Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Equality, Hierarchy and Political Organization

Socialists are egalitarians. They put heavy emphasis on the value of equality. But what exactly does that mean? It means that socialists oppose social relations that are exploitative and oppressive. It means that socialists aim to bring about conditions in which all people can interact on terms of equality and respect.

Being a socialist means being prepared to struggle against class domination, gendered hierarchies, racial subordination, the oppression of LGBT people, and so forth. Socialists aim to secure equal freedom for all persons by liberating them from the arbitrary will of an oppressor (whether it's a capitalist, a colonial administrator, a Stalinist bureaucrat, a racist police officer or an abusive, patriarchal head of a family).

This means that for socialists there is a presumption against social hierarchies. But, anarchists will complain, socialists do not believe in completely horizontal forms of organization when it comes to political activism. The classic anarchist complaint against socialists who organize themselves in a roughly "Leninist" or "democratic centralist" way is that socialists aren't radical enough in their assault on hierarchy since "democratic centralism" is itself hierarchical in certain respects. Some more resolutely "horizontal" alternative, usually consensus-based decision making, is then typically held up as a more egalitarian and democratic way of organizing.

But is this objection sound? I don't think so. I think it is motivated by values that I share, but it fails to make crucial distinctions that any plausible theory of liberation must make.

As Elizabeth Anderson has argued, egalitarians, and socialists in particular, are hostile to at least three types of social hierarchy: (1) hierarchies of standing, (2) hierarchies of esteem, and (3) hierarchies of command.

(1) Hierarchies of standing are those in which oppressors are entitled to make claims on the oppressed, "to enjoy rights and privileges, while those below are denied rights or granted an inferior set of rights and privileges, and denied voice to make claims on their own, or given an inferior forum in which to make their claims." (2) Hierarchies of esteem are those in which those at the top "command honor and admiration, while those below are stigmatized and held in contempt, as objects of ridicule, loathing or disgust". (3) Hierarchies of command obtain when those at the "top issue orders to those below, who must defer and obey."

But this is not the whole story. As Anderson points out, whereas it seems reasonable to absolutely oppose hierarchies of standing, the same is not true of the other two types of hierarchy. After all, it doesn't seem inherently unjust to hold different persons in different degrees of esteem. We tend to think that there are cases in which some persons are praiseworthy and deserving of high esteem, whereas others are not. Some people are rightly worthy of contempt and loathing.

Moreover, though socialists believe in equality, would not say that all participants in a bicycle race are equally entitled to win the gold medal. So we need a further distinction here. What socialists really oppose is not hierarchy of esteem as such, but unjust hierarchies of esteem. That is, socialists oppose hierarchies of esteem based on race, class or property ownership, birth right, caste, etc.

Hierarchies of command are tricky as well, and getting clear on them is particularly relevant for adjudicating between socialists and anarchists on the question of organization. Where socialists and anarchists can agree is that there should always be a presumption against social hierarchy. That is, hierarchies are never self-justifying, are always prima facie suspicious, and we should want to have as little of them as possible. But whereas some anarchists would draw the problematic conclusion that no hierarchy is ever justified, socialists would again draw an intuitive distinction between just and unjust hierarchies.

What exactly is suspicious about hierarchies of command? According to Anderson,
"to be subject to another's command threatens one's interests, as those in command are liable to serve themselves at the expense of their subordinates. It threatens subordinates' autonomy, their standing as self-governing individuals. Without substantial controls on the content of legitimate commands, subjection can also be degrading and humiliating. Even when superiors permit subordinates wide scope for acting, the latter may still live at the mercy of the former. Such a condition of subjection to the arbitrary wills of others is objectionable in itself, and has further objectionable consequences: timidity and self-censorship in the presence of superiors -or worse, groveling and self-abasement".
I think Anderson is right on target here, and I think anarchists would agree. But, and I'm with Anderson on this point, she doesn't think that all hierarchies of command are unjust. It depends on the function of the command:
"Where commands regarding a particular action are not needed to coordinate conduct among different persons, egalitarians hold that adults should be free to make decisions for themselves, without having to ask anyone else's permission... But the solution of letting each choose for herself, however, cannot be generalized to the case where commands are needed to coordinate conduct among different persons. Anarchists hoped that it could be generalized. They hoped that effective coordination would arise from the spontaneous mutual aid of independent persons (Kropotkin 1906). Anarchy, however, has not proven to be a reliable arrangement for securing stable, peaceful cooperation on terms of equality among large numbers of people... some command relations are needed to secure cooperation."
In Anderson's view, and, I think, in the view of genuine socialists, the solution is that "when commands cannot be eliminated, the idea is to ensure that command relations are reciprocal, with everyone participating in making the rules that govern" such relations. That is, when commands are functionally required in order to coordinate actions, such command relations should be determined democratically. Those in a position to issue certain sorts of commands must be democratically elected by all and recallable at any moment. Also, what Anderson calls the "person/office distinction" must be respected. That is, command relations only mean that "subordinates owe obedience to their superiors in virtue of relations of office (as documented, say, in an organizational chart) rather than in virtue of obligations of personal loyalty to named superiors. Individuals thus enjoy powers of command only in virtue of their office... when a superior acts outside the color of her office, she has no authority over subordinates...off-duty in civil society, superiors and employees meet as formal equals...". Also, command relations should be granted only on the basis of merit, not because of nepotism or cronyism. Such positions cannot ever be "for sale". Finally, the command powers granted to such an office must never be unlimited. They must be constrained by a publicly agreed upon and democratically sanctioned set of rules (e.g. a constitution or platform).

For example, consider the sorts of relations necessary to run an effective rapid transit system in a major city. We would need certain hierarchies undoubtedly, but it's not as though the mere fact that you occupy a certain office in the transit system entitles you to boss people around in the grocery store or in a public park. No, your command powers would only be legitimate within a certain specific institutional setting, and even then such powers would be circumscribed by rules of various kinds.

Importantly, we must be able to prove that need for certain command relations is strictly speaking necessary. But are any such relations really necessary? I think it's rather difficult to answer this question in the negative. I'm with David Harvey, for example, in being uneasy about the prospect of power plants being run by consensus-based anarchist communes. Moreover, I'm with Anderson in thinking that the production of the sizable social surplus we need to have a just society requires the coordination of many wills by means of some limited hierarchies of command (e.g. some division of labor and coordination within, say, a factory would be necessary even in a worker-controlled and governed system). The existence of some such relations will be necessary in any large, complex society in which the productive forces are highly developed. After all, "the infeasibility of large-scale, fully-participatory democracy led Rousseau to insist that republics remain very small... but this restriction comes at grave costs".

One of those costs, I would argue, is that going small in all cases means squandering some of the potential of highly developed productive forces to eradicate all sorts of need and poverty. Socialists are thoroughly modern: we do not aim to turn the clock back to pre-agricultural societies. We want to use the high development of the productive forces to create a sustainable system that meets human needs, rather than a destructive, wasteful system that subordinates human beings and the natural environment to the iron laws of profit accumulation. All sorts of poverty and suffering are not objectively necessary in the way in which they were in, say, the Bronze Age. The technological advances we've made since then create the possibility of eradicating all poverty and want if put in the service of the public good, rather than private greed. Moreover, the high development of productive forces in modern societies has made possible all sorts of cultural production and creative expression that would not otherwise have been possible.

So where does this leave the question of political organization and the debate between anarchists and socialists? It should be clear by now that the inflexible anarchist prohibition on all hierarchies is implausible. The question, given that some hierarchies are necessary, is which hierarchies are just and which are unjust. To be sure, it might be difficult to know whether specific hierarchies are necessary or not. The only way to know is to experiment and see. Thankfully, history provides radicals with some evidence here about what works and what doesn't.

For socialists, the question of whether some hierarchies are needed must always be answered contextually. Sometimes consensus-based decision making is the best way to go. Sometimes, for instance when a strike is about to be called, consensus-based decision making is not appropriate. Similarly, in the context of a very small, local struggle, perhaps the best form of organization is one in which there are no institutionalized offices or hierarchies of command. But when you talk about putting together a national, or even international, struggle against exploitation and oppression, you need ways of coordinating action that are quite different from those required in smaller struggles. In order to be effective against a highly organized and potentially brutal ruling class, socialists must be organized and able to coordinate widely and generalize from local struggles.

In advanced capitalist societies, electing leadership and dividing up labor and roles is essential. The only question is how best to do it, and what constraints need to be in place to prevent abuses, unnecessary bureaucratization, ossification, and all the rest of it. Here, I'm inclined to think that the best way of combating these problems is to keep leadership fluid and to cultivate leadership capacities in everyone. In the context of a political organization, this means giving newer and less experienced members opportunities to lead so that they can develop the skills and experience necessary to grow and develop. It also means opposing stable, inflexible divisions of labor that leave someone, or some group, perpetually in a subordinate or relatively powerless roles. The expectation must be that every single member in a socialist organization is a potential leader, and that expectation must followed through. Anything less is a disservice to the socialist tradition.


Hank said...

I just want to make clear that not all anarchists are opposed to all hierarchy. Yes, you say at one point that "some anarchists" are opposed to all hierarchy, but most of this seems to be oriented as "the anarchist position vs. the socialist position," but it is my understanding that most anarchists consider themselves to be socialists as well, so the idea of "anarchists vs. socialists" doesn't even make sense and anyway, it's not like all socialists or anarchists have the same opinions (though obviously anarchists are all going to agree with the abolition of the state and capitalism followed by the public ownership of the means of production, while socialists may only agree with the latter point).

t said...

The point that the line between anarchism and socialism is often blurry is well taken. I play a bit hard and fast with "socialist" and "anarchists" in the post". Also, certainly there are enough shared views between the two traditions to have a fruitful dialogue. But there are some important disagreements between the two traditions as well, in particular on questions regarding how to organize, and this comes out most clearly in disagreements about the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

The recent arguments on the UK left between Laurie Penny and members of the SWP bears out some of this disagreement. To be sure, it's not always one between anarchists and socialists; sometimes it's among socialists. But I think there's a real disagreement here.