Thinking About Anarchism: Hierarchy - What it is and isn't


Wondering why your vote doesn’t seem to make a difference, why your wages seem to barely cover your costs, or why you feel like a second-class citizen? Then, you’re thinking about hierarchy.

Anarchists treat ‘hierarchy’ as the central issue in society, as the unifying theme in most of the problems we face. Then, the aim is to get rid of hierarchy and replace it with something better. But what is hierarchy? It’s not something which is talked about in mainstream political discourse, and even anarchists themselves can sometimes misunderstand it.

Anarchism is the only political philosophy which makes hierarchy the main issue, even though we are concerned with many of the same problems as other political tendencies. Others have a different focus. Most other socialists, i.e. most Marxists, see capitalism itself as the main problem, that control of society is concentrated in an elite class which exploits the rest of us and ultimately divides us across lines of gender, race, and so forth. Liberals tend to see problems in society as poor management of the existing institutions – greedy CEOs, backwards and corrupt politicians – and ignorance and inequality amongst the public. ‘Conservatives’ tend to see problems in society as a failure of personal character and a drift away from the traditional values which purportedly made us strong in the past. Nationalists see the problem as a lack of popular patriotism, the meddling of other nations, and leaders too weak to drive society forwards. These are simplistic portraits, but they give the gist.

Formal and Direct Hierarchies

So what is hierarchy and why is it a useful way of understanding our society? Most of us, until we begin reading about anarchism, will think of monarchy, the Catholic and Protestant church hierarchies, and a military command structure, when we think of ‘hierarchy’. We might imagine a pyramid, with the most powerful and prestigious at the top, and the least powerful and prestigious at the bottom. In these cases, hierarchy can be defined as a formal structure of rankings where certain positions within that list of rankings have certain entitlements and abilities. We could call this a ‘formal hierarchy’ because the hierarchy is formally recognised and codified. These structures are indeed hierarchies, but the concept is actually more general than that.

We can see though, intuitively, that it’s not necessarily the formal ranking system which matters but the question of power. Who has it, and why? A hierarchy can be more generally defined as a relationship of power between people, specifically an imbalance of power. This makes sense in the case of a king. The king has the power, and the people must do what they say. But it also applies to less immediately obvious cases. In the workplace, the boss is in charge and the employees aren’t. It would be inaccurate to say the boss has the same power as an employee. The boss can fire an employee, decide their days, hours, and wages, and what they do at work. The employee can’t decide these things about the boss. That is a hierarchy, a hierarchical relationship.

Let’s look at the ‘traditional’ household. The man goes to work, comes home and is fed and pampered by his wife. It would be inaccurate to say that the man has the same power as the woman. The man makes the money which the woman depends on. He doesn’t necessarily lord this over her, but that’s the fact of the matter. This dynamic really comes in to play in an abusive relationship – a woman can be trapped in a relationship because she can’t afford to move out and leave the abuser. This is a hierarchy, and it’s one reason feminists have been keen on women being financially independent.

Power 'To' and Power 'Over'

Now, how about rich and poor? Is that a hierarchy? Anarchists would say yes. Why? It’s not that rich people can walk around giving orders to poor people, unless there is a boss and worker relationship there. How is this a hierarchy? Recall the definition above: hierarchy is a relationship of power or imbalance of power. Do rich people and poor people have the same power in society, and over their own lives? Some liberals would say ‘yes’, that everybody is equal under the law. But anarchists don’t give pieces of paper much kudos unless they reflect reality. As Anatole France put it ‘the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ It is clear that rich and poor don’t have the same power. How so?

Well that leads us to another interesting question: what is power? Many books have been written by way of an answer, but at a fundamental level it is not complicated. Power is broadly speaking the ability to do things. When people say ‘we feel powerless in our situation’, they mean that they lack the ability to improve their situation.

If you have power over your own life, you can do what you want. If you don’t have power over your own life, you cannot. But we also talk of power in another way. Power, in this other sense, is the ability to make others do what you want, whether by influence or by force. If a king is powerful, that means he can command many other people to do as he pleases, using raw violence, economic leverage, and ideological manipulation. So we can see that power splits into two categories, power ‘to’ and power ‘over’. Power to do what you want, and power over other people, respectively. We can see also that these two forms of power are not entirely distinct, they are related.

Indirect Hierarchy

How does this help to explain the hierarchy between rich and poor? Rich people have quite a lot of power ‘to’. Because of their wealth, relatively speaking they can do a lot more than others can, because it takes money to do things, to have the home you want, to pay for healthcare, to pursue hobbies. This is not true for poor people. If you are poor, you find yourself locked out of a lot of life because you lack money. Everything costs money in this society. You feel more pressure to take a crappy job so you don’t lose your flat, if you get ill you worry you won’t be able to afford the treatment, you have to pass up meeting friends at the pub or a restaurant because you don’t have the cash right now. As the modern euphemism goes, you are 'disadvantaged'. It is not that the rich person stands controlling the poor person like a puppet, or is like a king ordering about his subjects. But, it must be said, ask yourself if a homeless rough sleeper has the same power as a billionaire, and the monarchic analogy doesn’t seem far off.

The division of people into rich and poor is an indirect hierarchy. The class system, the use of money, private property, capitalism, produce this imbalance of power between rich and poor.

However, sometimes this hierarchy becomes direct, for example when the rich person is an employer and the poor person is an employee. Or it becomes more direct when the rich influence politicians to do something which ends up hurting the poor, such as businesses in wealthy districts complaining to police about beggars, ultimately because the homeless are unsightly to eyes of their swanky clientele. Or even we can see hierarchy at play in the general tendency for politicians to pander to the wishes of the wealthier people to the exclusion of the poorer.

Look at the Dáil and Stormont and ask yourself how many politicians there have known poverty or couldn't be described as well-off. A person is much more likely to gain a position of power over others if they have lots of money.

In the aforementioned cases, we see power 'over' creeping in as a result of relatively great power 'to'.

Sometimes it is said that anarchists want to eliminate all power in society. That isn't strictly true. Anarchists very much want every single person to have power 'to'. That is, we want each person to be as confident and capable as possible and to be able to realise their wishes, with the usual proviso that it doesn't hurt others. What anarchists do want to eliminate is power 'over'.

More Examples of Hierarchy

Unfortunately there are no shortage of examples to give of hierarchy in our society. Indeed, this is why anarchists sometimes use the term ‘hierarchical society’ as shorthand for the very unequal and unfree society we live in for now.

We’ve seen direct examples like boss and employee, husband and wife, and a more indirect example of rich and poor. Let’s look at some more indirect examples. But note that the point of this article isn’t to list all of the hierarchies in this society – you can find many sorts of hierarchies dissected in other WSM material – but by way of illustrating the main ideas.

Men and Women

Consider men and women again. We are raised to take men more seriously than women, even when we aren’t overtly told ‘men are more important than women’ (life isn’t always so simple). We develop prejudices that men are smarter, funnier, and generally more competent. This brings to bear when you’re trying to get a job, but also in daily life. To take an example which is from the left as much as the workplace, a common occurrence is that a woman will suggest an idea at a meeting and be ignored, only for a man to repeat the same idea a while later to great acclaim. This inability to be heard is just one ‘small’ example of a relatively lack of power ‘to’. Or women are expected, consciously or unconsciously, to wash the cups and plates. Relatedly, women are brought up to be meek and ‘ladylike’ while men are brought up to be staunch and ‘manly’. The process often culminates with a man in the dominant position in a romantic relationship and the woman socialised to put up with it, for example with all sorts of misgivings about fidelity, lack of respect, effort around the home, and so on. Many of us like to pretend these phenomena don't exist, for somewhat understandable emotional reasons, but it is a form of hierarchy.

Notably, sexism in Ireland, unless it is codified in law such as our antediluvian abortion legislation, usually manifests as an informal hierarchy. Formal and informal hierarchies operate somewhat differently, the salient issue being to spot informal hierarchies because formal ones are much more obvious (though, due to indoctrination we often don't spot those either). Also, formal and informal hierarchies can blend together sometimes, where the formalised power bleeds into informal forms of influence. Ask yourself whether the next 3 sections describe informal or formal hierarchies, direct or indirect.

Citizenship and Race

In Ireland people fleeing war zones end up in detention camps called Direct Provision centres. They live in much worse conditions than the vast majority of the population and have much less freedom to live their lives (by working, going to school, even cooking) because they were born in the wrong place. That is a hierarchy between citizens and non-citizens, and also between white Europeans and brown and black people from the Middle East and Africa. If you look the wrong way in this country – as in, the ‘wrong’ race – white Irish people might think you’re mentally inferior or more likely to be a criminal. That is a hierarchy. But also Travellers are commonly looked down upon by settled people, and have been persecuted at the state level. That is another hierarchy.

Gender and Sexuality

We’ll look at three more examples because the point isn’t an exhaustive list of examples. We know there is inequality in Ireland between LGBTQ+ people and straight, cis, people. The Marriage Equality referendum in the south was part of addressing that, by removing a law which represented a formal sexual orientation hierarchy and by changing attitudes. Another example is that teachers aren’t protected by legislation on these matters and often have to pretend to be straight so not to be fired. The next one applies to trans people and lesbian, gay, and bi, people. Not being able to be yourself is a lack of power ‘to’. Trans people can be beaten off the street for dressing in a way that makes them comfortable. As a minority population without overwhelming popular support, cis people have a dangerous form of power ‘over’ trans people. The same is true of straight and LGB, but it isn’t as severe as it is for trans people today, broadly speaking.

The State and ‘Democracy’

The last example is the state. Anarchists are democrats. We want more democracy in society, and better democracy. Unfortunately what is usually called ‘democracy’ is more like a temporary oligarchy. Some of us elect a set of rulers, and then four years later we get the opportunity to elect a very slightly different set of rulers. We are then told how lucky we are to have this opportunity. This is a very obvious imbalance of power. We take it for granted, but why are a small group of strangers (e.g. 166 TDs in the Dáil, 90 MLAs in Stormont) allowed to decide what happens for the rest of us? We don’t even get to chime in as they make decisions. They have full discretion within the law. But the law itself is written by these ‘policy makers’. The result is many of us become deeply cynical, and might even write off politics as a whole as a phony game, a circus which has little meaning for the person on the street. We will return to this issue later.

Changing the World - Equality and Freedom

It should be clear by now that hierarchy is an active part of our society today in many forms. Whether at the workplace, by wealth, race, residency status, gender, sexuality, disability, age, religion, political office, or many other ways there wasn’t enough space to mention. It’s good to point out what’s wrong in the world, but the point is to change it. So what is the solution? What is the opposite of hierarchy?

Well it’s not too hard to see that the opposite of hierarchy is equality and freedom. If hierarchy is an imbalance of power, then we should be aiming for a balance of power between people. Rather than one person or group of people being able to control another, or one group of people having lots of control over their own lives and another group having little control, we should be aiming to level the playing field.

How to level that playing field is what the entire movement of anarchism is dedicated to, naturally something which cannot all be covered here. But a sketch will suffice. There are two ways to equalise a situation, for example two golden fields of corn. Method one is to cut away the corn which one field has in excess of the other. Method two is to find a way to improve the yield of the sparser crop, for instance through improved farming methods. Anarchism applies method two to politics and hence life in general, that is the goal is to lift up everyone so that a good life is the rule rather than exception, instead of merely dragging down those who enjoy the greatest prosperity at present.

Of course, some ludicrous levels of prosperity necessarily drags others down, for example the existence of millionaires and billionaires, who effectively are a drain in what is largely a zero-sum economic game in this system. But overwhelmingly the anarchist approach is to raise people up, to increase the widespread prevalance of power 'to' without power 'over' - a shift from competition to co-operation across all social domains. Humans can be equal in a meaningful way. While we are not each the exact same, we can work together to reasonably ensure a broad equality in the conditions of life. An equality of political input, of material access and control over production, of dignity. We should, and importantly could, each get the opportunity to shape our world the same as the person next to us, and have the space to express our own personalities freely. Critically, that is a free equality, rather than an artificial equality imposed by force from above, even if well-meaning.

Misery is Only Natural

Anarchists reject the very obvious hierarchies, like a king or queen ruling over their subjects. We don't recognise the titles of lords and baronesses, or ministers of the state. But we are consistent in our opposition to hierarchy, we oppose it across the board, even hierarchies which aren't immediately obvious. Unfortunately, hierarchies tend to be treated as 'natural' if they are even recognised at all. Just like the 'divine right of kings' justified monarchy, there have been a host of justifications given for the lower place of queer people, women, the mentally ill, migrants, and anyone treated unfairly. As history progresses, many of these reasons are debunked and we see past the prejudice. It's quite like the 'god of the gaps'. Church authorities told us that god had made the Earth and all the creatures on it. Then Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace showed that life evolved instead. So then the church authorities looked for another gap in our understanding to fill, such as the origin of the universe. This practice has a long history, for instance people believing the sun was a god.

As a species we can fall into a bad habit of assuming whatever exists socially right now is inevitable. Rather than accepting the hierarchies around us as ‘natural’, we should subject them to questioning. Why does that person get to tell the other what to do? Why does that person live with ease while the other doesn’t? Why does that person enjoy a higher status while another puts up with low status? If you continue this process of questioning with enough determination, the structure of society as it is will vanish in a puff of smoke. Men and women, citizen and non-citizen, queer and straight cis, in short, all people, can live without false divisions and the institutions which carve those divisions into stone.

While we don't want to return to our ancient past, the fact that Homo sapiens spent most of our history, tens or hundreds of thousands of years, in quite egalitarian tribes demonstrates easily that hierarchy is not an inescapable fact of human nature, but something which is brought in or out of existence according to how humans decide to structure our societies and how we decide to think of ourselves and each other.

This leads to the last issue to be discussed in this article. Removing hierarchies doesn’t mean disorder. In fact, these hierarchies can make our lives quite chaotic - war is clearest example of that, but so is domestic violence, poverty, and a list of other situations. Really, the task is to replace the order of hierarchy with the order of freedom. This idea has been long recognised in the phrase ‘anarchy is order’. That’s what the ‘Circle-A’ symbol means.Related image

The New Economic Order

To do away with hierarchy in its many harmful forms means organising society on different lines. In a word it is democracy, in two words it is democracy and freedom.

There is no need to have boss and employee. Rather, there should only be workers. Any administrative role the boss fulfilled can be taken over, and any commanding role the boss fulfilled can be replaced by rational co-ordination between workers, and elected temporary managers if required. Workplaces should be run as economic democracies, something which as it happens is not a sacrifice of efficiency. These enterprises would federate together in order to secure supply lines, distribute resources, and co-ordinate the production of things which require multiple inputs. They would be accountable to the wider community rather than being organisations with no social mission, isolated from the needs and wants of the population. Note that this is a new order, rather than a lack of order.

There is no need to have rich and poor. This division isn’t a fact of nature, it’s a fact of society. And facts of society can be changed. There is enough food, water, clothing, shelter, electricity, heating, and even internet, and entertainment, to go around everybody. A society which freed itself from the dogma of an arbitrary property regime, which not only unfairly apportions 'goods' and 'services' but in fact inhibits our technological potential to enhance existence, could provide a good life for everyone. People would contribute as best they could, and could partake of the social effort and bounty as they needed. No more homeless and billionaires. To put it crudely, everyone would be ‘middle class’, unlike today where almost everyone pretends to be ‘middle class’. Note again, a new order, rather than a lack of order.

The New Political and Social Order

Continuing in this democratic bent, we would have to substantially change the political system. To be blunt, politicians are quite useless. They make sure to be elected the next time and anything on top of that is a bonus for society. But this isn't always a problem of crooked self-promoters, indeed some politicians really want to make a difference. Rather our 'democracy' is no such thing, having been consciously designed to be an institution which does little for the masses. Luckily, it is not our only option apart from dictatorship. It is possible for us to enjoy a proper democracy, which begins at the local level, where we meet face-to-face, which brings the human element back to politics. Political life would be vibrant and participation widespread. People naturally want a say over their lives, and have an interest in the affairs of their community and wider world. The current miasma of apathy is predominantly due to the obvious disconnection between the populace and decision-making, but with the re-connection of people with politics it would become the popular pastime. It would be practical rather than a mocking game show for TV and the newspapers.

This direct, participatory, democracy would begin in our neighbourhoods, and for tasks that involve larger areas, we would delegate some people to take care of that. But these delegates would be more like administrators than politicians. The face-to-face neighbourhood assemblies would create policy, and their delegates would work according to a strict mandate, being recalled if they strayed too much from it. In this way, democracy could extend from the neighbourhood, to the district, to the region, to the province, to the country. Yet again, a new order, not a lack of order.

The citizen / non-citizen hierarchy would be eliminated by widening citizenship to everybody who lived in the country (in practice, anyone there for, say, a few months). Citizenship would be defined by residency, and would be an active political role, rather than a classifier of birthplace or race. People seeking refuge would be given refuge, and congratulated for surviving their hazardous journey. More ambitiously, we would eventually eliminate national borders which divide the human species unnecessarily, causing wars and needless competition.

People would compensate for the inequalities created by a history of hierarchy, with a view to looking past these differences entirely once the power balanced out. That is, balanced out in practice, not just on paper. People of all sexes, genders, sexualities, races, abilities, birthplaces, and ages, would for once in history be free and equal. That is to say, humanity rather than being only an ideal would have been created as a lived reality. A new order, not a lack of order.

For a Society without Hierarchy, Use Methods without Hierarchy

Let us complete our discussion by considering means. The above sketch is a very appealing vision of the future, where hierarchy has been displaced by freedom and equality. The question is how do we get there? There are two pitfalls to avoid, the first is creating something useless or even worse than what you began with, which this section will address, and the second is failing to achieve much at all, which the next section will address.

Anarchists make a big deal about the methods we use to achieve this positive social transformation. To those unfamiliar with anarchism and the ideas, it might seem a bit obsessive at first. But there are very good reasons. You only have to look at the USSR to see an example of a humanitarian project to transform society gone horribly wrong. Anarchists had predicted this for many years. The famous anarchist Michael Bakunin said roughly fifty years before the October Revolution of 1917 that if socialists attempted to force revolution from the top down by seizing control the state and issuing orders from there, the result would be a ‘red bureaucracy’ possibly worse than anything seen before. Indeed, the First International, a vigorous, popular, radical workers' confederation, was split by this question over state power. Oscar Wilde, of all people, put it well when we warned twenty five years after Bakunin that ‘if the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first'’.

Indeed this is a scenario that has played out with tragic regularity, even before the workers' movement, for instance in the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, but has more modern 'socialist' incarnations in China and Cuba today. Thus, anarchists try to replace hierarchy in society using methods which themselves aren’t hierarchical. It might seem like 'common sense'. If you want a democracy, be democratic now. If you want to be free and equal, treat each other as free equals now. In short, be aware of the link between the methods you use and the goal you are striving towards. This approach of non-hierarchical organising has come to be known by some as 'horizontal' methods of organising, drawing on a vertical metaphor for power where those above direct those below.

Anarchists don’t try to seize the state or other existing institutions because we don't want to just put another elite in power, even if that elite honestly thinks of itself as benevolent and enlightened. We try to convince the wider population of our ideas and encourage people to take an active role in shaping their future, especially by joining with others in campaign groups, community groups, and trade unions. The transformation we are working towards is one the WSM envisages being made by people at large, not by an elite of political masterminds. Though we do try to have an influence on things.

Organisation isn’t Hierarchy

As you will have noticed, anarchists do not oppose forming political parties. The WSM is one such ‘party’. But we are different from other parties. We try to signal this difference by calling ourselves an ‘organisation’ rather than a ‘party’. This is because we don’t run in elections or want to control the state at all. We don’t have a party leader, or a central committee of leaders. We are an organisation of equals. ‘Ordinary’ people attempting an extraordinary task.

But we are careful to not mistake organisation for hierarchy. The critique of hierarchy can careen in the opposite direction if misapplied, where a reasonable suspicion of authority develops into a paralysing condemnation of all but the most equal social relations in the most literal sense, an obsessive preoccupation which allows form to devour content. For some, this is the product of learning about anarchism through reading without engaging in political campaigning, an attitude which is often quickly rectified by experiencing the messiness of reality. Others turn this attitude into a fortified ideological position, where crude individualism is upheld as the foundational principle of anarchism.

Organisation is healthy, it is doing things systematically, accurately, coherently, and effectively. Hierarchy, on the contrary, is an imbalance of power. In fact, good organisation can help reduce what can sometimes be fairly insidious informal hierarchies within groups. As you no doubt have seen yourself, even in a group of friends and acquiantances where there are no formal leaders, there can still be an imbalance of power. Formal organisation and structure can help to correct those informal imbalances in a political group.

Consider the following example, which requires nuance in recognising what is hierarchy and what is mere organisation. In the WSM we have ‘officers’. These are people who are delegated by the membership to do certain administrative tasks. This makes our work run more smoothly because you know someone is responsible for doing the basics. We practice the same democracy we advocate for wider society. Directly recallable, mandated, delegates. We think this is the best balance between getting the job done and people having an equal say. Another important factor is that the officer roles are rotated. The same person can't hold one role for more than 3 years in a row, but usually they hold it for less. This is so that skills are spread around the group rather than a few people becoming administrative experts the rest have to depend on.

It would be easy to see the name 'national secretary' and conclude that the WSM has a formal leadership, and hence a formal hierarchy, like the president of a political party or the 'general secretary' of a trade union. But to do so would be to misunderstand what hierarchy is and why it is objectionable. Further, it smacks too much of the 'method one' discussed above, whereby two fields of corn are equalised by destroying one field's surplus, an approach which implies it is better to impair our effectiveness just in case there is the slightest, even if temporary, differentiation in responsibility, involvement, or ability.


This has been an overview of hierarchy, what it is and what it isn’t. Hierarchy is about power, the power ‘to’ do things, and the power ‘over’ others. These imbalances of power are numerous in our society, and they exist formally and informally, in direct ways and indirect ways. They exist not just in our economic system and political system, but in our interpersonal dealings. The opposite of hierarchy would be a balance of power. This is why anarchists seek to de-centralise power, to spread it across society rather than let it concentrate. Imbalances of power create the possibility of abusing that power. If people are equal, in this sense, then we will be much more likely to do right by each other. The big problem with institutionalised power imbalances is that no matter how nice a person is they end up hurting others by following the rules of the institution. The aim is a society of freedom and equality, characterised by democracy rather than aristocracy, respect rather than command. A world where each person has power 'to' but not power 'over'. That world is possible, and we can build it by studying our current situation, spotting the hierachies, and working to replace them with a better way of behaving: inclusion, co-operation, and dignity.