By Lexi Owens
This essay was inspired by ongoing discussions in online and offline anarchist spaces where many self-styled anarchists have tied themselves in knots trying to justify certain hierarchies, especially those of the educated and benevolent expert who provides leadership during revolutionary projects. It is imperative that labor organizers, union members, and other revolutionaries reject this perspective because it reinforces and recreates the same oppressive structures which we are now trying to destroy.
Labor must resist internal challenges to liberatory praxis
Some radical activists claim that some hierarchies are justified, beneficial, or necessary for the organization of a revolutionary society or movement. They believe experts deserve to lead because of their education, class, trade, or experience. This belief is dangerously shortsighted. If we wish to break free from the oppression of our current society, then we must resist the temptation to support hierarchies that are vestiges of that society.
Numerous theorists have identified oppressive hierarchies in Western civilization that need to be destroyed: sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia and queerphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism, to name a few. Since the beginning of the American labor movement, another hierarchy has existed between the so-called skilled tradesmen and the so-called unskilled laborers—most unions never attempted to unionize the “unskilled” workers, with the IWW being the major exception. And in contemporary discourse about labor, some defend the hierarchy between the elite, educated worker and the unskilled or “uneducated” worker.
When activists talk about “justified hierarchy,” they are usually referring to education or experience. They contend that a revolutionary community will be successful because those with the most education will organize production, labor, and resources, and they will be trusted by their communities. “Justified hierarchy” is an easy answer because it allows the speaker to reframe the pragmatic question in conformity with their own biases. Educated people—because they abstractly know things—are presumed to be more knowledgeable about this or that, and therefore should have authority over this or that project. An engineer who’s been through ten years of college should oversee bridge building, a chemist should oversee medicine production, or a teacher should have unquestioned authority over students.
The unconscious elitism of some revolutionaries comes from our current social organization, which is rooted in modern, capitalist, liberal traditions. It’s a dangerous kind of vanguardism which sees the expert revolutionary as being apart and better than the uneducated, unconscious, unaware masses, who need someone in authority to accomplish tasks.
Education does not create expertise
Some hierarchies have been justified because they are “natural,” such as men are stronger than women, the parent should govern the child, the teacher should instruct the student. These claims are stated as if they are true by definition. “Of course, the teacher instructs the student, that is what a teacher does.”
In my time as an educator, I’ve tried to address the power imbalance of the classroom. A teacher is not an infinite source of perfect knowledge. Teachers are imperfect, they are often ignorant, they are often domineering and authoritarian. How can we say that teachers should have authority over all students when any body of students has knowledge the teacher doesn’t or has experiences the teacher has not had? For instance, how could a white teacher instruct a group of students of color about racial prejudice? The lived experiences of the students will grant far more insight about racism than a teacher from a relatively privileged background could ever impart. So they exchange knowledge in an egalitarian way rather than a structured, hierarchical, expert-to-student way. Here we address the justifications behind a “hierarchy of knowledge” to reimagine a classroom that facilitates dozens of dialogues (between teacher and student and between student and student).
Another example that has practically become a trope is the expert in a STEM field who is given a position of power over some project. An engineer with a doctorate in civil engineering, for instance, should be in charge of infrastructure building. We can think of dozens of counterexamples where the PhD-holding “leader” does not deserve leadership. They might be straight out of school and have never actually been on a jobsite. In that case, they should defer to the construction workers who have years of experience in the building trades. Or the same PhD holder might just be a bad leader with no organizational skills, so a committee of workers should run the project and leave only certain tasks to the engineer.
Or, and I think this is most important, each person should take on the tasks appropriate to their level of expertise and work cooperatively with everyone else. That’s a truly anarchic spirit applied to project management.
No one is entitled to leadership
Having knowledge or skills does not logically mean any person should have authority. Let’s look at the civil engineer again. That person should only be in charge of designing a bridge if every person also involved in the process democratically says it should be so. Simply having a PhD does not confer unlimited authority, a mandate, or anything else. Colleges should not create hierarchies in any society, especially not in a society that espouses egalitarianism and solidarity between all working peoples.
We should resist believing that the institutions of higher education confer special abilities to a certain elite subset of workers.
Seniority also can’t justify hierarchical thinking. Deferring to someone with years of experience should be a conscious and democratic choice. I am not saying that these people should not be leaders, but they should be freely and intentionally chosen, not appointed automatically. As we plan a revolutionary society, we must also evaluate the seemingly benign structures which undercut our libertarian goals.
Experts are not incorruptible. They have implicit biases too. Does having a doctorate make one cease being a racist or a sexist? Does being a teacher make one an expert on numerous school subjects?
Far be it from me to quote an expert, but I think Mikhail Bakunin states the solution elegantly in his essay “What is Authority?” published in 1882, with my own emphasis added.
Does it follow that I reject all authority? 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 the engineer…. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure…. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others…. I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed on me by my own reason…. I receive and I give – such is human life. 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.
[Originally published in issue 3 of the Seattle Worker]