On Hierarchy

“For most of human history especially in the hunter-gatherer period of our ancient ancestors, there were no formal hierarchies as people usually lived, ate, and communed in small groups where decisions could be made collectively and were objections or differing opinions were more easily able to be heard.”

Hierarchy is one unavoidable aspect of modern life that can be difficult not to clash with from time to time. The bigger the group is, the more necessary a hierarchy is in order to ensure order and compliance. For most of human history especially in the hunter-gatherer period of our ancient ancestors, there were no formal hierarchies as people usually lived, ate, and communed in small groups where decisions could be made collectively and were objections or differing opinions were more easily able to be heard.

If you have a group of 10 or even up to 100, which is what human beings are able to hold in their memories in terms of remembering names, faces, and details about each person, such small-scale organization did not have a need for a strict hierarchy where one person was in charge of making all of the decisions or whose voice mattered more than others. On the contrary, consensus involved discussion, debate, and a common conclusion at the end of the meeting or congregation. If enough people did not agree with the decisions or the direction of the group, they would often create their own group and go their own way.

These small groups dominated for a long time in human history, but their longevity in terms of collective group decision-making was upended by the agricultural age and when people stopped roaming around the planet. Instead of being hunter-gatherers, the majority of humanity shifted to being settlers and farmers establishing larger and larger groups to form a collective society or nation where you would not know everyone in your group because that group was no longer autonomous. Agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial societies are made up of thousands or millions of people usually brought together under one flag, one state, or one nation.

While this civilizational approach has outlasted our ancient past as hunter-gatherers, our inherent need to be part of a group, to be valued, and to have purpose within that group has not gone away. These small groups had a measure of equality to them with everyone having a key purpose and having a voice regarding what issues or opportunities had come up. In a larger society, cooperation is harder to come by, inequalities can be maximized, and hierarchies are much more common due to the need to instill order and discipline among people of that society even when they feel like they are being disadvantaged in some way.

Hierarchies are not necessarily natural to us as human beings given our origins and our way of life that lasted for thousands of years but to me and others, it was a necessity in order to organize a large-scale society of thousands or millions of people. Hierarchy is not necessarily a bad system, but it can be abused by those who have power who are not held accountable for their actions or who cannot be removed from their leadership role if they do not serve the society’s interests and needs. The fight for democratic governance, for basic human rights, and for equal opportunities in a society; those values are not guaranteed especially when we organize around a hierarchy and give people power over others.

Whether it is the President of a country or the CEO of a company, a hierarchy has to be kept in check and when that leader or ruler is not making wise decisions for the people he serves in that role, there has to be a way to remove someone from that role in the hierarchy. While hierarchies are necessary in our modern world, there have to be ways for those who are subordinate to voice themselves and their views without fears of reprisal or retribution for speaking out.

To ‘speak truth to power’ throughout history has been the exception rather than the norm but for those who did it even when there were financial or personal risks involved, the larger society benefited from the actions of those people who did not remain silenced but spoke out. If a leader is committing injustices, if a manager is doing something illegal, or if a principal is abusing their power, they have to be held accountable and removed from their position especially the higher up in the overall hierarchy that they are placed.

By raising our collective voices, abuses, inequalities, and injustices can be minimized as much as possible if there are democratic safeguards created to prevent a hierarchical order from being abused. There will be those leaders who do right by their subordinates and who make their hierarchy more democratic but in case that does not occur, laws and institutions have to be able to hold those at the top of their hierarchies in check.

Whether it’s’ allowing a few of your employees at a company to have voting rights on the company’s board of directors or making them shareholders or part-owners of the company, these are a few ways to make hierarchies more responsive and fairer. By establishing term limits for those who run for public office and prevent them from being in that office for the rest of their lives so that they aren’t able to have power for thirty or forty years straight is another concrete way to control a hierarchy by allowing others to take charge. When a President or Prime Minister does something illegal or cruel, that hierarchy is not absolute, and they can be removed from office or even be charged with a crime so that people in the society will know that they are not above the law.

It’s not that hierarchies are inherently bad or negative, but they must be actively controlled and made more democratic by those who participate in them. The people who are subordinate to others within a hierarchy should be able to freely voice their opinion, concerns, or dissent when they disagree with their leader. A good leader should take into consideration those stakeholders or constituents who they are responsible for governing over and they should not prevent people from expressing their dismay or disappointment because a good leader will admit when they make a mistake and try to do better for the people under him or her.

The notion of a hierarchy having been around for all of human history is a fallacy and while it is not an ideal way to form a group with one person having power over others by claiming it, it is the only way to organize large-scale societies and nations. However, hierarchies that are successful are responsible to the needs of the people living in them, who want to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal for having done so, and to be able to vote, change, or amend the leadership from time to time so that the hierarchy does not become above the people but rather part of them in a democratic system.

While hierarchy has to be respected, it should not be absolute, and it must be as democratic as possible. A hierarchy that is unequal, unresponsive, and meant to be permanent will ultimately fail because that kind of hierarchy will lose favor with the people under it and will eventually be replaced with something better. If you find yourself under a hierarchical system that you find stifling and demeaning, don’t stick around and support it. Find your own group or place in the world where you can have a voice that is listened to, where decisions can be made as a small group if possible, and where an absolute hierarchy is unheard of and frowned upon.