Wednesday, 8 June 2016

From Hierarchy to Network

I’ve been reading Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism recently, and have decided that I’m a network person as opposed to a hierarchy person.

Mason contrasts the hierarchical, command-and-control pyramids that permeate our politics, institutions and work culture with a potential future where networks predominate.

He suggests that the main political struggle of the twenty-first century will not be between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ as traditionally defined, but between cooperative networks facilitated by advanced IT technology and the older, authoritarian, hierarchical systems of capitalism. Although Mason does not state this, it seems to me that modern capitalism owes a lot to the feudal system, where the elite lords it over a larger, subservient serf population.

These two modes of thinking, network versus hierarchy, might represent something fundamental in the human psyche. Hierarchical thinking seems to me to owe much to primate dominance – think of the strict pecking order of a baboon troop. In human terms, this implies fierce competition for scarce resources, and a winner takes all mentality. Think Game of Thrones: you win or you die.

Network thinking is more like symbiosis; mutual cooperation to get needs met. By its nature, it’s win-win as opposed to win-lose. My suspicion is that humans have the capacity for both styles of being, and often mix them up on a day-to-day basis.

We live in a time when hierarchical systems predominate, in our political and work lives, and these are often maintained by violence. With those at the top commanding most of the power and resources, it might seem naïve to expect a network culture to ever emerge.

So I’m encouraged by the thought, expressed by biologists like Elisabet Sahtouris, that organisms within ecosystems evolve from hostile competition modes to that of peaceful cooperation.

If Sahtouris is right, then the struggle Mason discusses might in fact reflect a deeper, ecological reality. Because I believe that if we are to survive as a species, and solve our various, very serious problems, then it will be through the network mode.

And this is an encouraging thought. Because whereas someone wedded to the hierarchical way of thinking might want a Big Leader to ‘save us,’ the networking mentality says that we can begin, as individuals in communities, to make a difference.

We can’t expect salvation to come from above. As Naomi Klein makes clear in the case of climate change, our leaders do not care enough about the future of civilization to take the necessary action to save it, because they are too preoccupied with maintaining the existing structures of power and wealth.

So we must.

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