inheritance of ideas and practices from which we can draw. Monarchies have been overthrown, dictators pulled down. The world has been shaken on its very foundations by popular movements before, and rebuilt anew. As Ursula Le Guin reminds us: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Successes and limitations

Of course, each of the movements above had its flaws and limitations. Unions were often extremely hierarchical and can exclude women, and in the US, people of color.

Many decolonial movements became oppressive and authoritarian as they captured but failed to transform the state—and as their leaders became pawns of Western corporations and institutions.

Some strands of the radical feminist movement failed to address racism, classism, and imperialism: others were co-opted by capitalist forces and drained of any revolutionary potential.

These limitations prove illustrative as well, however. They have demonstrated that imperialism, ecological destruction, patriarchy, and class society share a common root—the problem of hierarchy.

Hierarchies between societies, genders, class, and ethnicities make it impossible for some to participate in the political process.

The institutionalisation of radical democracy, where everyone gets a say, is thus essential to creating lasting change. Only real democracy has the potential to simultaneously challenge the injustices of our day and assemble the building blocks of a liberated society.

A new framework

Drawing from past movements’ successes and limitations, we need a new framework to address today’s challenges. We believe that a convergent evolution towards just such a new framework is happening right now, emerging from the experiments and struggles of our time.

Leftists and environmentalists coming from backgrounds as diverse as the Kurdish freedom movement, black nationalism, the Mexican anti-colonial struggle, student debt strikers, and labor organising are shifting toward a politics of counterpower: rather than seeking to capture the state, they are building new popular institutions of genuine democracy within the existing system, to carve out space for survival and self-determination.

There are many names for this approach – communalism, radical municipalism, solidarity economies, democratic confederalism, Abahlalism – and many iterations around the world, from Rojava, Syria to Jackson, Mississippi to Barcelona, Spain to Cape Town, South Africa.

The movements share a commitment to radical democracy and inclusion, a focus on building local, resilient institutions, a skepticism of the state, and a determination to confront hierarchy in all its forms.

We argue that these strategies are promising not only because of their incredible individual work, but because when these clusters of community councils, assemblies, land trusts, and cooperatives are woven together into a coherent movement, they may begin to both proliferate and scale up.

Ultimately, they can supplant existing neoliberal political and economic institutions and grow into the foundation of an entirely new society capable of weathering the storm ahead.

Theoretical reflection

This column is the first in a biweekly series by The Symbiosis Research Collective, a publishing collective and study group comprised of activist-intellectuals who are brought together around questions of how to achieve such social and ecological transformation.

In 2017, some of our founding members won first place in the Next System Project’s competition for the essay Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond. Since then, we have been organising for a movement to revolutionise society through confederal direct democracy in North America.

Our goal is to help people build a new world right in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods where they already live. To that end, we are dedicating the next phase of our work to organising a gathering of municipalist and communalist projects in order to launch a confederation that can connect existing projects and seed new ones.

This project is guided by the spirit that only through lasting alliances can we actualise the vision of an egalitarian, free, and ecological society we so desperately need.

Effective movement-building requires the ongoing dialogue of theoretical reflection, practice, and debate. Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing reflections on a given theme in a bi-weekly series.

Some topics include the history of ecology and revolution, organising how-tos on radical municipalist chapters, energy democracy, alternative education, workers’ movements, and much more.

Ultimately, we aim to fit these pieces into a coherent guide to inspire others to join us in the growing radical municipalist movement. We’re honored and thrilled to have this column appear in The Ecologist.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city.