Against Fetishizing Hierarchies
Decentralize until it hurts, then centralize until it works.
Niall Ferguson wrote a thought provoking book called The Square and the Tower. It takes a categorically different view of human organization though history and recognizes what most of us in the IT revolution understand implicitly: hierarchies are just one form of the many forms of networks. The presumptions about organizing people into hierarchies or flattening them down into 2 dimensional planes is a gross oversimplification about how human beings are organized and how they can be organized. Therefore all elite political thought up to this moment elides a great deal of reality by privileging these simple structures. Such organization forms must be reconsidered with more attention paid to nodes of influence in complex network relationships. A failure to do so will result in mistaking the power and organizational locus of alliance and opposition in politics, to say the least.
Hierarchies matter because people who cannot conceive of alternatives cling desperately to them, like socialites grasping for invitations to be regarded positively by Mrs. Astor.
This is my response to an interesting essay entitled ‘The Politics of Human Differences’. Matt McManus is the kind of thinker I like, but it’s often difficult for me to agree with him. That is because I have little formal training in summarizing with alacrity certain aspects of the political and philosophical leaders of Western thought. Yet there are very clear holes of sunshine in the overcast of his broadcast that I see plainly. Nevertheless he is instructive in helping me identify the theories behind the misguided principles of today’s socially dysfunctional intellectuals. On the one hand, summarizing post-structuralists:
They regard moral universalism as at best unrealistic and at worst an ideological justification for marginalizing members of certain groups, arguing that it entails a rejection of difference—a kind of “othering” of those who disagree…
Is that what they say in France? Or is that what has been done in France? We don’t have enough fuel to drive a truck through that sunshiny hole, so let get to a reiteration of my framework.
In the first place I am critically aware of the nature of the fungibility of the Genius Class in my Peasant Theory. I originally called that class, ‘The Slice’ and readily understood it to be a deep bench in America’s meritocracy with alternatives at the ready and some self-segregated out of the talent pool owing to their disagreement with the current Ruling Class. To a certain extent, all of us hacking out paragraphs here in Substack are an alternative Slice, some quite notably on principle as well as some by tragic circumstance (as much as marginalization punishes the able mind). Substack is not a hierarchical threat to the New York Times or the Washington Post. We have acquired an independent network of subscribers in a free market which is not directed by some Czar of American Publication. Outside of what Eric Weinstein calls the Gated Industrial Narrative, we drive our essays through the back door, or the side door, or gaseously through gaps in the window frames to be reassembled by methods not understood by the hierarchy of glaziers.
Imagining myself making a presentation, I hold up my hand and ask the assembled to raise theirs if they have heard of ‘Little Green Footballs’ or ‘Fire Dog Lake’. These were the prototypical aggregations of Right and Left in the days before whatever we have now became principally FUBAR. pre-Twitter. Maybe these associations are post-structural or postmodern
The biggest problem in the world is not global climate change. It is the internet-borne formalization of human networks and the inability for most hierarchical power structures to deal with that.
It is the fact that we have more literate people on the planet than ever before and it takes more social engineering than ever before to aggregate genuine majorities. It is practically impossible in these distributed information networks to become a true man of the people. The people have too many things to think about and very few ways to escape the budget of essays produced by those of us without formalized alacrity. We have all wafted along the scents of free thought unencumbered by degree programs and caring dons and we live in a semiotic swamp of allegorical complexity. We mostly believe the truth is out there, but there are now much more convenient paths to the social cheese, even if it’s only Velveeta. Friend me. Defriend me. Friend me again.
Directly related to this problem is the difference between Mill’s appreciation of moral sentiments and a full-blown captured market run by oligarchs. Somewhere in that middle might grow some appreciation for what I term leagues and tribes.
A league serves the purpose of a class with regard to it being means tested against skill brackets. A competition within a league given respect to its ethics yields satisfaction, win or lose. League play is fair.
Tangential to the structure and purpose of leagues is what I call the Logarithmic Shadow. It is the observation that there is a relationship between the fairness of the any competition and the transgression of competitors beyond the bounds of their leagues. Anything beyond social order of magnitude of skill or power should put a class of would be competitors into the shadow. Michael Jordan cannot see how beating a highschool kid in basketball is to his benefit. The people of Moldova cannot see how invading Russia is to their benefit. To pierce that shadow is to enter the realm of madness and exploitation. It is a fair assumption to base the persistence of the Shadow on the fact that we are not a primarily a symbiotic or parasitic species.
A tribe is a social organization or fellowship that is essentially transient and voluntary within the larger society. One can be a member of many tribes simultaneously. A tribe captures a critical aspect of what’s important to an individual’s sense of belonging. One’s attraction to a tribe describes a value or attribute on wishes to share and be recognized for. Tribes may be formal and named or completely ephemeral. There is no ‘Kingsley Amis Drinking Club’ but I know I belong there. Raise your glass and you’re in. Spit on the floor and you’re out.
It is important that there are hard and soft barriers to these networked relationships, and as generations network online with increasing sophistication, I expect these tribes to ossify into something more well-defined over time. That definition, from my perspective, will come from a better understanding, in cognitive science, of how our minds process every sense of belonging.
Shouldn’t it be obvious that the ambitious network fervently in order to get an intro to the person that matters? The gatekeeper to the tower of power stands at the door on the first floor. Practically every vertical metaphor of modern society works this way. Hierarchies are more formal and more well-understood as they almost always involve power and at the intersection of our psyches and our evolutionary paths we know such power requires our attention. There is not a hierarchy for every aspect of human organization, and the more there are, I believe the more uncomfortable those of us who experience liberty will be. So there is something fundamental about our understanding of freedom of association. We know we need it.
And yet we also need hierarchy. We find innumerable areas of interest where information is hard to come by and consensus impossible to solidify. We find ourselves screaming or being screamed at not to just sit there but to do something. We instinctively look at shitshows and demand to know who is responsible for this chaos. We look at the dirty undernourished child in rags and seek her parents, or the authorities. So when something is broken, and especially when things tend to fall apart, we understand that we need a center. Maybe.
Here is where I think our conventional wisdom only gets things half right, and here is where we must remember Scandinavia. As salty wags, especially of the left bent, are always here to remind us, they’re doing it better in Sweden or Norway than we are in the United States. Most of us can remember how outdone we felt a couple decades ago when Nokia dominated the cellphone market and we stood dumbstruck at how that company from Finland outdid the mighty Motorola. More often though, the wags are talking about healthcare. My calloused reply is that it doesn’t take much to elevate the health of Sweden. Their population is less than half that of Texas. So the property taxes of half of Texas is all the money you need to raise the quality of life for Sweden. Or for half of Texas for that matter. What matters is the standard and the methodology.
As we know, despite Texas’ desire to go it’s own way, opting out of Obamacare was not an option. The center being Washington DC and the hierarchy being the Supreme Court, we learned the practical limits of what can be done in Congress to improve healthcare for Americans. It should also be absolutely clear to anyone who has coughed in the past two years that the WHO and CDC, neither of whom have as much money as Texas, have been ill-suited to their monumental tasks. So we are stuck with wonky centralization and defections from their bailiwicks in the zillions and we really don’t know what actually worked in South Korea. Well, I’ll speak for myself and everyone I know.
Clearly we have seen the emergence of a number of tribes whose effect of the centralized political organizations of the nation has made whipsawed monkeys of their leadership. Yet somehow we have market mechanisms that catered to all tribes. Without getting into more weedy territory suffice it to say that some decentralization of authority can work as well as the decentralization of study. There’s not just one study that confirms this, it is built into the deep nature of the universe. Their is much more surface area in a ton of sand than in a one ton monolith. A swarm of bees will do more pollination than 10 men their weight. Some problems simply require networked decentralization.
Does this get us back to McManus? Ultimately, I think it does. None of the great thinkers of Western Civilization, and I will be so bold as to add the post-structuralists of the 1960s, had this understanding of the power of networked tribes and decentralized agencies at the grain we are capable of managing today. ‘States Rights’ is a long way from ‘sovereign citizens’. While I think we can agree that sovereign citizens don’t work, there is plenty of room for political and philosophical aggregation up to half the size of Texas. Cantons of Switzerland come to mind.
Still we are stuck in a zero-sum notion about ideological fidelity because we think coming up with the right answer should necessarily entail a centralization of power into a hierarchical structure with the same edifice run under new management. Whatever happens then, we can always blame The Administration. We are living in that thrash and thus have sidelined a great deal of our Genius Class. I reiterate that democratic institutions are under threat because of the hegemonic ambition implicit in our way of thinking about power. Legitimate power isn’t only national. I’m saying nothing scales well to 320 million. No matter how much luxury has been delivered, we cannot be an empire.
Nor can we lick the boots of diversity and pretend that all hierarchies are inherently oppressive. We cannot scatter like ants and tag ourselves with every imaginable difference and find order. We’ll only find our navels. To give them gravity is the path to madness and irrelevance. We cannot sit on our tuffets and proclaim ourselves chief of a tribe of twenty this would begin the end of the open society.
I believe history can be our guide, and I might be a creature of the paradigms of business management and computer science, but I think Ferguson is onto something important. Organizational paradigms do not scale infinitely. Ineffable and ephemeral networked individual tribes form dynamic organizations with real power. Centralization can be overdone, and so for the sake of liberty we should decentralize power and recognize the nature of networks of information and people. As Popper reminds is, the question should not about who should rule. Our improvement depends more upon the shape and agility of the regime as well as what it cannot and should not try to control.