Friday, July 24, 2009

the guardian institutions of hierarchy

paulchefurka | One aspect of human culture that seems irresistible to the ancient status-seeking part of our brain is the development of hierarchies. The encoding of personal status and power into social structures is evident in the tribes and troops of all the great apes, but human beings have gone much further. We built an entire globe-spanning civilization on the foundation of hierarchy.

One inevitable effect of social hierarchies (in fact the effect that made our global civilization possible) is the consolidation of power. As new power comes into a hierarchic social system it flows preferentially to the top. As the system develops, even the small amount of power available to those at the bottom of the social pyramid is removed and ends up concentrated at the top in a power elite. This becomes a positive feedback loop: the more power is consolidated at the top, the easier the consolidation becomes.

This consolidation of power is seen in all social hierarchies. As you would expect, our most hierarchic societies, from ancient Egypt to Stalinist Russia to the USA, exhibit it most profoundly.

You can think of this effect as a form of social reverse osmosis, in which power is pumped through a semi-permeable membrane up a gradient from social regions of low power concentration to regions of high concentration, with class boundaries forming the membrane between them.

Physical reverse osmosis requires both a semi-permeable membrane and a pump, so it's logical to look for similar mechanisms in this social metaphor. What drives social power from low to high concentrations? And what keeps the semi-permeable membrane of social class boundaries intact so that the whole system can function?

In our metaphor of reverse osmosis, these mechanisms are provided by what I call the Guardian Institutions. These are the corporate, economic, financial, political, legal, religious, educational and communications institutions that form the structural skeleton of our civilization.