Does Universal Power-Hunger Make Hierarchy Rational?

It’s sometimes said that people have an innate love of aggression and power and dominance and all those things that anarchists are against. It is then sometimes suggested that anarchism doesn’t ‘recognise’ this fact and that, on the contrary, only hierarchical societies do justice to ‘human nature’.

Now there’s two ways to take this. It might mean that people are unchangeably irrational in  this – that they will, in overwhelming numbers, strive for whatever offers them the momentary promise or prospect of satisfying it, whatever the cost. Or it might simply mean that the desire is there and is strong.

I won’t here give an answer to the first. If humans are so foolish that they can’t seek their own good, then that is indeed a good route towards authoritarian thinking. But I happen to have a certain optimism that people are rational enough, ultimately, that they can recognise what causes them suffering and work against it.

The second, though, I will try to tackle: the idea that, independently of rationality, people innately and always love power. I would suggest that if this is true (which it may be) the case for anarchism is not one whit diminished. That is because if one accepts the arguments that non-hierarchical societies are good, then those arguments will imply, fairly unchanged, that non-hierarchical societies are the most rational type of society for a power-hungry species.

Let’s suppose we have a fairly broad definition of ‘power’, meaning just ‘control over one’s environment’. Now if we grant that things which affect one’s immediate surroundings, close relationships, physical body, and so forth, are more salient, and more emotionally important to control, than things which affect remote places and people far away, then it follows that the greatest overall satisfaction of power-lust will be a society that, as far as possible, allocates control of each decision to those individuals or groups most intimately involved – of individual freedom, small group freedom, large group freedom, etc.

To put it another way, the point I’m making is simply that to say “hierarchy is good because it recognises people’s love for power” is a fallacy. Hierarchy provides the greatest satisfaction of this love to a few, those towards the top of whatever hierarchy, but systematically deprives those nearer the bottom (typically more numerous) of satisfaction of this deep drive. So hierarchy has nothing to do with any ‘inherent’ love of power – it’s about the love of power of the ruling class.

If the Supreme Leader’s love of power is to be universalised and made into an eternal law, then we are talking about a society of a million Supreme Leaders. How is it an appropriate response to make one into an actual supreme leader, and doom 999,999 to live as frustrated seekers after that status? Doesn’t it make more sense to say, you may each have a portion of supreme leadership – for a time, of a few, subject to checks, within limits, such that you can each enjoy a roughly equal share of this scarce resource you all desire? Is it not, in fact, the submissiveness of the 999,999 that maintains hierarchy, not anyone’s assertiveness?

This point is analogous to Marx’s scorn in the Communist Manifesto:

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”

But let’s suppose that humans are a little more perverse: that what they really long for is not to control themselves and their own lives, but to control others. Indeed, sometimes the argument is phrased the opposite way around: anarchism is unrealistic because people have such a basic drive to submit, to give away power. People hate freedom and the responsibility it brings, or so it is said. One wonders why a single conclusion can be reached from two diametrically opposed premises, but there you go.

So let’s suppose that people are happy to be themselves subordinated, in order to taste the delights of subordinating others. Does this then make hierarchy a sensible arrangement? No.

If people have a basic desire to dominate, and a basic willingness to be dominated, then let us treat these desires the same way we treat sexual desires, desires for food or drink, sleep or adrenaline. Let us step back from the passion of the moment, and rather than letting it rule us, ask how to most efficiently indulge such desires without them consuming us.

What this, I believe, would produce, would be a society of sado-masochistic anarchists. Perhaps the sadomasochism would not be as sexual in nature as it is now (although even now in some cases the emotional is more prominent than the sexual aspect) – perhaps it would just be the incorporation of various behaviours of control and enslavement into a structure of negotiated limits and consensual ‘play’. When one person feels a need to dominate, and another feels a willingness or even a need to submit, they find each other and they agree on the limits and the scope and the safeword, and they live like that for a matter of minutes or hour or longer.

Such a society might “inscribe on its banners” such a motto as “as much sadism for each as is compatible with equal sadism for all”.

Of course I don’t buy most of this. People are not, independently of all social environments, driven ineluctably towards greater and greater cruelty, nor towards greater and greater servility. There may be germs of both in every person, and strong tendencies in some individuals, but those germs and tendencies can grow in any number of ways.

The point is simply: even in a world filled with the most power-hungry sadists, anarchism would still be as justified – if those sadists were rational and could recognise their collective interests (remember, sadism is nothing at all like selfishness, it is the most ‘pro-social’ of instincts, for it makes us most dependent on others).

4 Responses to “Does Universal Power-Hunger Make Hierarchy Rational?”

  1. The Villain Says:

    Good post. I tend to wonder why it is that greed is defended as human nature and yet many things that humans naturaly sometimes do are seen as immoral. I suppose there’s some built in hierarchy to our sins? Even so, I would still tend to put greed near the top of the list.

  2. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Hi, I just found your blog which as a fellow lefty anarchist academic type I find very interesting. Over the next couple of weeks you might see some more comments from me on progressively older postings of yours as I work my way through the backlog. 🙂

    There’s a related argument to the one you criticise that I occasionally come across, the idea that religion is necessary even though it may not be true because people need moral absolutes to stop their baser instincts. My response to this is pretty similar to yours, which is to point out that what an elitist attitude this is: one rule for the likes of you and me, and another for the masses. Such an argument makes very dubious assumptions about human nature that in my view are not sustained by any evidence. It’s also a bad argument even ignoring this, because if the assumptions about human nature are true then there’s no reason not to expect that the worst sort of people would end up gaining control of the religion, and exercising it for the wrong ends (and the same applies in your case of power more generally).

    What I wondered though when I was reading your entry is: why should it matter whether people hunger for power or not? Is the argument that we ought to indulge people’s desires for their own sake (this seemed to be what you were replying to)? If so, I would say not necessarily in general, only when those desires don’t interfere with others (obviously not the case with power). Or is the argument that an anarchist society would be unstable because of people’s hunger for power? I don’t think this holds up. One of the beautiful things about the anarchist idea of an organised society free from authority is that one person cannot gain power, because everyone else wouldn’t let them (which works because they are organised). Or is the argument that if you take away all traces of power then there will be nothing to motivate people to do well? In principle, this could be true but I doubt that anyone has any evidence in favour of it. It would be interesting to know what really did motivate people, but it looks to be pretty complex. For some people obviously, a desire for power is motivational. For others it might be wealth, status, sex, comfort, children, culture, or even the desire for pure knowledge. A society oriented towards any one desire may well encourage some people to do well, but it may also discourage others who are motivated by different things. An anarchist society probably does better than almost any other society for all desires except relative ones (the desire to be better than others). And even then, an anarchist society doesn’t have to reject the idea of unequal status (e.g. very successful people might still be revered, as long as that doesn’t confer them greater power).

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Exactly. People aren’t working from evidence when they decide to say what people are naturally like, they’re absolutising some impulse because it’s convenient. And as you say, even if everyone is in fact X, anarchy is hardly a rigid restrictive set-up that will stop people dealing with that.

  4. Are hierarchies rational? « Check Your Premises Says:

    […] Posted April 21 2009 Filed under: Links | The blog Directionless Bones had an excellent post recently discussing whether hierarchies are rational given the assumption that people are […]


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