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Good Hierarchy, Bad Hierarchy

In the previous blog I came out very strongly against anarchism. It’s simply wishful thinking to believe that anything good can be achieved by abolishing the state. Yes, people can leave in stateless and elite-less societies (and have done so for tens of thousands of years). But they suffered from warfare in a really bad way. Read again my blog on War before Civilization on the cost of having many small-scale societies without any overarching political authority that pacifies them.

The ideology of anarchism is something that can flourish only in relatively well-run state societies, although it’s probably more likely to gain popularity when these societies decline in one way or another. On the other hand, the 1.5 billion people living in fragile or failed states understand very well that what they need is a better state, not absence of one. Fragile states are also poor ones, as is shown by this data graph, put together by Tom Currie:


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State instability is closely correlated with poverty. Source

It’s not quite clear which way the causation goes. Does poverty breed anarchy? Does anarchy breed poverty? Perhaps both. More likely, they are a consequence of a deeper underlying dynamic. Cooperation is what brings about both strong and vibrant economies and strong and just states.

The other thing we forget is that democratic small-scale societies could be extremely oppressive to the ‘deviant’ minorities. ‘Witches’ were actually quite safe from the Inquisition. The overwhelming majority of witches were actually burnt by their own communities, who decided to do so in an entirely democratic way – by the rule of majority.

The most productive way to think about hierarchy is that, first, it’s a general social law (sometimes known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy). Complex societies inevitably acquire hierarchies and elites (remember, the elites are the small proportion of population who concentrate the social power in their hands).

But second, although we are stuck with hierarchies, they come in all kinds of flavors. There are good hierarchies, and there are bad hierarchies. The elites can behave either in a prosocial way, which benefits broad segments of the population. Or they can act in ways that only advance their own selfish interests.

We, the 99 percent, collectively have a say in what kinds of elites we are going to have. At least, in principle. In practice it may be difficult to generate concerted political action that could restraint elites to behave in prosocial ways. New developments in information and communication technologies may give us better tools for organizing and getting things done (this could be an interesting topic for future discussions).

However, I would be remiss not to point out that historically the most important process that weeded out the selfish elites (‘bad hierarchies’) was competition between societies. As elites become more selfish, they lose any remaining support from the general population, then start bickering among themselves. This makes a society extremely vulnerable to external conquest. As Arnold Toynbee famously said, great civilizations are not murdered, they commit suicide. And the road to suicide is for a society to lose the ability to cooperate.

This is what happened to the Late Roman Empire. In the fifth century AD Italy had a tiny number of super-rich landowners and vast numbers of poor and powerless peasants. Relatively small armies of Germanic tribesmen could go where they pleased and pillage what they wanted, without encountering any organized resistance from the Italians. The heart of the Roman Empire, central and southern Italy, became an ‘asabiya black hole.’ And the selfish elites bear most of the blame.

They also paid the price. The peasants endured, but most of the late Roman nobility was dispossessed of its wealth, and those who managed to fit in the new order were subordinated to uncouth, hairy, and dirty barbarian chieftains.

History, thus, shows that mismanagement by the selfish elites is a self-correcting evolutionary process. It’s a costly way to ensure elite quality, and it would be better for the elites themselves if they could get their act together. Most of the time they can’t. My favorite example is the French Revolution which was triggered when an elite body, the French Assembly of Notables, frustrated attempts by the royal government to fix the state fiscal crisis in 1788, because they did not want to pay taxes

There are also historical examples when the elites managed to implement reforms that brought about more equal societies: the abolition of the serfdom in Russia, the Chartist Era in Great Britain, and the Progressive Era/the New Deal in the United States. It must be admitted that in each case there was a combination of internal and external pressures that forced the ruling classes to bite the bullet. Russia lost the Crimean War of 1853–56 and there was a wave of peasant upheavals during the 1850s that lead to the Emancipation Act of 1861. The American elites were badly frightened by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of political violence around 1920.

It would be fitting to end this post by quoting the Russian Tsar Alexander II (1855–81), who addressed the Russian nobility with the following words: “We live in such an age that it will happen sooner or later. I think you are of the same mind as me: it would be better to begin to abolish the serfdom from above than to wait until it abolishes itself from below.”



Join the discussion


  1. Joe Brewer says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for writing up that nice elaboration for the concept of asabiya that you’ve so powerfully articulated as vital to the cohesion and internal strength of social groups. This analysis resonates well with scholarly arguments by Christopher Boehm and others I’ve come across in different fields — namely that hierarchic structures spontaneously arise through self-organizing processes as the number of people increases through different “phase changes” and that social morality is shaped by cooperative tendencies that increase group cohesion.

    Vital insights for the culture design work my team is doing at Culture2 Inc.… where we are taking your work on cliodynamics and putting it to use in large-scale social change efforts to end global poverty, spread sustainable solutions, and promote prosocial outcomes around the world.

    It would be a delight to speak with you about this at some point in the future.


    Joe Brewer
    Research Director
    Culture2 Inc.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Sure, let’s talk. I have a completely crazy month ahead of me (6 workshops in as many weeks), but things should become more settled after March 15.

      • Joe Brewer says:

        That works for me. I’ve got several projects ramping up and will be ready for a much more lively conversation in late March anyway. 😉

        Can you send me a message at with a time that’s good for you? I’ll put it in my calendar!



  2. hgintis says:

    Very effective critique of anarchism, which is a totally absurd political doctrine.
    The video you posted last time was marvelous.

    Herbert Gintis

  3. Yoram Gat says:

    A bit of a defeatist position, it seems. First, you assert that elitism is inevitable, and then you don’t seem to offer much in the way mechanisms by which the population can keep the elites from becoming highly self-serving and exploitative.

    Of course, the fact that this is not a pretty picture doesn’t mean, by itself, that it is wrong. However, I don’t think you present a convincing case that it isn’t.

    First and foremost in my opinion is, of course, the possibility of using sortition. Abandoning this device without even giving it a serious try seems completely unjustified.

  4. O.Voron says:

    ‘it would be better to begin to abolish the serfdom from above than to wait until it abolishes itself from below’
    So the Russian elite at the time were wise enough to act reactively. This is the best we can expect from elites. Nowadays we don’t see even that. To say nothing about acting preemptively. Probably the Chinese…

  5. John Lillburne says:

    You may enjoy reading Carol Quigleys evolution of civilisation from the 1960’s but still relevant.
    link to

    He believed that much of the prosocial behavior of elites was affected not just by the normal things such as Religionetc but also by weapon systems. The growth of democracy in USA happened less because of the goodness of the elites.(white slavery was the initial economic basis of the USA), and more to the cost of weapon systems. Sort of power to the people comes from the barrel of the colt 45

  6. says:

    These two posts is such a wonderful composition of logical fallacies, so you deserve a much higher celebrity status, like Krugman for instance, in this declining culture.

    • Richard says:

      I think it’s hilarious when people critcize with zero content in their own posts.

      Point out the logical fallacies, please.

  7. Hepburn@mymail says:

    Sorry Peter, I didn’t mean to cause you a writers block. You developed some remarkable ideas after all. It is a pleasure to read your blog. My little remark was rather meant to be a do-not-take-it-too-seriously appraisal, a compliment with some pepper in it.

    Concerning this fallacy, the argument is a big straw man, a straw man actually that extends over several groups of people and several publications. You, Peter, are just part of that story/fallacy.

    Russell Brand is the straw man in person. You correctly mentioned that he is part of the elite that he ostensibly criticizes. You couldn’t be more right as his function is not to criticize but to distract from more serious anarchistic arguments that are much more difficult to rebut. Those arguments are permanently discussed by Tom Woods, Stefan Molyneux, and James Corbett in popular online video shows and more elaborately presented by Mises Institute (all for free).

    A straw man fallacy consists of two parts (1) rising a straw man while claiming this is the real argument to be countered and (2) knocking down the straw man while rejoicing over the victory that once and for ever all similar arguments have been refuted. As Russell Brand is part of the straw-man side, you Peter are part of the knocking-down-the-straw-man side.

    My point is that such orchestrated diversion of the public is typical of declining cultures. Participants of such performances are usually well paid with money and celebrity status while those who oppose that theater are intimidated. Not only in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, they even had to fear real physical repressions.

    I won’t discuss in detail all fallacies involved. That is useless. The mindful and unspoiled reader may easily find them. They are well disguised though. At that, you are nearly as good as Krugman who, for instance, talks about ‘liquidity gap’ to camouflage theft and robbery. Krugman’s fallacies are regularly exposed in the ensuing discussions but drowned in an ocean of irrelevance. I’ve no intention to enact the same scenario here, but I have some personal advice: be bold, be self-confident, demand more payment and celebrity status. You deserve it, and the sociopaths, who you erroneously call the elite, are desperate to pay.

    No, I don’t blame you Peter for your role. If you didn’t take it, somebody else would. Your decision to leave it alone wouldn’t stop that machinery. As you well understand, social processes are not the result of single person’s decisions but follow objective rules. Still, I believe that personality matters. There are decisive moments in each person’s life. Rational people conscious of their role may act differently in those crucial moments thereby definitely changing history. (Like the popular chaos theory example of a butterfly wing causing a hurricane.) You are the right man at the right place for that, …

    so please resume blogging.

    (You may want to erase this message as it is rather a personal note.)

  8. JonH says:

    “I won’t discuss in detail all fallacies involved. That is useless. The mindful and unspoiled reader may easily find them. They are well disguised though.”

    @hepburn, I’m not sure if I’m mindless or spoiled, and I’m surely no fan of Krugman, but I see nothing but generalities in your reply asking for examples of logical fallacies. How about just one detailed description of a fallacy in Peter’s post?

  9. Edward says:

    Peter is busy at the moment, he gave warning of this in his Feb 15th post. I doubt he has writer’s block. That doesn’t mean I am not impatient for his next blog though and you may have given him a case to answer when he does get back… I’m not convinced Brand is actually an anarchist. I think it’s a stretch to suggest he has any kind of coherent set of political beliefs. IMO he’s still a comedian.

    • Igor Demić says:

      Having money doesn’t make one a sociopath, or a comedian or a liar per se. I can imagine Russell Brand being sincerely interested in this problem – being someone who shares the ideas of Occupy, or Negri & Mouffe (whatever anyone thinks about them). In fact I believe he would say he’d rather want to live in a world where everybody would have 2000 $ salary, than in the world where everybody has 200 $ and he makes 2.000.000 $ per month. I think motivation means something, personal philosophy too, and dismissing a rich person as a fighter for ideals of equality is banal (just remember Robert Owen, Feuerbach or Engels). Motivation and personal philosophy might be the thing that makes difference between good and bad hierarchies/elites. Although, I want to believe there’s a possibility of non-hierarchical society … If I didn’t I would consider myself as somebody tacitly committing naturalistic fallacy.

  10. Jonas says:

    The problem with trying to reform the elites is invariably they only reform due to irrational things, like irrational fears or strange fashions or some religious fervor. Threatening rational things, like collapse of the economy or rebellion of the underclass, doesn’t do anything to them. It only causes them to dig in and fight harder.

    The other motivating event is actual ruin but that usually hurts the 99% as much if not more than the 1%. And there isn’t much appetite for it (as demonstrated by the GFC).

    If it weren’t for this strategy, the 1%-99% problems would have been solved (or ameliorated) eons ago, and the 1% wouldn’t consistently enjoy the outsize shares that they do. It’s a very adaptive form of behavior, to trade against reason.

    Most of the people who presciently and accurately recognize the problems are usually too rational to try to solve them. You’d have better luck with starting some kind of religious, spiritual, patriotic, aesthetic movement, particularly for the Young among the Elite.

    I don’t really believe in anarchists either, but to the extent they act irrationally / in a contradictory manner and out of an almost religious fervor I think they’re much more likely to succeed. And I don’t think people in Greece, for example, are really anarchists anyway.

    The real missing ingredient is they haven’t captured enough of the imagination of the Young Elites. Maybe they need some more or better poets.

  11. David Vognar says:

    I find your resignation that we are stuck with elites rather timid considering your study is on the evolution of society. If societies are evolving, who is to say that more equitable arrangements (without steep hierarchies) could not emerge? It’s not enough to look at the failures of past societies without strong states to say that anarchist principles will not work. Evolution is not so predictable. At the heart of anarchism, despite the less than generous interpretations of its critics, is democracy. As democracy evolves worldwide, people will innovate new arrangements for governing themselves. The idea that we’re stuck with an elite political class that governs us (and benefits tremendously from it) is cynical.

    • Richard says:

      If animals are evolving, who is to say that pigs won’t one day learn how to fly?

      Sure, nothing is impossible, but some situations are more likely than others, regardless of how “resigned” or “timid” or “cynical” it may be. Maybe I’m cynical for thinking that the odds of pigs evolving in to flying creatures are rather remote as well.