Interrogating Hierarchies: An Experiment

Most anarchists agree that temporary and consensual hierarchies are useful. We are willing to let someone facilitate a meeting or teach us a new skill; what we do not allow is hierarchies based on identity or social position. White men taking up more space than everyone else?? Anarchists don’t deal with that, thankfully. Um, wait… that frustratingly does happen, a lot. Despite good intentions all around, some people in anarchist spaces appear to have, and act as if they have, more influence than others. Some people in anarchist spaces seem to push their own ideas through, even if they say they are interested in everyone’s ideas. Despite our ideology, non-temporary, non-consensual hierarchies do often emerge in anarchist spaces, and have negative impact when they do.

Individuals who grow up in hierarchical environments (that’s basically all of us) are sensitive to indicators of power such as physical strength, vocal tone, eye contact, body language, unyieldingness (i.e., not giving up the floor when asked), and the amount of time spent talking compared to others. Many of these indicators are transmitted and received unconsciously. Even though we don’t intellectually agree with the idea that a commanding tone of voice actually means someone has legitimate authority, we may behave as if that is the case. By the time we notice that a hierarchy has emerged, its effects may have already been felt, and it may be difficult to interrupt. The proposed experiment is designed to interrogate such assumed, automatic hierarchies (not the temporary, deliberate, consensual kind that are useful for organizing and action).

Interrogating hierarchies in a low-stakes, “fun” setting (like this weird experiment) may give us more tools for when the stakes are higher (like in a general assembly or a demo). In short, practice may be important here. Every new skill requires practice to master. Noticing, reflecting on, and speaking to automatic hierarchies are all skills which might be developed over time, through practice.

If many folks in a given collective practiced interrogating hierarchies, it might reduce the need for callouts. “Calling out” someone is currently the primary way we deal with displays of hierarchical behavior that no one consented to. A callout can be a very effective intervention: it can save time, correct an immediate problem, or get a meeting back on track. The proposed experiment is not anti-callout. Instead, it tries to create more awareness of automatic processes so that individuals can recognize and address their own behavior before they get called out. If it really works, an experiment like this could lead to a more resilient, trusting, high-functioning anarchist community.

What would it look like to experimentally interrogate hierarchies? Here is one possible format:

• A group of people meets together for an agreed-upon amount of time (say, 2.5 hours).

• The group begins by assuming that everyone has the same amount of power, but that each individual has been conditioned to assume more or less power than they actually have. The group brainstorms what it would look like if everyone in the group behaved as if they possessed the same amount of power (which they’ve agreed that they actually do). They might ask, “If we were able to relate to each other truly non-hiearchically right now…”

o What behaviors would we notice, as a group?
o What would someone observing from the outside notice about the group?
o What are some new things the group would be able to do?
o What are some old things the group might stop doing?

• The group then identifies specific behaviors that are likely contributing to hierarchical patterns within the group. (Examples: “I notice this person has been speaking a lot, whereas this person has not spoken yet” or “I wonder if fear of doing it wrong is making it hard for us to take risks?”) The premise for the purposes of the experiment is that the entire group takes ownership of the hierarchical patterns in the group. Even though the work may be harder and/or less intuitive for some participants than it is for others, the goal is not to make any one person an exclusive focus of the group’s energy (unless some extreme circumstance necessitates that).

o The group does not need to identify all the contributing behaviors. Social hierarchies are dense, opaque systems made up of layered micro-behaviors. Something as minor as an audible breath or the darting of one’s eyes may be a contributing behavior. The group should grapple with this and determine how perceptive they will try to be.

• Individuals then reflect on their own behavior and state to the group what they think they are doing or not doing that is contributing to hierarchical patterns. Example: “I think I am probably interrupting more than I intend to” or “I notice that I tend to check people’s faces before I speak—is that overly deferential, or is that good practice?”

• The group then decides on ways to signal when someone is behaving in a way they believe contributes to a hierarchical pattern. (Example: “When we notice one of the behaviors we’ve discussed we will raise our hand, wait for the group to listen, give a short description of what we just observed, and then decide together if it is.”)

• With these guidelines in place, the group then undertakes some task together, such as discussing a reading, playing a board game, doing physical labor together, etc.

o If a significant amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes) goes by without any signals being given, the group stops to trouble-shoot this.

 Are the target behaviors present but no one is signaling? How can participants be more emboldened to signal?
 Are the target behaviors absent? The group may wish to set their “sensitivity level” a bit higher to get the most benefit out of the experiment.

o It should not be considered a success if, in a first experiment of this kind, the group is able to complete an entire task with zero signals being given. It may be considered a success if multiple such meetings result in a zero-signal result, over time (because that would indicate that learning has occurred).

• At the completion of the task, or the end of the agreed-upon amount of time, the group discusses the experiment. They identify what was harder and what was easier than they expected. They celebrate exciting or interesting moments they observed. They spend some time thinking about if and how to apply some of this practice to other aspects of their lives. They decide if they want to do the experiment again in the future, and under what conditions (With the same people? Different people? Different task? etc.).

• Questions: 1) Would this be useful for anarchist groups? Would the experiment translate into any noticeable difference in levels of awareness or problematic behaviors? 2) Will it be difficult to get folks to participate in something like this?

Hierarchy in the anarchist sense is when some people have the command authority to tell others what to do. Particularly if it's backed by force/violence or material rewards. There's lots of examples of these real hierarchies all over today's society. Workplaces. Pigs. ICE. Prisons. Schools. Compulsory healthcare. Authoritarian families. Bureaucratic systems. Armies. Planning and zoning authorities. Mental hospitals. Borders. Welfare bureaucrats running workfare schemes. Political parties. Landlords. Courts. Congress. And yes, traditional patriarchal relationships usually involve a command relationship. So does police persecution of black people. So does deportation.

Notice how pervasive these real hierarchies are in today's world, and how hard they are to escape. You don't need to go looking for indirect effects and discursive constructs to find them.

Now, notice how rare they are in anarchist spaces (except when pigs try to smash them). Notice how rare and valuable this is.

And then ask yourself if you really want to ruin this important victory so as to fight your war against “problematic behaviors”.

If you don't have command hierarchies, people will act on their desires and personalities. Of course there will be a huge range of variation. Some of this variation will be socially patterned. If you want spaces without command hierarchies, you need to tolerate that. Someone talking too much, not listening to someone/anyone else, calling people rude names, saying something that belittles others, being individually prejudiced (without actually discriminating), or committing so-called microaggressions is not an instance of a hierarchy. They might (and might not) mean someone's an asshole, they might mean you'd rather not work with them, but as long as you can tell them to fuck off, it's not a hierarchy. And what's more, it just means *they* are hard to work with, it doesn't mean anything about the groups they belong to. Unequal patterning of non-compulsory roles in a situation where people are not coerced is not a hierarchy within the space (though it might be an effect of other hierarchies outside the space). And people are bound to have different knowledges and abilities and traits. If someone else knows more about boat-building than I do, and that means they can build a boat and I can't, that's not a hierarchy. It only becomes a hierarchy if they force me to have a boat, won't let me learn how to build one, force me to go to their workshops, or somehow make me structurally dependent on their boat-building monopoly. Someone having more influence than someone else, is also not a command hierarchy. They're exercising more influence with others' active participation or consent or at least their passive tolerance, without overriding others' autonomy. Discursive “space” is not finite and so cannot be “taken up”. Someone unhappy with one affinity group can create another affinity group. Something isn't “non-consensual” just because someone else doesn't agree with it. It's only “non-consensual” if they force you to go along with it.

Postmodernist liberalism has imported weird distorted views of hierarchy which are actually excuses for command authority. They take the fact that some people have turned out louder, smarter, cockier, more assertive, more self-confident, and other such personality traits as instances of hierarchy. But personality-formation is both complex and sticky. There's all kinds of causal factors which might go into forming people's personalities. Gender stereotypes and so-called “conditioning” might be part of this. But so too are early childhood experiences and resultant personality-structures, individual traumas, affinities and desires and resonances, how they've experienced other social spaces, abuse and mistreatment at an individual level, etc. People generally don't have much control over their “tone”, how much “space” they're taking, whether they're loud or quiet, etc. The only way to regulate this kind of thing is for everyone to be constantly self-conscious and exercise strong self-control – while also excluding anyone who can't or won't. And many of those who can't or won't, are themselves highly marginalised people.

But postmodernist liberalism wants to reduce all of this to macro-scale social hierarchies which are observable at an aggregate statistical level. The consequence of this argument is visible all the way back with “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. To eliminate these kinds of “hierarchies”, the liberals substitute command hierarchies with sufficient power to ensure an equal distribution of roles and the egalitarian distribution of discursive “space”.

This proposed method is utterly behaviorist (i.e. reactionary) in its foundations. It assumes people have control over their “behavior” and does not use a concept of the unconscious. It assumes that a general script of good behavior can be formulated and applied to everyone – it does not recognise psychological or personality difference as legitimate. It does not recognise that so-called “behavior” stems from deep personality-structures and structures of affect/feeling which are difficult to shift and which, most often, provide the motive for being part of the group to begin with. It does not recognise the basic fact that, when we start fucking around with our own or other people's tenuously balanced personalities, we open up a whole world of complicated emotional shit that we've no idea how to deal with.

If we really want to get into personality formation, we need to start with basic anarchist psychoanalysis – Reich, Laing, Guattari. We should not be looking at “behaviors” or “patterns” at all. We should not speak as if individuals are ciphers for social structures or are secretly trying to accumulate power. We should assume that people are complex bundles of desires and flows which adopted a relatively fixed form in early childhood, and seek to create as much equality as we can amongst these complex bundles (without trying to conform them to outer rules or guidelines). People are acting unconsciously most of the time, and trying to act reflexively most of the time is intolerably stressful and painful for most people. We should also assume that the main task of anarchist psychology is disinhibition, not self-change or “recognising and eliminating problematic behaviors”. And we should look at whether there are structures in which differences in personality do not lead to hierarchical divisions.

I am not malleable.

Often, I have no idea why I do what I do. Others have even less idea.

Other people have no idea if something they want me to change is actually changeable or not.

Other people (and often myself) have no idea if my trying to change something they want me to change will work.

Other people (and often myself) have no idea what can of worms will be thrown open if I or they start messing with the fragile personality-structures which barely hold together the mess of flows and resonances that I am.

The method of behavior modification reeks of cybernetic and Taylorist systems. The idpol image of humans as products of an oppressive order who can and must purge ourselves of the internalised effects of this order reeks of the old Puritan or gnostic idea that the flesh is a site of sin, created by the Devil, to be suppressed and overcome by the higher, divine part of the self.

Anarchism is antinomianism, not Puritanism.

People are messy. We don't understand ourselves. We don't understand one another. We aren't machines to be reprogrammed through systems of behavioral Taylorism.

Trying to constantly watch myself for this or that “problematic behavior” is far too draining. Already creaking under the weight of fighting an authoritarian society, I don't have the stress-handling capacity for it. And the energy I have is better spent fighting the system instead of fighting myself.

I doubt that I'm alone in this.

The entire process creates a new hierarchy, between those who are best able to regulate their “behavior” and implement the “guidelines”, and those who are less able or not able to do so. This hierarchy also reproduces the centuries-old bourgeois “civilising process” (see Elias) and privileges those with more flexibility, more self-regulation and self-control, more capacity to self-observe, greater available energy (“spoons”), more stable personality-structures, and greater capacity to absorb stress. This typically means that white, male, psychologically “normal”, non-traumatised, non-overworked, middle-class people will be the most able to comply with the guidelines. The guidelines will therefore reproduce rather than overcome these kinds of “hierarchies”.

Ironing out human personality into a flat monotone of mediocre Third Way self-regulation and smooth communication to eliminate “hierarchies” arising from personality differences (whatever the origins of these differences) is bound to do far more harm than good.

If we create band-like structures, fused groups, moments of liminal experience when categories break down, then we can suspend hierarchies and create more horizontal ways of relating. These methods are effective because they work on an unconscious level. They aren't a perfect fix, but they're the best available. Look at Hakim Bey's discussions of altered consciousness for example. Once someone has reconstituted themselves as a free ego, they shouldn't feel any need either to dominate or to submit.

Otherwise, the first step is to destroy command hierarchies. Other so-called hierarchies will hopefully disappear gradually after that, as the structures which produce them and the psychological functions they perform are no longer present.

The system is distracting us from fighting against it by making us fight one another – and also by making us fight against ourselves, in an endless struggle for “lifelong learning” and self-change.

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