Holarchism - or My Struggles with Anarchy

Posted on May 18, 2014

I sympathize with anarchist ideas, I really do. I generally prefer decentralized, distributed, voluntary, fault-tolerant systems to rigid, centralized, coercive systems. I can't bring myself to adopt anarchy as a core principle, however, because I see so much evidence that hierarchy is a natural and even healthy thing. Plus defining one's philosophy as the antithesis of another isn't very satisfying to me.

Today I attended the NYC Anarchist Book Fair. I discussed anarchism with some folks who were attending. One thought experiment I gave was the building in which the anarchist book fair was housed, which stands and protects its inhabitants from the elements because of the hierarchy of its physical structure. When the building hierarchy is healthy, it is strong and will stand for years. If the building hierarchy were unhealthy it might collapse and crush everyone inside.

It's important to be open to seeing hierarchy not as a linear progression of power or even as a pyramid, but instead as a lattice of interconnectedness where parts are composed of and depend upon each other. This sort of hierarchy is the sort of hierarchy you'll find in nature. While it's true that components higher on the hierarchy exert greater influence over the system, they also have far more dependencies than components lower in the hierarchy. The higher components will not exist without the support of that of which they are composed and dependent.

So here is my TLDR:

Hierarchy is not a problem as long as the parts exert their natural power to keep the hierarchy healthy.

When we extrapolate this to social systems it becomes apparent that, the end of the day, nothing happens without the consent of the masses. We build hierarchies because they are stronger than flat structures. They endure better, they can accomplish more with fewer resources. But hierarchies out of balance will not have those benefits and will ultimately collapse because the support system fails.

This is largely why I respect the United States' core foundation so much. The US was founded on a loose hierarchy in order to achieve the stability that the colonists needed. At the same time the founders recognized that hierarchy depends on the consent of the governed and mechanisms were put in place to allow the hierarchy to be re-calibrated. Finally, if the hierarchy were to no longer have the consent of the governed, the governed were expected to start fresh.

A hierarchy doesn't necessarily mean a State, either. Even in "anarchist" organizations you will see hierarchical structures emerge. Indeed if you didn't, what would be the point of organizing a group? If the group offered nothing more than that which is found in an individual then we would have no groups at all.

So I suppose I define hierarchy differently than most anarchists do. There's a term that's been coined for this sort of hierarchy called 'holarchy'. I guess maybe I'm a 'holarchist'.

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