The centrality of an anti-hierarchical perspective is evident in anarchist theory and action alike. Indeed, it might be said that a robust notion of anti-hierarchy is the sine qua non of anarchism, the core concept that differentiates it at root from other ideologies. In its thoroughgoing critique of hierarchy, anarchism establishes itself as a singular sociopolitical theory, one that sets a high bar of critical analysis for how deeply it is willing to inquire into quintessential hegemonies surrounding governance, economics, social relations, knowledge production – and even into the workings of anarchist organizing itself. While anarchy is often translated as “rejection of the state,” it is this central penchant for challenging hierarchy in a more generalized sense that is a hallmark of the anarchist idea, and that further opens up not only its deconstructive potential but also its underappreciated constructive capacities to imagine and implement viable alternatives.
In the anarchist lexicon, there is a plethora of reflections on these concepts, often intermingling analyses of related phenomena such as liberty, authority, autonomy, and community. Familiar slogans of “No Gods, No Masters” pervade the field, as do invocations of being “against all authority.” This baseline spirit of defiance and fierce independence is central to the anarchist tradition, and has enjoyed a resurgence in the contemporary landscape as anarchist principles and practices have begun to permeate a range of movement contexts. Anywhere one finds people struggling for equitable processes, just outcomes, or sustainable futures, there is likely to be at least a modicum of engagement with anarchist values involved on some level. And in some contexts – as when issues of privilege and power are put front and center in a group’s internal processes, or when impacted communities rise up to challenge state violence – critical issues around hierarchy can be at the root of the inquiry. Thus, when we consider the notion of anti-hierarchy as a core anarchist tenet, it is important to recognize that an
array of corollary concepts is connected to this foundational value as it impacts a wide spectrum of radical praxis:
The intellectual framework of most of contemporary American anarchism rests on a critique of hierarchy …. Capitalism, organized religion, and the state are important forms of hierarchy, but the concept includes other relations of domination …. Hierarchy pervades our social relations and reaches into our psyche …
This analysis of hierarchy has broadened contemporary anarchism into a critique of all forms of oppression, including [not only] capitalism, the state, and organized religion but also patriarchy, heterosexism, anthropocentrism, racism, and more …. The political task according to contemporary anarchism is to attack all forms of oppression, not just a “main” one, because without an attack on hierarchy itself, other forms of oppression will not necessarily wither away after capitalism (or patriarchy, or colonialism) is destroyed.
(Olson 2009, 36–37)
The depth of its critique of hierarchy is one of the principal points of distinction between anarchism and other radical theories. For instance, in the quote above, we see that concepts such as patriarchy and heterosexism are included in the anarchist critique, sometimes falling under the label of “anarcha-feminism.” As Carol Ehrlich has observed, whereas radical feminists in general often engage with these issues – including related notions such as autonomy over one’s body, challenging stereotypes, abolishing repressive laws, contesting male privilege, and providing women with tools for empowerment – “anarchist feminists are concerned with something more. Because they are anarchists, they work to end all power relationships, all situations in which people oppress each other …. For anarchists, … the central issues are always power and social hierarchy” (Ehrlich 1996, 174). Anarcha-feminists accordingly have been critical of movements that seek to seize state power or that set up a leadership elite, instead emphasizing an approach centered on gaining autonomy “and insisting that everyone have it” (Ehrlich 1996, 174). Exploring the full implications of this critique across a range of issues, and understanding what it means for theorizing and organizing alike, are fundamental to anarchism’s overall workings.
Despite its core attributes and sense of permeation, however, the anarchist inquiry is not ended simply by invoking “anti-hierarchy” as something approaching an a priori
principle. As with most matters of consequence, there is a range of ways in which anti-hierarchical thinking is applied in the anarchist milieu. Thus, while anarchists may be agreed on the idea of the State as constituting a locus of unjust exercises of authority, and hence representing a form of hierarchical governance that is untenable at the outset, some might still at times participate in movements working within electoral or legal frameworks. Moreover, the question of how far anti-hierarchy extends is one that can illuminate
some distinctions within the field – as with the widely held conception of capitalism as being based on exploitation and thus inconsistent with anarchism, despite some proponents advancing (problematically, as we shall see) the notion of “anarcho-capitalism.” Likewise, invocations of individualism have pervaded anarchism, with community and/or society implicitly or explicitly seen as antagonistic – whereas varieties of communitarian anarchism are sometimes premised on a notion of non-coercive authority as a building block. Anarchists can be autonomists, syndicalists, egoists, communalists, atheists, spiritualists, and more; despite these varied viewpoints, however, endemic issues of power and responsibility can bring with them a common emphasis on hierarchy as a fundamental concept.
Anarchism thus admits a wide variety of perspectives under its rubric and, moreover, even encourages an openly critical stance toward its own workings and ostensible principles. This suggests that we might view anarchism more as a set of interrelated processes than as a settled goal, and hence as a perpetual means toward its own evolving ends. When we say that anti-hierarchy is a core anarchist concept, then, it is not so much in reference to a plank in an ideological foundation as it is describing a tool for engaging a wide range of issues and unpacking various intersecting forms of oppression. Anti-hierarchical analysis functions simultaneously as a means for deconstructing authoritarian structures in society and for building alternatives that do not replicate these structures in form or content. Anti-hierarchical processes thus serve to keep anarchism anarchistic – i.e., to not lapse into what it is struggling against. As such, the task involves opening space for being authoritative without becoming authoritarian.
This brief introduction serves to illustrate some of the complexities with anti-hierarchical thinking, and it also strengthens the case for it being an indispensable feature of anarchism. There are many contemporary treatments of such inquiries; one that is instructive to consider at the outset comes via a section from An Anarchist FAQ focusing specifically on the primary question, “Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy?”:
First, it is necessary to indicate what kind of authority anarchism challenges. While it is customary for some opponents of anarchism to assert that anarchists oppose all kinds of authority, the reality of the situation is more complex. While anarchists have, on occasion, stated their opposition to “all authority” a closer reading quickly shows that anarchists reject only one specific form of authority, what we tend to call hierarchy ….
Therefore, anarchists are opposed to irrational
(e.g., illegitimate) authority, in other words, hierarchy – hierarchy being the institutionalization of authority within a society. Hierarchical social institutions include the state,
private property and the class systems it produces and, therefore, capitalism. Due to their hierarchical nature, anarchists oppose these with passion.
(Anarchist Writers 2008, original emphasis)
Of particular note here is the connection (and potential distinction) between hierarchy and authority, with the introduction of the concept of hierarchy as “institutionalized authority.” The focus on “irrational” or “illegitimate” forms of authority, being highly subjective terms, further suggests places where anarchists may converge and (more to the point) where they may diverge.
For instance, consider the example of Voltairine de Cleyre (a contemporary of, and at times challenger to, Emma Goldman), who famously said that “we love liberty and hate authority” (Brigati 2004, ii). In her life and work, de Cleyre held to a radical conception of anti-authoritarianism, emphasizing the primacy of individual responsibility: “Anarchism, to me, means not only the denial of authority, not only a new economy, but a revision of the principles of morality. It means the development of the individual as well as the assertion of the individual. It means self-responsibility, and not leader worship” (Brigati 2004, 9). This serves as an effective summation of the spheres in which anti-hierarchical analysis will often be seen to apply: economics, morality, responsibility, governance, and the central questions of social organization. Grappling with these concepts straightforwardly and complexly illuminates some of anarchism’s potential tensions, as various camps within the milieu are staked out and as different methodologies for inducing transformation are debated. Yet baseline critical inquiries into distributions of power and the reification of hierarchies in society remain widely held.
The annals of anarchism are replete with treatments of the question of authority, as fervently depicted by Michael Bakunin in addressing the rhetorical query, “Does it follow that I reject all authority?” Allowing for the expression of organic expertise, Bakunin (1970 , 32) responds: “Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer.” Yet as Bakunin (1970 , 32) explains, this deference must not lapse into institutionalized hierarchies: “But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect … to impose his authority upon me …. I recognize no infallible authority.” In the end, Bakunin (1970 , 33) articulates how an anarchist conception of authority – as fluid, voluntaristic, mutualistic, and nonhierarchical – would function in practice: “Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore, there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.”
In this sense, we come to understand anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian patterns in anarchism not simply as expressions of aversion or rejection, but perhaps more so as proactive, ongoing checks against the emergence of reified, institutionalized forms of power in society. One can have temporary forms of authority so long as they do not harden or expand beyond particular moments in
time and areas of training or expertise – but the creeping nature of centralization and institutionalization requires constant vigilance if we are to maintain social relations built upon a foundation of mutual, voluntary modes of association. In general, anarchists have proven adept at applying subtle distinctions in concrete contexts, and likewise at embracing diverse perspectives on processes and goals alike, and (perhaps uniquely among political theories) to unflinchingly inquire as to their own patterns in order to stand against those associated with the dominant structures in society. As Colin Ward (1973, 39) discerns, “if you look around … you will see everywhere in operation the opposite concept: that of hierarchical, authoritarian, privileged, and permanent leadership.” The impetus of anarchism to explore, expose, and contest such arrangements leads directly to its rejection of the State (no matter its “representative” nature) – since when power coalesces behind a veneer of rigid hierarchy, coercion and violence inexorably ensue.
The relationship between anarchists and the State (capitalized here to indicate state-power formations in general rather than a particular nation-state) seems straightforward at the outset: anarchism entails a clear rejection of the State. Yet this basic premise is complicated by the reality of anarchists overwhelmingly living within states and thus supporting them (either implicitly or explicitly) on myriad levels. Even those actively working to contest state power oftentimes find themselves constrained by the State in the tools they employ and battles they engage. The State, in this manner, presents itself as inevitable, nonnegotiable, necessary, and omnipresent. State power is said to rest upon a “social contract” in which people voluntarily give up their power to do whatever they please in favor of protection (from themselves and each other) and security – but anarchists have long observed that the power of the State is actually maintained through coercion, force, manipulation, punishment, and entrenched hierarchies.
The situation is further complicated by the realization that the State is not merely a physical manifestation of the “monopoly of violence,” but is equally an agglomeration of social relations and concomitant forms of consciousness. Thus, the struggle is not simply over modes of governance, means of production, and patterns of distribution – it is perhaps even more so about whether the locus of our relationships and mindsets can be decoupled from the pervasive tentacles of state control, as Gustav Landauer’s (2010) famous dictum indicates:
A table can be overturned and a window can be smashed. However, those who believe that the state is also a thing or a fetish that can be overturned or smashed are sophists … The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.
… We, who have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we
are the state. And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions necessary for a true community and a true society of human beings.
(214, original emphasis)
In this sense, consider the range of hierarchical roles inherent to state power: the officer, the judge, the lawmaker, the general, the assessor, the warden, the decision-maker. All of these roles reflect not only tangible power arrangements but also implicit assumptions about what is necessary to maintain societal functions – and all rely on our willingness to accept their reality.
Landauer’s formulation is potent yet not specific in how to accomplish the end of replacing state-bound relationships with new ones. Part of the challenge, as Landauer suggests, is that the State is not simply political or pecuniary, but represents a way of thinking as much as a way of being. To the extent that the State is a form of “imprisonment” (a point perhaps becoming increasingly evident in the age of mass incarceration and mass surveillance), it is a physical prison and a mental one all at once. In other words, the rigid hierarchies of state power are a function not only of political economy but of social psychology as well. Ultimately, it is this latter sense of internalized hierarchizing – “we are the state,” as Landauer insists – that must be contested, and which lies at the root of what anarchism seeks to liberate us from. “It is especially clear to anarchists,” as Seán M. Sheehan (2003, 122) concludes, “that the existing order is rooted in the control of social life and that the acceptance of certain attitudes, reinforced through structures of authority and obedience, makes up a state of intellectual i...