Saturday, December 16, 2017

Hierarchy and Abyss

If I am sliding uncontrollably down a steep embankment headed for a cliff, I won't look for a ladder. I'll flail and clutch for anything--animal, vegetable, or mineral--to get hold of and arrest the fall.

Unanchored as we are in this epoch, falling toward some unknowable abyss, disoriented, this is how most of us scrabble for moral guidelines. When we find something we can cling to, we hang on for dear life. That's kind of where some folks have gone with the concept of hierarchy.

I've decided that I "oppose hierarchy," that is, the slender branch onto which I am hanging above the moral abyss is this equation: hierarchy=wrong. Easy. Like remembering a phone number.

This equation resonates with any and all forms of rebellion--from still wanting to shock my parents to organizing against police violence. But we all intuit how wanting to shock your parents (even when you are like 50 years old) is morally-vacuous, whereas organizing against police violence is morally-motivated.

In the same way, we need to draw out some nuances about "hierarchy" that might be more than emergency handholds on the perilous slopes of today's late capitalist ravine of moral anarchy. You can't hang onto that little branch forever. You'll be needing to look up and begin to identify the handholds and footholds that will lead you back to safety.

One could reasonably defend the assertion that human beings are inherently hierarchic from an anthropological standpoint, if for no other reasons than our prolonged infant dependency and our uniquely mimetic way of learning. Okay, what's hierarchy?

There is a baby here and some bathwater.

Speaking of babies and infant dependency and such, what about "growing up"? Modern taxonomy: "development." Maturation as an ongoing process. Does anyone doubt that we can't just bebop on our own through the first through years of life, and that our survival pretty much depends on an effective hierarchy of authority between oneself and those who have taken responsibility for children, however defined? But hierarchy of authority--that is, a hierarchy within a particular practice that is based on capability in that practice--is not the same as hierarchy of value.

It doesn't even have to be child-rearing as a practice. If you are drawing up a will, you will want a lawyer. If you're pipes break, you'll be looking for a plumber. If you want a haircut you go to a trained haircutter. If you want to learn judo, you go to a qualified judo instructor. There is a built-in master-apprentice hierarchy in any practice, but the basis of that hierarchy--which allows and accepts a supervisory status within that practice to maintain the quality of the practice and varying degrees of standards-based excellence by practitioners--is skilled authority, not some outside status.

You might play chess, or fly airplanes, or repair clothing, or shoot pool, or watch birds. And each recognizes degrees of mastery within the practice, which gives practitioners themselves something to aim for--a telos, if that's alright. The learning is by emulating the masters. This, like kids who learn by watching their parents, is mimetic. Not merely imitation, but a very complex form of cognitive mapping that humans do as part of their socialization everywhere.

Given that practices of various kinds, transculturally and transhistorically, are inevitable in any social group of human creatures, and that those practices can be said to achieve continuity through this mimetic process, the hierarchies inhering in each practice are necessarily particular to that practice, and do not necessarily translate into authority in other practices. This kind of hierarchy, a hierarchy of authority based on excellence in a practice.

We immediately think, wait, authority can be abused! And hos could we not? But let's set that aside for a tick, then revisit it.

We already conceded that--even if you agree that "hierarchy=wrong" is problematic--a hierarchy of value is not synonymous with hierarchy of authority.

A hierarchy of authority is when the most experienced cook runs the kitchen. A hierarchy of value is when one person is counted as less deserving of respect. And we reflexively believe that it would be wrong in principle somehow that just because you are the supervisor you are to be valued as a person more than the persons you supervise.

Back now to abuse and corruption. Isn't that where they begin in a way?

And then there is a declension. The hierarchy of authority is attached to a hierarchy of value . . . bad enough, I mean, abuse! right?. . . is the hierarchy of authority is the hierarchy of value is the hierarchy of authority; and with each successive iteration authority is moved by the self-serving hierarchy of value further and further from any form of excellence. It is a recipe for the successive degradation of the practice and the authority. Look at what passes now for leadership in today's world.

"Corruption" is a fine word for this, given its association with post-mortem decay.

This detachment of value from authority has a history for us, one that begins with Jesus. Because in the world of first century Palestine, people were absolutely socialized to believe that hierarchy of authority and value were always co-located in the same persons. The lower you were on the social hierarchy, the more expendable you were as a person. Then the shabby little rabbi from the backwater of Nazareth began a scandalous campaign to sever this supposedly meritocratic association with the claim that we are all loved equally by God . . . even taking a step further with a preferential option for those who are left behind by this association--poor people, physically handicapped people, women, eunuchs, lepers, reprobates.

Then Christians, re-forged with each phase of legitimation and institutionalization, lost the distinction again, and this newfound freedom and equality that had smashed the boundary walls of custom and respectability was corralled again by corrupt authority, by authority that resided in a position rather than a practice and which thereby was inevitably separated from excellence in practice, becoming--as is our post-lapsarian tendency to do--self-serving. And so Christianity (the institution) became perverse.

And so we have been defamiliarized with any distinction between authority/excellence and value as a person by a culture that has reinscribed this pseudo-authority as a meritocratic narrative. We've become pagans who dress up like Christians, almost as a form of mockery.

And why not? It is an idea worthy of ridicule, no? That someone who can't follow the rules and prosper through conformity should be given the same value as someone who achieves things, who succeeds. I'd stick an ironic crown of thorns on that and laugh all the way to Golgotha.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings again, Stan; it's been some many years since last we spoke. I read of your book with great interest, and wonder if you'd be interested in a return visit to the show to discuss this, and other matters of the imperial moment?

    Gorilla Radio airs live every Thursday between 11-Noon pacific time, and consists of two 22 minute interview segments, plus features. There are no call-ins, or commercial breaks. I currently have openings throughout January and beyond.

    Please let me know if you're interested, I can be best reached at And, please too see below for more info. on the show.


    GR 02-79 CFUV 101.9 FM 104.3 Cable ''

    Monday, November 22, 2004

    5:00:00 2:00 Welcome to GR, etc. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has offered many different reasons for America's war against Iraq; all have been attempts to justify actions repeatedly described as illegal by any measure of international, or American domestic law. That none of these have passed the smell-test seems of little interest to either the prosecutors of this atrocity, or to the majority of its ultimate author, the people of the United States. Stranded within the growing post-9/11 economic quagmire, many millions of Americans are more concerned with paying the rent and feeding the kids than geopolitics. But, ignoring why this war, and the inevitable ones to follow, happened is the greatest threat to both America, and civilization as we know it. Stan Goff is an American author, activist, and former career soldier with the U.S. Special Forces, Army Rangers. His book titles include: 'Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti,' 'Full Spectrum Disorder,' and the forthcoming, 'Sex and War.' His many essays on military matters can found at He also sits on the coordinating committee of 'Bring Them Home Now' a campaign of military families, veterans, active duty personnel, reservists and others opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq. Stan Goff in the first half.

    Chris Cook hosts Gorilla Radio, airing live Thursdays between 11-12 noon pacific time in Victoria, B.C., Canada at 101.9FM, and livestreaming at: The show is archived at: Chris also serves as a contributing editor to the web news site, You can check out the GR blog at: and twitter @paciffreepress.

    G-Radio is dedicated to social justice, the environment, community and providing a forum for people and issues not covered in corporate media.

    Some past guests include: M. Shahid Alam, Joel Bakan, Maude Barlow, David Barsamian, Luciana Bohne, Ken Boon, Helen Caldicott, Noam Chomsky, Michel Chossudovsky, Paul Cienfuegos, Cory Doctorow, Yves Engler, Laura Flanders, Dan Gillmor, Stan Goff, Eva Golinger, Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Denis Halliday, Chris Hedges, Julia Butterfly Hill, Robert Hunziker, Robert Jensen, Dahr Jamail, Chalmers Johnson, Diana Johnstone, Malalai Joya, Kathy Kelly, Daniel Kovalik, Ingmar Lee, Dave Lindorff, Janos Mate, Sharmine Narwani, Andrew Nikiforuk, Greg Palast, Michael Parenti, Robert Parry, John Pilger, Ted Rall, David Rovics, Vandana Shiva, Tim Shorrock, Norman Solomon, David Swanson,