Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/1.1

B.1.1 What are the effects of authoritarian social relationships?Edit

Hierarchical authority is inextricably connected with the marginalisation and disempowerment of those without authority. This has negative effects on those over whom authority is exercised, since "[t]hose who have these symbols of authority and those who benefit from them must dull their subject people's realistic, i.e. critical, thinking and make them believe the fiction [that irrational authority is rational and necessary], . . . [so] the mind is lulled into submission by cliches . . . [and] people are made dumb because they become dependent and lose their capacity to trust their eyes and judgement." [1]

Or, in the words of Bakunin, "the principle of authority, applied to men who have surpassed or attained their majority, becomes a monstrosity, a source of slavery and intellectual and moral depravity." [2]

This is echoed by the syndicalist miners who wrote the classic The Miners' Next Step when they indicate the nature of authoritarian organisations and their effect on those involved. Leadership (i.e. hierarchical authority) "implies power held by the leader. Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. . . in spite of. . . good intentions . . . [Leadership means] power of initiative, this sense of responsibility, the self-respect which comes from expressed manhood [sic!], is taken from the men, and consolidated in the leader. The sum of their initiative, their responsibility, their self-respect becomes his . . . [and the] order and system he maintains is based upon the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being 'the men' . . . In a word, he is compelled to become an autocrat and a foe to democracy." Indeed, for the "leader," such marginalisation can be beneficial, for a leader "sees no need for any high level of intelligence in the rank and file, except to applaud his actions. Indeed such intelligence from his point of view, by breeding criticism and opposition, is an obstacle and causes confusion." [3]

Anarchists argue that hierarchical social relationships will have a negative effect on those subject to them, who can no longer exercise their critical, creative and mental abilities freely. As Colin Ward argues, people "do go from womb to tomb without realising their human potential, precisely because the power to initiate, to participate in innovating, choosing, judging, and deciding is reserved for the top men" (and it usually is men!).[4] Anarchism is based on the insight that there is an interrelationship between the authority structures of institutions and the psychological qualities and attitudes of individuals. Following orders all day hardly builds an independent, empowered, creative personality ("authority and servility walk ever hand in hand." [5]). As Emma Goldman made clear, if a person's "inclination and judgement are subordinated to the will of a master" (such as a boss, as most people have to sell their labour under capitalism) then little wonder such an authoritarian relationship "condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities." [6]

As the human brain is a bodily organ, it needs to be used regularly in order to be at its fittest. Authority concentrates decision-making in the hands of those at the top, meaning that most people are turned into executants, following the orders of others. If muscle is not used, it turns to fat; if the brain is not used, creativity, critical thought and mental abilities become blunted and side-tracked onto marginal issues, like sports and fashion. This can only have a negative impact:

"Hierarchical institutions foster alienated and exploitative relationships among those who participate in them, disempowering people and distancing them from their own reality. Hierarchies make some people dependent on others, blame the dependent for their dependency, and then use that dependency as a justification for further exercise of authority. . . . Those in positions of relative dominance tend to define the very characteristics of those subordinate to them . . . Anarchists argue that to be always in a position of being acted upon and never to be allowed to act is to be doomed to a state of dependence and resignation. Those who are constantly ordered about and prevented from thinking for themselves soon come to doubt their own capacities . . . [and have] difficulty acting on [their] sense of self in opposition to societal norms, standards and expectations."


And so, in the words of Colin Ward, the "system makes its morons, then despises them for their ineptitude, and rewards its 'gifted few' for their rarity." [8]

This negative impact of hierarchy is, of course, not limited to those subject to it. Those in power are affected by it, but in different ways. As we noted in section A.2.15, power corrupts those who have it as well as those subjected to it. The Spanish Libertarian Youth put it this way in the 1930s:

"Against the principle of authority because this implies erosion of the human personality when some men submit to the will of others, arousing in these instincts which predispose them to cruelty and indifference in the face of the suffering of their fellows."


Hierarchy impoverishes the human spirit. "A hierarchical mentality," notes Bookchin, "fosters the renunciation of the pleasures of life. It justifies toil, guilt, and sacrifice by the 'inferiors,' and pleasure and the indulgent gratification of virtually every caprice by their 'superiors.' The objective history of the social structure becomes internalised as a subjective history of the psychic structure." In other words, being subject to hierarchy fosters the internalisation of oppression -- and the denial of individuality necessary to accept it. "Hierarchy, class, and ultimately the State," he stresses, "penetrate the very integument of the human psyche and establish within it unreflective internal powers of coercion and constraint . . . By using guilt and self-blame, the inner State can control behaviour long before fear of the coercive powers of the State have to be invoked." [10]

In a nutshell, "[h]ierarchies, classes, and states warp the creative powers of humanity." However, that is not all. Hierarchy, anarchists argue, also twists our relationships with the environment. Indeed, "all our notions of dominating nature stem from the very real domination of human by human . . . And it is not until we eliminate domination in all its forms . . . that we will really create a rational, ecological society." For "the conflicts within a divided humanity, structured around domination, inevitably leads to conflicts with nature. The ecological crisis with its embattled division between humanity and nature stems, above all, from divisions between human and human." While the "rise of capitalism, with a law of life based on competition, capital accumulation, and limitless growth, brought these problems -- ecological and social -- to an acute point," anarchists "emphasise that major ecological problems have their roots in social problems -- problems that go back to the very beginnings of patricentric culture itself." [11]

Thus, anarchists argue, hierarchy impacts not only on us but also our surroundings. The environmental crisis we face is a result of the hierarchical power structures at the heart of our society, structures which damage the planet's ecology at least as much as they damage humans. The problems within society, the economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face. The way human beings deal with each other as social beings is crucial to addressing the ecological crisis. Ultimately, ecological destruction is rooted in the organisation of our society for a degraded humanity can only yield a degraded nature (as capitalism and our hierarchical history have sadly shown).

This is unsurprising as we, as a species, shape our environment and, consequently, whatever shapes us will impact how we do so. This means that the individuals produced by the hierarchy (and the authoritarian mentality it produces) will shape the planet in specific, harmful, ways. This is to be expected as humans act upon their environment deliberately, creating what is most suitable for their mode of existence. If that mode of living is riddled with hierarchies, classes, states and the oppression, exploitation and domination they create then our relations with the natural world will hardly be any better. In other words, social hierarchy and class legitimises our domination of the environment, planting the seeds for the believe that nature exists, like other people, to be dominated and used as required.

Which brings us to another key reason why anarchists reject hierarchy. In addition to these negative psychological effects from the denial of liberty, authoritarian social relationships also produce social inequality. This is because an individual subject to the authority of another has to obey the orders of those above them in the social hierarchy. In capitalism this means that workers have to follow the orders of their boss (see next section), orders that are designed to make the boss richer. And richer they have become, with the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of big firms earning 212 times what the average US worker did in 1995 (up from a mere 44 times 30 years earlier). Indeed, from 1994 to 1995 alone, CEO compensation in the USA rose 16 percent, compared to 2.8 percent for workers, which did not even keep pace with inflation, and whose stagnating wages cannot be blamed on corporate profits, which rose a healthy 14.8 percent for that year.

Needless to say, inequality in terms of power will translate itself into inequality in terms of wealth (and vice versa). The effects of such social inequality are wide-reaching. For example, health is affected significantly by inequality. Poor people are more likely to be sick and die at an earlier age, compared to rich people. Simply put, "the lower the class, the worse the health. Going beyond such static measures, even interruptions in income of the sort caused by unemployment have adverse health effects." Indeed, the sustained economic hardship associated with a low place in the social hierarchy leads to poorer physical, psychological and cognitive functioning ("with consequences that last a decade or more"). "Low incomes, unpleasant occupations and sustained discrimination," notes Doug Henwood, "may result in apparently physical symptoms that confuse even sophisticated biomedical scientists . . . Higher incomes are also associated with lower frequency of psychiatric disorders, as are higher levels of asset ownership." [12]

Moreover, the degree of inequality is important (i.e. the size of the gap between rich and poor). According to an editorial in the British Medical Journal "what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society." [13]

Research in the USA found overwhelming evidence of this. George Kaplan and his colleagues measured inequality in the 50 US states and compared it to the age-adjusted death rate for all causes of death, and a pattern emerged: the more unequal the distribution of income, the greater the death rate. In other words, it is the gap between rich and poor, and not the average income in each state, that best predicts the death rate in each state.[14]

This measure of income inequality was also tested against other social conditions besides health. States with greater inequality in the distribution of income also had higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, a higher percentage of people receiving income assistance and food stamps, a greater percentage of people without medical insurance, greater proportion of babies born with low birth weight, higher murder rates, higher rates of violent crime, higher costs per-person for medical care, and higher costs per person for police protection. Moreover states with greater inequality of income distribution also spent less per person on education, had fewer books per person in the schools, and had poorer educational performance, including worse reading skills, worse mathematics skills, and lower rates of completion of high school.

As the gap grows between rich and poor (indicating an increase in social hierarchy within and outwith of workplaces) the health of a people deteriorates and the social fabric unravels. The psychological hardship of being low down on the social ladder has detrimental effects on people, beyond whatever effects are produced by the substandard housing, nutrition, air quality, recreational opportunities, and medical care enjoyed by the poor [15]

So wealth does not determine health. What does is the gap between the rich and the poor. The larger the gap, the sicker the society. Countries with a greater degree of socioeconomic inequality show greater inequality in health status; also, that middle-income groups in relatively unequal societies have worse health than comparable, or even poorer, groups in more equal societies. Unsurprisingly, this is also reflected over time. The widening income differentials in both the USA and the UK since 1980 have coincided with a slowing down of improvements in life-expectancy, for example.

Inequality, in short, is bad for our health: the health of a population depends not just on the size of the economic pie, but on how the pie is shared.

This is not all. As well as inequalities in wealth, inequalities in freedom also play a large role in overall human well-being. According to Michael Marmot's The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, as you move up any kind of hierarchy your health status improves. Autonomy and position in a hierarchy are related (i.e. the higher you are in a hierarchy, the more autonomy you have). Thus the implication of this empirical work is that autonomy is a source of good health, that the more control you have over your work environment and your life in general, the less likely you are to suffer the classic stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease. As public-Health scholars Jeffrey Johnson and Ellen Hall have noted, the "potential to control one's own environment is differentially distributed along class lines." [16]

As would be expected from the very nature of hierarchy, to "be in a life situation where one experiences relentless demands by others, over which one has relatively little control, is to be at risk of poor health, physically as well as mentally." Looking at heart disease, the people with greatest risk "tended to be in occupations with high demands, low control, and low social support. People in demanding positions but with great autonomy were at lower risk." Under capitalism, "a relatively small elite demands and gets empowerment, self-actualisation, autonomy, and other work satisfaction that partially compensate for long hours" while "epidemiological data confirm that lower-paid, lower-status workers are more likely to experience the most clinically damaging forms of stress, in part because they have less control over their work." [17]

In other words, the inequality of autonomy and social participation produced by hierarchy is itself a cause of poor health. There would be positive feedback on the total amount of health—and thus of social welfare—if social inequality was reduced, not only in terms of wealth but also, crucially, in power. This is strong evidence in support of anarchist visions of egalitarianism. Some social structures give more people more autonomy than others and acting to promote social justice along these lines is a key step toward improving our health. This means that promoting libertarian, i.e. self-managed, social organisations would increase not only liberty but also people's health and well-being, both physical and mental. Which is, as we argued above, to be expected as hierarchy, by its very nature, impacts negatively on those subject to it.

This dovetails into anarchist support for workers' control. Industrial psychologists have found that satisfaction in work depends on the "span of autonomy" works have. Unsurprisingly, those workers who are continually making decisions for themselves are happier and live longer. It is the power to control all aspects of your life—work particularly—that wealth and status tend to confer that is the key determinant of health. Men who have low job control face a 50% higher risk of new illness: heart attacks, stroke, diabetes or merely ordinary infections. Women are at slightly lower risk but low job control was still a factor in whether they fell ill or not.

So it is the fact that the boss is a boss that makes the employment relationship so troublesome for health issues (and genuine libertarians). The more bossy the boss, the worse, as a rule is the job. So part of autonomy is not being bossed around, but that is only part of the story. And, of course, hierarchy (inequality of power) and exploitation (the source of material inequality) are related. As we indicate in the next section, capitalism is based on wage labour. The worker sell their liberty to the boss for a given period of time, i.e. they loose their autonomy. This allows the possibility of exploitation, as the worker can produce more wealth than they receive back in wages. As the boss pockets the difference, lack of autonomy produces increases in social inequality which, in turn, impacts negatively on your well-being.

Then there is the waste associated with hierarchy. While the proponents of authority like to stress its "efficiency," the reality is different. As Colin Ward points out, being in authority "derives from your rank in some chain of command . . . But knowledge and wisdom are not distributed in order of rank, and they are no one person's monopoly in any undertaking. The fantastic inefficiency of any hierarchical organisation -- any factory, office, university, warehouse or hospital -- is the outcome of two almost invariable characteristics. One is that the knowledge and wisdom of the people at the bottom of the pyramid finds no place in the decision-making leadership hierarchy of the institution. Frequently it is devoted to making the institution work in spite of the formal leadership structure, or alternatively to sabotaging the ostensible function of the institution, because it is none of their choosing. The other is that they would rather not be there anyway: they are there through economic necessity rather than through identification with a common task which throws up its own shifting and functional leadership." [18]

Hierarchy, in other words, blocks the flow of information and knowledge. Rulers, as Malatesta argued, "can only make use of the forces that exist in society -- except for those great forces" their action "paralyses and destroys, and those rebel forces, and all that is wasted through conflicts; inevitable tremendous losses in such an artificial system." And so as well as individuals being prevented from developing to their fullest, wasting their unfulfilled potentialities, hierarchy also harms society as a whole by reducing efficiency and creativity. This is because input into decisions are limited "only to those individuals who form the government [of a hierarchical organisation] or who by reason of their position can influence the[ir] policy." Obviously this means "that far from resulting in an increase in the productive, organising and protective forces in society," hierarchy "greatly reduce[s] them, limiting initiative to a few, and giving them the right to do everything without, of course, being able to provide them with the gift of being all-knowing." [19]

Large scale hierarchical organisations, like the state, are also marked by bureaucracy. This becomes a necessity in order to gather the necessary information it needs to make decisions (and, obviously, to control those under it). However, soon this bureaucracy becomes the real source of power due to its permanence and control of information and resources. Thus hierarchy cannot "survive without creating around itself a new privileged class" as well as being a "privileged class and cut off from the people" itself.[20] This means that those at the top of an institution rarely know the facts on the ground, making decisions in relative ignorance of their impact or the actual needs of the situation or people involved. As economist Joseph Stiglitz concluded from his own experiences in the World Bank, "immense time and effort are required to effect change even from the inside, in an international bureaucracy. Such organisations are opaque rather than transparent, and not only does far too little information radiate from inside to the outside world, perhaps even less information from outside is able to penetrate the organisation. The opaqueness also means that it is hard for information from the bottom of the organisation to percolate to the top." [21] The same can be said of any hierarchical organisation, whether a nation state or capitalist business.

Moreover, as Ward and Malatesta indicate, hierarchy provokes a struggle between those at the bottom and at the top. This struggle is also a source of waste as it diverts resources and energy from more fruitful activity into fighting it. Ironically, as we discuss in section H.4.4, one weapon forged in that struggle is the "work to rule," namely workers bringing their workplace to a grinding halt by following the dictates of the boss to the letter. This is clear evidence that a workplace only operates because workers exercise their autonomy during working hours, an autonomy which authoritarian structures stifle and waste. A participatory workplace, therefore, would be more efficient and less wasteful than the hierarchical one associated with capitalism. As we discuss in section J.5.12, hierarchy and the struggle it creates always acts as a barrier stopping the increased efficiency associated with workers' participation undermining the autocratic workplace of capitalism.

All this is not to suggest that those at the bottom of hierarchies are victims nor that those at the top of hierarchies only gain benefits—far from it. As Ward and Malatesta indicated, hierarchy by its very nature creates resistance to it from those subjected to it and, in the process, the potential for ending it (see section B.1.6 for more discussion). Conversely, at the summit of the pyramid, we also see the evils of hierarchy.

If we look at those at the top of the system, yes, indeed they often do very well in terms of material goods and access to education, leisure, health and so on but they lose their humanity and individuality. As Bakunin pointed out, "power and authority corrupt those who exercise them as much as those who are compelled to submit to them." [22] Power operates destructively, even on those who have it, reducing their individuality as it "renders them stupid and brutal, even when they were originally endowed with the best of talents. One who is constantly striving to force everything into a mechanical order at last becomes a machine himself and loses all human feeling." [23]

When it boils down to it, hierarchy is self-defeating, for if "wealth is other people," then by treating others as less than yourself, restricting their growth, you lose all the potential insights and abilities these individuals have, so impoverishing your own life and restricting your own growth. Unfortunately in these days material wealth (a particularly narrow form of "self-interest") has replaced concern for developing the whole person and leading a fulfilling and creative life (a broad self-interest, which places the individual within society, one that recognises that relationships with others shape and develop all individuals). In a hierarchical, class based society everyone loses to some degree, even those at the "top."

Looking at the environment, the self-defeating nature of hierarchy also becomes clear. The destiny of human life goes hand-in-hand with the destiny of the non-human world. While being rich and powerful may mitigate the impact of the ecological destruction produced by hierarchies and capitalism, it will not stop them and will, eventually, impact on the elite as well as the many.

Little wonder, then, that "anarchism . . . works to destroy authority in all its aspects . . . [and] refuses all hierarchical organisation." [24]


  1. Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be?, p. 47
  2. God and the State, p. 41
  3. The Miners' Next Step, pp. 16-17 and p. 15
  4. Anarchy in Action, p, 42
  5. Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 81
  6. Red Emma Speaks, p. 50
  7. Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, pp. 40-1
  8. Op. Cit., p. 43
  9. quoted by Jose Peirats, The CNT in the Spanish Revolution, vol. 2, p. 76
  10. The Ecology of Freedom, p. 72 and p. 189
  11. Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 72, p. 44, p. 72 and pp. 154-5
  12. After the New Economy, pp. 81-2
  13. vol. 312, April 20, 1996, p. 985
  14. "Inequality in income and mortality in the United States: analysis of mortality and potential pathways," British Medical Journal, vol. 312, April 20, 1996, pp. 999-1003
  15. George Davey Smith, "Income inequality and mortality: why are they related?" British Medical Journal, Vol. 312, April 20, 1996, pp. 987-988
  16. quoted by Robert Kuttner, Everything for Sale, p. 153
  17. Kuttner, Op. Cit., p. 153 and p. 154
  18. Op. Cit., p. 41
  19. Anarchy, p. 38 and p. 39
  20. Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 37 and p. 36
  21. Globalisation and its Discontents, p. 33
  22. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 249
  23. Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, pp. 17-8
  24. Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 137