Hierarchy and its Discontents

By David Storey

When you hear the word “hierarchy,” what arises?

The first thing to notice is that something is arising. Beneath or behind or within your conscious mind, there is a storehouse of memories, beliefs, and associations that can be summoned to the surface and sorted through by something else. There are, in other words, levels, parts, and structures that constitute what you call your mind. In pondering the word “hierarchy,” a hierarchy is doing the pondering.

Among the chattering classes on the left, hierarchy has been a dirty word for decades, but over the last few years, it has attained the lowest status possible; it is to discourse as sulfurous coal is to energy: something to be eliminated as quickly as possible. The sentiment is encapsulated by 18 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: “Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled the climate crisis. We need to dismantle them all.” Whether or not you agree with this statement, notice that the very act of assigning a value to the concept of hierarchy depends on the concept.

Our cultural confusion over hierarchy is a kind of decoder ring for understanding the culture wars. Understanding what is going on beneath the surface is like seeing the code of the Matrix. Hierarchies are not simply good or bad; their value depends on the context, and the contexts that matter are the form they take and the content they contain.

Civilization and Its Dis-Contents

Content has to do with what we commonly refer to as ideology, which tells us what it means to be noble and base, higher and lower, on the top and on the bottom. But “ideology” is another weasel word. Many an undergraduate philosophy paper begins with the phrase, “Plato’s ideology is…..” We commonly understand it as synonymous with “theory,” but this is a mistake. For one thing, it’s usually deployed in the service of psychological projection; ideology is always someone else’s problem. “I’m a free thinker, you’re a prisoner of ideology.” For another, the original, Marxist sense of the term refers not simply to a view of reality, but to a false view of reality that both produces and is produced by an oppressive socioeconomic structure. Marx’s interpreters developed this into the distinction between “ideological superstructure” and the “base.” The superstructure refers to the laws, culture, mores, religions, media, etc., broadly speaking the stories a culture tells itself about itself. The base refers to the fields, factories, and technological systems, the material conditions on which it depends and the means by which it reproduces itself. The base shapes the story, and the story justifies the base; for Marx, this circular social logic is the engine of history, and traps humanity—rich and poor—in a matrix of misery.

What irony, then, that today the loudest klaxons sounding the dangers of “ideology” come not from the left, but from the right. “Wokeness” and “cultural Marxism” have been flagged as an ideologically motivated attempt to destroy Western civilization. The young, we are told, are being indoctrinated into a “false consciousness” that is warping their view of reality. In resisting Marxism, such critics draw on Marxism. Like the metaphor of the “red pill,” the concept of ideology has been turned into its opposite, deployed by defenders of the status quo to justify its perpetuation.

But they have a point: The chink in Marxism’s armor is revealed when it is applied to itself: in practice, it became a kind of secular religion whose tenets were adhered to as or more dogmatically than any of the traditional monotheisms. Attempts to dismantle the old hierarchies of caste and class produced even more brutal and oppressive hierarchies. What is missing in Marx and today’s most ardent progressives is some good psychology: the desire for a Theory of Everything and the desire to Change Everything meet basic existential needs. Part of the genius of classical liberalism was to differentiate politics and religion in order to channel these impulses into the private sphere to foster peace and prosperity. The Marxist and critical race theorist is wrong to reduce the package of rights and liberties, including and especially the right to private property, as merely and always an ideology propping up capitalism and White supremacy.

Friedrich Nietzsche understood that these animal spirits could not be contained within the iron cage of liberal modernity indefinitely, and saw Marxism as another iteration of the same pathos underlying both Christianity and modern liberalism: the pursuit of equality driven by resentment against existence. Resentment, that is, at the way things are: that there are the strong and the weak, the noble and the base, the rich and the poor, the excellent and the mediocre, the truly great and the merely good. The egalitarian ethos, in short, is fueled by envy and hatred, and aims to dismantle natural and social hierarchies.

This lands us in a tough bind that Thomas Hobbes captured in a phrase in his masterwork, Leviathan: “one man’s religion is another’s superstition.” In today’s terms, one man’s politics is another’s ideology. Either we double down on our own ideology or we are cast adrift in an ocean of noise, flailing about in the flotsam of cynicism and nihilism, with no hope of sorting it all out. But for Nietzsche, both of these alternatives are nihilistic; the latter is just more honest about it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and it is no different when it comes to concept creation. What word should we use? “Ideology” is too suspect, “theory” too abstract, “perspective” too subjective, “philosophy” too academic. A better term is “worldview.” Worldview captures how we experience the world (meaning and aesthetics), how we act in it (morality and ethics), and what we believe is real (metaphysics and science). It is 100% impossible to not have a worldview; if having one were “problematic,” as we like to say today, that would be a big problem. One of the great lies—and, yes, ideological distortions—of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment epistemology of Descartes—was that it is both possible and desirable to have a completely open mind. As Jonathan Haidt puts it, we do not come into the world with a blank slate, but with a “first draft” of reality, a biological and cultural evolutionary inheritance which we revise on the basis of experience.

This points to an important insight that conservatives intuitively grasp: to paraphrase Pascal, tradition has reasons that reason cannot fathom. The order of things into which we have quite recently been thrown is the latest iteration of a process that has unfolded over millions (biological) and hundreds of thousands (cultural) of years. The impulse to dismiss our cultural inheritance as mere ideology—and the impulse to reduce culture to evolutionary biology—ought to be resisted. Worldviews are creative responses to changing life conditions. Put another way, while worldviews may be emergent, they are not arbitrary: they came into being, stayed in being, and were transmitted across time and space for good reasons. They are partially true, in other words, because they partially worked.

A worldview in this sense falls somewhere between being “subjective”—merely existing in an individual mind—and “objective’—being a part of the material world. Like a gravitational field, once a worldview has emerged and gotten sufficient traction—once it has been widely adopted and given expression in art, law, institutions, behavior, and so on—it exerts a pull on the consciousness of the individuals and cultures that come into its orbit. It develops, in other words, a kind of inertia that persists over time, and each person and culture, at the mercy of its inheritance, must find a way to integrate the diversity of forces vying for expression. Consciousness and culture are thus palimpsests of worldviews. The more worldviews you inherit, the more you have to integrate, and the more potential you have for ideological gridlock.

What we call an ideology is the sick version of a worldview. A worldview becomes “sick” when its adherents grow cognitively rigid, certain, dogmatic, closed off from new data and new ideas. A worldview is healthy when its adherents hold to it firmly but not tightly, metabolizing new data and ideas, adapting to changing life conditions. It successfully performs vital biological, psychological, and social functions. In short, it “works.” And if it is working, it does not perceive those holding other worldviews as the Enemy.

Cultures can become sick in two ways. First, they become dominator hierarchies in which one worldview oppresses and tries to eradicate the others; in a word, they become monocultures. Second, they become anarchies so fragmented that they lack any coherence, shared values, and common understanding of the world; they become what Philip Rieff called “anti-cultures.” It is the latter condition into which we have fallen. We live in an anarchy that is not legal or political, but psychological and cultural. The reason most of us have felt at least 10% less sane over the last few years is not just because of the pandemic or the Trump presidency; it’s because of the incongruent gravities of the different worldviews and the heat generated by the their ideological iterations. It’s like trying to walk straight on a planet with three different degrees of gravity at the same time; just standing up is hard enough.

George Packer has recently shed light on this problem, offering a powerful analysis of the cultural fault lines in the American body politic that disrupts the simplistic political spectrum of red and blue, right and left, conservative and liberal. Packer sees four Americas: Real America, Free America, Smart America, and Just America. His analysis goes a long way toward helping us understand the hyperpolarization and enmity that we often mistakenly refer to as “tribalism,” but it is missing a crucial ingredient: an account of the emergence and evolution of the worldviews themselves. This insight has been hit upon by a number of thinkers you have probably never heard of, such as psychologist Clare Graves, political scientist Ronald Inglehart, and philosophers Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh. In McIntosh’s view, “A developmental perspective provides the key to overcoming hyperpolarization because it reveals how each of America’s four major cultures is founded on a coherent set of positive bedrock values that are ultimately interdependent. If Packer embraced this kind of evolutionary view, he could begin to see how the way forward lies in crafting an inclusive cultural synthesis that can effectively distinguish each narrative’s disasters from its abiding dignities. The concept of cultural development, in other words, provides a skeleton key for understanding not just our confusion around hierarchy, but the general breakdown in sense-making in American politics and culture. According to this perspective, there are three worldviews jousting for supremacy.

The first is that of the Traditionalist, which divides the world into saints and sinners. They prefer static hierarchies based on inherited rules and roles. Think social conservatives, Christian nationalists, post-liberals. The second is that of the Modernist, which sorts the world into winners and losers. They prefer dynamic hierarchies based on individual merit. Think libertarians and center-right investor class folks. The third is that of the Progressive, which separates the world into oppressors and oppressed. They see hierarchies as inherently, in their own words, “problematic.” Think feminists, environmentalists, social justice warriors, and the Woke.

The situation we find ourselves in is that the three major worldviews have temporarily regressed to the fight or flight mode. The culture war, which used to be a sideshow of our politics, has become our politics. We find ourselves in a bizarro world we might call “last stage liberalism,” in which the separation of church and state bequeathed to us by modernism has in some sense broken down. What Ross Douthat has called the “dreampolitik” of internet conspiracies has crossed over into the real world, and the foot soldiers marching under the banner of cultural religions left and right march in the streets chanting their battle cries. We are moving, in other words, perilously close toward the very state of nature Hobbes, Locke, and the founding fathers designed classical liberalism to protect us from. The contents of our culture have overwhelmed its container.

A New Re-Formation

The classical liberal order was a solution to a problem created by the Protestant Reformation: the wars of religion that ravaged Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as the authority of the hierarchies of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire collapsed. The Reformation, in turn, was made possible because of a revolution in information technology: the printing press. A key to understanding our situation is to realize that we are in the early days of an information revolution as or more powerful than that of the printing press: our digital infoscape has created a post-truth media ecology that has disrupted not just what we now call “legacy” media, but the norms and values of liberalism itself.

One way to understand modernity is the increasing democratization of information production and consumption, and one way to understand its promise is that democratization dramatically increased the quality of life for the many. Indeed, that is one of the keys to the success of liberal democracy — in science, journalism, scholarship, and politics, it created a culture ordered around truth. One way to think about premodernity is as a pre-truth culture (information poor, meaning rich), modernity as a truth-based culture (information rich, meaning challenged) and postmodernity as a post-truth culture (information supersaturation, meaning poor).

The galloping success of this process of democratization is no doubt one reason we were so confident, at the turn of the millennium, that the internet would usher in a utopia of understanding and universalism, a global village of peace, love, and harmony, the end of history. But as Michael Oakeshott warned, “Those who in Elysian fields would dwell, do but extend the boundaries of hell.” Instead of cosmopolitanism, we got Charlottesville. The hyper-democratization of Web 2.0, first with blogs and later with social media, altered our information ecology about the way an asteroid from space hitting the earth would change the climate: dramatically, dangerously, and irreversibly. This is the context necessary for understanding the cancel culture wars, and the key to seeing why the free speech debate is a red herring. The problem is not that any one group — whether Christians, or conservatives, or people of color, or trans folks — is being silenced. It’s that everyone’s finally talking. Everyone finally has a voice. And a blog. And a YouTube channel. And a podcast.

And suddenly, we’re back in that primal hunter-gatherer campfire, with one crucial difference: sitting around the campfire is not just the members of our own tribe, but all tribes. It is no accident that “tribalism” has become the Ur-concept used to characterize our politics. It’s messy. It’s noisy. It’s confusing. It’s crazy. It’s scary. And what it means is that everyone, everywhere, at every time, feels just a little bit on edge, a little threatened, a little outraged, a little exhausted, a little…triggered. We’re all snowflakes now.

And because our organism is suddenly thrown into an environment for which it did not evolve, it is in perpetual fight or flight mode, its default posture reactive and defensive. Flailing for a sense of social cohesion and mental coherence, it clings to the filter bubble, the echo chamber, the tribe. If you literally cancel culture, then all you’re going to get is conspiracy theories and cults. Whereas a culture draws its staying power from the inner resources of its members, a cult is bound by a strongman leader and a fear and hatred of outsiders. Cultures create. Cults cancel.

In fact, cancel culture is an oxymoron. For culture is nothing but the creative appropriation of the past. A healthy culture holds the creative and the conservative, the future and the past, in optimal tension. It converts noises into signals in a manner and at a rate that the human animal can metabolize. Too much such signal and we stagnate; too much noise and we go nuts. The pure signal is the siren song of the conspiracy theory, the promise that Everything Will Be Explained, that All Will Be Revealed. The cult leader peddles total understanding in addition to total belonging. It is no accident that conspiracy thinking is on the rise, or that Trump rose to the presidency on its back. It bears remembering that the word conspiracy means “to breathe together.” People feel so spiritually suffocated that they are seeking belonging in refusing to wear masks and shunning vaccines. With the culture knob broken and the signal/noise ratio out of whack, shipwrecked in an ocean of noise, people will be drawn toward the pure signal like moths to a flame.

Liberal culture was designed to inoculate against such idiocy and indoctrination. But in late modernity, liberalism itself is no longer a set of truths we hold to be self-evident, but is on trial and taken as just another worldview, just another set of values, just another story. As Hobbes put it, writing at the beginning of modernity and laboring to drag humanity out of its pre-truth past, one man’s religion is another’s superstition. One man’s signal is another’s noise.

Where our situation differs from his is that we have almost 500 years of liberal culture — philosophy, politics, art, literature and, yes, journalism — at our backs. Put another way, the DNA of liberalism is too engrained, too resilient, too tightly braided into our identity, our norms, and our laws to be denatured by a couple decades of digital disruption. We might see the rapid coalescence of cross-cultural, political, financial, and military support of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s attack on the Westphalian system as evidence that the liberal strata of our societies is alive, well, and ready to spring into action in response to a material, mortal threat.

And this is good news. It means that the problem is not your political opponents. The problem is not the alt-Right, or the libs, or neoliberal shills, or social justice warriors. The problem is not an adversary, but an atmosphere; not a character, but a climate. Just as our biological survival depends on recognizing the changing climate of our natural ecology, our political survival depends on understanding the changing climate of our cultural ecology.

We need a more capacious container with which to order and harmonize the contents of our culture. This means we have to consider not just the content of worldviews, but their form. Form has to do with how the dyads in each worldview (the higher and the lower) are related, and how the worldviews relate to one another. Ken Wilber draws a useful distinction between “growth hierarchies” and “dominator hierarchies.” In the former, the higher enfolds the lower, includes it in a broader embrace, opens up new possibilities for it, nurtures it; the lower, in turn, supports and suffuses the higher. The higher is open to an even higher higher, and the lower is allowed the freedom to be a higher for an even lower lower. Its logic is nonzero sum and its lines of force are both top down and bottom up. It communicates with itself and what’s outside of it, constantly adjusting, correcting, adapting. A growth hierarchy, in other words, is alive, and life itself is just a growing hierarchy.

In a dominator hierarchy, the higher controls and represses the lower, sees it as a resource to be exploited and used up. It’s logic is zero sum and its line of force is one directional: top down. Its communication lines are down, and it doesn’t adapt to change, it just runs the same program ad infinitum. A dominator hierarchy, in other words, is either dying or dead. The amount of resources matters less than how those resources are deployed, whether the system has integrity. The system could be a polity, an economy, a company, a family, a psyche, or a cell. There is a reason zombies pervade our popular culture; they’re a symbol for outdated cultural software. A hierarchy is a dialectical drama of order, disorder, and reorder that involves transcending the limitations of the prior order while preserving what worked. A healthy social system, in other words, is a growth hierarchy. Periods of great instability seem like decline when we are going through them, but as Nietzsche said of nihilism, often they are “an illness in the sense in which pregnancy is an illness.” Right now, we are stuck in a liminal space casting about for a new form. History is not done, and is not done with the United States. The good news is that we have all the tools we need to, as it were, build back better. We have to rebuild not just our physical and digital infrastructure, but our cultural infrastructure. To do all of this, we must remember that building things—raising healthy hierarchies—is necessary and good.

Showing 5 comments
  • Andy Anderson

    You are such a gifted writer, thinker, and an important voice in the academy. Thanks for your work.

  • Stephen Greenleaf

    Thanks for this well-considered, insightful, and (thus) persuasive essay. Allow me a few comments that your essay has prompted:
    1. Your rehabilitation (following Wilber) of hierarchy is most welcome. Indeed, some hierarchies are good and useful, others harmful. The same work could be done for “discrimination,” which is another devil word in our culture. Indeed, it has been used in the devil’s work, as in racial discrimination, but the concept is also fundamental to sound thinking, as it seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff. “Invidious discrimination” has been defined as “discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, or national origin, which is arbitrary, capricious, without reasonable foundation.” Perhaps we should say discernment, but that dodges the issue to some extent.
    2. As much as I admire the grit of Greta Thunberg and agree with her cause, the statement that you quote (and I know of many others like it), suggests that if only we look before modernity, capitalism, industrialism, etc, we’d find humans cultivating a Garden of Eden, shorn of ecological mismanagement and degradation. But I don’t think so. As your essay suggests, most groups (of all stripes) seem only to want to round up and the usual suspects & not investigate the case.
    3. Your assessment of our current cultural anarchy is spot on, along with your comment that we’re dealing with a problem of culture (more than character, or in addition to? I think both). We need to figure out how to cultivate our “information ecology,” as the late (great) Neil Postman called it.
    4. The problems, shortcomings, and values of liberalism are of the highest importance now. I’m a great supporter of liberalism and an ardent student of its shortcomings. I admire both (some) proponents and (some) critics. I do ardently contend that illiberalism, from the Right or the Left, provides an often horrible alternative,only sometimes just bad.

    Thanks again for this terrific essay. Keep up the good work!

    • David Anderson

      thanks for your comments.

  • Ron Adams

    Prof David Storey, This is a magnificent analysis of our current culture. And I very much appreciate the hopeful note at the end of your piece where it appears you quote Nietsche “an illness in the sense in which pregnancy is an illness.” The hope for the future is still alive.

    Ron Adams
    Author: The Inner Path

  • Kristin Hansen

    Beautifully written. It dovetails nicely with Yuval Levin’s book that I am reading now, “The Great Debate,” and also Seth David Radwell, “The American Schism.” What ICE describes as worldviews they characterize as “Burke” vs “Paine,” or as “radical” vs “moderate” enlightenment. More Americans need to be able to look at our current schisms in the context of our Enlightenment period origins in America, England, and France. But who likes to read books about history? Sigh …

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