In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.
The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.
Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.
Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.
The anthropological record
Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.
David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.
In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.
Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.
So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.
The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.
With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.
Understanding the history of domination
The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.
Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.
Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.
None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.
For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.
In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.
Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.
We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.
Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.
Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.
Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.
From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.
Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.
And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.
Social ecology and our present crisis
Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.
Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.
The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.
The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.
If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.
Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.
If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.
Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.
What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?
We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.
Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.
Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.
This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.
The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev