Difference Between Democratic and Dominance Hierarchies

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Context: a review of Graeber/Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything

Daniel Bitton:

"A conventional or democratic hierarchy is where a group of people voluntarily organize into a hierarchy in order to achieve some goal. And while, like in every decision-making hierarchy, the people on top of the hierarchy have more decision-making power, the people at the bottom are still the ultimate deciders, in that the leadership position exists only because it serves their interests – and they can remove the person filling that position it if they’re not happy with their leadership service, and even remove the position entirely if they want to. And the terms of getting to be on top of a conventional hierarchy – like the degree of authority and responsibilities you might have, and the rewards you get – if any – are all ultimately determined by the people on the bottom.

A dominance hierarchy on the other hand, is something that people on the top impose on the people on the people below them because of differential bargaining power between the two sides. And if the people on the bottom tolerate the power imbalance, it’s because they don’t have any better options – like how you go to your job that you hate and you obey your dingus boss, because not going to that job will be worse in various ways than going to it.

For an example of a conventional hierarchy – even in the most hyper egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, who have no chiefs or authority figures – when there’s a hunting party, the hunters will often pick someone among them who has a lot of experience and good skills and instincts to be the party leader, and they’ll look to him for guidance and leadership on the hunt.

Not only do these hunting leaders not have any official authority, but the second that people don’t like what he’s doing they’ll either stop listening, or else never appoint him again, depending on the circumstances.

In that video I mentioned last time with the bro dude going hunting with the Hadza, the translators refer to one man called Sokolo as the “chief” but that’s a mis-translation from the translator who’s from a different more hierarchical ethnic group – Sokolo was just the hunting party leader – and any Hadza trying to pass himself off as a chief would get into enormous trouble with the rest of the community.

Now sometimes the lines might get blurry between a conventional and dominance hierarchy, and there’s a bit of a spectrum, which we can talk about more another time – but a good analogy to know which kind of hierarchy you’re dealing with is like the difference between Sadomasochism and sexual assault. On the surface they might look like the same thing – but the second someone says stop, and the other person doesn’t stop, then it becomes sexual assault.

So, by definition, when the authors ask “how did we get stuck” in hierarchy – what they’re talking about is dominance hierarchy not a democratic hierarchy, because you’re not stuck in a democratic hierarchy, you have entered into it on an equal footing with all the other members of that hierarchy, and you have an equal say with everyone else on determining how it will be shaped, and who gets to be in what position, and whether or not the hierarchy continues to exist at all.

Now one thing to note about dominance hierarchy is that since by its very nature, no one chooses to have it imposed on them – dominance hierarchy can only exist if there are certain conditions or circumstances that give some people a set of advantages which allow them to impose their dominance onto other people.

These sorts of conditions are things like – I have guns and you don’t, i’m an adult and you’re my child and you depend on me for food and shelter – or our economy depends on fishing, and my family got to this fishing spot first, and we’re numerous and strong enough to control it by force and you have no where else to get your fish, etc.

And so, by not distinguishing between conventional vs dominance hierarchies, and by not understanding that dominance hierarchy can only exist because of conditions and circumstances – the Dawn of Everything creates a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding why we got stuck in hierarchy and how we can get unstuck."


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