The Tyranny of Structurelessness
April 2, 2007 7:56 AM   Subscribe

The Tyranny of Structurelessness
[T]o strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can so easily be established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. . . . Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not).
posted by jason's_planet (141 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
The author’s website.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:57 AM on April 2, 2007


Thus highly-educated white males who support libertarianism.
posted by DU at 7:58 AM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure I accept the premise that this is somehow a widespread or vital problem that must be inveighed against.
posted by Miko at 8:01 AM on April 2, 2007


Okay, and now I know why - it's from 1970. And actually, the website owner isn't the author, apparently - a Jo Freeman is. The website owner simply appends a note at the end.

All in all (having skimmed), it's an old document written in response to a problem of its place and time. I don't find it terribly useful right now, because so very few organizations operate that way any more. The important nugget, to me, is the observation that groups that are nominally 'structureless' invariably contain hidden structure, even if that structure amounts only to the combined social networks of the members. When you run a leaderless group, that has to be acknowledged and dealt with; humans in any kind of organization act in predictable ways. It's surfacing the assumptions that becomes important. Quaker consensus has evolved in ways that try to do this; Quaker consensus does have its pitfalls, many the same as Freeman points out, but so does every other system of group decision making ever created.

My biggest reason for not finding the article very interesting is that it's entirely based on observation and analysis, which is sometimes pretty good, but it ignores all the research and knowledge accumulated in the entire field of organizational theory. Some reference to the research would have helped her clarify her terms and organize her argument better. But perhaps she rejected the formalization of that knowledge as a political act. Who knows. It was a longish time ago.
posted by Miko at 8:10 AM on April 2, 2007


The Tyranny of Consensus.
posted by serazin at 8:11 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


First this is a single-link op-ed, and secondly it was written not as a general critique, but as a critique of the structure of various feminist groups, and thirdly it was written in 1970. Obviously groups like NOW currently have formal structures.

So I really don't get why this was posted.
posted by delmoi at 8:11 AM on April 2, 2007


Plus it's got that godawful aquamarine background.
posted by cortex at 8:11 AM on April 2, 2007


I posted it because I thought it was an interesting examination of power and group dynamics.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:15 AM on April 2, 2007


"The more unstructured a group is, the more lacking it is in informal structures, and the more it adheres to an ideology of “structurelessness,” the more vulnerable it is to being taken over by a group of political comrades"

There was an anarchist movement in Spain (early libertarians?) where they tried to govern themselves in this structureless mode. It failed miserably. Communists infiltrated and took over, exactly as the above quote predicts.

I think lack of political strength and power is like a vacuum that just encourages power hungry groups (of which there is no small supply) to rush in.
posted by eye of newt at 8:15 AM on April 2, 2007


i give it props for being such an articulate whine. we need more structure so that those malefactors who would naturally possess more power in a less-structured group by dint of personal merit can be forced to cede this power over to us, the less meritorious, because that's the ultimate objective of the liberal social justice perspective.
posted by bruce at 8:19 AM on April 2, 2007


In re. relevance, this article speaks to a glaring weakness of many groups on the left (confusing process with outcomes, and confusing personal education with political change) that persists today.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:21 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


that's the ultimate objective of the liberal social justice perspective

Oy.

No it's not, silly.
posted by Miko at 8:24 AM on April 2, 2007


Anarchists can be a structured an anyone. They just try to create a democratic structure that eschews hierarchies. In my experience, it works quire well with small groups.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:28 AM on April 2, 2007


First this is a single-link op-ed, and secondly it was written not as a general critique, but as a critique of the structure of various feminist groups, and thirdly it was written in 1970. Obviously groups like NOW currently have formal structures.

So I don't really get why this is a big deal.
posted by delmoi at 8:30 AM on April 2, 2007


Oh crap, I accidentally posted my comment twice. It's early monday morning and I'm really tired :P
posted by delmoi at 8:31 AM on April 2, 2007


The Tyranny of Consciousness
posted by Burhanistan at 8:33 AM on April 2, 2007


The Tyranny of Redundance
posted by Miko at 8:35 AM on April 2, 2007


Anarchists can be a structured an anyone. They just try to create a democratic structure that eschews hierarchies. In my experience, it works quire well with small groups.

Give it time. It won't be long before the goat reads the writing on the wall. "All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others."
posted by frogan at 8:36 AM on April 2, 2007



OK, some context, for folks who have spent time in certain activist circles, this is a canonical text. It was particularly relevant to folks in unstructured radical groups (not like NOW, which was always highly structured and quite mainstream - see their rejection of lesbians until quite late in the game) and you know what? In those contexts, this essay is as relevant as ever.

I can see why someone without that cultural context would be mystified by this piece because of its references to such a specific time, but personally, I have found the principles of this piece most relevant in non-activist spheres of my own life. For example, in this community, metafilter that is, anyone can comment on a post as many times as they like. There are certain boundaries within which your comment will be deleted, but the structure is fairly loose. This has many benefits – creativity being a big one – and some downsides. Certain individuals dominate discussions, others feel intimidated to contribute, and this pattern often conforms to certain hierarchies in the larger society (I'm talking about the Metafilter boy's club). So, ignore the essay if you like, but I think you might be able to pull some gems from it if you're inclined to.
posted by serazin at 8:37 AM on April 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


In sum: there is always a pecking order throughout the animal kin gdom. King of the hill or queen of the roost
posted by Postroad at 8:38 AM on April 2, 2007


serazin, don't you think there are much better discussions of organizational dynamics that make that same point?

individuals dominate discussions, others feel intimidated to contribute

There's a degree - a large degree - to which people take on those roles for themselves. The responsibility for the role you take ultimately rests with you. I was just discussing with some folks how much less of a boy's club Mefi feels these days than just a couple of years ago - I can only credit that change to the number of people, male and female, who have spoken up about the type of site they'd rather see, and lived accordingly.
posted by Miko at 8:41 AM on April 2, 2007


delmoi writes "First this is a single-link op-ed, and secondly it was written not as a general critique, but as a critique of the structure of various feminist groups, and thirdly it was written in 1970. Obviously groups like NOW currently have formal structures.

"So I don't really get why this is a big deal."


I call an emergency meeting of the Metafilter rap group.

Our so-called-comrade delmoi, is presenting his criticisms of jasons_planet by couching them in a way that pretends he's serving the general good of this consciousness-raising group.

In reality though, delmoi is simply showing the extent to which he's wedded to bourgeois phallocentric ideology, and is actually using his own phallus to repress jasons_planet, and by extension, *all* women.

Can we let patriarchal terrorism of this nature pass without challenge? Can we let jasons_planet be ideologically and emotionally RAPED by this phallocentric running dog of male supremacy?

I think not.

Wimmmyyyn, Reclaim the Blue!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:41 AM on April 2, 2007 [7 favorites]


I think there's an important feminist/social activist question at the heart of this: should power be feared and discouraged? Or should activists be learning to use it appropriately? There is just no human context in which political power is absent - not a family, not a workplace, not a club, not an activist organization. There will always be variance among the participants. Therefore there will always be inequalities in social power. The question is - do we adopt and observe parameters for the use of that power? Or do we pretend it doesn't exist?
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Both the piece, as well as the movements that spawned it and that it was meant to interact with, are most easily dated by reading just a bit of the response linked to by the owner of that site...

"Men tend to organise the way they fuck - one big rush and then that "wham, slam, thank you maam", as it were. Women should be building our movement the way we make love - gradually, with sustained involvement, limitless endurance - and of course, multiple orgasms."

I am quite glad that this particular brand of feminism has been put to rest.



...also, I always heard it as "wham, bam, thank you maam." Is this a geographical thing?
posted by voltairemodern at 8:44 AM on April 2, 2007


Yes, I'm glad that era is over, too.
posted by Miko at 8:47 AM on April 2, 2007


Oh and while I'm at it, jasons_planet isn't really an appropriate name for a feminist, because it suggests that the planet is owned by a single man -- presumably, j_p's boyfriend.

Hopefully, the more often j_p attends this rap group, the quicker she'll come to see that Sisterhood really *is* Powerful, and that the planet is something that was greated by the wonderful nurturing Ghoddess, not a rapacious, resource-gobbling bunch of men with names like Jason.

When that time comes, I've got no doubt that j_p will drop her old patriarchal false consciousness, and embrace a quimmincenric nom-de-guerre such as wymmmins_gusset.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:53 AM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh and while I'm at it, jasons_planet isn't really an appropriate name for a feminist, because it suggests that the planet is owned by a single man -- presumably, j_p's boyfriend.

Also, j_P's profile lists his occupation as "Metafilter sex symbol". not good. by being a sex symbol undermines the feminist ideal, by promoting women designated "sexy" by the patriarchy, women who wish to achive things in life must bend their forms to fit the ideal, and thus even the most successul women are opressed in spirit!
posted by delmoi at 9:00 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm also glad the feminism that encouraged women to grow large hairs on their chins and out of their moles is also passe, because JESUS.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:01 AM on April 2, 2007


I'm largely in agreement with serazin.

In addition... I've found that many of the things Freeman says in this essay apply to the BDSM community. I'd be interested in hearing whether others will say the same about their own social node.*

(*I hesitate to use the word "subcultures." To me, it suggests that the participants live a life different from the dominant culture in a number of important ways, i.e. religion, social customs, art, etc. I've never felt that the lives of BDSMers differed that significantly from those around them. I'd say the same for metafilterians, square dancers, alternative music geeks, and a lot of other groups that others have probably been called subcultures by someone.).
posted by Clay201 at 9:02 AM on April 2, 2007


oops.

...and a lot of other groups that have probably been called subcultures by someone.
posted by Clay201 at 9:05 AM on April 2, 2007


easy now pete.
posted by zeoslap at 9:07 AM on April 2, 2007


voltairemodern: I've only heard it as "wham, bam, thank you ma'am". In fact, there is a Mingus tune of that name.

posted by ssg at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2007


I'd like to thank everybody for showing up to today's Metafilter Symposium: Pushing Four Decades Later, How People Sucking Still Trumps Ideology.
posted by nanojath at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I've tried getting involved with activist groups time and time again, and I get frustrated by the amount that collaboration replaces action. On the other hand, activism's strength comes through numbers, and anti-authoritarian types are hard to get all behind one cause (like herding fucking cats).
I was done with the Michigan Peace Team about the time they explained that they make decisions by sitting in a circle, discussing options, and "twinkling" by oscillating their hands when they hear something they like.
They made us order lunch like that and, fuck, man, I just wanted to beat some of them to death. No one can agree what goes on a pizza, and no one wanted to order enough pizzas so that everyone could be happy.
posted by klangklangston at 9:17 AM on April 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


The tyranny of numbers.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:18 AM on April 2, 2007


Had the same issues with the bloody Judean People's Front back in 27.
posted by Mister_A at 9:18 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I read this article ages ago when I was involved with a student housing co-op and loved it. I don't remember it being so jargon-heavy, but then, I was probably immersed in that kind of jargon at the time. I still think it's an important idea. Klangklangston nailed it. Oh, he's from Ann Arbor, MI. So was I.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:19 AM on April 2, 2007


No one can agree what goes on a pizza, and no one wanted to order enough pizzas so that everyone could be happy.

I think you just created a metaphor for, well, pretty much everything.
posted by Cyrano at 9:21 AM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


In sum: there is always a pecking order throughout the animal kin gdom. King of the hill or queen of the roost

I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody took it entirely too far.

The record of human history defies such a blanket statement. We have egalitarian societies right now, among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, and we evolved in an egalitarian context for millions of years. It was only in the past 10,000 years, the most recent 0.16% of our species' time on this planet, that humans showed the first signs of hierarchy.

Consensus works slowly, but for small groups of people, it works very well. Hierarchy compromises good decisions in favor of fast decisions, which becomes necessary as groups get bigger. The key to egalitarianism is scale. To quote Isaac Asimov, "[D]emocracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive. Convenience and decency can’t survive." That trend might be reaching a crescendo now that we've reached the point in population's exponential growth curve has reached its inflection point (1 billion humans in 1900, 3 billion in 1960, 6.5 billion now, and even by the rosiest estimates from the UN, 9 billion before too long), but the beginning of that pattern goes all the way back to the Agricultural Revolution and the first origins of hierarchy.

Jo Freeman's classic essay here has its place, of course. Simply stripping away structure is not how you create an egalitarian society. Egalitarian societies have structure: structures that elevate personal autonomy and break down personal power. But they are structures, nonetheless--ingenious, elegant structures. And to get things done in a hierarchical society generally means making compromises and becoming a bit hierarchical one's self. It's the nature of the beast.

But it's emphatically not the case that "there is always a pecking order throughout the animal kingdom." Many animals are hierarchical. Many others are not. Humans, for example, are not. Hierarchical human societies remain a historical aberration, however overpopulated they may have recently become. But, when raised in such an aberrant society, the roots run very deep, and a superficially "structureless" organization will not be enough to rid you of hierarchy when you've been born and raised with it for so long, and still live in an economic system that requires it on so many levels. It's not that we can't regain an egalitarian society (after all, it is our instinctive type of society), it's simply a more nuanced and subtle matter than simply removing formal power structures. That doesn't mean egalitarian societies are impossible, or even necessarily difficult, it just means that such a naive approach to making one dooms itself to failure.
posted by jefgodesky at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


What a nutty thread. What else can we drag into this discussion?

Clay201: As far as 'subculture' goes, the word is generally understood in anthropological/culture study circles to mean 'a group which shares most of the qualities of the dominant culture in which it exists, with some distinct shared beliefs that are not part of the dominant culture.' Using that definition, I see no problem with identifying BDSM as a subculture.

Sometimes those beliefs are even characterized as 'deviant', because they differ from those in the dominant culture. The word is a descriptor, not a judgement. It is just as deviant to be an Elvis fan or a scrapbooker as it is to be into BDSM. These terms have to be understood in context. The problem is that they are used loosely in the popular context. These definitions are OK. The Wikipedia article is horrible.

I see some value in recognizing that subcultures exist within a dominant culture, and that the values and bahviors found in subcultures deviate from those in dominant cultures -- if they didn't, they would be part of the dominant culture.

But there is a lot of variety in the writing about subculture. scholars often create their own definitions of subculture, since it's as complex a concept as culture itself. Some might argue that there's implied judgement there. I don't personally agree. Widely understood terms are useful and necessary in any discipline.

Finally (I have GOT to let this thread lie...), I am and have been involved in an insane number of voluntary/activist/non-profit groups, and my observation has been that the more time you spend blathering about governance, the less healthy the organization is and the less that gets done. The attention should be on the issues, not the navel.
posted by Miko at 9:25 AM on April 2, 2007


If you don't create a structure, a structure will emerge out of interactions between group members. It may or may not be a hierarchical structure, it all depends on the type of interactions. Control the interactions, and you can shape the behavior of the system. Witness metafilter and slashdot.
posted by anthill at 9:25 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Even hos on Mars need pimps.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:26 AM on April 2, 2007


I found this article interesting, even though some of the language and references make it dated. It's made me think about some of the activist groups I've been a part of, and I realize that the most successful and long-running groups are ones where there is a clear structure--not a hierarchy, but a structure where some have agreed to take on certain responsibilities, including leadership.

I liked her observations about successful groups being task-oriented and having good communication and a low degree of specialization. In my experience those things are also true. However, I'm not so sure I agree with the need for the group to be homogenous so that communication can happen more easily. I see where she's coming from, but I think communication among diverse people may not be as difficult as she's imagining it to be.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:26 AM on April 2, 2007


serazin also echos my experience. The problem with informal heirarchies is that they can be very difficult to decode for outsiders, they are frequently prone to manipulation and quite often simply cliques. The "star" problem can be severe also if the "star" and the group go out of accord.

The thing is that most of the anarchist activist groups are, ah, sparingly well educated on formal organizational theory. Thus these observations do tend to get invented time and again (the average group lifetime is 3-9 months, rinse and repeat).
posted by bonehead at 9:27 AM on April 2, 2007


jefgodesky: great comment!
posted by Miko at 9:27 AM on April 2, 2007


"Hierarchical human societies remain a historical aberration, however overpopulated they may have recently become."

Oh, bullshit. Veneration of hunter-gatherer noble savage bullshit. In discussing human history in any meaningful way, heirarchies are part of it. The only way you get to "historical aberration" levels is by taking "recently" to mean the last 8000 years or so. Geological time has its uses, this is not one of them.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 AM on April 2, 2007


most of the anarchist activist groups are, ah, sparingly well educated on formal organizational theory

Not even just anarchist groups - groups in general. The woeful innocence of people trying to create effective organizatoins results in so much wasted time, effort, and good intention. We should be learning org. theory in high school; having better understanding of how people function in groups would improve all of our endeavors.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on April 2, 2007


Humans, for example, are not [naturally heirarchical].

That smacks of pure worship of the primitve to me. Is there any research to back that assertion up?
posted by bonehead at 9:32 AM on April 2, 2007


Many animals are hierarchical. Many others are not. Humans, for example, are not. Hierarchical human societies remain a historical aberration...

Oh, bullshit. Every human society -- every goddam last one of them -- has been organized around some principle of hierarchy. Eventually someone has to stand up and say, "You stay here and mind the children. I'm going to slay dinner."

We can discuss the different kinds of tribes and how they handle the whole mind-the-children-slay-the-dinner divide, but ultimately, there's a divide. A hierarchy. Societies lived and learned this, or they didn't live long.

Every statement to the contrary is just post-graduate navel-gazing.
posted by frogan at 9:33 AM on April 2, 2007


Oh Jesus, both me and klangklangston called "Oh, bullshit" on the same thing. I think I just saw a pig fly past the window.
posted by frogan at 9:34 AM on April 2, 2007


Sure Miko, there are other helpful discussions of group dynamics, I even linked to one. In fact, if you have other articles you'd recommend I'd be interested in reading them.

I'm just saying that this article had and has value for me. I don't think the principles are dated - even if the specifics are. Sure, I can see why folks don't love this post. I'm just trying to point out how it might be useful in a way that's not immediately obvious to folks who didn't come up in the 70s feminist scene.

As for metafilter, I love it here. That much is probably clear from the number of comments I already have in this post. But I'm pretty new, and I can still see that certain individuals dominate.

I'm not sure if I think power dynamics are inevitable, but they are certainly a reality for the foreseeable future. I don't think Freeman's article argues otherwise. She simply argues for creating structure so that power dynamics are in fact acknowledged and so that those who tend to dominate are hemmed in to allow others to blossom a bit. Make sense?
posted by serazin at 9:36 AM on April 2, 2007


Only if it's in the best interest of furthering the group's mission. Leaders have to wrestle with the truth that some people's contribution to the group is a hindrance or a harm to the group's effectiveness.
posted by Miko at 9:39 AM on April 2, 2007


frogan - why do you assume that someone (presumably a man) said "You stay here and mind the children, I'm going to slay dinner" rather than someone else saying "You go out and get yourself killed, I'm chilling back here with my sisters and our cute babies".

Of course, in reality societies vary - sometimes divisions of labor come with hierarchy and sometimes they don't. And the hierarchy isn't always with the dudes on top. Any presumption the contrary is pre-feminist head-up-assing.
posted by serazin at 9:40 AM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I thought this said "The Tranny of Structurelessness."

Therefore I assumed it was another Ann Coulter hatefest. I am so disappointed.
posted by tkchrist at 9:41 AM on April 2, 2007


Though I know some of y'all will reflexively roll your eyes at the mere mention of church-related anything, I've observed this dynamic in church groups (worship board, church council, various ad-hoc groups, adult Sunday school classes) enough that I've been on guard watching for it without ever really seeking to articulate the issue of power-in-a-vacuum all that much. Even something as that should be as anti-hierarchical as Christendom has huge problems getting past human nature to put the ideal into practice.
posted by pax digita at 9:45 AM on April 2, 2007


Max DePree is great. Covey's got some good things to say in Principle-Centered Leadership. I like this. This is all focused on effective leadership because that's what I've been up to reading lately - so there is an embedded assumption in my choices and statements that there is going to be leadership, but a preference that it is explicit, structured, fair, and focused on outcome rather than personality. Harder to cite are my experiences with Quaker leadership based on "sense of the meeting," which is often called Quaker consensus but is different from classic consensus.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on April 2, 2007


Here's something on sense of the meeting.
posted by Miko at 9:50 AM on April 2, 2007


"The question is - do we adopt and observe parameters for the use of that power? Or do we pretend it doesn't exist?"

This is the grossest example of a rhetorical question I have seen in quite some time. Talk about 'sporting the jargon of inquiry'.

I enjoyed the piece. Radical feminism, or radical liberal social policies in general do not hold much interest for me, but this piece was engaging. It shows an amateur coming to grips with some of the realities they encountered in a mature way, with moderate rhetoric. I much prefer this kind of recording of the experience of an open minded generalict to the 'professional' who lets the rest of us know 'how it is'.

By the way, DU, educated white guys scooping up the power isn't the motive for libertarians' choice of politics. Is it too much that you pay the courtesy of assuming that there are reasonable and benevolent considerations underlying their policies? Like: efficiency, a respect for difference that is presented in giving people access to tools and choices, a distrust of government... Declaring the motives of others and explaining away their position destroys the possibility of dialogue.
posted by BigSky at 9:51 AM on April 2, 2007


Eventually someone has to stand up and say, "You stay here and mind the children. I'm going to slay dinner."


Division of labor need not have hieararchical overtones. That said, there is a natural and necessary hierarchy within family groups—but I don't think that jefgodesky is trying to deny this; he seems to be addressing hierarchies on a tribal or larger scale. He also points out that a non-hierarchical, truly egalitarian society is impossible in large populations like we see today. I agree with jefgodesky that the human animal is not hard-wired for hierarchical society; it is a yoke that has been placed upon us, to which we each must adapt.
posted by Mister_A at 9:52 AM on April 2, 2007


"You go out and get yourself killed, I'm chilling back here with my sisters and our cute babies".

You realize this is a hierarchy and a division of labor, right? You're proving my point for me.

Notice I also said, "We can discuss the different kinds of tribes and how they handle the whole mind-the-children-slay-the-dinner divide." There are matriarchal societies on the planet, as we're all aware. You go, girl.

But patriarchal, matriarchal or purple-skin-iarchal ... regardless, hierarchies are inherent to every human society that has been successful over the long term. Even the guys at communes are kidding themselves eventually -- somebody has to harvest the wheat, and if the wheat don't get harvested ... well, it ain't gonna harvest itself.

If you believe in evolutionary psychology, as I do, these traits are burned into our DNA at this point.
posted by frogan at 9:55 AM on April 2, 2007


The record of human history defies such a blanket statement. We have egalitarian societies right now, among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, and we evolved in an egalitarian context for millions of years. It was only in the past 10,000 years, the most recent 0.16% of our species' time on this planet, that humans showed the first signs of hierarchy.

What a coincidence, right around the time people actually started recording that sort of thing. There may not be any evidence of 'hierarchy" but I think it would be difficult to find evidence of hierarchy among chimp fossils, even though they certainly have leadership and hierarchy.
posted by delmoi at 9:56 AM on April 2, 2007


You realize this is a hierarchy and a division of labor, right? You're proving my point for me.

division of labor != hierarchy.
posted by delmoi at 9:57 AM on April 2, 2007


BigSky, I'm not sure what your point is. Yes, it was a rhetorical question. I'm pretty clearly saying that I believe power exists.

I think what I'm concluding, based on this discussion, is that leadership and governance always need to align with the intended outcome of the group. If the activities of the group are focused around intra-group consciousness-raising, discussion, and reflection, and if the intended outcome of those activities is personal change among the members of the group, than perhaps a 'structureless' format would be appropriate to achieve that outcome. But if the purpose of a group is to make policy change, feed the hungry, run a radio station, advocate for peaceful resolution to conflicts, etc., then structureless leadership will probably hinder the group's effectiveness in achieving that mission, because too much of the group effort will be siphoned off into personality-driven governance issues that don't further the mission.
posted by Miko at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2007


But delmoi, like drug-using children, the chimps LEARNED IT FROM US!
(Monkey see, monkey do, natch.)
posted by klangklangston at 10:00 AM on April 2, 2007


"Is it too much that you pay the courtesy of assuming that there are reasonable and benevolent considerations underlying their policies? Like: efficiency, a respect for difference that is presented in giving people access to tools and choices, a distrust of government... Declaring the motives of others and explaining away their position destroys the possibility of dialogue."

Why doesn't anyone take the time to deal with Gene Ray in a courteous manner?
Many libertarians delude themselves into believing in their own benificence, but it's far more a patina of politeness over the ol' Randroid selfishness.
(Let's take your reasons— Efficiency shouldn't necessarily be measured in dollars or resource allocation; giving people tools and choices is generally something libertarian policies would undo by removing safety nets and eliminating access to lower class folks; and a distrust of government is neither solely libertarian nor enough to base a platform on).
posted by klangklangston at 10:04 AM on April 2, 2007


I think metallurgy and agriculture spawned complex hierarchical societies, rather than the other way around. It's kind of like that theory that suggests we evolved these great brains so we could make better use of our thumbs...
posted by Mister_A at 10:08 AM on April 2, 2007


Miko,

Well, the point was that there really isn't an important feminist/soical activist question at the heart of this. It's not a question if the answer is already determined and you're just waiting until evreyone 'catches up' and agrees with you.

For what it's worth, sure I agree. Purpose will have a defining effect on group structure and a structure that does not 'fit' with the purpose, impedes. And this is just as true for the military, as it is for activists, as it is for informal hobbyist clubs.

I don't think that there is any great truth or meaning to pull out of this that we were all terribly ignorant of or couldn't have been exposed to in some other way. It's interesting in that it shows someone working out principles that can lie hidden among the presuppositions of her position.

-----

On another note, I think those of you who connect the workability of democracy and consensus to scale are naive. Power in groups is strongly correlated with rhetorical ability. The importance of rhetoric has been noted since, oh, the first records of organized democracy in Athens. The word demagoguery after all, has a Greek root. The term 'hoi polloi' comes from similar observations as well.

Also, small scale does not mean, egalitarian consensus, whatever that might mean. And decisions from consensus do not reflect better judgement than those made from a singular voice in power. There is such a thing as lowest common denominator and mass appeal.
posted by BigSky at 10:27 AM on April 2, 2007


Miko writes "Finally (I have GOT to let this thread lie...), I am and have been involved in an insane number of voluntary/activist/non-profit groups, and my observation has been that the more time you spend blathering about governance, the less healthy the organization is and the less that gets done. The attention should be on the issues, not the navel."

I've tended to avoid groups and organizations, but for the last twenty years or more, I've been a fairly strident single-issue activist.

Four or five years ago, the government established a new initiative, one that I felt was a major move in the right direction, and at some point, people involved with the project reached out to me and sought my participation at a significant level. I went from being a life-long outsider, throat normally hoarse from raging against the machine, to something that seemed like an archetypal insider. That's certainly how it would have looked to many who were starting to get involved in activism around this issue.

Of course, as I struggle with the process of learning how you have to balance the competing needs of one set of interests against another, and how the political whims of our financial masters would often drive initiatives, rather than a rational needs assessment, I began to hear the first inevitable cries of 'sell out' as a new generation of activists rehearse the same old arguments that I employed myself twenty years ago. I might have been upset if it weren't for the fact that I was criticizing myself far more rigorously than any outsider could manage it.

But ultimately, my decision came down to this: do you stay on the insider and do what you can to shape policy in the direction that you want to see it going, or do you stand outside the system, ideologically pure and untainted, never getting your hands dirty with realpolitik, but never actually making much of a difference aside from rallying the opinion that already agrees with you.

I'm not even sure what the answer should be. Because I've had the opportunity to at least try and make a difference, I've gone that route. If I'd never been acceptable enough at the sort of elevated levels where senior apparatchiks sit around a table with representatives from one particular field, struggling to 'consult stakeholders' while they figure out how best to do their minister's bidding, then I suspect I would have chosen ideological purity. I'm much more temperamentally suited to that kind of frustrated outsider status than I am to the idea of myself as a responsible decision maker that has to weigh competing interests rather than just those of my particular faction.

But I became an activist because I wanted to make change happen, and while it's tempting to shrink from negotiating this kind of messy, grubby road, ultimately, these are the kinds of pacts you have to make if you want to change the world.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:48 AM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


pax digita reflects my own observations in faith-based groups.

I read this article - it was the first time for me - and was struck by how it codifies some challenges faced by virtually every group and organization I've ever been in: businesses, clubs, non-profits, church groups and so forth.

There is always a call by someone (or ones) in the group railing against some aspect of structure, ostensibly in the spirit of achieving greater flexibility and effectiveness for the group, but who may well be motivated (consciously or subconsciously) far more to simply reduce the ligatures on them personally, while enabling them to participate in INformal structures that enable them to extend personal power and maximize their own life chances. (I'm channelling Ralf Dahrendorf, for a moment).

Just this weekend I was part of a formation workgroup meeting to found a new non-profit org and these issues arose. I've seen them so often, it's like a bad recurring dream. So, while I've done significant org theory studies in various leadership roles, I still found the link to be very insightful.

Thanks for the link j_p.
posted by darkstar at 10:49 AM on April 2, 2007


Actually, I think fear of power is a huge feminist question. The way in which the early feminists established these elaborate, painstaking non-structure structures can be read as a rejection of patriarchal hierarchy, but can also be read as the product of a victim mentality which seeks to avoid indvidual responsibility for decision making. I personally believe that, as a feminist, it is my job to become comfortable with the structures and use of power so that I can advance the causes I believe in within the institutions we already have, which are set up in organzied power structures.

It's not a question if the answer is already determined and you're just waiting until evreyone 'catches up' and agrees with you.

I'm really not doing anything sneaky here, BIgSky. Questions like that are a way of posing a challenge for thinking: I asked, as feminists, what are we to believe about power? I proposed two answers. It's possible to champion either answer or reject both and offer another. It's normal discussion, not some attempt to mesmerize you with my confusing feminine psychology.
posted by Miko at 10:51 AM on April 2, 2007


You realize this is a hierarchy and a division of labor, right? You're proving my point for me.

division of labor != hierarchy.


I wrote hierarchy AND a division of labor. It's right there on the screen.

And besides, any division of labor will naturally create hierarchies. One doesn't go without the other. This is simple economics. If everyone is hungry, the guy that harvests the wheat will have a greater status than the guy that can paint pretty pictures. If there's plenty of wheat, if we're swimming in wheat, it's wheat-wheat-wheat all day long, then pretty pictures might bring more value and status.

But by all means, stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la.
posted by frogan at 10:57 AM on April 2, 2007


To strike a minor variation on Frogan's theme, as a species, we are children whose genitals develop without dragging the rest of us along (including our brains), and as a result we can never escape our families, and the presence, the echoes and the ghosts of our families inform and deform every group we're part of, no matter how large. (If you're inclined to doubt this, consider the world over the last 30 years and the Bush family.)
posted by jamjam at 10:58 AM on April 2, 2007


BigSky, scale is precisely the issue. Complex hierarchical societies can't operate based on consensus—consider a factory trying to fulfill an order for widgets. An attempt to achieve a direct consensus among all interested parties is doomed to failure; therefore, management dictates production schedules, hires new hands as necessary, and so forth, in order to ensure delivery as promised. These decisions are handed down from on high, as it were, with no input from the workers on the line.

A small firm specializing in hand-made widgets can indeed reach a direct consensus on timing for delivery of the widgets.

I have no question that "democracy", in some form, can be made to work on a large scale; but you can't have a truly egalitarian society on the scale of, say, the United States. That is, you can't come to a true consensus on every decision in such a large society. The model we've adopted is representative democracy, wherein we elect representatives who we hope will act in what we believe to be our best interests on many complex matters; we have little say, nationally anyway, on matters of import. Indeed, there is only one national referendum every four years, and even that is governed by the byzantine workings of an archaic Electoral College.

The point is, no government truly governs from consensus. There are people who disagree with even the most popular policies; but we (in the US) have more or less agreed to work under the given system and hope for the best. Even on that issue, there is no consensus; it's just impossible in a society this size. Of course smallness does not guarantee an egalitarian society, it merely permits one.
posted by Mister_A at 11:01 AM on April 2, 2007


There was an anarchist movement in Spain (early libertarians?) where they tried to govern themselves in this structureless mode. It failed miserably.
Christie's analysis points out one of the failings of the most common criticism made of the Spanish anarchists by English speaking anarchists: that they did not take organisation seriously enough. If only, bemoaned the Platformist (later Leninist) Anarchist Workers Group, if only the Spanish translation of the "Platform" had reached them, they might have been equipped with better ideas to win. The fallacy of this argument is obvious - it was not a correct political line which could win the revolution, but the deeds and actions of the militants involved. Those who advocated greater organisation within the FAI were not those who were the first to rise and defeat the fascists in Barcelona and elsewhere.
If anyone's actually interested in an intelligent anarchist's review of the Spanish movement of which he was a part, you can't beat Jose Peirat's Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution.
I always liked Malatesta's writing on Anarchists and Organisation:
Now, it seems to us that organization, that is to say, association for a specific purpose and with the structure and means required to attain it, is a necessary aspect of social life...organization, far from creating authority, is the only cure for it and the only means whereby each one of us will get used to taking an active and conscious part in the collective work, and cease being passive instruments in the hands of leaders.
My points being that I don't see the Spanish movement as "a miserable failure" and I don't think the problem addressed in this article is necessarily more or less relevant to anarchism than to any number of group situations.
Now, what about the tyranny of lightly-moderated community forums?
posted by Abiezer at 11:06 AM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, bullshit. Veneration of hunter-gatherer noble savage bullshit.

It really doesn't matter how many times you try to dismiss it, the historical evidence of humanity's evolution will not disappear any more than the fact that there are hunter-gatherers living in egalitarian societies right now. There's a great deal worth venerating about such societies; if there weren't, then how did we survive the first million years of our existence on this planet? I've found those who decry "noble savage bullshit" to be, on average, far more ignorant of ethnographic realities than those who don't.

In discussing human history in any meaningful way, heirarchies are part of it. The only way you get to "historical aberration" levels is by taking "recently" to mean the last 8000 years or so. Geological time has its uses, this is not one of them.

8,000 years is recent. Incredibly recent. In discussing human history in any meaningful way, hierarchies are not part of it. The only way you get to the point where they are is if you take 8,000 years to be "old." Like I mentioned, that's only the most recent 0.16% of our time on this planet. For the first 99.84% of human existence, there's simply no evidence for any kind of hierarchy whatsoever. I'm not sure how you can say "In discussing human history in any meaningful way, hierarchies are part of it," when hierarchies appear in only a fraction of 1% of human history. And even through most of that time, it was in the minority among human arrangements. Until very recently (as in, the past few centuries), egalitarian societies outnumbered hierarchical ones, even in population (see Mann's 1491).

That smacks of pure worship of the primitve to me. Is there any research to back that assertion up?

Plenty. Take a look at any introductory anthropology book for starters, and they'll describe the difference between egalitarian societies and hierarchical societies as a function of subsistance technology.

Oh, bullshit. Every human society -- every goddam last one of them -- has been organized around some principle of hierarchy. Eventually someone has to stand up and say, "You stay here and mind the children. I'm going to slay dinner."

That's a far cry from hierarchy, especially if the tables get turned on a regular basis. Egalitarianism suggests equality, not sameness. There's a significant difference between those two concepts.

Every human society has division of labor. Very few have hierarchies, where one type of labor is more important than someone else's, or where someone has a monopoly on a specific type of labor. Specialization is an important step on the road to hierarchy, but it's a plenty rare thing in itself.

Every statement to the contrary is just post-graduate navel-gazing.

Seems to me to be some dangerous post-graduate navel-gazing if you can't tell the difference between recognizing differences and allocating labor, versus valuing one type of labor over another.

As for the "whole mind-the-children-slay-the-dinner divide," the way that's usually worked out in human history is that the children stay with the group (band, village, what have you), while the men who feel like hunting go hunting (which is only going to be a handful each day), and the women who feel like gathering go do so (again, a handful), and the children play and catch rodents and cook them up for themselves, while all in all, most people lounge about most of the day.

And besides, any division of labor will naturally create hierarchies. One doesn't go without the other. This is simple economics. If everyone is hungry, the guy that harvests the wheat will have a greater status than the guy that can paint pretty pictures. If there's plenty of wheat, if we're swimming in wheat, it's wheat-wheat-wheat all day long, then pretty pictures might bring more value and status.

Well here we get to the thick of it; this is nothing more than an illustration of GIGO at work. You've abstracted any kind of division of labor so that it becomes "specialization," so that you can try to hand-wave to suggest that full-time specialists are universal. In fact, full-time specialists emerge with complex societies along with food production. All societies have division of labor, but very few have specialists. In simpler societies, specialization is a matter of emphasis rather than exclusivity. Some people are better than others, but everybody has enough to get by. Importantly, the members of your tribe or band are your family--usually literally, but sometimes fictive kinship like adoption comes into play. That changes the power dynamic quite a bit. More importantly, everyone knows how to hunt and everyone knows how to gather. There is no farmer with all the wheat, nor is there a potter with none. That's why food production leads to hierarchy; it's also why food gathering bars its potential from even emerging. A hierarchical approach to hunting and gathering is basically suicide.

The division of labor in hunter-gatherer societies is not exclusive. You've got people who are good at making tools, and others who are good at hunting, and others good at first aid, and in general, you leverage people's strengths. But what makes the whole thing work is the fact that they all have some significant range. Everybody gathers food sometimes; everyone's made tools; everyone's done first aid. There are no full-time specialists, even though there's a division of labor. The shaman still hunts from time to time like everybody else.

That said, there is a natural and necessary hierarchy within family groups—but I don't think that jefgodesky is trying to deny this...

No, though I'm vaguely uncomfortable with using the word "hierarchy" for what goes on inside families, unless we're talking about a particularly dysfunctional family, and of course, many families in our culture are. When you watch the Ju/'hoansi, or other members of other egalitarian cultures, raising their children, it seems almost impossible to us how they refuse to yell at or discipline their children, yet the children end up all right, all the same. Jean Liedloff wrote about this in The Continuum Concept, and Sorenson's observations in "Preconquest Consciousness" are likewise shocking--if we assume the Western experience to be universal and completely unfiltered by culture. If, on the other hand, we assume that humans are cultural animals deeply shaped by their culture, then I think this all makes a lot more sense, and the incredible things Liedloff and Sorenson observed first-hand become not just plausible, but downright expected.

There are matriarchal societies on the planet, as we're all aware.

Well, we certainly don't have any evidence of them. We have matrilineal societies like the Picts or Iroquois, and we have matrilocal societies where newly-weds move in with the mothers' family. We have plenty of egalitarian societies, where there's no power that anyone really wields over anyone else, and of course, we have patriarchies as in our own present condition. But so far, there's never been any evidence, ethnographically observed or archaeologically suggested, of a matriarchal society. The Iroquois probably came closer than anyone, but even there, it was men (selected by women) who did the ruling.

... regardless, hierarchies are inherent to every human society that has been successful over the long term.

Except for all the societies that have been successful over the long term. The oldest hierarchical societies are only 10,000 years old, and in most cases, even younger than that. In terms of human evolution, that is not the long term. By the same token, some of the Ju/'hoansi have been practicing a continuous way of life since the emergence of our species. In fact, all of the societies that have been successful over the long term have been egalitarian. In their short time on this planet, hierarchical societies have mostly wiped themselves out in a series of collapses, recently reaching such excessive environmental destruction that they threaten not only their own survival, but the survival of our entire species. Not that such destruction is new to them, either--see the Early Anthropocene Hypothesis.

There may not be any evidence of 'hierarchy" but I think it would be difficult to find evidence of hierarchy among chimp fossils, even though they certainly have leadership and hierarchy.

Writing doesn't appear for another 5,000 years after that. The evidence is archaeological: big, well-decorated graves that required huge investments, or ribs with spearpoints in them, that kind of thing. These only appear about 10,000 years ago. Only half of that time is recorded, with writing emerging closer to 5,000 years ago.

As for chimps, it seems that Jane Goodall got her access by dumping a bunch of bananas, and more recently it's been suggested that observed chimp hierarchies may be more the result of the way we observe them--and the hierarchies that emerge with a concentrated food source, like a bunch of dumped bananas, or a farmer's harvest--rather than their "natural" behavior. So, chimpanzees may not have leadership or hierarchy on their own, either.

I think metallurgy and agriculture spawned complex hierarchical societies, rather than the other way around.

I agree. Most ideologies are excuses we come up with once we've already decided what we're going to do anyway, I think.

All in all, I think it's vital to keep a proper perspective about human history and where we've come from. If we lose that, we start to get bizarre ideas about human nature, like the inevitability of hierarchy. In large, dense populations like ours, it means relatively little. It explains our frustrations with hierarchy, why we feel such acute stress under it, and makes sense of a great deal of the world we live in, but there's little we can do to change it. Of course, I believe there's a question whether a system so opposed to human nature, and as a result so self-destructive, can long endure, but that would simply mean that this might become immediately relevant again in the future at some point. For now, it simply provides us a better reason why hierarchy frustrates us so deeply, and why Jo Freeman's critique of naive egalitarianism rings so true for us in our context, but so easily misleads us into making statements far too general about human nature and hierarchy, when the overwhelming majority of the human experience defies any such notion.
posted by jefgodesky at 11:08 AM on April 2, 2007 [15 favorites]


Specialization is an important step on the road to hierarchy, but it's a plenty rare thing in itself.

Please go take a class in economics.
posted by frogan at 11:30 AM on April 2, 2007


I'm not sure how you can say "In discussing human history in any meaningful way, hierarchies are part of it," when hierarchies appear in only a fraction of 1% of human history.

Maybe a difference in terms; what you're calling history is what a lot of people might call "pre-history", insofar as we lack any historical record on the scale of what we've gotten for the period since we started writing things down.
posted by cortex at 11:33 AM on April 2, 2007


Well, that and he counts pre-humans as part of human culture, and ignores heirarchies in chimps, and all sorts of other reasonable objections, and seems to believe that his fringe beliefs are reflected in anthro texts. But every time this comes up, I'm reminded that on this issue, jefgodesky is both a zealot and an ideologue who is unlikely to be swayed by any presentation of counter-arguments.
I just do my best to remind other readers that his personal windmills are far outside the accepted consensus of, well, everyone who's not trying to make a case for neo-primitivism. And while the internet makes authority harder to discern, I am willing to wager that anyone truly interested can find plenty of actual academic work that contradicts Godesky, and plenty of tenuous support trumpetted by people with similar ideology.
posted by klangklangston at 11:41 AM on April 2, 2007


Specialization is an important step on the road to hierarchy, but it's a plenty rare thing in itself. -jefgodesky
Please go take a class in economics. -frogan

Care to explain, frogan?
posted by Mister_A at 11:43 AM on April 2, 2007


I am and have been involved in an insane number of voluntary/activist/non-profit groups, and my observation has been that the more time you spend blathering about governance, the less healthy the organization is and the less that gets done.

When some of my kinky brethren and I tried to change our local BDSM group from an oligarchy to a democracy, we ran up against this argument constantly. "Why do you people have to bring politics up all the time? We don't want to spend time arguing about this. Can't you just let it be?"

Their logic was "If we - those who have appointed ourselves leader - decide how to spend the group's money, determine the group's policies, kick people out and let people in as we see fit, etc., that's not politics. As long as we're running things, everything goes smoothly. When you guys challenge our right to make those decisions, you bring politics into it and you screw everything up."

To which we always responded, "When you make decisions for the entire group, that is politics. So you engage in politics just as much as we do, it's just that you don't let anyone else participate in the process. As for us screwing things up... yeah, sure, when someone doesn't let you do whatever you want with the group, I'm sure that seems to you like things are screwed up. But to those who don't like what you're doing, it's not screwing things up, it's fixing them."
posted by Clay201 at 11:46 AM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


those who have appointed ourselves leader

So Clay201, it sounds to me like your group has failed to put into place a mechanism for a regular review of who is in the leadership, and opportunity to change those in leadership. If your leaders can appoint themselves, and not be subject to review, you have a problem in your structure. I would argue that the solution to your problem is not no structure but a more representative structure.

But regardless, if you or people in your group acquiesce to leadership which they don't agree with, they have themselves to blame. Who is responsible to make the change? It seems to me that a supposed lack of structure is the problem here - because there are no official strictures on behavior, power devolves to the loudest or most active, who are willing to assert it. If you don't like it that way, you need some structure.

Politics is the use of power in groups. Every human being has power. Everyone, therefore, engages in politics to some degree. For your leaders to claim there are no politics is silly - there are politics in your group. But if you don't agree with your leadership, you should use your power to a)change the leadership, b) change the group structure and policy, or c) leave the group and start your own.
posted by Miko at 11:57 AM on April 2, 2007


I think lack of political strength and power is like a vacuum that just encourages power hungry groups (of which there is no small supply) to rush in.

How 'bout everyone just leaves me the Hell alone in exchange for me minding my own business?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:58 AM on April 2, 2007


I think you mistake my point. It is not that scale makes egalitarian decision making impossible, but rather that egalitarian itself is impossible, and not a well chosen ideal, thus my comments on lowest common denominator, demagoguery and the importance of rhetoric.

Let me be clear that I am not criticizing a government that is egalitarian in its recognition of citizens when it comes to property rights, or crime, or the like. We're talking here about decision making.

First, the assumption is that an egalitarian decision is best and I don't see any evidence for that. Bluntly, some people are interested and stupid. Everyone's voice does not have equal value, some people are simply too ignorant to count.

When a crowd decides, the inclusion of numerous voices does not distill the truth, sometimes, and I strongly suspect more frequently, there is just an increase in noise. Persuasion is not a factor that I've seen receive much attention here and it is key. It is also not necessarily in the service of truth.

Second, when persuasion is acknowledged, then power shows itself and so does hierarchy. It's not just that some people have better judgement than others, but that some also have a stronger voice. Naturally these don't coincide. Be that as it may, the point is this is the way it is, two people or 20 billion.

The danger of democracy is mob rule and the crowd run while. Representative democracy isn't an adjustment because of the size of the population but to allow for the possibility of difficult decisions being made.

------

Another side note. I believe there have been recorded observances of chimps at war and acts of rape. I don't know what the criteria was to use those terms but they are certainly suggestive of hierarchy.

And if their hierarchical behavior comes up in some conditions is it really honest to say that that behavior is outside their 'true nature'. After all you can switch it and say that cooperative behavior only appears when the conditions are right. Neither case has an argument for being primary or fundamental.
posted by BigSky at 12:03 PM on April 2, 2007


Miko,

We're in agreement. I was arguing against structurelessness, not in favor of it. In fact, we ended up doing exactly as you suggested with the group; we created a formal democratic structure.
posted by Clay201 at 12:05 PM on April 2, 2007


8,000 years is recent. Incredibly recent. In discussing human history in any meaningful way, hierarchies are not part of it. The only way you get to the point where they are is if you take 8,000 years to be "old." Like I mentioned, that's only the most recent 0.16% of our time on this planet. For the first 99.84% of human existence, there's simply no evidence for any kind of hierarchy whatsoever.

Yes, and 12k + years ago glaciers covered much of where people now live. There is very little evidence of anything from that time, certainly not enough to conclude "a lack of hierarchy". Humans are hardwired biologically to compete for food and mates. People didn't live that long, and the world was a demon-haunted place. Someone who could hunt better than others would find themselves in a position of power, as would those who were more successful at reproduction (and had larger families and those who claimed some control or understanding of the beyond.

Furthermore, you are missing the huge point that even if you are correct, that hierarchy began in 8000 years ago, that those 8000 years that mattered the most. That's the time during which we mastered fire, the wheel, and central banking.

The formalization of hierarchy - the notion of a structure that exists separate from those how operate within it - enabled a cultural or societal memory which is a precursor to cultural progress. The ancient Greeks new about the ancient Egyptians who predated them by the same amount that the ancient Greeks precede us. These was an ability to "remember" the things that were learned long ago.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:09 PM on April 2, 2007


If jefgodesky can show, and from what I've read I'm certain he can, that numerous long-lasting human societies have existed without hierarchy emerging, I don't see why we should accept post hoc assertions that it's "hard wired" or "human nature".
You'd be on stronger ground saying that the things you value about modern life were created because of and under hierarchies if that's what you feel (and there's arguments to be had there too).
For me, it's enough to know that it is not a biological imperative to believe that the only worthwhile politics will address the issue. The lived experience of hierarchy is pretty shit for most as far as I can see, and I think it's possible (maybe not likely) to be modern and do away with it.
posted by Abiezer at 12:23 PM on April 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


But every time this comes up, I'm reminded that on this issue, jefgodesky is both a zealot and an ideologue who is unlikely to be swayed by any presentation of counter-arguments.
I just do my best to remind other readers that his personal windmills are far outside the accepted consensus of, well, everyone who's not trying to make a case for neo-primitivism. And while the internet makes authority harder to discern, I am willing to wager that anyone truly interested can find plenty of actual academic work that contradicts Godesky, and plenty of tenuous support trumpetted by people with similar ideology.
posted by klangklangston at 2:41 PM on April 2


What's the evidence for these statements?
posted by Pastabagel at 12:27 PM on April 2, 2007


You can start with Anthropik, the website that he runs, which is linked off of his profile. Aside from that, browse his commenting history. (I'd be more specific, but I'm writing a paper and only taking five minute breaks).
posted by klangklangston at 12:39 PM on April 2, 2007


Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?

Fuck off! We're the People's Front of Judea

Seemed appropriate.
posted by MikeMc at 12:42 PM on April 2, 2007


The debate in this thread between jefgodesky on the one side and frogan and klangklangston on the ohter has conclusively demonstrated the difference between actual argumentation, designed to convince others with proof and examples, and inarticulate and closed-minded bluster, designed to intimidate opponents. Let's examine klangklangston's statement, the closest thing to an argument that he has presented, in detail:

Well, that and he counts pre-humans as part of human culture, and ignores heirarchies in chimps, and all sorts of other reasonable objections,

Wrong. Homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago. Hierarchies evolved 8,000 years ago. This objection makes no sense unless you define humans as existing under hierarchies, which is begging the question. Also, Godesky addresses the chimp issue.

and seems to believe that his fringe beliefs are reflected in anthro texts.


No supporting evidence for claims of fringeness; no evidence for lack of Godesky's evidence in anthro texts, which latter claim has been confirmed by myself and anyone else who has ever read one.

But every time this comes up, I'm reminded that on this issue, jefgodesky is both a zealot and an ideologue who is unlikely to be swayed by any presentation of counter-arguments.

This is a circumstantial ad hominem argument with no supporting evidence.

I just do my best to remind other readers that his personal windmills are far outside the accepted consensus of, well, everyone who's not trying to make a case for neo-primitivism.


Argumentum ad populum: alleged and unproved consensus does not equal truth. Also, a No True Scotsman because it defines "accepted" as "anyone not making a case for neo-primitivism," which destroys the possibility of argument.

And while the internet makes authority harder to discern, I am willing to wager that anyone truly interested can find plenty of actual academic work that contradicts Godesky, and plenty of tenuous support trumpetted by people with similar ideology.

A claim that an internet search for competing interpretations is possible does not constitute a counterargument. This combines the appeal to authority and the earlier circumstantial ad hominem.
posted by nasreddin at 12:45 PM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's a bad idea to use the word 'structure' like this. It doesn't much clarify the problem. It's trivially true that anytime you put more than a single human being in a room you will get 'structure' whether its explicit or implicit. Though you might choose a far more simple word - like say 'relationships' - to describe these bonds between persons. That a group is constituted by the relationships between members is contained within the definition of the word 'group.'

The paper confuses structure and authority. It's quite possible to have a group that exhibits a rigid structure, where the duties earned and owed to each member are strongly defined, yet it possesses no strong center of authority. This is probably the way most groups start and it's likely the most efficient way to operate a group. Authority always means costs -- taxes and contract enforcement and lawyers. (And everybody knows when you bring in the lawyers everything goes to shit.) The only reason authorities emerge within groups is to compensate for the lack of trust that develops when a group expands. It is only when individuals no longer trust one another that they demand an authority to protect them from their neighbors.

Really she seems to be suggesting that action requires authority and elites. Her argument is really the insidious English liberal argument that the State is the only legitimate source of power. But the problem with thinking like [as] long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules' is that it's just not true. Usually the unspoken rules are clear and those with the informal power are obvious. The question of whether such power is 'legitimate' or 'fair' is irrelevant -- in such groups. This question only arises in the political dimension. If she wants to demand that all power be justified and made legitimate then she ought to just say that. But Plato did this long time ago and look how he turned out.

The case is human beings just don't work like this. Most people do not demand that all power be made explicit and all groups involve politics. Cohesion of the group itself is valued above and beyond the efficiency of the group. Such structureless groups are not political because there is no legitimate basis on which to criticize those with power. The assumption of the opposite comes close to tautology. From the fact that relationships exist between persons it doesn't follow that all groups must be political. This is a metaphysical sleight of hand that tends to end up with the election of a philosopher king.

The type of group she's talking about is actually quite rare: the political minority interested in manipulating the majority. This really a uniquely American phenomenon. It's why politics infects all spheres of American life. In more traditional societies where the society is older than the state certain groups are allowed to exist above and beyond the political. In these groups, like say churches, the objective is almost always sustainability and not some abstract political goal. The entire language of issues and legitimacy doesn't exist.

An attempt to achieve a direct consensus among all interested parties is doomed to failure; therefore, management dictates production schedules, hires new hands as necessary, and so forth, in order to ensure delivery as promised.

This isn't true. It's just what managers say to legitamize their authority (see above). Managers don't exist to lead a company. The whole idea is nonsense: a firm exists to satisfy the demand. Who needs 'leadership' when demand is obvious? The only possible justification for management -- and the one most economists accept -- is the reduction of transaction costs below that which the market will bear. This is the only reason the firm exists in the first place: it can produce widgets at costs lower than the market. Nobody wants to admit it (because there are salaries and bonuses at stake) but there's essentially no correlation between firms that are driven by 'strong leadership' and firms that make money. The value of management has been vastly overstated.

Anyways the value of structure within a group has to be defined in terms of productive savings. It doesn't make any sense to pay to support a structure unless it's saving you money. This is the economic concept of legitimacy and it's a valid alternative to the political concept.

(BTW this isn't an endorsement of libertarinism. Libertarians make the same mistake just in reverse. The idea that there is no such thing as politics is just as wrong as the idea that politics is all there is.)

It explains our frustrations with hierarchy, why we feel such acute stress under it, and makes sense of a great deal of the world we live in, but there's little we can do to change it.

Most people like hierarchy. They want nothing more than to be told what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and then be aptly rewarded for doing it. You seem to think that pre-historical societies without strongly defined hierarchies didn't impose significant duties and regulations on their members. They did.
posted by nixerman at 12:50 PM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


And personally (anecdotal evidence!) it's been my experience that when groups attempt to formalize their power structures almost all social cohesion is lost. The desire against clear lines of authority shouldn't be taken a priori as a desire for power. Some people just don't want all their interpersonal relationships reduced to words and elections and bylaws. It's only world weary liberals that assume domination and oppression as the natural state of things.
posted by nixerman at 1:01 PM on April 2, 2007


I liked most of what you wrote there nixerman, but I'd submit there is something different between demands placed in a hierarchical power relationship and obligations and duties fulfilled in an association or community. I think the discontent arises when you lose agency. I'd submit that people like to know who they are and what they should be doing (and the rest), not necessarily to be told.
posted by Abiezer at 1:02 PM on April 2, 2007


The formalization of hierarchy - the notion of a structure that exists separate from those how operate within it - enabled a cultural or societal memory which is a precursor to cultural progress. The ancient Greeks new about the ancient Egyptians who predated them by the same amount that the ancient Greeks precede us. These was an ability to "remember" the things that were learned long ago.

This is essentially making a reverse-causal argument: x caused y to develop, if we remove x now y will disappear as well. This isn't a good argument, because it's trivial to find counterexamples, for example: (I'm on an American Revolution kick) the pamphlet Common Sense pushed people to support US independence, but destroying all extant copies of it will not cause Americans to want to rejoin Britain. This is because many processes only work in one direction, like a ratchet. I submit that any current and future egalitarian and non-coercive (NOT unstructured) society will continue to preserve cultural memory and cultural production.

Also, the argument is empirically false. Non-hierarchical societies are excellent at maintaining cultural memory, through the institution of storytellers, shamans, and so on. We would generally assume that such institutions imply hierarchy, but ethnographic studies appear to indicate that these social roles do not generally carry political authority or power beyond their specific societal domain.
posted by nasreddin at 1:03 PM on April 2, 2007


This is a circumstantial ad hominem argument with no supporting evidence.

Thanks for the lesson in logic, btw. Here's a lesson for you:

because the absence of hierarchy is itself a thing (call it egalitarian call it whatever you like) the lack of evidence of hierarchy is not evidence of a lack of hierarchy.

Wrong. Homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago. Hierarchies evolved 8,000 years ago.

No, in fact this statement is wrong. There is no proof offered (and to my knowledge none exists) that hierarchy did not exist prior to 6000BC. Prior to that time there is very little evidence of anything, frankly, but certainly nothing that sustains the conclusion that there was no hierarchy.

After reading this thread, there appears to be no evidence offered that a human society existed even a slight amount of time without an hierarchy. However, there is tremendous biological and psychological basis to believe that as is the case from 8000bc to the present, humans have always placed themselves within a hierarchy in order to obtain a benefit from the group at large that they could not obtain for themselves.

I do, however, see a lot of name dropping of authors and book titles, which means precisely nothing.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:05 PM on April 2, 2007


There is no proof offered (and to my knowledge none exists) that hierarchy did not exist prior to 6000BC.

When competing positive and negative claims have to be reconciled, it's the positive claims that generally have to bear the higher standard of proof. Negative claims (e.g. "Pastabagel is not a space alien") are notoriously difficult to prove.

Thanks for the lesson in logic, btw

Not to be a total wanker, but it was a lesson in rhetoric, I think...
posted by saulgoodman at 1:10 PM on April 2, 2007


Non-hierarchical societies are excellent at maintaining cultural memory, through the institution of storytellers, shamans, and so on. We would generally assume that such institutions imply hierarchy, but ethnographic studies appear to indicate that these social roles do not generally carry political authority or power beyond their specific societal domain

You just handwaved yourself out of the argument. No culture that relies primarily on storytellers and shamans has been able to accurately communicate a 2000 year old dead culture's culture's knowledge or worldview. The Greeks knew of Egypt as a historical truth, not a story.

Which brings me to my next point: This is essentially making a reverse-causal argument: x caused y to develop, if we remove x now y will disappear as well.. Only if you ignore the part where I said 'formalization of hierarchy'.

Hierarchy was formalized long before the advent of the city in Sumer. But the hierarchy was always there.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:11 PM on April 2, 2007


When competing positive and negative claims have to be reconciled, it's the positive claims that generally have to bear the higher standard of proof. Negative claims (e.g. "Pastabagel is not a space alien") are notoriously difficult to prove.

This is precisely why I wrote what I wrote. "lack of hierarchy" though articulated in the negative, is used to express a positive thing - "the egalitarian/non-hierarchical society" as jefgodesky and others have sought to label it. Thus the general rule, that the positive claim bears the burden of proof, applies equally to both sides of the argument - those seeking to prove the existence of hierarchy as well as those seeking to proof the existence of an egalitarian society.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:15 PM on April 2, 2007


"If she wants to demand that all power be justified and made legitimate then she ought to just say that. But Plato did this long time ago and look how he turned out."

He did?

Tell us, how did he turn out?

"The case is human beings just don't work like this. Most people do not demand that all power be made explicit and all groups involve politics. Cohesion of the group itself is valued above and beyond the efficiency of the group. Such structureless groups are not political because there is no legitimate basis on which to criticize those with power. The assumption of the opposite comes close to tautology. From the fact that relationships exist between persons it doesn't follow that all groups must be political."

'Politics' is used in two different senses here and you are conflating them. In one sense you have politics as how people use their own power within a group to drive it towards their own aims. Then you have the sense of politics like an organized group with a formal structure. The essay's whole point is that structureless groups are political in that power is exercised within them.

There is no metaphysical sleight of hand here. She is simply suggesting that for those who want to work towards a given aim, and for whom wide access to the decision making process is important, will find it benefical to make the power structure overt. Groups don't have to be political (in the organizational sense) or structured, if you prefer, because they are made up of relationships, but they can be made to be so if the exercise of power is an issue in the group.
posted by BigSky at 1:15 PM on April 2, 2007


When competing positive and negative claims have to be reconciled, it's the positive claims that generally have to bear the higher standard of proof. Negative claims (e.g. "Pastabagel is not a space alien") are notoriously difficult to prove.

But it's not a cleancut positive vs. negative claim in that sense. If I claim that it did rain, or claim that it did not rain, in what is now Portland, OR on March 1st, 1000AD, the claim that it did rain needn't bear a higher standard of proof if there's a lack of a compelling extrapolation showing that rain was an unlikelihood. I could as well be asserting that it was or was not sunny all day; the positive becomes the negative.

There's a difference between balancing an assertion of certainty against an assertion of uncertainty, and favoring either of two asserted certainties in the context of inherent uncertainty.
posted by cortex at 1:17 PM on April 2, 2007



You just handwaved yourself out of the argument. No culture that relies primarily on storytellers and shamans has been able to accurately communicate a 2000 year old dead culture's culture's knowledge or worldview. The Greeks knew of Egypt as a historical truth, not a story.


1. Calling ancient Greek history accurate is a dramatic exaggeration. 2. The notion of "historical truth" is a culturally biased one that privileges white, Western, modern notions of truth and history, so you are a priori stacking the deck against oral-history cultures. 3. Celts, whose ancestry can be traced to India, preserved stories with accurate information about elephant handling for thousands of years, even though elephants are not indigenous to Ireland and the Celts did not bring any with them.


Hierarchy was formalized long before the advent of the city in Sumer. But the hierarchy was always there.


I don't know what this means, or how it is relevant to the fact that you're reverse causal.
posted by nasreddin at 1:19 PM on April 2, 2007


Cortex & Pastabagel:
I see your points, but I still think it would be a lot easier to present proof that human civilizations prior to 8000 years ago were hierarchical than to present proof that they weren't. In the absence of any proof for the positive claim that human societies were hierarchical back then, why should Jefgodesky have to prove the negative claim?

Not that I entirely agree with jefgodesky's position, myself. Personally, I think modern formal power hierarchies are probably an outcome of the widespread use of currency, since money can be hoarded a lot more effectively than valuable skills can.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:26 PM on April 2, 2007


When I first read this article (in Ms. Magazine) I was working with community organizations. I thought then and I think now, it is a fine analysis of small group dynamics. The described tyranny is not just a problem of feminism (though certain feminist structures of the day made it more visible) but of all sorts of other groups. It has been a problem for some publishing and editorial groups and I witnessed it in action during a power struggle at a local food coop a year or two ago. Once I was one of a number of job applicants who were interviewed as a group by a group in an unstructured process. God, it was awful but the worst part was, I got the job. Structure here doesn't mean "authority". It means "form" and "rules" -- Robert's Rules of Order, for instance. Anyway, here's a PDF link if you want to distribute the essay.
posted by CCBC at 1:27 PM on April 2, 2007


reverse causal

This doesn't mean what you think it means, because nothing I suggested is remotely reverse causal, nor is that the argument. Please identify a human society or culture that lasted a non-trivial amount of time, and please provide some evidence that it was egalitarian (i.e. non-hierarchial).
posted by Pastabagel at 1:31 PM on April 2, 2007


[Ho-lee crap. I had no idea this FPP would take off like this. This was a Monday-morning-and-bored-at-work post.]

[Don't mind me. Carry on.]
posted by jason's_planet at 1:33 PM on April 2, 2007


She is simply suggesting that for those who want to work towards a given aim, and for whom wide access to the decision making process is important, will find it benefical to make the power structure overt.

Well that's the point. This is an assumption. It's the kind of thing that makes a lot of intuitive sense but it doesn't hold up under scruitiny. The belief that a group needs a leader and a explicit power structure in order to get anything done is just that -- a belief. The evidence is hardly conclusive and historical observation suggests that people got along fine when they were making decisions by scattering bones on the ground.

As for the sleight of hand it's there it's just hard to see. The notion that 'structurelessness (read: lack of overt authority) == tyranny' is really the liberal gesture to legitamize an all powerful state. Personally I find the idea that all human relationships must be framed in the language of domination and control to be abhorrent. It's a crude and reductive argument that leads itself to a kind of reverse domination in which people are "forced to be free." This is after all what the author is really advocating: stupid women don't know how to achieve their political objectives so we need to select leaders to force them.
posted by nixerman at 1:36 PM on April 2, 2007


Much of this conversation would be easier were the participants to clarify their definitions.

Proposal: let those who wish to continue beyond this point classify the Australian aborigenes as either egalitarian or hierarchical, together with an explanation for the chosen classification.
posted by little miss manners at 1:39 PM on April 2, 2007


This is why there are always very strict rules and leadership hierarchies in place at the Mandingo parties my wife and I host.
posted by jayder at 1:40 PM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I still think it would be a lot easier to present proof that human civilizations prior to 8000 years ago were hierarchical than to present proof that they weren't,

The problem is that there is virtually no direct evidence either way. 8000 years ago is 2000 years before sumer, egypt, or the settlements in the indus valley, which are considered the first 'civilization'.

What we do have is direct evidence informed by biology and psychology. All mammals groups have hierarchies - some ranking which places some members above others and which is acknowledged by others in the group. One's ranking in the group is improved usually through violence or mating, and there is certainly evidence of violence within groups in pre-history.

Furthermore, human psychology suggests that whenever more than two people are placed together, they will impose upon themselves a hierarchy based on each person's relative perceptions of themselves and the others.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:46 PM on April 2, 2007


I have found some supporting evidence (via cursory JSTOR search) for lack of hierarchy in early societies.

From Christopher Edens, "Transcaucasia at the End of the Early Bronze Age," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 299/300 (Aug. - Nov., 1995), 53-64. (the society in question transitioned to a more stratified one about 4-5,000 years ago)
The domestic architecture within settlements conformed to no particular plan ... Metallurgy was the only activity for which some evidence of specialized production
exists. Individual ovens ... indicate production on a relatively small scale. Since the character of settlements and graves indicates little social differentiation or uneven accumulation of wealth, metallurgical production was probably undertaken by part-time specialists, for the satisfaction of local needs ... The archaeological picture of the Kura-Araxes in Transcaucasia is one of relatively undifferentiated agricultural communities.
Gary Webster, "Labor Control and Emergent Stratification in Prehistoric Europe," Current Anthropology 31, no. 4 (Aug 1990), 337-366: "The first clearly stratified societies of Europe, by most recent estimates, were the "palace-centered" states of 2nd millennium BC Greece (Minoan, Mycenaean)."

Antonio Gilman, "The Development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age Europe," Current Anthropology 22, no. 1 (Feb 1981), 1-23: "The burials which make up the bulk of the evidence leave no doubt that marked inequalities emerged during the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC."

I'm too lazy to find any more, but you get the picture.
posted by nasreddin at 1:49 PM on April 2, 2007


Please identify a human society or culture that lasted a non-trivial amount of time
One classic study of a long-lasting society without hierarchy, which I think jefgodesky mentioned, is Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept, about the Yequana. I'm no anthropologist, so there may have been later critiques of her work.
posted by Abiezer at 1:50 PM on April 2, 2007


What we do have is direct evidence informed by biology and psychology. All mammals groups have hierarchies - some ranking which places some members above others and which is acknowledged by others in the group.

I may be off base, but "dominance games" <> "formal hierarchy". Lots of mammals fight to establish informal hierarchies of social dominance, sure, but not many of them organize their societies around all-powerful leaders whose authority is believed to derive from God (monarchy) or whose superior wisdom is necessary to maintain civil order (fuhrer princip).

Now insects on the other hand...
posted by saulgoodman at 1:56 PM on April 2, 2007


identify a human society or culture that lasted a non-trivial amount of time, and please provide some evidence that it was egalitarian

The Nuer in Sudan, a millennia-old society based on a complicated but egalitarian system of kinship. I'm unable to find cogent summaries online, so you should read the book: E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. It is extremely famous, and there will be a discussion of the Nuer and other African stateless societies in any African history textbook (Shillington, Bohannan, etc).
posted by nasreddin at 2:01 PM on April 2, 2007


organize their societies around all-powerful leaders whose authority is believed to derive from God (monarchy) or whose superior wisdom is necessary to maintain civil order (fuhrer princip

I didn't realize that was the standard. If that's the definition of hierarchy than it basically starts with post tribal civilizations like sumer and egypt around 4000bc and it ended during the renaissance. Our society today is based merely on the acknowledgment of the authority of the state and it's agents, but we are not under any delusions about where that authority comes from or whether its wisdom is superior.

It seems to me the discussion is more along the lines of a hierarchy being a standing social structure in which there are superiors and inferiors.

In this context, yes the aborigines would have a hierarchy. They had tribal elders and kinship arrangements between tribes, various rites of passage and coming-of age rituals to bring the young into adulthood. That is a hierarchy. The aborigines know what is expected of them at points in their life and who the authority figures are.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:05 PM on April 2, 2007


And this at least seems to support my position that formal social and political hierarchies only began to appear coincidentally with the appearance of currency.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:05 PM on April 2, 2007



In this context, yes the aborigines would have a hierarchy. They had tribal elders and kinship arrangements between tribes, various rites of passage and coming-of age rituals to bring the young into adulthood. That is a hierarchy. The aborigines know what is expected of them at points in their life and who the authority figures are.


If that's the standard then it's my turn to disagree. There won't be a society in which children have the exact same weight in decisionmaking as adults. This is not an indication of social stratification, and I think that it's unproductive to characterize all societies in which kinship structures exist as hierarchical--kinship structures, among the Nuer for example, often imply an egalitarian society. The role of a tribal elder in Africa is not simply analogous to a senator or whatever: they have a particular and limited social role that does not in any way stratify them out as a separate class. The presence of rituals as such is likewise not sufficient evidence for hierarchy.

You also neglect the difference between power and authority. I am arguing for societies in which there is effectively no hierarchical power, that is, the ability to enforce decisions coercively. Authority is based on the respect and trust accorded to an individual within society, and does not imply non-egalitarianism at all; it's a natural outcome of social interaction, and I think authority is a good thing for egalitarian societies because it provides a sort of measurement of community values and coherence.
posted by nasreddin at 2:12 PM on April 2, 2007


From the wikipedia article on the nuer:

Cattle are particularly important in their role as bridewealth, where they are given by a husband's lineage to his wife's lineage. It is this exchange of cattle which ensures that the children will be considered to belong to the husband's lineage and to his line of descent. The classical Nuer institution of ghost marriage, in which a man can "father" children after his death, is based on this ability of cattle exchanges to define relations of kinship and descent. In their turn, cattle given over to the wife's patrilineage enable the male children of that patrilineage to marry, and thereby ensure the continuity of her patrilineage.


This suggests a hierarchy. Note the importance of paternal lineage, even post-mortem. Furthermore, it suggests that more cattle = more power, though I don't know enough about the culture to say whether that's true or not.

Are you defining "hierarchy' to mean a state with a clear political structure, because the emergence of that in history is not disputed, nor does it make any sense with respect to the thread or the comments in it.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:12 PM on April 2, 2007


Er, of course, particular societies in certain parts of Africa, not the continent as a whole.
posted by nasreddin at 2:13 PM on April 2, 2007


I agree and disagree in parts.

Apparently it was important for these radical groups because of their concerns with oppression to show who had the power and what that consisted of. While I don't share their world view it's easy to see that beliefs in some consensual egalitarian way of decision making could slow them down and hurt the group.

When people scatter bones on the ground someone decides when, and someone decides what they mean.

But you're also right in that not everyone all the time needs to appoint someone as decision maker and have that be established. I also find it a bit much, and the people who are always worried about it strike me as a bit tedious, and disliking spontaneity. Still there are some group aims where it's a must have. One example is going into armed conflict with a group of soldiers as opposed to warriors.

I don't see structurelessness=tyranny as having a liberal state agenda. The reason this is brought up is that in the context of her group, not having a structure was promoted as egalitarian, level ground. This isn't the case, there are still power dynamics and they are better acknowledged than ignored. You can choose to have an informal organization and have the ways of getting things done be understood and accepted; that's one thing. But it seems that among her associates there was a pretence that this didn't or perhaps shouldn't happen. The essay is making clear that it does and to present a palatable way for them to handle it.

I don't think the author feels that stupid women need leaders but I certainly think there are a lot of idiots running around blinded by their emotional investments and a leader who can make unilateral big decisions is a necessity in a number of contexts. And I am no fan of the liberal state.
posted by BigSky at 2:14 PM on April 2, 2007


It seems to me the discussion is more along the lines of a hierarchy being a standing social structure in which there are superiors and inferiors.

Yeah, well if you've ever watched one of those Discovery Channel specials on primates, you usually see the dominant male very dramatically lose his socially privileged position before the end of the episode for a reason.

I don't dispute that the emergence of transitory social hierarchies among humans is normal--I just don't think there's anything especially 'normal' about them being institutionalized the way they are now, and I think the use of currency--which allows accumulated wealth (social power by proxy) to be transmitted across generational lines is what makes the difference.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:15 PM on April 2, 2007


Are you defining "hierarchy' to mean a state with a clear political structure, because the emergence of that in history is not disputed, nor does it make any sense with respect to the thread or the comments in it.

Not necessarily a state, but clear social stratification. The definition of this current in anthropological lit is something like "unequal access to resources between biologically equal individuals, with the inequality governed by sociopolitical factors." Or something. It is in the sense of access to resources , coercive ability, and clear divisions between classes that my definition of hierarchy lies. I don't know why that wouldn't make any sense.
posted by nasreddin at 2:17 PM on April 2, 2007


Please go take a class in economics.

I will if you take a class in anthropology. I know that's how it works in our society, but there's plenty of cultural variation on this.

Maybe a difference in terms; what you're calling history is what a lot of people might call "pre-history", insofar as we lack any historical record on the scale of what we've gotten for the period since we started writing things down.

But we have plenty of archaeological evidence. Sloughing off most of our past into "pre-history" is one of our very worst sleights of hand, used essentially to justify the same, Creationist view of humanity defined only by the past 5,000 years. Isn't it an odd coincidence that Creationism puts the creation of the earth at the advent of civilization and recorded history?

Well, that and he counts pre-humans as part of human culture, and ignores heirarchies in chimps, and all sorts of other reasonable objections, and seems to believe that his fringe beliefs are reflected in anthro texts. But every time this comes up, I'm reminded that on this issue, jefgodesky is both a zealot and an ideologue who is unlikely to be swayed by any presentation of counter-arguments.

I've been swayed by counter-arguments many, many times; when they're good, anyway. I don't really ignore hierarchies in chimps, though I'm skeptical for reasons I've already mentioned in this thread. Given the long history of false conclusions about animal behavior due to observation of animals under, for lack of a better word, "unnatural" circumstances, it seems a valid concern to me. I'm not sure what you mean by "pre-human," since the boundary line for "human" is up to something of an argument. I see it as a bit of a gradient, but I think you could put something as far back as Australopithecus under that heading reasonably enough. But my "fringe" beliefs, like the idea that hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian, are often taken for granted in anthropology, and have been well-established for quite some time. Which "fringe" belief is it, specifically, that you'd like me to back up?

But as far as being "a zealot and an ideologue," I can point to many examples when I've been swayed by a solid counter-argument. Granted, I do ask for something more than just "oh bullshit."

Wrong. Homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago. Hierarchies evolved 8,000 years ago.

Thanks for pointing out about the chimps, but I'd like to expand on this. Homo sapiens sapiens, the only extant human species, emerged 200,000 years ago. At the time, we were one of several human species, even by the most conservative counts (though I was quite persuaded by my teacher, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, that we've severely underestimated the number of human species in the archaeological record by force-fitting them into a chronological ideology of our "ascent"; but he's a bit of a maverick on this score, but even the most conservative estimates make us contemporaries of at least H. neanderthalensis, H. rudolfensis and H. erectus). I use the term "human" more loosely, as described above, to also describe not only all the species in the genus Homo, but arguably several in Australopithecus. We have passing indications that they might have had tools and even culture, so I see no reason to not include them under the heading. If we take A. afarensis as the first human, then humans have been around for over four million years. But even if we only count members of the genus Homo, it's still two million years (which I've been rounding up to, to be conservative). None of these are new or even particularly controversial definitions for "human," though I'll readily admit that it's a term as vague as any other colloquial species designation.

I just do my best to remind other readers that his personal windmills are far outside the accepted consensus of, well, everyone who's not trying to make a case for neo-primitivism.

Well, it's nice to know you've taken such a personal interest in me. Wait, did I say nice? I meant creepy.

And while the internet makes authority harder to discern, I am willing to wager that anyone truly interested can find plenty of actual academic work that contradicts Godesky, and plenty of tenuous support trumpetted by people with similar ideology.

I'd be happy to debate those specifics at length, though I think it might not be good to do so here--that would be derailing the thread, which I fear I've done far too much of already. But I'm always open to changing my mind in light of good evidence, and even if it goes the other way (as it often does), it's always nice to have a good exchange of ideas, don't you think? I would hope you would also be willing to change your mind in light of good evidence, no? But if you simply mean to point out that I have a point of view, which I've defended in the past, well, what can I say? You caught me!

I think you mistake my point. It is not that scale makes egalitarian decision making impossible, but rather that egalitarian itself is impossible

If that's true, then how do you explain the many egalitarian societies on the earth today, or the fact that the overwhelming majority of human cultures, historically, have been egalitarian? I don't see how one can prove that something is impossible with a thought experiment, when it exists in the world.

There is very little evidence of anything from that time, certainly not enough to conclude "a lack of hierarchy".

Incorrect. We have a great deal of archaeological evidence, and what it tells us is even greater. Take a look at some of the literature published on human evolution or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. We have a great deal of evidence, in fact.

Humans are hardwired biologically to compete for food and mates.

Well, yes and no. That's true of all animals in general, but the strategies to win that competition vary greatly. Primates developed a strategy of cooperation in order to win that competition, so humans, specifically, have been hardwired to cooperate, in order to compete more effectively as a group for food and mates. So, cooperation is every bit as much hardwired into the human brain, and in the sense you're referring to, more so.

People didn't live that long, and the world was a demon-haunted place.

That's mostly mythology. Hunter-gatherers live today in areas where civilized folks make it to an average of 33. There, if you try to control for differing ideas about when life begins (they often classify infanticide the way we classify abortion, so feel free to condemn them with all the same vitriol and horror that pro-lifers feel for pro-choicers), their life expectancy goes up to the 60's or 70's. Not too bad, considering it was what, about 49 in the US just in 1900, and we're talking about hunter-gatherers in the most marginal conditions? Now, there's been a general trend of increasing life expectancy that goes back to the Paleolithic, mostly measurable amongst hunter-gatherers because civilized countries have only in the past century or so recovered from the Neolithic Mortality Crisis that dropped L.E. into the 30's, so we might be talking about shorter lives in the Paleolithic, but we're nto talking about the "solitary, nasty, brutish and short" lives in Hobbes. We're talking, on average, something between 40 and 60.

As for a "demon-haunted place," I cannot recommend David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous enough. I'll leave it at that.

Someone who could hunt better than others would find themselves in a position of power, as would those who were more successful at reproduction (and had larger families and those who claimed some control or understanding of the beyond.

A fine thought experiment, but betrayed by the actual ethnographical record. It just didn't happen. "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" [PDF] is a bit of an anthropological classic that turns on one reason why, but there are many, many others.

Furthermore, you are missing the huge point that even if you are correct, that hierarchy began in 8000 years ago, that those 8000 years that mattered the most. That's the time during which we mastered fire, the wheel, and central banking.

More myths. Well, you got central banking right, I'll grant you that. But we've had fire for 790,000 years--79 times longer than we've had civilization or agriculture. The wheel is really only useful if you also have domesticated animals to hitch it too. But more importantly, what makes you think that the wheel and central banking "matter most"? Matter to who? For what? For being human? We've adapted quickly in the short time we've been at this, as you'd expect of an animal suddenly thrust into such a radically different context, but the fact remains that we're still very much Pleistocene animals, and far more maladapted to this system than adapted to it. Given another hundred thousand years, I've no doubt that would change, but for now, we're living in a deeply maladaptive context for our species.

To say that it "mattered most" implies the bad old days of unilineal cultural evolution. It implies that civilization is the only right way for humans to live, our gods-given destiny, and that all the millions of years we were here beforehand we were just mucking about, too stupid to know how to live properly, and it is only now that we, smart white men that we are, have finally discovered the one true path to happiness.

The ancient Greeks new about the ancient Egyptians who predated them by the same amount that the ancient Greeks precede us. These was an ability to "remember" the things that were learned long ago.

Firstly, of course, this has nothing whatsoever to do with hierarchy. Secondly, this is not unique to civilizations, either. The cultural memory preserved in orality is quite accurate and long-lasting. Thirdly, I see little evidence for the myth of "progress." For starters, of course, you'll need to tell me what the criteria of this "progress" is. What is it we're progressing towards, and what makes it so objectively good that any movement towards it constitutes "progress"? We can handle this at a purely philosophical level, without even touching the various ways that escalating complexity diminishes quality of life, or any of the other more nitty-gritty arguments I've made in the past.

Most people like hierarchy.

There's a significant body of literature suggesting otherwise. A quick internet search turned up this, this and this. Sapolsky's the big name in this field, and he's done much to problematize the simple "hierarchy leads to stress" equation, but I think it's worth pointing out that Sapolsky problematizes this by essentially arguing that some hierarchies are more hierarchical than others, and while less hierarchical hierarchies are more stressful for those on top, more hierarchical hierarchies are more stressful for the majority on the bottom.

because the absence of hierarchy is itself a thing (call it egalitarian call it whatever you like) the lack of evidence of hierarchy is not evidence of a lack of hierarchy.

Logically, yes, but if we're to suspend disbelief and believe that hierarchy is as old as humanity itself, despite the huge body of evidence we have about prehistoric humans, why is it that we suddenly have spades of archaeological evidence for hierarchy starting at about 10,000 years ago, with nothing predating it? Why did hierarchies suddenly start leaving evidence after two million years of their silent rule? It's not a purely logical argument, but any time you deal with evidence, you have to leave behind the realm of pure logic and get your hands dirty with the real world implications of a hypothesis.

No, in fact this statement is wrong. There is no proof offered (and to my knowledge none exists) that hierarchy did not exist prior to 6000BC. Prior to that time there is very little evidence of anything, frankly, but certainly nothing that sustains the conclusion that there was no hierarchy.

Your knowledge of archaeology must be quite shallow, then, because we actually have a very rich body of evidence. There's the rare exceptions like Sungir, but they stand out all the more for their rarity. People are buried alike. Bone fractures are consistent with rodeo riders, not medieval warriors. Nobody with an obviously violent death wound until the Neolithic. Then all of a sudden, you have elaborate chiefdom burials, you have fortresses and villages, and skulls split open with stone axes, all coming out at the same time.

By the same token, when we look for contemporary examples of hierarchical hunter-gatherers, we have to go to some exceptional locales, like the Pacific Northwest, to find them. No, contemporary hunter-gatherers are not living fossils, and projecting present hunter-gatherer behavior into the past is frought with peril, but I think we can also come to some general conclusions about hunter-gatherer life, just as we can come to some general conclusions about agricultural or horticultural life. When hierarchy emerges among hunter-gatherers, it's a rare thing with an obvious cause (like the Kwakiutl).

To suggest that hierarchy is ancient requires a significant suspension of disbelief, that becomes greater with each successive archaeological discovery. Since I've been called a fringe zealot, I should also point out that it also flies in the face of the accepted model of the development of complex societies.

I do, however, see a lot of name dropping of authors and book titles, which means precisely nothing.

Well, if you're not willing to take me at my word and you're not willing to accept my sources, what does that leave me with?

You just handwaved yourself out of the argument. No culture that relies primarily on storytellers and shamans has been able to accurately communicate a 2000 year old dead culture's culture's knowledge or worldview. The Greeks knew of Egypt as a historical truth, not a story.

Well that's a lovely tautology. Your concept of "historical truth" is the psychological relic of literacy; orality provides a different standard of truth. All you've said is that only literate people had the same literal truth that you, as a literate person, has. So, you're all literate. That's great for you, but you have two competing models of truth in play here, and by the oral standpoint, you've just handwaved yourself out of the argument--no culture that relies primarily on books has been able to accurately communicate a 2000 year old dead culture's knowledges or worldivew. All you have is a historical truth, not a story. If that doesn't make sense to you, try reading Ong's Literacy and Orality, his work is considered the real foundation for this kind of inquiry.

Proposal: let those who wish to continue beyond this point classify the Australian aborigenes as either egalitarian or hierarchical, together with an explanation for the chosen classification.

Egalitarian. It's been observed that among Australian aborigines, even children have political sway roughly equal to any other. Some gain respect, but it's generally compartmentalized. The wise old elder may be a fool when it comes to migratory patterns and everyone knows it. Nobody's going to insult grandpa, but he doesn't really have much sway when it comes time to discuss if they need to move on for winter. Likewise, someone who's good at hunting is naturally listened to when the subject comes to hunting, but he's no more important than anyone else when the question turns to building shelters. So, we could build an informal hierarchy, but it would only hold for one area of life. For another, the hierarchy would be completely different. If we overlay all the hierarchies, the hierarchcial shape disappears, and you have a general, amorphous map of influence. The more dimensions we consider, the closer everyone's influence approaches the same equal baseline. Most importantly, there is no means to compel the obedience of anyone. Everyone has the equal freedom to leave and join a different band if things don't go to his liking, and they often do.

In this context, yes the aborigines would have a hierarchy. They had tribal elders and kinship arrangements between tribes, various rites of passage and coming-of age rituals to bring the young into adulthood. That is a hierarchy. The aborigines know what is expected of them at points in their life and who the authority figures are.

But the elders don't wield any more power or influence than a six year old, so in what way does that constitute a hierarchy? Yes, everybody has a place in the tribe, but that place has nothing to do with who you can command and who can command you, because no one can command anyone. There are no authority figures--no one has inherent authority. You'll never hear "respect the office," because that doesn't mean anything in their culture.

Anthropologists distinguish between attained and ascribed power. The president has ascribed power, because it doesn't matter if you like him or not, he's the president, and he wields the power that comes with being the president. Your grandfather has attained power. You respect him because he's a great guy, and you listen to him because he's seen a lot and accumulated a lot of invaluable experience. Either one can form a hierarchy. The key to a hierarchy is that all the dimensions of power accumulate. So the president has enormous influence over me politically, militarily, scientifically, diplomatically, and so on. If one man is the best hunter, and one woman is the most wise, and this guy knows all about tools, and she always knows when it's time to move, that's not a hierarchy, because the apex is always shifting depending on the subject. Every society can be shown as a graph (in the mathematical sense), with people as nodes and influence as edges. Hierarchy is the unique configuration of that graph where it's isomorphic to a pyramid or triangle, where the majority of the influence lies with a minority of the population. Egalitarian societies are when the more dimensions of influence you take into account, the closer the weight of all nodes approaches the same total.

All mammals groups have hierarchies - some ranking which places some members above others and which is acknowledged by others in the group. One's ranking in the group is improved usually through violence or mating, and there is certainly evidence of violence within groups in pre-history.

Please point to the evidence of violence within groups in pre-history. According to all I've read, that first appears in the Neolithic. Still prehistory, yes, but I'd like to know what dig you're talking about. The earliest I know of is Cemetary 117, near Egypt's border with Sudan, though of course I recognize that it's probably a few thousand years older than that. But we have no cave paintings of humans attacking other humans until the Neolithic (when they appear frequently), and no remains of people killed violently until the Neolithic (when they appear frequently). I'd love to see some archaeological evidence that shows otherwise, as that would change a great deal. I hope you have such evidence, and you're not just repeating a common cultural myth.

But you're quite wrong about all mammals having hierarchies. Wolf packs were once believed to have a hierarchy, but once they were observed in the wild, this was seen to be a family, not a hierarchy in any traditional sense (see the work of Dr. David Mech on this issue). I've pointed to the possibility of similarly misguiding findings among chimpanzees upthread.

Furthermore, human psychology suggests that whenever more than two people are placed together, they will impose upon themselves a hierarchy based on each person's relative perceptions of themselves and the others.

Well, two domesticated humans. If you take humans who have only known hierarchical societies, I can see that. But consider the formation of egalitarian tribes in New Orleans after Katrina. In stressful situations, humans do not tend to form hierarchies. Our fiction assumes the very worst about us, as in Lord of the Flies. When it actually happens, though, what we spontaneously, reflexively form is egalitarian. The simple fact of the matter is that hierarchy is something of a luxury that requires more energy and resources to support. When things are tight, we're forced to do things the easier, more effective way: as an egalitarian group.

I have found some supporting evidence (via cursory JSTOR search) for lack of hierarchy in early societies.

Thanks, nesreddin. That scratches the surface. Like I said, flipping through an introductory anthropology book would also be sufficient; this is one of the most well-established claims in anthropology. I admit to having some unique views, but these are not them.

I'm no anthropologist, so there may have been later critiques of her work.

There have been some, of course, but I think she's emerged, on the whole, with her basic argument intact.

There won't be a society in which children have the exact same weight in decisionmaking as adults.

You'd be surprised! See the Ju/'hoansi, for instance.
posted by jefgodesky at 2:25 PM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


...but even the most conservative estimates make us contemporaries of at least H. neanderthalensis, H. rudolfensis and H. erectus

Yeesh, that'll teach me to try to do this from memory again--not H. rudolfensis obviously, but H. heidelbergensis! Oy vey!
posted by jefgodesky at 2:29 PM on April 2, 2007


and a leader who can make unilateral big decisions is a necessity in a number of contexts.

BigSky: Is a leader who can make unilateral big decisions really what's necessary, or is it a well-understood, and well-defined process for assigning the responsibility for making those decisions to an individual, and then complementary mechanisms for holding the individual accountable for how they exercise that responsibility what are needed? I guess what I took away from this would put more emphasis on having a well-defined decision-making process in place.

Jefgodesky: Curious what you think of this recent Steven Pinker discussion, in light of your remarks on the up-surge violence in the neolithic.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:44 PM on April 2, 2007


Jefgodesky: Curious what you think of this recent Steven Pinker discussion, in light of your remarks on the up-surge violence in the neolithic.

Pinker's pulling from Keeley, whose War Before Civilization has been very popular in such circles for some time. I keep pointing out that Keeley gets his numbers almost exclusively from horticultural, that is, food-producing societies. His most frequent hunter-gatherer example comes from the Plains Indians, but the Plains Indians did not exist prior to 1492. They were formed from various refugees from tribes destroyed by smallpox and the waves of violence and war that racked North America as an effect of European contact, loss of over 90% of their population to disease, displacement, and migration. The Huns and the first plague had a similar effect on Europe in the "Era of Migrations" as it's known in Germany, though we in the English-speaking world tend to focus on its effects on the Roman empire, and refer to the "barbarian invasions." Anyway, the refugees formed a new culture around the rewilded horses that escaped the Spanish and moved north, and from guns from Europe, creating the Plains Indians we know of. Not exactly what I'd point to in looking for a pre-civilized human. I have some other problems with Keeley, as well, and he tends to exaggerate, I think, but it's certainly true that horticulturalists can be very violent. Among hunter-gatherers, though, it's a somewhat different story. Homicides certainly occur, as do revenge killings; the Inuit are perhaps exceptionally violent, living in the Arctic, but we know that even the Ju/'hoansi murder each other sometimes. Yet archaeological evidence is lacking; most likely, it was the bow that changed things. Prior to that, you needed to get a lot closer to someone to kill them. Once it became easier to kill someone with impunity, it probably became a much more tempting prospect.
posted by jefgodesky at 3:47 PM on April 2, 2007


this recent Steven Pinker discussion

I don't like Stephen Pinker because most of the stuff he writes tends to be tendentious axe-grinding, against various real and imagined targets: "postmodernists," people who don't believe in evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould, etc. Well, this article was hardly an exception. The only interesting data is the reference to the work of four anthropologists whom I have not read, whose status in the field I'm not sure of, and who, for all I know, may be getting misrepresented to serve Pinker's ideological purposes.

The stuff on medieval violence may be anything, but it's certainly not any kind of refutation of the idea of the noble savage (even if I believed that particular strawman). I don't think anyone has ever denied that Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the eighteenth century was an exceptionally violent place. That says more about the deficiencies of authoritarian monarchical and feudal systems than it does about noble savages.
posted by nasreddin at 3:50 PM on April 2, 2007


saulgoodman,

You ask a good question but the more abstract and fragmented this discussion gets the more difficult it is to respond.

People form groups for all kinds of reasons. In many cases I don't think it needs to be overt at all. Sometimes you just understand that there is a certain dynamic where either because of demonstrated competencies or personal dynamics or existing alliances or whatever the shot calling is done by so and so. If that works and everyone finds participating worthwhile than why make the group politics more overt?

If you start getting more money involved and a lot of people who are complete strangers to each other then you probably do need to acknowledge how the decision making is done and make it transparent to the eyes of the newcomer. If not, you have people coming in with their own expectations and when those are not met they resent the difference. And my preference is as you say, more about assigning responsibility and maintaining accountability.

When I made the comment about a leader it was in response to nixerman who had made a statement about this essay trying to convince of us the necessity of a liberal state. Personally, I prefer as little government with as much decentralization as possible. Still, you have representative democracy because there are tough unpopular decisions that have to be made that a pure democracy won't go for. People in government have to make some decisions in extreme situations. The more critical the occasion the more likely it is that you have little time for discussion and division of roles. Somebody needs power and the ability to respond. That's the more long winded version of what I was trying to get at there. It's certainly not something I would generalize to all groups.
posted by BigSky at 4:01 PM on April 2, 2007


The simple fact of the matter is that hierarchy is something of a luxury that requires more energy and resources to support. When things are tight, we're forced to do things the easier, more effective way: as an egalitarian group.

It seems to me - though I'm certainly no expert - that the exact opposite would be true; hierarchies allow groups to organize when they need to compete with other groups. The need for population control that drives warfare between band-and-village societies seems (to me) to require hierarchical organization.
posted by me & my monkey at 4:19 PM on April 2, 2007





This thread is a fairly good example of how a relatively structureless group tends to organize itself, especially around a controversial issue. What's most obvious to me is that certain individuals are dominating the discussion, and are steering the conversation by repeating themselves throughout the thread (I include myself here).

This doesn't stem from ill intent on the part of those who are talking the 'loudest' here. In the words of Jo Freeman, Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.

But hey, no big deal right? Jo Freeman again: the informal structure of decision-making [is] much like a sorority — one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not do significant things this does not much matter.
posted by serazin at 4:24 PM on April 2, 2007



It seems to me - though I'm certainly no expert - that the exact opposite would be true; hierarchies allow groups to organize when they need to compete with other groups. The need for population control that drives warfare between band-and-village societies seems (to me) to require hierarchical organization.


They're both true. A surplus-food-producing agricultural society is almost in every case the prerequisite for stratification and complexity. It also generates the ability to wage large-scale war, forcing surrounding societies to adopt food production, change their social organization to resist warfare effectively, or perish. If, for whatever reason, food production ceased to be possible or effective, complex hierarchical societies would disappear in favor of small egalitarian ones and the ability to wage war would be severely curtailed.
posted by nasreddin at 4:28 PM on April 2, 2007



This thread is a fairly good example of how a relatively structureless group tends to organize itself, especially around a controversial issue. What's most obvious to me is that certain individuals are dominating the discussion, and are steering the conversation by repeating themselves throughout the thread (I include myself here).


In this situation, I like to use my hero Paul Goodman's favorite example: a group of friends going to see a movie. Consensus in this case usually works well, because only one or two people feel strongly about the issue and the rest can go along with what the two people decide, because they don't really care either way. If, say, the friends go out for food later, those two people don't care as much about this issue while other people feel strongly about it, and thus, while discussions are dominated by a few, the power to make decisions is allocated relatively equally based on individual involvement. A person that feels the need to stand firm and not compromise on every single issue quickly becomes ostracized as a pain in the ass, because the friends are aware that this power arrangement is always provisional and authority may be withdrawn at any time.

So dominating a discussion I care about (I'm a committed anarchist) is not authoritarian, but rather an assertion of the degree of my personal involvement in the subject; other people take the same view of PC vs. Mac threads, for instance.

Or that's what I tell myself, anyway.
posted by nasreddin at 4:36 PM on April 2, 2007


bureau of public secrets, huh?

does ken knabb know about this thread?
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:42 PM on April 2, 2007


There is only one way to settle this debate. I will channel the 15,000 year old warrior spirit, Mugog, of the Hunter Gatherer clan Klognot.

First let me afix the question in my mind:
"Were there hierarchies natural to humans in pre-history?"

Ok. Here I go. Channeling now.

...Give me a minute... wading through the ether of time... spinning... spinning back... over the steppes of Ice Age Europe...
back... going back... I think I have fix on him...

ÅØHNsegv???? mseprosrebop klmsgpiooijpsernkl;s df oi;ejgopsijr nm opijevnoip sdnio nipavnk jdc niup a;ohij awevoplp e m aeo hi aevnlkjam ?

avds;lkjl/k m advs oinjacw a sdnljk

....Whew... Okay... What did he say? Oh. Um. While they may or may not have had hierarchy apparently they did not know fuck all about how to type.

Hey! Who shit on my desk?
posted by tkchrist at 5:43 PM on April 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Tyranny of Tyranny
posted by poweredbybeard at 7:33 PM on April 2, 2007


From the Tyranny of Tyranny link (spellings are theirs)

Despite our best efforts to disavow and dissassociate ourselves from the male Left, we have, nonetheless, had our energy. Men tend to organise the way they fuck - one big rush and then that "wham, slam, thank you maam", as it were. Women should be building our movement the way we make love - gradually, with sustained involvement, limitless endurance - and of course, multiple orgasms.

Uh. I can only say this. Somebody thinks very highly of themselves...

...and needs to get laid properly before they write another manifesto.
posted by tkchrist at 7:46 PM on April 2, 2007


Hey! Who shit on my desk?

This guy.
posted by me & my monkey at 7:57 PM on April 2, 2007


We are told that the Powhatans, Mannahoacs, and Monacans, spoke languages so radically different, that interpreters were necessary when they transacted business. Hence we may conjecture, that this was not the case between all the tribes, and probably that each spoke the language of the nation to which it was attached; which we know to have been the case in many particular instances. Very possibly there may have been antiently three different stocks, each of which multiplying in a long course of time, had separated into so many little societies. This practice results from the circumstance of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government. Their only controuls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature. An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns. Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them: insomuch that were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last: and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, that great societies cannot exist without government. The Savages therefore break them into small ones.
- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
posted by nasreddin at 8:18 PM on April 2, 2007


Well, I just have to say kudos to jefgodesky for making a very cogent and well supported series of arguments in favor of a thesis. And for doing it with significant grace.
posted by darkstar at 12:18 AM on April 3, 2007


The need for population control that drives warfare between band-and-village societies seems (to me) to require hierarchical organization.

In addition to nasreddin's comments above, warfare doesn't have much effect on population, because if the food supply is there, then the population just rebounds with a baby boom afterwards. Take a look at Europe's population in the Middle Ages: you'll see a big cleft for the Black Death, but then it's right back up like nothing ever happened.

Well, I just have to say kudos to jefgodesky for making a very cogent and well supported series of arguments in favor of a thesis. And for doing it with significant grace.

Thank you! I try--it's all the more important when championing an unpopular idea, so I'm glad to hear I succeeded reasonably well.
posted by jefgodesky at 7:09 AM on April 3, 2007


Boy, I posted this morning thinking not many people would post on this esoteric subject. Now I look at night and man.

The post that really made me laugh is:
thought this said "The Tranny of Structurelessness."

Therefore I assumed it was another Ann Coulter hatefest. I am so disappointed.

Regarding my statements on Spanish anarchists, I certainly admit that my knowledge of this is very shallow, but in the examples mentioned, I think you can separate their earlier successes against the fascists from their later infiltration and control by the very heirarchical and structured communists. My argument is that a structureless group can certainly be successful, but it can also be easily be taken over by a more organized and structured group.

A few more random slightly off-subject thoughts:
I can't help thinking that this whole structureless concept is very culture bound. I remember taking Japanese and being shocked that they had two words for 'to give', one for giving to someone of a higher 'level' than you, and one for someone of a lower 'level than you. So when you meet a person, the first thing you have to do is to figure out where you and that person fit in with each other in the social heirarchy. There is no Western ancient Greek concept of equal citizen. Your self-concept consists of where you fit into the structure of society. Certainly there are a lot of societies like this today. I'm not saying it is necessarily the most efficient way to run an organization.

Also, I once heard that the first social organization started because of beer. People liked the fermented water that the wheat was soaking in. But if they wanted a lot of it, they needed to organize themselves and create farms and brewers, etc. Certainly this could have been a structureless organization, but as I heard it, it was in Egypt, and certainly Egyptian society became very heirarchical and structured.

Anyway, I think I'll go have a beer right now.
posted by eye of newt at 9:24 PM on April 3, 2007


Thus highly-educated white males who support libertarianism.

Predatory (entitlement) libertarianism is a psychological response to a sexual imprisonment. It's a latency thing, rarely in one's self-interest. Most of them are poor wannabes, most recently the trashy end the assault gun crowd, hence the reason libertarians have softened on abortion (open to anti-abortion positions). Non-predatory, non-entitlement libertarianism is just wishful hoping, usually in one's youth.

As far as the structuralism goes, I'm glad to discover it was ahead of its time. The lazy fair right-wing approach is just a long-term game theory. When people don't have any money or property to con from them, there is always their loyalty.

Stupidity is rarely the lack of native instincts, because it is a pride+ignorance, and is usually dogmatic, and this is the game society losing. Just look at how many people believe that the free market supplies a socially utilized infrastructure (roads, schools, utilities), rather than the other way around.
posted by Brian B. at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2007


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