Hierarchy & Property

“The world is facing terrible problems, but it’s not too late for us to solve them if we work together.”

That’s what a lot of political activists say. I agree about working together, but I have a very different view of what the problems and solutions are. Most activists identify the problems as

war, ecocide, climate change, unemployment,
poverty, racism, sexism, corruption, fascism, etc.,

but I will explain that those are just symptoms of a deeper disease, the root of all evil, hierarchy and property, two institutions that most activists don’t see as problematical at all.

Some will think that I’m just being intellectual, idealistic, unrealistic, and utopian. In a self-assured tone, they’ll explain

“We need to deal with climate change right now; we can dream later about fantasies like sharing. People can’t imagine that kind of change right now, it’s neither necessary nor possible.”

But I’m going to explain why a really big change is both necessary and possible; people will want it when they understand it better. Until we address hierarchy and property, our efforts on symptoms such as climate change will be as unproductive as Sisyphus’s efforts to push his rock up the hill.

And for tactics, most activists will turn to

demonstrations, petitions, fundraising,
elections, and maybe revolution,

as though our task is merely to marshal the forces we already have to support the ideas we already have. But I see all of these tactics as premature: They should be left for later steps. Before we rush into a “movement,” we must think deeply about its goals; otherwise its results will be temporary and superficial, or worse. And if we somehow manage to jail the crooks but we don’t change the culture, it will quickly generate a new batch of crooks.

What is really crucial now is leaflets, discussions, teach-ins, consciousness-raising, getting people to awaken, to understand what is causing all our problems and crushing all our solutions. We may not be able to end hierarchy and property immediately, but we need to immediately begin thinking and talking about it. Talking now about our long-term goals will improve both our long-term and short-term results, and will speed them up.

My vision is simple and yet difficult — simple in that it has few moving parts, but difficult to understand because it is unfamiliar, foreign, altogether alien. It is far outside what most people have been thinking about; it contradicts assumptions that have been deeply embedded in our culture for 10,000 years. How we see the world and our relationships determines what kind of lives we will have. I am calling for a new way of seeing and living – and we really have no choice, for our old way of life is ending. Sapolsky has shown that even baboons can change their culture accidentally; surely we humans can change ours intentionally.

Hierarchy concentrates power, and power corrupts. We see that all around us: Authoritarians beat their wives and children, bosses bully workers, guards torture inmates, police shoot the poor, and the rich start wars to make themselves richer. Our politicians are liars, thieves, and mass murderers, yet we honor them; we are caught up in a global version of Stockholm Syndrome (a psychological bond between hostages and captor).

The Stanford Prison Experiment proved that power corrupts: Student volunteers were tested for normalcy, then divided randomly into guards and inmates for a two week mock prison. Before that time was half up, the experiment was halted, because the guards began abusing the inmates.

The alternative to hierarchy is horizontal networking, otherwise known as anarchy, which means “no rulers.” The corporate news media, owned by our ruling class, claims that anarchy is chaos, like a boat with no one steering, but they are lying: Society is not a boat. We have few historical examples of anarchism because it is usually stamped out by nearby authoritarians. For instance, in 1939 Franco’s fascists crushed the anarcho-socialist democracy of Catalonia.

What is our true nature? Perhaps it is revealed when disaster wipes away our everyday routines. Hollywood shows people fighting each other for a scrap of food, but that’s rare in real life. Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell” studied the aftermaths of several great disasters – the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the attacks of September 11 2001, and so on. In each case people came together to help one another in any way they could. Despite the pains of the disaster, survivors later had fond memories of community. We can create that community without that disaster.

Property looks complicated because our culture has lied about it in many different ways. Economics is the comparison of different methods of being selfish. But they’ve all been disastrous.

Capitalists try to take credit for scientific innovation, but that’s a lie. Scientific research would work a lot better if it were more cooperative and less competitive. In fact, nearly all of our technological gadgets have originated in university and military laboratories where the scientists are paid in a fashion much more like socialism than like business.

Keynes derided capitalism as “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow work to create the best of all possible worlds.” Advocates of the market claim that it promotes the industrious and punishes the lazy. But the truth is that the market rewards the few who control it and screws everyone else. Advocates of the market claim that we can all be good little businessmen, honest and respectful to each other while pursuing our own separate interests and separate lives. But the truth is that the market replaces honesty and respect with theft and abuse, because that’s where the incentives are.

Even in a voluntary trade, where both traders benefit, the one who was already in a stronger bargaining position benefits more, becoming stronger still. Thus inequality increases, and wealth is concentrated into fewer hands. And wealth is power and influence, so the market creates plutocracy, which means rule by the rich. And power corrupts, as I discussed earlier.

We’ve been told that markets are efficient, but that’s a lie. Market prices are far from true costs. The market pays only for extraction, not for replacement or cleanup. Market transactions externalize some costs – that is, harmful side effects are inflicted on some third party who was never consulted in the trade negotiations. Conventional economics textbooks gloss over these externalities as though they were minor, but in fact they are enormous; they include war, poverty, and ecocide.

Some people blame modern technology, but technology can be used for good or ill. It’s largely ill, in a society of selfishness and externalities. Oil spills poison our water, and fracking causes earthquakes. Over time, exploitation becomes more efficient; for instance, slumlords now have computers.

To maintain short-term profits, fossil fuel companies have lied for decades about global warming. It’s now accelerating faster than most people realize; we’re about to go over a climate cliff. The rich will discover too late that they can’t eat money and that there are no profits on a dead planet.

We’ve been told that humans are greedy, motivated only by selfishness. And that’s probably true of a few humans who don’t understand themselves very well. But sociologists have found that, once your basic material needs are met, more material goods will not increase your happiness. In fact, more material goods will separate you from other people and thereby decrease your happiness.

A few of us – teachers, nurses, firefighters – have jobs that feel meaningful. But most of us in a capitalist economy get nothing from our jobs but a paycheck, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. That lack of meaning, and not laziness, is why we hate Mondays. Privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships.

But the present system can’t last much longer: Robots are displacing humans faster and faster. It’s not yet clear what economic system will replace the present one. The transition will be painful if we don’t plan for it in advance.

In the meantime, one person’s loss is another person’s gain, and we can’t care about each other while competing against each other. In the market, we’re all commodities to be exploited or discarded. And that callousness spills out of the market into the rest of our lives. The market kills empathy, making possible racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. Look at the many homeless in our streets; clearly we are not acting as our brother’s keeper. Someday soon this indifference may catch up with the rest of us: Some suicidal madman may build a germ warfare lab in his basement and kill us all.

Conclusion. The only thing that can make us safe is a culture of caring and sharing that leaves no one behind, so no one wants to hurt us. We can be friends instead of rivals. That is becoming necessary just for us to survive, but with that change we will in fact thrive. We’ll have healthy food and water, good housing, and satisfying jobs, in a loving community. We’ll create a whole new world.

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2017 Oct 5, version 2.02. The 11 minute video is based on a slightly earlier version of this essay.

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