Murray Bookchin: the emergence of hierarchy

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)


chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

At the dawn of recorded history, the human race was in the midst of a social, political and technological revolution.  Agriculture had started to replace hunting and gathering.  New technologies such as the wheel, the pottery kiln, the metal smelter and the loom generated increased wealth, making possible societies with much larger populations than villages and hunting clans.

Hardly any of this, however, went to improve the overall human material standard of living.  Instead the increased means of power and wealth went to support emperors, priesthoods, aristocracies and the armies and merchants who served them.

Human beings gained both increased power over nature and increased power over other human beings.

Studies of grave sites indicate that the average human in ancient civilizations was in poorer health and was more poorly nourished that the so-called savages living in hunting and gathering societies on their borders.

Most historians, including Marxist historians, recognize this, but they think it was a good thing, not a bad thing.

If the increased wealth had been spread among the populace, they say, it would have resulted only in a moderately prosperous mediocrity.  The concentration of wealth made it possible to create science, philosophy, literature, the fine arts and more new technologies, which is turn allowed humanity to advance through stages to the good life we enjoy today—or, according to the Marxists, create the material basis for a utopian society yet to come.

Murray Bookchin disagreed.  For one thing, he did not believe that history proceeds in pre-ordained stages.  He believed that the different periods of history offered choices of roads to take, some good, some bad, most of them mixtures of the two.

The rejection of hierarchy would have been a good choice, he wrote.  There are many non-Western societies in which people, in Gandhi’s words, have enough for their need, but not their greed.  Such societies are rich in tradition and culture, and their people are at least as happy as modern Americans and Europeans.

I am not as sure as Bookchin that such a choice was feasible.  Once one civilization devotes itself to militarism and acquisition, the rest must submit or find a method of defense, and the most obvious method of defense is to become militaristic and acquisitive themselves.

This is a dilemma that still exists today, which thinkers such as Gene Sharp have tried to find answers for.


The crucial wrong turn, Bookchin wrote, was to embrace the concept of “scarcity”.   There are circumstances in which people lack the means of survival, but they are rare.  Bookchin said the great evil is when they have the means of survival, but think they need more.

“Need” in this case is different from “desire”.   If you think acquiring something will make you happy, you get it, and it makes you happy and content, that is all right.  If you think the lack of something will make you unhappy, you get it, and you are still unhappy, because of the lack of something else, that is a problem.

The ancient rulers needed gold and jewels, magnificent palaces, fine and rare foods and hoards of servants because such things symbolized their dominance and power.  The Pyramids of Egypt and the Ziggarats of ancient Babylon served to impress ordinary mortals with the power and prestige of the Pharaoh and Babylonian priesthoods over ordinary mortals.

mrurraybookchin.hierarchy646538Over time, Bookchin said, working people and poor people came to demand the luxuries of the rich because they thought them essential to human dignity.

His only example of this was the public demand for white bread, but I can think of others.

One is the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which came into existence to supply the demand of the European public for sugar, tobacco and coffee.  Another is President Obama’s energy plan, based on fracking and offshore drilling to satisfy the demand of the American public for gasoline for our automobiles.

More than any previous system, capitalism gave free rein to such demands, and resulted in the ravaging of the earth and humanity.  (By capitalism, Bookchin does not mean “free enterprise,” but rule by the owners of capital.)

Bookchin said that all the pre-capitalist societies retain some remnant of the original organic societies.  Capitalism reduces everything to an economic calculus, he wrote.

When I read this, I thought of the great economist John Maynard Keynes.  His idea for jump-starting the capitalist system when it stalled was stimulate demand (in other words, generate “scarcity’) and thereby stimulate production.  Keynes believed that, at some point, the capitalist system would produce enough to satisfy the needs of all, and then everybody could relax.  But capitalism requires that the growth of needs keep pace with the growth of output, and there is no stopping point in sight.

In my own life, I resolved early on never to spend money on anything that (1) I didn’t need for life and health or (2) wouldn’t make me happier.  This resolution, plus a lot of good luck, has enabled me to live below my income, and to be happy.

I feel smug about this, until I reflect that I can’t function without my morning cup of coffee, and I am nervous and distrait when my Internet service is down for a few days.   Murray Bookchin, if he were still alive and knew me, would probably say I am as much a victim of the “scarcity” mentality as anybody else.

The good side of all this, as Bookchin recognizes, is that the material abundance and technological capability created by capitalist societies and their predecessors, used rightly, can be a great blessing.  He is not such a fool as to want to turn his back on them and return to a primitive existence.


How did hierarchy emerge from the “organic” societies anyway?

Bookchin speculated that it has two sources—the beginning of priesthoods among the tribal elders, and the beginning of warrior aristocracies among the young male hunters.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Elders in the prehistoric organic community were teachers of wisdom and practical skills.  But when the community was at risk, they were expendable.  Bookchin speculates that they invented the role of shaman in order to make themselves indispensable.  They supposedly had powers over supernatural forces that did not wane as they grew old and feeble.

But the power of shamans didn’t always work.  Better to be a priest or prophet who was in touch with the gods!  If things went wrong then, it wasn’t because of the incompetence of the priests and prophets, it was because the community had displeased the gods.

Early priesthoods included women and well as men.  Bookchin noted female prophets among the ancient Norse and Celts, and the fact that the Oracle of Delphi, the oldest Greek religious institution, consisted of women.

Historically priesthoods have been allied with warrior aristocracies, corresponding to the philosopher-kings and “spirited” young men in Plato’s Republic or the First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility) in France under the Old Regime.

Men and women in organic societies had different roles, but were not unequal, Bookchin wrote.  An example of these roles is the response of  a group of African Bushmen  to an encounter with a European explorer.  The men with their spears formed a line; the women with their babies gathered behind them.   The men’s role was to protect the women; the women to protect the babies.  Neither was regarded as supeior to the other.

Over time men used their superior physical strength to elevate the virtues of the male role over the virtues of the female role.

Men were specialists in violence, which they exercised as hunters and protectors of the community.  This role required courage and aggressiveness.

Women were specialists in nurturing, which they exercises as gardeners and as mothers of children.  This role required human understanding and concern.

Over time, Bookchin wrote, the virtues of the female role were redefined as weaknesses.

This is a simple theory of what undoubtedly was a highly complicated reality.  I would put it under the heading of “interesting possibility” rather than “certain truth”.  My guess is that there was as much difference among prehistoric societies as there is among nations today.

The usefulness of Bookchin’s theory is that it frees us from blindly accepting other theories that tell us that patriarchy, domination and war are written into our DNA and there is no alternative.


PREVIOUS: chapter two: the outlook of organic society.

NEXT: chapter four: epistemologies of rule



The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

The Emergence of Hierarchy, Domination and Centraliztion: Reflections on the Work of Murray Bookchin by J. Raven (2009)

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One Response to “Murray Bookchin: the emergence of hierarchy”

  1. Ηλεκτρονική Κολεκτίβα 2: Τι είναι ο αναρχισμός; Ποια η σχετικότητά του; Γιατί να διαβάσετε αυτό το άρθρο και τη στήλη γενικά; (Part 1) - Skra punk Says:

    […] του προσαφθούν από ένα οικοδόμημα που στηρίζεται στις σχέσεις εξουσίας, και μάλιστα όχι μόνο τις οικονομικές ή τις ταξικές. […]


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