The Guardian Institutions of Hierarchy

One aspect of human culture that seems irresistible to the ancient status-seeking part of our brain is the development of hierarchies. The encoding of personal status and power into social structures is evident in the tribes and troops of all the great apes, but human beings have gone much further. We built an entire globe-spanning civilization on the foundation of hierarchy.

One inevitable effect of social hierarchies (in fact the effect that made our global civilization possible) is the consolidation of power. As new power comes into a hierarchic social system it flows preferentially to the top. As the system develops, even the small amount of power available to those at the bottom of the social pyramid is removed and ends up concentrated at the top in a power elite. This becomes a positive feedback loop: the more power is consolidated at the top, the easier the consolidation becomes.


This consolidation of power is seen in all social hierarchies. As you would expect, our most hierarchic societies, from ancient Egypt to Stalinist Russia to the USA, exhibit it most profoundly.

You can think of this effect as a form of social reverse osmosis, in which power is pumped through a semi-permeable membrane up a gradient from social regions of low power concentration to regions of high concentration, with class boundaries forming the membrane between them.

Physical reverse osmosis requires both a semi-permeable membrane and a pump, so it’s logical to look for similar mechanisms in this social metaphor. What drives social power from low to high concentrations? And what keeps the semi-permeable membrane of social class boundaries intact so that the whole system can function?

In our metaphor of reverse osmosis, these mechanisms are provided by what I call the Guardian Institutions. These are the corporate, economic, financial, political, legal, religious, educational and communications institutions that form the structural skeleton of our civilization.

Corporations and businesses cooperate with economic and financial institutions to set the value of work and control the money supply. In this role it doesn’t make any difference whether an economy is capitalist, socialist or communist. The core beliefs it guards are always the same: ownership and growth. In our Western civilization these institutions are the pumps that move power (transfigured into wealth) away from the powerless and to the powerful.

Political institutions encode, enshrine and manage the application of social power. Politics is the institution that legitimizes all the others. Because of its unique ability to make laws and its access to legalized violence to defend them, politics is the primary self-defense mechanism of the power hierarchy of civilization. In this view it doesn’t matter if the political system is democratic or authoritarian, capitalist or socialist, liberal or fascist, feudal, monarchic or dictatorial. As long as the political system can make laws and use institutionalized violence (i.e. police) to enforce them, any political system will fulfill this core function. From this point of view the differences between them are largely cosmetic. Even the differences between parties in a democratic system are a useful irrelevancy – useful to those in power by giving the powerless a calming illusion of control. Politics as a social system invariably works to the benefit of those at the tip of the power pyramid.

Legal institutions enforce the norms of the hierarchy in ways too numerous to count. These range from the protection of privilege (one law for the rich, one for the poor) to the preferential defense of property rights over human rights. Along with the police force it empowers, the legal system is the tip of the spear that keeps the power-holders safe from the powerless. In the terms of our metaphor, legal institutions maintain the integrity of the semi-permeable membrane of social class.

Religious institutions (as distinct from the religions they purport to enshrine) are primarily normative social structures. Many incorporate an overt message that we should be content with things as they are. There are often injunctions against questioning authority, as all authority is seen to devolve from the supernatural – as it has ever since the shamans of the early agricultural era. Like legal institutions, they guard the integrity of social classes, though in our civilization the role of religion has been handed over largely to the legal sphere with its more overt control mechanisms.

Educational institutions teach successive generations how the system works. It gives those at the tip of the pyramid the tools to integrate into it and manipulate it. At the same time it trains everyone involved to see the pyramid of hierarchy as the only possible way the world can work. Those who do not accede to the top of the system learn to be content that the perceived order is natural, inevitable, beneficial, and unquestionable. An interesting twist in modern education is that we are now taught that the rights of the powerful are acquired through merit rather than birth (though many PhDs have learned otherwise).

Communications media reinforce the message of the inevitability and beneficence of our social hierarchy by enlisting people in the power/growth/ownership paradigm. They do this through overt messages like advertising, covert messages embedded in the story lines of entertainment and of course the selective editing and presentation style of news programs. People who are programmed by this constant messaging come to regard any values that challenge the existing structure as incomprehensible, self-evidently absurd, dangerous or even insane.

From this perspective, the various organizations through which the power elite manifest in our civilization – the World Economic Forum, the Bilderberg Group, The Family, Skull and Bones and all the rest – are not, in and of themselves, the problem. They are merely the ways in which the tip of our civilization’s power hierarchy has organized itself along lines of common interest. The underlying, unspoken goal of all of them is the efficient maintenance and enhancement of a structure that works to their advantage. If they were emasculated or dismantled, other such organizations would spring up to replace them.

So what can we (those of us who are egalitarian or simply powerless and have not swallowed the soma of our culture) do about this situation? It’s a tough question, because as I said above, I don’t think that directly attacking the organizations themselves will work over the long run. Getting rid of one of them would be like cutting out a skin lesion that is simply a visible metastasis of a systemic cancer. The body of our civilization is riddled with this particular cancer, and has been for at least the last few hundred years. Perhaps the only real solution lies in a civilizational death and rebirth, but that’s a fairly … ummm… unpopular notion, especially to those at the tip of the power hierarchy.



8 thoughts on “The Guardian Institutions of Hierarchy

  1. When the unsustainable worldwide hierarchies collapse to the point that they become even partly irrelevant, those who have implemented local resiliencies will fare best longest.

  2. The answer is to compete via natural hierarchies. These systems are built over generations, so you have to think generationally to win. Families provide the natural alternative and the counterpoint to all of this, as well as the only surefire way of making sure your ideas continue into the future.

  3. Hi Paul,

    Thank you for the excellent observations. I suggest that Agrarian Age dominance cultures are now failed cultural experiments. They do not last long. They have some glorious accomplishments in the beginning stages that are freer and more equitable. Alas, when the non-local bureaucratic infrastructure takes over, represented by the Empire stage and other negative aspects – hoarding of wealth and power creates inequitable and dominating entities that are increasingly out of touch, error prone, and ultimately self destructive. There is no “King of the Lions”, no “Queen of the Bees’ – no biomimicry of what we humans try to do. In fact, bee hives and ant colonies demonstrate remarkable democratic processes, compared with humans. I suspect any culture that moves toward centralization and dominance is doomed, and ones that maintains local equality have thrivable opportunities.

    I believe numerous local ecovillage communities that are progressive, creative, cooperative, enterprising, and highly self-governing, each unique and in high harmony with its people and their environment, are excellent paths to higher qualities of abundant life for all. I think examples can be found to demonstrate and prove this. All health, wealth, and power resources have local origins.

    Ecovillages offer ways of better stewardship. Numerous ecovillage communities can act in association to improve area, regional and global conditions, without enslaving themselves to remote evisceration by these doomed dominance and predatory bureaucracies that are operated by frail humans lacking access to the richness of local communities intelligence, freedoms, and securities. We humans are too wonderfully flawed to be Utopians, but if we act within ecovillage community ranges of intelligence and competence, we will not be building weapons of mass destruction, for example. Community intelligence is superior and preferable to non-local bureaucratic dominance.

    Your article is insightful for encouraging for us to Go Local! This may not be perfect or easy, but it is much better for all people and the earth. Again, thank you! – Pete

  4. Permanent culture is an increasingly viable alternative to culture as it’s presented here.

    Unless we’re being physically oppressed (which requires another step or two to create the solution), rather than simply economically and socially oppressed, we design/build communities of support and disconnect from oppression culture as we come to understand the false reality of its win/lose character.

    It’s important not to study W/L culture so much that we do the same thing all over again.

    If nothing changes, nothing changes.

    Study the alternative; practice praxis, knowing we must take the time to heal and grow ourselves out of internalized oppression.

    The life support system must no longer lose. Hierachical cultures are anthropocentric cultures that see nature only as a way to “grow capital.”

    As we create permanent culture and invest our power into it to create human systems that support us off the oppressive culture’s paradigm, we, in time, overgrow the culture that makes its living through oppressing nature and its creatures.

    That’s my understanding of what permaculture intends to do. That’s how we restore the planetary life support system and reclaim the future.

  5. Øyvind, my reference to “The Family” wasn’t a reference to the sorts of families we all grow up in. I agree that they are the key, and are fragmented by our current hierarchical culture. My reference was to an organization perhaps peculiar to the USA, a right-wing fundamentalist religious/political group that is a nexus of authoritarian political power. If you click through the link in the article you’ll see what I meant.

  6. I notice that Bees, for example, do very well, thank you, as a single bee and as a unit of the Hive; the Queen’s role is every bit as proscribed as the workers, not by whim in other words. They’ve been doing this a long time.

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