Individualist Anarchism and Hierarchy

Anarchism and hierarchy have a tricky and messy relationship. Some anarchists proclaim to be against all hierarchy (sometimes even defining anarchism as such) and others proclaim they are simply against the state and don’t care about hierarchy itself. I believe individualist anarchism, rightly understood falls somewhere in between these extremes.

Individualist anarchism, in short, is the view that the individual human being is the building block of “society.” Therefore, whatever political system, or more accurately, apolitical non-system, is in place, ought to give primacy to the individual and respect their sovereignty as a free being. The non-system that best accomplishes this is anarchism.

Hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.” In some instances this kind of system is inherently wrong (or bad in itself); in others it is permissible and even good, in even others it is not inherently bad but still objectionable.

Where hierarchy is obviously problematic, even immoral, is when it is maintained through the initiation of force. As individualists, we maintain the sovereignty of the individual and regard a person’s personal autonomy as extremely morally relevant. The ability to exercise one’s faculties and capacities to the best of their ability according to their own volition is each individual’s fundamental right (and since each person has this right, it implies a limitation for when one forcibly impedes the actions of another).

The act of subordinating another’s goals by force and replacing them with your own is an affront to the individuality of both people and a violation of rights. The act of aggression is immoral in itself, yes. But a system of hierarchy maintained by aggression makes certain individuals subject to the authority of others; where one is merely a serf, obedient to the higher levels of the hierarchy, there is no individuality – something we are obviously against.

This leads the individualist to reject the use of violence, and therefore, the state. The state, contrary to the social contract theorists, relies on violence to maintain its funding and its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a region. States are systems of aggressive, hierarchical, predators. They are the antithesis to individualism.

For many anarchists, private property is inherently hierarchical, and therefore impermissible. They are only partially right. In some sense, private property does create a hierarchy between the owner of a piece of property and everyone else. However, private property has other benefits that are worthy of consideration. There is no reason to restrict our analysis to a single question of hierarchy or no hierarchy. There are other morally relevant factors.

Private property is useful for a number of reasons, many of them consequential. A system of private property creates a prosperous, wealthy, society that can efficiently allocate scarce resources. Additionally, and of significant importance for the individualist, private property is vital for personal autonomy. As Roderick Long writes,

“The human need for autonomy: the ability to control one’s own life without interference from others. Without private property, I have no place to stand that I can call my own; I have no protected sphere within which I can make decisions unhampered by the will of others. If autonomy (in this sense) is valuable, then we need private property for its realization and protection.”

Without private property, the scope of the individual is restricted in favor of the community or society. As individualists we ought to be concerned with maximizing the autonomy of each person and private property is beneficial to that goal.

Furthermore, the replacement of private property with collective ownership doesn’t eliminate the existence of hierarchy. It merely changes the higher level of the hierarchy from the property owner to the majority of the collective. Under collective ownership, whoever happens to be in the majority has the say over what the property is used for, and are, therefore, in a place of authority over the minority.

Worthy of note is the question of parenting or the family. The parent-child relationship is historically hierarchical. However, without going too much into the complicated realm of children’s rights, the authority employed by proper parents in raising their children does not rely on force in the same sense that force is used against an adult (where to draw that line is another messy question). While there are instances of force that are unjust, such as abuse, there are other instances of force that are just, such as making a child eat their dinner. And since the parent-child hierarchy is seemingly beneficial to the individuals involved, the individualist anarchist is alright with it. (For more on an individualist anarchist view of children’s right, see the section of this essay entitled “The Rights of Children”)

What about systems of non-violent hierarchy? Many of these will depend on the details of the situation and the specific context. But we can generally say hierarchy, even “consensual” hierarchy, is always potentially problematic for the individualist. Since we consider autonomy and the exercise of one’s faculties of primary importance, situations where people voluntarily submit to the complete authority of others, creating a hierarchy, might very well be objectionable.

Consider a small town in which everyone, for one reason or another, voluntary submits all their property to collective ownership. For reasons explained above about the effects of private property on consequences and autonomy, we can say a town of private property is preferable to a town of collective ownership. So as individualists who value prosperity and autonomy, we have good reason to object to the voluntary communist town – even if it’s merely taking the stance that the townspeople are making a poor decision and should instead adopt a system of private property.

For reasons mentioned above, the initiation of force is impermissible for the individualist. After all, using force would be subjecting the townspeople to our will, which is actively immoral and worse than their voluntary decisions. So it would be wrong to use force to prevent the townspeople from creating voluntary communism.

However, using things such as persuasion, educational campaigns, or boycotts are permissible, and perhaps encouraged (whether are not these are effective, worthy measures is a different question). We recognize that voluntary communism is a bad system for the people who live there (and also potentially bad for others, for economic reasons or if the ideas start to spread and gain support), and subjecting themselves to the whim of the majority is misguided, so it wouldn’t make sense to remain ambivalent on the question.

There is also the concept of communal property forms that are horizontally organized and self-managed. These aren’t exactly the same a collective ownership models. Common pool resources where he private possessory rights of the individual are strictly defined are much more likely to protect and encourage personal autonomy and individualism than full on collectivism, despite being possibly problematic depending on how exactly the pools are organized.

The question of workplace hierarchy is possibly objectionable, but not inherently. Large, hierarchical workplaces that tend to treat workers like cogs in a machine or tools of the employers are clearly not in line with the individualist philosophy. A workplace where the employees on the lower rungs are pushed around and treated with little respect from their employers ought to be objected to (non-aggressively) by anyone concerned about autonomy and respect for persons.

Now, this doesn’t imply that all workplace hierarchy is everywhere and always bad. Sometimes it will be preferable for economic reasons. Sometimes the hierarchy is minimal and the employees have a say and are treated with respect. Sometimes the firm is hierarchical, but still relatively flat. While many of the giant corporations today are antithetical to individualist commitments, not all workplace hierarchy is inherently bad. It merely has the potential to be bad.

Merely asking if something is hierarchical and ending our moral analysis there is misguided. Similarly, merely asking if something is coercive and ending our moral analysis there is misguided. Individualism holds multiple things to be morally relevant. Aggression and negative liberty is important, yes. But so is personal autonomy. And so are prosperity and good consequences. Both political economy and moral philosophy require a kind of value pluralism combined with meticulous analysis.

The lesson to be learned about non-violent hierarchy is that it, like most things in life, is not inherently bad but it has the potential to be bad. Voluntary systems of hierarchy promote a culture of obedience and collectivism, and could possibly lead to systems that do rely on violence. They discourage individuality, freethinking, and autonomy. For these reasons, non-violent hierarchy is never inherently wrong for the individualist anarchist, but is always potentially problematic and often objectionable.

The individualist anarchist position on hierarchy falls somewhere between “it’s always wrong” and “it’s never wrong.” Sometimes it is. But other times, it’s not. Like I said earlier, the relationship between anarchism and hierarchy is tricky and messy. Part of being an individualist, a human being, is to rigorously and exhaustively think through things yourself. There aren’t always hard and fast principles that do our thinking for us, no matter how comfortable the armchair is.

Translations of this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory