Two Kinds of Hierarchy

Coturnix republishes an old post of his characterizing conservatives as regressives. His main thesis is that liberals/progressives view history in terms of progress from worse to better, while conservatives view it in terms of a downward spiral from a mythical Golden Age.

I want to write more about the views of history later, so right now I’ll only note that the progressive versus cyclical distinction has more to do with Abrahamic versus Dharmic or Confucian than with liberal versus conservative.

But a good part of Coturnix’s post is about psychological differences, and here is where he errs by taking too much from Lakoff and too little from Cultural Theory. For a start, he says, “Full transformation from one ideology to the other is usually a two-generation process,” even though every serious theory of bias has an element of a Kuhnian surprise, whereby people can switch from one bias to another.

More importantly, he characterizes conservatives by their emphasis on hierarchy.

The Strict Father model of childrearing has another serious developmental consequence. The child is stuck at a developmental stage in which one is capable of making connections between cause and effect. The child is incapable of developing further and understanding how a system of many inetracting parts can lead to an effect for which there is NO SINGLE cause, i.e., it results from interactions, not from one element. Thus:


A Regressive is mentally incapable of understanding a system in which A, B and C together cause D, without any one of them being the initial cause. In other words, the Regressive view is hierarchical, while the Progressive worldview is interactionist. We can rewrite the schemce above to look like this:

is superior to
is superior to
is superior to

I’ve already written about why Bora’s focus on hierarchy is wrong. But this formulation actually suggests that there is another element he’s ignoring: the two different kinds of hierarchy. In a nutshell, there is conservative hierarchy, and radical hierarchy. Conservative hierarchy has a few fatalist elements; radical hierarchy has many egalitarian ones.

In conservative hierarchy, the long chains of command and causation are natural. Even if there’s an ultimate cause of everything, it acts through intermediate causes, which must be fully understood to realize what’s going on in the world.

More importantly, the canonical conservative hierarchy, the military, has numerous ranks. The Commander in Chief does not talk directly to privates; he talks to the Joint Chiefs, who then pass down orders to base commanders, who pass down orders to unit commanders, and so on. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church has many intermediaries between the practitioner and God: the priest, the bishop, the archbishop, and the Pope.

In contrast, the radical hierarchy is simpler. It works more along a Protestant model, in which the individual obeys no one but God, with which he has a personal relationship. Often a radical hierarchy adopts anti-hierarchist tone: in Mao’s China, Mao encouraged his followers to oppose any hierarchy and any unequal relationship save the one between them and him. In most cases, there will also be a cult of personality around a charismatic leader, such as Hitler or Mao.

In terms of causation, radicalism is more obsessed with root causes. The radical feminist not only asserts that sexism is the root of all social problems, but also asserts that every social problem must be understood in a patriarchal context. It’s not enough for her to claim that racism is caused by classism and classism by sexism; she goes further and says that all of these inequalities are equally subordinate to gender inequality.

The conservative hierarchy tends to be a lot more tolerant of dissent than the radical one. This goes back to the authoritarian versus totalitarian distinction: if you’re secure in your power, you tend to have a “Let them hate us as long as they fear us” view of reality. But if you’re a radical who constantly fears for the success of the Revolution, you’re likelier to be insecure and brook not even the most trivial of disagreements.

Ultimately, this distinction goes back to Hume, who called conservative hierarchy “superstition” and radical one “enthusiasm.” He noted that the Catholic Church’s steady oppression of the people constituted a different form of hierarchy from the fanatical flare of the various Protestant denominations active at the time, and that enthusiasm had low lasting power.

The subsequent moderation of most Protestants, especially the Quakers, who he singled out as the most radical, supports Hume point. But radical hierarchy can also become conservative, as it did in Stalin’s Russia and Deng’s China.

Although radical hierarchy is more hierarchist than egalitarian, its roots are usually egalitarian. When the group is just a small vanguard, it tends to be completely egalitarian; the hierarchism comes when it turns into a mass movement or comes to power. While boundedness-inspired paranoia is common to both high-group biases, it tends to be stronger in egalitarianism than in hierarchism; but radical hierarchy is an exception to that rule.

8 Responses to Two Kinds of Hierarchy

  1. whig says:


    I think you are analyzing Coturnix’s point with an inbuild assumption that such models as Mao’s China represent a progressive ideal. The truth is that there is a lot of regressiveness (authoritarianism) in many movements that purport, or perhaps start out, to be progressive.

    The question is one of motivations, and equality of power. These are two co-causal (but not the only two) factors in determining whether the outcome is more libertarian progressive, or more authoritarian regressive.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think they represent any liberal ideal. They’re often on the left, but even then they’re not progressive but revolutionary. With respect to change, there are about five distinct views: revolution/radicalism, change/progressivism, reform/incrementalism, status quo/conservatism, and reaction/regressivism.

    Mind you, despite the fact that radicalism is associated with the revolutionary left, it works equally well for right-wing movements like Nazism, Dominionism, neo-conservatism, fascism, and even libertarianism.

  3. double-soup tuesday says:

    They’re often on the left, but even then they’re not progressive but revolutionary. With respect to change, there are about five distinct views: revolution/radicalism, change/progressivism, reform/incrementalism, status quo/conservatism, and reaction/regressivism.

    With regard to social democracies of northern Europe (Finland for example), do you think this tedious taxonomy was a necessary formulation for them to act?

  4. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t understand who “them” are…

  5. double-soup tuesday says:

    Sorry, I meant for modern political scientists — such as those with design input in the Nordic social democracies — that have implemented controlled change to positive effects.

    Is your taxonomy critical to the governed population’s support of progressive policies and acceptance of change?

  6. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think it is.

    At most, you can say that different populations like different sorts of progress: for example, in the US, a lot of people like reformists and incrementalists, whereas in Sweden and Norway, the more rapid change of progressivism is preferred. Radicalism only has the upper hand when the people are truly desperate – for instance, in Iran in 1979.

  7. Deep Thought says:

    I sorta’ take issue with your definitions of both military and Catholic hierarcy. One of the features that separates the American military hierarchy from other military hierarchies is the level of flexibility lower-level members have. There is a difference between being *answerable* to superiors and *dependent upon* superiors. Same with the Catholic hierarchy (which, BTW, is NOT ‘between the practitioner and God”). The member of the Catholic hierarchy with the greatest latitude of independent decision making (outside of members, who may simply leave the organization) is the Parish priest. Indeed, the creation of ‘independent groups’ that are outside of the hierarchy and that are answerable only to the Pope is not only possible but relatively common, resulting in independent actors within the Church at all levels and locations.

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