Hierarchies Are Right and Just

We Have Gained the Stairs,” by Stella Langdale / Public Domain

Rerum Novarum, the great Catholic document on social relations, begins by describing a “spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world” (Paragraph 1). This spirit is often merely called modernity — the period in which all things are ephemeral and everything that is solid vanishes into air. Revolutionary change has had many targets, but if we were to look for a single uniting theme in modernity, it is the belief that old hierarchies are unjust and ought to be eliminated: modern movements from Protestantism to Liberalism and even Communism and Fascism all sought to tear down old hierarchies and build something new. It may surprise some readers to see fascism included in there, but remember their maxim: Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State. This is to abolish all hierarchies but the state, which is really what is common to all. Protestantism sought to abolish ecclesiastical authority but ended up recreating it as an organ of the state, and Liberalism and Communism merely replaced the old ruling class with a new one. Fascism sought to build a new, totalizing, hierarchy, and so was at least honest in its aims.

Anarchism equally shares this impulse, and, at least on the face of it, seems to take it seriously. Anarchism seeks to abolish all hierarchies and not replace them. It’s certainly more noble than the duplicity of the other ideologies I mentioned, but there are two major problems with it: one I will address briefly, and one I will address at length as we go.

Briefly, Anarchism ignores some realities of the political. I think some right-liberals go too far in saying that hierarchies are wholly natural. I love Jordan Peterson, but the Lobster Thesis™ is far from proving that the kinds of hierarchies we see in human societies are natural, simply because it ignores those things that are particular about human societies. We don’t see class systems in nature, and while the lion is certainly king of the animals, he is not their sovereign.

No, hierarchies in human societies are artificial — if they are not, then very little can be. They are a consequence, however, of human nature. Consider this passage from Aristotle:

When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides, the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best.

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the

“Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, “

whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts. (Politics 1.2)

Human beings are political (read: social, made for living in community with other humans) animals. The political, not hierarchy itself, is natural. If I was more Schmittian I would tell you that once you live in community with other humans there emerges a distinction between those particular humans which are your friends and enemies, and therefore hierarchical relations, but I need not go as far as that. Instead, I will invite you into a brief experiment. You are a citizen of a Greek city which has decided to have a non-hierarchical assembly. You and your neighbours would like to widen the road in your part of town, but alone you will not have enough votes to pull this off. If the road is not widened your area of town will fall behind economically, and so the rest of the community, whose consent is necessary to achieve it, has power over you. This is a hierarchy.

Consider an alternative avenue: you and your neighbours speak to other members of your community and offer them your vote on something they care about in exchange for their support in widening the road. You have just created an ad-hoc political party. It is not official, because that would be against the rules of the assembly, and it will fall apart after your two votes go through, but for now, you have power over your neighbours. This too is hierarchy.

In light of this we can understand why those movements which promised to abolish hierarchy (especially Liberalism and Marxist-Leninism) seem to have failed to do so. They did abolish (or at least weaken) all the old hierarchies in their revolution, but merely because they chose to continue governing themselves — necessary, because humans must live in societies — they created a new one. In attempting to abolish all hierarchy, they merely succeeded in abolishing anything which exists as a parallel power to the state. That is really all that revolutions can successfully do.

And so I turn to my second problem with Anarchism, which is the title of this article and my main subject. Parallel powers to the state — what we might call “little platoons” if we were Burkeans— are what protects and maintains the lives of ordinary people. Unions protect workers’ rights; legal organizations protect people from the judiciary; fishing clubs protect rivers and streams; neighbourhood watch organizations keep children safe, and so on. Anarchists, as well as the other modern ideologies which I’ve described as dishonest, seek to build a better society for the very people who are most protected by those things which they seek to tear down in the name of their liberation. I would like to continue by describing how three extra-state hierarchies in particular protect ordinary people.

The Family

Of my three, this is probably the least controversial category. Technically speaking all modern ideologies seek to abolish the family in theory, and have made great strides in practice, they generally fail because most of their adherents like families. Nevertheless, the family remains under attack even in our liberal societies.

Pope Leo says of families that they are “the “society” of a man’s house — a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State” (RN 12). He delineates some rights that are peculiar to families and apart from the state: it is a law of nature that the father provide for the material needs of his children, which can be achieved in no way but the “ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance” (RN 13). Families’ ownership of productive property becomes the great target in modernity, from the collective farms of the USSR and China to liberalism’s attack on inheritance (as sexist or perpetuating inequalities) and the protections family businesses have from multinationals.

Some people will no doubt reply that inheritance actually is unjust and sexist. After all, don’t family farms and other productive assets pass down to the eldest son? The reason that this was traditionally done was to protect the asset from being broken up and purchased by someone richer. It’s a lot harder to buy 4 acres off of one person determined to carry on the family business than it is to buy 4 acres split 7 ways. Inheritance does create inequalities no doubt: the Walton heirs didn’t earn a cent of their fortunes, for instance. Attacks on inheritance do not harm people like that, though; inheritance taxes are easily dodged by wealthy people and much harder to dodge among small property owners.

I have done the family a disservice in treating it only as a vehicle for providing material goods. It is obviously important for other reasons than that. It is the strongest bond of loyalty that exists, and it is the building block of every successful community. They are the natural means by which human beings produce, socialize, and educate children. These, too, are reasons why modern ideologies have targeted the family and things that make its hierarchical nature just, but time and space will not permit me to treat those here.

The Church

Much more controversial but much more evident, the Church has been a target of every revolution in modern history. If you name a revolution I can probably name a handful of Catholic martyrs who earned their crowns as a consequence of it. Moderns have everywhere gone after the Church’s hierarchical nature; everyone knows about the Reformation, but Kant tells us that enlightenment offers us liberation from those pastors who tell us “Do not argue — believe!,” and Gladstone suggests that “no one can now become [Rome’s] convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom.”

Let us bracket for a second that both Kant’s Germany and Gladstone’s England had state churches, and both would have us renounce our moral and mental freedom to liberalism. Having difficulty with the hierarchical nature of the Church was really the beginning of modernity, and everywhere she has been the main opposition to it. The Church has 3 major things that it does; it worships God, it evangelizes, and it cares for social justice, and two of these butt up against people like Kant and Gladstone.

Evangelization requires a message to deliver, and any organization without a leader cannot have a cohesive message. The Pope exists primarily as a sort of final court of appeal for doctrinal disputes, and he is what allows the Catholic Church to have doctrinal unity. All attacks on hierarchy, and especially on the hierarchy of the Church, must necessarily be attacks, if not on the truth itself, than on the idea that we can know truth. Notice that all modern ideologies inevitably collapse into will or utility as the justification for their actions; there is no alternative if we cannot know the truth definitively. Sapere Aude indeed.

The Church’s social commitments have to a lesser but not insignificant degree also made it a target. The clergy were the only voice which said we ought to treat indigenous peoples as humans; they criticized the institution of slavery; and in modern times they were amongst the only voices against war, eugenics, and fascism (it was basically only Churchill and Pope Pius XI who were remotely concerned about Hitler before the invasion of Poland).

Both of these things protect ordinary people from the state. It is self evident how the Church’s social justice commitments do this: even on a less controversial and smaller scale, the Church runs orphanages, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and so on, which are essential components of a community. Claiming to know the truth, though, is incredibly important for individuals’ ordinary lives. The Church alone has the capacity to judge between different ways of life and tell people “this is how you ought to live,” which is something all need to know.


This will be short, and you are probably very confused. The king is outside of the state? The king is a platoon? Yes, let me explain.

In most monarchies the king reigns, but does not govern. People will argue whether they ought to or not (again time and space will not permit me to) but this means that much of their real power is ‘soft’ and outside of the state. Politically, the king has certain prerogatives that remain in the constitution, which means that he is a powerful agent who will always fight for those inherited rights which ordinary people benefit from. This is no doubt an important role, (Burke noticed this first) but their soft power manifests in other ways too.

Consider the Queen’s Canopy, a program begun by Her Majesty as a conscious component of her legacy. Because of the soft power wielded by the Queen, 53 countries around the world have protected massive tracts of forest for future generations to enjoy. Monarchs have a unique concern for their realms that extends far beyond their lifespan which no politician or even member of a non-hierarchical council can share. They allow things, essential to the common good and otherwise, to be preserved, which would be eliminated otherwise.

Additionally, monarchs are large private landowners. Many farmers in England are tenants of the Queen and work the land she owns. Like inheritance on a micro scale, the Queen’s inheritance protects farmers and the land she owns from exploitation by capital. This particular hierarchical model is an important protection and one which many nations no longer have.

There are many more hierarchies which exist to protect people from the state and from capital; this article was just an introduction to three. I hope it’s made clear some of the dangers abolishing old hierarchies bring, and if not, at least you might have come away with a slightly better understanding of the political.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.