“A division of angels”

Posted by jlubans on January 13, 2015

Caption: Field of stones, natural and hierarchized.

Hieroglyphic was a recent Merriam-Webster’s Word of the day. Its etymology sent me to hieratic, “a cursive form of ancient Egyptian writing” as well as “highly stylized or formal”, which, inevitably, took me to hierarchy.
Its initial meaning, “a division of angels” – one that I would struggle to apply to any hierarchies I know - has long been subordinated to its popular use to describe the corporate realm, the office pecking order, the organizational chart, and the top-down chain-of-command.
All this was of interest since I frequently use the word, hierarchy, as the bête noire of freedom at work, indeed, the un-democracy of the Democratic Workplace.
We are immersed in hierarchies, not just in the workplace. Anything “ordered” or “ranked”, is usually a hierarchy.
While mankind, for the most part, will put aside personal interests to help others – when we are free, cooperation is second nature to us - we still organize ourselves into hierarchies under the notion that structure is essential to anything getting done.
Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his 1835 book, La Démocratie en Amérique has this to say about democracy and hierarchy in the young America: “The population of New England was growing fast, and, while in the mother country the hierarchy of rank still classified men in a despotic manner, the colony increasingly showed the new spectacle of a society homogeneous in all its parts. Democracy, as Antiquity had never dared dream it, emerged large and well armed from within the ancient feudal society”*
For Tocqueville (according to Verdier) “hierarchy (on the one hand) is synonymous with despotism, and on the other it is what endows a civilization with its intellectual wealth….”
How can that be?
In Tocqueville’s eyes, hierarchy - however undesirable - is a natural form of society. (My two cents worth: there are exceptions to this conclusion. For example, bees and other creatures exist without hierarchy. Indeed, there are societies of people that can be classified as un-hierarchical. )
And the “absence of hierarchy only appears possible under a rule of tyranny aiming at the ignorance of the people.” “A despot can have motive to render his subjects equal and leave them ignorant, so as to more easily maintain them in slavery.” Sound familiar? Orwell's Animal Farm explores that from a real world perspective. "We're all equal comrades, comrade. Just a few of us are more equal than others."
So, it would appear, we should seek a balance between the rigid hierarchy of despotism and a looser (more gentle?) hierarchy that permits us to live in constructive ways.
I have come half way in this regard. For me, hierarchies can be useful as long as they permit the maximum freedom for the individual, as long as they do not interfere with a worker’s ability to be an essential part of the organization and to have a strong voice – if he or she chooses - in the running of the business. Hence, I call this a hybrid organization, a melding of
teams and the towering pyramid of boxes, capped by THE Boss. The hybrid requires a different kind of leader, the unboss, if you will, who helps the people who work in the organization make the most their skills and abilities for the good of the concern.

*As quoted by Nicolas Verdier. Hierarchy: a short history of a word in Western thought. Pumain D. (ed), Hierarchy in Natural and Social Sciences, Springer, pp.13-37, 2005.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015
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