Monday, February 18, 2008

Hierarchy is the Result of Dependency

This second essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, attempts to identify what causes and sustains hierarchies. Humanity has long been trapped in a cycle of treating the symptoms of hierarchy—here we will attempt to discern its cause in order to treat it directly.

The first installment in this series identified the reason why hierarchal human structures must grow: surplus production equals power, and entities across all scales must compete for this power—must grow—or they will be pushed aside by those who do. But why can’t human settlements simply exist as stable, sustainable entities? Why can’t a single family or a community simply decide to opt out of this system? The answer: because they are dependent on others to meet their basic needs, and must participate in the broader, hierarchal system in order to fulfill these needs. Dependency, then, is the lifeblood of hierarchy and growth.

Dependency Requires Participation on the Market’s Terms

Take, for example, a modern American suburbanite. Her list of dependencies is virtually unending: food, fuel for heat, fuel for transport, electricity, clothing, medical care, just to name a few. She has no meaningful level of self-sufficiency—without participation in hierarchy she would not survive. This relationship is hierarchal because she is subservient to the broader economy—she may have negotiating power with regard to what job she performs at what compensation for what firm, but she does not have negotiating power on the fundamental issue of participating in the market economy on its terms. She must participate to gain access to her fundamental needs—she is dependent (consider also Robert Anton Wilson's notion of money in civilization as "bio-surival tickets").

Compare this to the fundamentally similar situation of family in Lahore, Pakistan, or a farmer in rural Colombia. While their superficial existence and set of material possessions may be strikingly different, they share this common dependency. The Colombian farmer is dependent on a seed company and on revenue from his harvest to fuel his tractor, heat his home, and buy the 90% of his family's diet that he does not grow. The family in Lahore is dependent on the sales from their clothing store to purchase food—they cannot grow it themselves as they live in an apartment in a dense urban environment. They are dependent on participation in hierarchy—they cannot participate on their own terms and select for a stable and leisurely life. The market, as a result of competition between entities at all levels, functions to minimize input costs—if corn can be grown more cheaply in America and shipped to Colombia than it can be grown in Colombia, by a sufficient margin, then that will eventually happen. This requires the Colombian farmer to compete to make his corn as cheap as possible—i.e. to work as long and as hard to maximize his harvest. While if he were participating on his own terms, he may only wish to work 20 hours per week, he may have to work 50, 60, or more hours at hard labor to make enough money off competitively priced corn to be able meet the basic needs of his family in return. He is in competition with his neighbors and competing entities around the world to minimize the input cost of his own efforts—a poor proposition, and one that is forced upon him because he participates on the market’s terms, all a result of his dependency on the market to meet his basic needs. The situation of the family of shopkeepers in Pakistan or the Suburban knowledge-worker in America is fundamentally the same, even if it may vary on the surface.

The Blurring of Needs and Wants

Why not just drop out? It isn’t that tough to survive as a hermit, gather acorns, grow potatoes on a small plot of forest, or some other means of removing oneself from this dependency on the market. To begin with, “dropping out” and becoming self-sufficient is not quite as easy as it sounds, and just as importantly, it would become nearly impossible if any significant portion of the population chose that route. But more fundamentally, humans don’t want to drop out of participation in the market because they desire the enhanced consumption that is available—or at least exists in some far-off-promised land called “America” (fantasy even in the mind of most "Americans")—only through such participation. It may be possible to eat worms and acorns and sleep in the bushes, but this would be even more unacceptable than schlepping to work 40+ hours a week. Most people cannot envision, let alone implement, a system that maintains an acceptable “standard of living” without participation in the system, and all but the very lucky or brave few can’t figure out how to participate in that system without being dependent on it.

There is certainly a blurring of “needs” and “wants” in this dependency. Humans don’t “need” very much to remain alive, but a certain amount of discretionary consumption tends to increase the effectiveness of the human machine. From the perspective of the market, this is desirable, but is also an input cost that must be minimized. This is the fundamental problem of participating in the market, the economy, the “system” on its terms: the individual becomes nothing more than an input cost to be minimized in the competition between entities at a higher organizational level. John Robb recently explored this exact issue, but from the perspective of the local community--the implications are quite similar.

In an era of globalization, increased communications connectivity, and (despite the rising costs of energy) an ever increasing global trade network, this marginalization is accelerating at breakneck speed. Is your job something that can be done online from India? How about in person by an illegal immigrant? Because there are people with doctorates willing to work for ¼ what you make if you’re in a knowledge field, and people with high tolerance for mind-numbing, back-breaking labor willing to work hard for $5/hour or less right next door (or for $2/day overseas). If this doesn’t apply to you, you’re one of the lucky few (and, if I might add, you should be working to get yourself to into just such a position). Maybe they don’t know how to outsource your function yet, but trust me, someone is working on it. Participation in the market on its terms means that the market is trying to find a way to make your function cheaper.

This dependency on participation in the hierarchal system fuels the growth of hierarchy. Even if there is a severe depression or collapse, hierarchy will survive the demand destruction because it is necessary to produce and redistribute necessities to people who don’t or can’t produce them themselves. It may be smaller or less complex, but as long as people depend on participation in an outside system—whether that is a local strong man or an international commodities exchange—to gain access to basic necessities, the organization of that system will be hierarchal. And, as a hierarchy, that system will compete with other hierarchies to gain surplus, to grow, and to minimize the cost of human input.

Dependency on a Security Provider

One of the most significant areas in which people are dependent on hierarchal systems is to provide security. This seems to be especially true in times of volatility and change. While it may be possible to set up a fairly self-sufficient farm or commune and provide for one’s basic needs, this sufficiency must still be defended. If everyone doesn’t have access to the necessities that you produce for yourself, then there is potential for conflict. This could range from people willing to use violence to access to your food or water supply to governments or local strong-men expecting your participation in their tax scheme or ideological struggle. Ultimately, dependence on hierarchy is dependence on the blanket of security it provides, no matter how coercive or disagreeable it may be, and even if this security takes the form of “participation” in exchange for protection from the security provider itself.

Why this is Important

Virtually everyone is dependent on participation in hierarchal systems to meet their basic needs, of one type or another. This dependency forces participation, and drives the perpetual growth—and therefore the ultimate unsustainability—of hierarchy. If growth is the problem, then it is necessary to identify the root cause of that problem so that we may treat the problem itself, and not merely a set of symptoms. In our analysis, we have seen in Part 1 that hierarchies must grow, and now in this installment that human dependency is what sustains these hierarchies. Dependency, then, is the root cause of the problem of growth. In the next installment, we will develop a theory to remove dependency—and therefore to eliminate the growth imperative—while simultaneously maintaining, or improving, standard of living.

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Dan Bartlett said...

Interesting.. I was just re-reading the Bio-survival chapter of Prometheus Rising last night, where R.A.W. talks about bio-survival tickets. He's spot on in his analysis of bio-survival tickets (money) replacing the tribe which used to provide bio-survival security for all members. I wish he'd taken this point further--he'd have developed the same critique you're now outlining, and seen local communities as a vital part of our future. I guess he does allude to critiques of hierarchy in other sections, specifically SNAFU.

Of course this dependency is hard to get people to see beyond. We feel threatened whenever anyone questions taking day-to-day dependency back into our own hands. I think mental liberation from never-ending growth has to come first, to prevent reflexive panics. If this isn't done smoothly and carefully, most theories of decentralisation and future autonomy are destined to be met with the same fear of losing the teat.

Jeff Vail said...

Robert Anton Wilson was what I call a "Roddenberry" (after the Star Trek creator)--a believer that technology would solve our problems if only we could get government out of the way of radical new solution. I like to think that, if he had come of age in the present, he would have realized the empty promise of "high" technology as a solution. None-the-less, I like to think of my theory of Rhizome as a direct extension of his thinking--he recognized the structural nature of the problem, but I don't think he was ever able to take the next step to directly address that structural problem. I think he felt that "high" technology would eventually liberate the individual, whereas I think that technology--while arguably neutral--serves mostly to calcify the dependency of the individual on the power structure. Maybe his reality tunnel was too calcified around SMI2LE (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension).

Anyway, I think that a standard "early adopter" curve will work to help people begin to realize the problem of dependency and to see beyond it. Some people will be able to do so early on (and within the conscious context of eliminating dependency & shifting away from hierarchy), and, increasingly, others will see their happiness and success and gain the courage to follow suit--especially as the situation within the "system" deteriorates for the average person even further. I don't think we can achieve mass mental liberation from this system, but I do think that a network can gradually emerge that stands as a viable alternative. But more on that notion in the remainder of this series...

Theo_musher said...

I'm really enjoying this serries.

A couple thoughts-
Could the growth imperitave be looked at teleologically? With the goal of space colinization? Seriously. Going Back to RAW and the idea of...whatever circuit that was... associated with knowledge of Gaia...the Earth Mother's collective intelligence. Could there be a purpose behind this? We all can see the bad things glaring at us that this continuous growth has caused. "McWorld" its been called. But what about the good things?

Are there good things? Has there been a "positive" evolution in any cultural sense?

I mean does this race to create regimes that produce the most growth "bring out the best" in any way?
Competition is somthing nature uses for evolution.

But if spreading this growth out into space is not the goal, I don't know what is. Outside of that its meaningless and purposeless. Or maybe its a cycle. never meant to be sustainable. Just somthing that lasts for a limited span of time, like the dinosaurs and is replaced with somthing else.

Now this other thought.

Theo_musher said...

The other thought is just an observation. I am fascinated by inuit (eskimos) and the Athabascan indians of Alaska. truly non hierarchical cultures. Hunting tribes that historically ate a nearly 100% meat diet.

To be brought into the cash economy of the Hudson Bay company, they basically had to be turned into addicts. First tea, then tobacco and whiskey.

The subsistence hunting turned to trapping for guns tea, tobacco and liquor. Without these addictive substances they would have remained totally independant and self sufficient in their arctic environment.

underscores your point.

Theo_musher said...

I am sure the best hunters had better social standing, but why did it not turn into this continuous growth cycle? Could it be because meat spoils?

unlike Grain? probably that is what it is. The surplus only lasts so long. So less long term power. The best hunter one year may not be the best hunter the next.

Colin Wright said...

Is hierarchy really the result of dependency? I think a nuanced feminist analysis would throw doubt on this thesis.

Consider the mother-child relationship and the "hierarchy" that results from the infant's dependency. Does the mother dominate in the way, say, an abusive husband or manager does? These are very different types of human interactions that are being subsumed under a generalized "hierarchy".

Could the fear of "dependency" be rooted in the masculinist (and individualist) tendency to eschew close and intimate relationship?

Rice Farmer said...

Fascinating, Jeff, and I look forward to the following installments.

I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this, but the dependence on hierarchy for security is like a massive protection racket. And especially now, with the worldwide shift toward fascism, it becomes even more apparent because we are being told that we must give up our freedoms and privacy in order that hierarchy protect us from "terrorists." So our freedoms and privacy are in a way being exacted as "protection money."

Dan Bartlett said...

"Could the growth imperitave be looked at teleologically? With the goal of space colinization? Seriously."

Leary thought so. I don't really see it happening. Leary's SMI2LE is Space Migration, Intelligence Intensification and Life Extension. L.E. is not something that technology can just allow, it requires people to get off their asses and take a hold of their lives. Technology should not be a replacement for responsible living. I agree with Leary that we've undergone I.I., and that there's more coming if we can use what we know. As for S.M., it just seems a bad idea at the moment. We're not close to living in harmony with one planet, so what are we gonna do with the rest? And who's going to have access to all this neat space stuff? Only the rich elite.

I think both sides of the conventional argument (growth vs. anti-growth) have it too black and white. The last 10,000 years of growth have given us a lot of great things, not just materially, but in terms of human development. For those of us who have actually taken the time to work on ourselves: we have a much higher level of awareness than our ancestors, we can see beyond our reality-tunnels, we understand a lot more of the human bodymind, we're better at getting along with each other without random murders and violence etc.

I think the problem is the framework that growth-at-all-costs pushes these human innovations into. In the end, in our current phase, growth still comes before any human goal.

"Has there been a "positive" evolution in any cultural sense?"

I think so. Despite the fact that the growth imperative has funneled all our energy into growth at all costs, I think we've learned a lot underneath the relentless crushing progress. Where our ancestors would go insane through outside contact, we can deal with it easily. And now we have neuroscience, energy medicine, lots of great psychological models, vast systems of mind-body techniques (yoga's, spiritual paths, magick etc.) Best of all, these things can be given and shared with all, so that we can all experience what the shaman once had sole access to.

I see the future as taking all of these great advances and placing them into a framework that won't funnel all energy into growth. It should go without saying that this is a monumental task! I think complex hierarchal societies will power-down slightly but they will continue to hold a lot of power in the coming centuries. In the meantime, rhizomatic networks can spread and blossom underneath their radars...

Jeff Vail said...

I think the feminist argument--that hierarchy is not the result of dependency because the mother-child relationship doesn't create such hierarchy--is an important point to address. I should start with my belief that there is no need to eliminate hierarchy, but rather to bring it back into balance. For that reason, self-sufficiency isn't necessary or even desirable at the individual level, but rather at the level of the familiy node--something that I will get into in detail in the next essay. The familiy node--to include the mother-child relationship--does not accrete into massive memetic hierarchy (modern industrial civilization) because it is grounded in genes, not memes. Rather than always increasing (child becoming ever more dependent on mother), it embodies an genetic feedback cycle that reduces hierarchy--as the child grows, it becomes less necessarily dependent on its mother for survival. This notion--that hierachy must be addressed by creating negative-feedback institutions to reduce its excesses--is another topic that will address later. So the hierarchy present between mother and child and the kind of hierarchy present in modern civilization are fundamentally different--one is self-regulating, self-reducing, and has shown itself to be compatible with stable group organizations over an evolutionary time frame, and the other is the exact opposite of those things.

This is not to say that there isn't also an interesting problem to be addressed in family psychology, matriarchy/patriarchy, matrilocality/patrilocality, matrilineality/patrilineality, etc., but I don't think these concerns undermine the basic theory that hierarchy (from a civilizational perspective) is caused by dependency. I'm tempted to say that the key difference is the genetic vs. memetic natures of the hierarchies, but I haven't though that one through enough yet to feel confident in it--thoughts?

Dan Bartlett said...

I'm not too fond of genetic-memetic distinctions but from an information standpoint your comment also stands true. Primitive nervous systems operate in hierarchies because hierarchy is effective for maintaining social order in certain animals, and because it filters information in simple and non-overwhelming ways.

New-born humans are neurological blank slates, and so some form of one-way information flow and "hierarchy" makes good sense, and benefits the child by, as you say, providing a platform of autonomy to develop. When the learning reaches a certain stage, the hierarchy is no longer necessary (it was just a means to an different end), and the family and larger community interacts in an egalitarian reciprocal fashion.

Theo_musher said...


have you read "the Blank Slate" by Pinker? I wouldn't be so sure about that-about children being "neurological blank slates."

They have some pretty innate behaviors that allow them to pick up language really quickly. Its an innate type of logic that children have.

As far as hierarchy vs mothr child relationships-I think in a way civilization, as it intensifies infantilizes people, but outside of that structure, its as Jeff said, children become more independant over time as the relationship runs its natural course.

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Dan Bartlett said...

I knew as soon as I wrote "blank slate" that someone would mention that book! It's on my to-read list, even though it looks massive, long-winded and over-bloated. I only really used it as a loose term. Of course genetics, biology and hereditary elements create certain patterns in a growing child, but overall I don't think (in my current level of awareness/ignorance) that these traits can begin to compare to the changes created by different imprints/environments/individual attitudes to life.

And I certainly agree that "civilization, as it intensifies infantilizes people"

Colin Wright said...

I certainly think "dependency" is unhealthy (babes aside!) and contributes to the growth and staying power of "hierarchy". But I'm not so sure it's the root cause.

Here's another angle. Michael Shermer was recently arguing (in January's Scientific America)that trade between hunter-gatherer tribes was a mechanism that evolved to reduce warfare. That is, trading and reciprocating formed networks that strengthened communities and opened pathways to conflict resolution. So, if true, then inter-dependency acts against the hierarchy that might say my tribe is better than yours.

Likewise, within the group, peaceful relations and network-building -- are enhanced by a sort of inter-dependency. (I'm thinking of primate grooming as an example. Or the reason that individuals remain in primate groups, rather than going off alone.) There is negative-feedback that acts against rigid hierarchies forming, as Jeff might say.

So another way to frame the question of where hierarchy comes from is to ask how did inter-dependency devolve into a (childish!) dependency.

In my way of thinking about these things anyway. So, for me, autonomy at the community, family or individual level is not to be desired. Rather, explicating and expanding our connectedness is a more fruitful direction to persue.

In addition to "eliminating dependency", and diffusing hierarchy, of course! I await what Jeff has to say in his next essay.

Jeff Vail said...

I think you raise a very interesting point. When I say that dependency is dangerous, that is not to say that interaction is also dangerous. To the contrary, I agree with what you're saying that consciously styled interactions between parties not only serves to leverage economies of place or scale in the kind of "luxury" products (defined merely as not necessary to survival) that can raise our standard of living. This interaction can also open channels of communication. However, I think it's important to draw a line where you MUST trade in order to meet your basic needs. This is dependency, as contrasted with interaction in general. Theoretically, if you could keep this dependency precisely balanced among multiple mutually dependent parties, there would be no danger of the accretion of hierarchy and an external control mechanism. However, history suggests (at least to me) that this is a far greater information processing and coordination problem than we seem capable of achieving in anything other than very isolated exceptions. While I haven't read the SciAm article, my understanding of trade among hunter-gather tribes was mostly for ceremonial items, better tool-making materials, or other items that, while useful, could certainly be dispensed with if the cost was too high. Contrast this to a society that MUST trade to meet its basic caloric requirements. So, while I think that interaction, to include trade, is highly desirable, I think that the benefits of the activity ONLY outweigh the structural drawbacks if interaction is done from a position of strength--a position where the benefit gained though exchange is nice, but not necessary. More on the specifics of this next time. So, if you define autonomy as isolation, then I agree that it is not desired at the individual or community level. However, I maintain that "minimal self-sufficiency" IS a necessity either the individual or community level, and certainly better if it's both. I think that any move away from this position of strength is a result of the temptation of greater or more varied material consumption coming at the expense of freedom in the long term--something that inevitably leads right back to hierarchy and its inherent unsustainability.

Anonymous said...

Marvin Harris dealt with these topics with what he called "cultural materialism." I don't see anything in these articles for which Harris does not give a superior explanation.

Jeff Vail said...

I've read many of the works of Marvin Harris, though I would doubt anyone who said they had read everything by the man as his writings were so extensive. If one could summarize my first two essays in this series as proposing that 1) hierarchy must grow, and is therefore unsustainable, and 2) dependency is the root of hierarchy, then I'm not sure where you're linking this analysis to Harris. Perhaps you had a different impression of what I was saying, but given my own summary above, I don't think Harris ever suggested either of those two points--certainly not in any of his more popular works that I have read (perhaps in a more obscure paper?). If you have a quotation that you could provide, along with book and page, I will certainly follow up (seriously, I would be very interested), but otherwise I think you're quite mistaken in your critique. If you just think my writing is bad and/or wrong, that's different and certainly a reasonable opinion, but if you think Harris has already said this, then I think you're simply mistaken. It also helps if you sign your name to a comment rather than post something as "anonymous"--that unwillingness to link your name with your commentary undermines your credibility greatly in my eyes, especially when you provide no sources for your critique.

Paula said...

Jeff -- out of curiosity, how did you come to decide that dependency causes hierarchy, and not vice versa?

In recent days I've been tracking down information about Naomi Klein's book "Disaster Capitalism." I haven't read it but in the various interviews and such she makes a very compelling case that capitalism -- a.k.a. hierarchical market dependency -- opportunistically swoops in and imposes itself amidst chaos wherever it can; that, in fact, it could not spread in any other way precisely because people defend the egalitarian aspects of their societies against it in all other situations.

The process of "disaster capitalism" isn't so different from anthropological accounts of the founding of civilization, arguably the beginning of hierarchical market dependency itself.

I'm personally inclined to think that hierarchy came first, creating the dependencies in order to entrench itself. It seems a lot easier to imagine a few greedy people who opportunistically grab what they can of power and control to set themselves up at the top of a hierarchy, than it is to imagine all the people at the bottom of the as-yet-nonexistent pyramid spontaneously and creating the conditions of their own enslavement.

Jeff Vail said...


I think it's certainly a chicken and egg situation. I think that hierarchy, as it already exists, perpetuates and creates dependency, but that, in the absence of hierarchy, dependency would create it--I can see the argument going either way. The reason that I focus on dependency is that is the point where I think the individual or community can best affect the cycle. While hierarchy is the obvious cause of so many of today's problems (at least between hierarchy and dependency), neither the community, nor especially the individual, can realistically say "I'm going to get rid of hierarchy." The individual and community can realistically (as I'll argue in the next few essays) get rid of dependency, however, and in doing can reduce the control of hierarchy.

Paula said...

I see, that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

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delbert said...

Perhaps "hierarchy" is simply an outmoded term due to its incapacity to describe relationships in a sufficiently holistic way. I prefer the term "holarchy" which Arthur Koestler coined and philosopher, Ken Wilber, more recently uses. It seems to capture the spirit of Nature's influence on order in it's broadest sense. We are all both Part and Whole simultaneously in this world.
Looking towards nature for insight (as with your rhizome metaphor), i think, is the best way to rethink and reinvent the models we use to describe and thereby understand our patterns. The word Holarchy contains acknowledgment of nature's program as per how all things emerge as self-organizing entities. It also sparks thoughts of Sheldrake's(?) Holographic Universe.
Regarding Colin's point about mother/child relationship, i would say they are co-dependent. If you look over the course of the mother and child's relationship from birth to death (as a whole) they both give and take and need from one another. It is ideally reciprocal and not one sided in a "normal" healthy bond-for-life. It may at some points fall on the authoritative, hierarchical side of the coin, but time often flips that coin. My point only being, really, is perhaps we need to adopt a word that better encompasses healthy power structures rather than the one-sided variety.
I hope this comment isn't way left field; i've just read this blog for the first time and haven't explored all the references discussed, but appreciate that it got my rusty gears turning. Thanks!

delbert said...

whoops, it was Bohm (along with others) not Sheldrake...