“It seemed like Mrs. Elliott was taking our best friends away from us.”
These are the words of a third-grader from Riceville, Iowa. Her schoolteacher, Jane Elliott, had just put her class through an exercise that showcased the viciousness and injustice of white supremacy in the late 1960s. Jane Elliott has since replicated this exercise countless times, but her original lesson remains a groundbreaking insight into the mechanisms of supremacy as depicted in the documentary A Class Divided. By labeling the blue-eyed students in her class smarter and better, and giving them more privileges than the brown-eyed students, Jane Elliott instantly creates division and hostility between the two groups. She constantly reinforces the superiority of her blue-eyed students who suddenly feel more confident and perform better at tasks than their now demoralized and dejected brown-eyed classmates. This division creates conflict between the students, which greatly upsets them and even leads to physical fights. Jane Elliott is stunned by the results of her exercise, saying: “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.”
Jane Elliott’s exercise clearly illustrates how simple it is to ignite conflict between people once a group of individuals is elevated above another. It also demonstrates how supremacy creates powerlessness in the “inferior” group and that the loss of personal power eventually leads to hostility and violence. This is the system we live under today – a hierarchy that ranks people based on their “worth” and socio-economic status.
Hierarchy – A Tool of Supremacy
To varying degrees, most socio-economic systems in the world today are hierarchical.In a system of hierarchy, individuals occupy social ranks based on their levels of income and wealth, which significantly affect their access to vital resources such as food, shelter, healthcare, and education. In all hierarchies there is a ruling class on top that holds significant social, political, and economic power and whose interests are in direct opposition to those of the masses. A hierarchical structure is, in essence, about power – the ability to control and shape outcomes that further the interests of the ruling class. Since money is the way to greater freedom, most people intend to move up the hierarchy and buy their way into a new reality. After all, those at the top have the freedom to act in ways most people cannot: they make the rules and break them with impunity; they have access to resources, people and capital that allows them to easily perpetuate their wealth; and their occupations often include those of “socialite,” “philanthropist,” and some even get paid to party.
As an economic system, a hierarchical structure is inefficient and creates unnecessary scarcity because it allows the ruling class to hoard wealth and resources while the majority fights it out over “leftovers.” Additionally, because its structure grants disproportionate power and privilege to those on top, it creates a system that is only beneficial to a wealthy minority. Economic inequality is particularly insidious in a hierarchical social order in which wealth determines social status. Such systems create extreme inequality where the gap between the rich and poor is great and social mobility is particularly difficult.
Supremacy is the hallmark of hierarchy where being a “winner” depends on someone else being a “loser” and where wealth is created at the expense of other people and the environment without concern for the collective good. Hierarchies are inherently coercive because they grant dominant groups the authority to impose their rules and ideology on those below them. It is thus a system of dominance, commanding its full power, authority and coercive nature against “weaker” subjects (i.e. the “have-nots” or “inferiors”). However, it is by no means a “natural” arrangement or, as many would say, “just the way things are.” A hierarchical social system is closely linked to the systemic subjugation of women under patriarchy, which emerged as a dominant structure in the last 5,000 years of modern human history and helped spur on the agricultural revolution.  In effect, humans have lived in hierarchical systems for a fraction of our existence; yet during this new time period we have exhausted much of the world’s resources and are quickly heading for a collision course with nature itself.
The purpose of hierarchy in a socio-economic system is not to create opportunities but to protect the supremacy of the ruling elite by controlling people’s autonomy and dividing the working class amongst one another through social and economic stratification.
“Divide and Conquer”
While a hierarchical structure places the ruling class on top, it also divides the working people into various “levels” of socio-economic status, with money determining the place in the pecking order. Because there are various “levels” of social status with millions of people competing for the few spots on top, solidarity and cooperation between the people becomes virtually impossible. As a result of this stratification, the lower classes compete against each other and become divided along social, political, and economic lines. In other words, a hierarchical structure breeds competition, division, and outright hostility amongst the various members in society.
Social Conflict within the Working Class
In addition to fostering general class conflict and powerlessness in “inferior” groups, supremacy also creates a hierarchy of worthiness that is directly linked to how closely each of us resembles the ‘”supreme” image. This “supreme” ideal has traditionally been white, wealthy and male. If we do not meet that profile, then we can at least strive to behave and speak like them, think and believe as they do, or shape our personas in countless ways to appear acceptable to them or as close to the “supreme” image as possible. Economic worth and, in turn our ranking in the hierarchy, are directly linked to how closely we resemble the “supreme” image of white, male privilege. Those who least reflect this “supreme” ideal are deemed “inferior” and labeled as the “other.” Because we internalize the “supreme” image early on in our lives, we grow up judging ourselves and others based on that standard. We are effectively pit against one another and through our judgments dehumanize, disrespect, marginalize, and deem unworthy individuals who do not meet the “supreme” standard and who occupy a lower rung on the hierarchy. This dehumanization and “otherness” of individuals who are different from the “supreme” standard is inherent in a hierarchical structure and is at the root of sexism (male supremacy), racism (white supremacy), classism (class supremacy), homophobia (heterosexual supremacy), ethnocentrism (cultural supremacy) and all other social and political divisions under the sun. Victim-blaming and general hostility towards those who are “different” or “inferior” becomes a staple of hierarchical society.
Of course there are exceptions and a privileged upbringing can cancel out many “inferior” traits. However, exceptions are just that: rare occurrences that do not reflect the rule and the reality that happens every day, all day, everywhere. In fact, exceptions are often used to distract us and falsely convince us that society has overcome classism, racism, sexism, or homophobia. In reality, society has gotten much better at hiding its inequities by commercializing, fetishizing, and pop- culturulizing the lives of individuals who are subject to real, everyday discrimination. It is privilege and supremacy we must challenge in all their forms, which are still deeply rooted in white, male, privilege and power.
Economic Conflict within the Working Class
The hierarchy of worthiness also plays out in our economic system. In a hierarchical economic structure, the lower classes are the foundation upon which the successes of others are built. For instance, professionals such as doctors and engineers occupy higher socio-economic standings than Wal-Mart cashiers who ring up their groceries or janitors who clean and maintain their offices. Of course, not everyone possesses the skills and talents to be a doctor or engineer, or for that matter, a cashier or janitor. But when more privileged individuals blame others for being poor, “unaccomplished,” “unsuccessful,” or unemployed, they do not take into account that the reason they are in a superior position is because someone else is in an inferior, lower position. This is how hierarchy works – someone has to rank at the bottom in order for those on top to be recognized as the “winners.” Without such ranking, everyone would be equal. Moreover, society absolutely depends on workers to clean, maintain, repair and service various sectors of society, including private property and public commons. These individuals provide an extremely valuable service that allows society to function yet the system gives them no credit and, in fact, looks down on them and blames them for being in that position. Just imagine a society without sanitation workers to haul off your waste and keep the streets clean, or maintenance workers to keep your buildings running and the AC flowing when it’s 100 degrees outside, or grocery clerks who stock your food and water so you can conveniently pick it up and feed your family. Without them, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other members of the professional class could not go about their business. But society has little respect for these individuals who are often paid minimum wage with no benefits; yet they are the very people who make society function.
The “winner” in this unequal arrangement is always the wealthy ruling class who owns the factories, corporations, businesses, and most other institutions and profits from the labor of the working class. The “owners” of society, essentially, sit back and watch their profits soar while the working class slaves over increasingly lower wages and deteriorating working conditions imposed on them by the same people their labor enriches. Individuals of privilege occupy “leadership” positions in all areas of society, from corporations, government and non-profit organizations to the medical, legal, and academic fields. The privileged play both villain and superhero, terrorizing and rescuing the lower classes who are simply pawns in the ruling elite’s game of interest and intrigue. The supremacy of the ruling class is legitimized by the meritocracy myth that the most intelligent individuals in society naturally succeeded. The truth, however, is that the wealthy and privileged always end up on top in a system that is created by them to protect their own interests and power.
The meritocratic rationalization for why the wealthy have so much wealth – namely that they are smart and worked hard – is simply ridiculous. Janitors, secretaries, sanitation workers, and plenty of other people are smart and work hard – sometimes at 2 or 3 different jobs – yet their incomes can be as much as 1,795 times lower than that of the “owners.” The excuse that elites are smarter is equally absurd seen as how the education system is set up to favor individuals of privilege and serves to protect the power of the ruling class. But for the sake of argument, if indeed they are rewarded by wealth because of their hard work and intelligence, when does the time of rewards come to hard-working lower class people? Shouldn’t they be rewarded for their invaluable work that keeps society and the world functioning? And what about the fact that the “superior” ruling elite has completely failed at leading society on all levels, pretty much driving us off the cliff into global suicide? The truth, of course, is that in a system based on domination, the few on top who make the rules can do no wrong regardless of their incompetence. All that matters is the supremacy of their position, which is attained through wealth that has, for the most part, been passed down through generations.
Controlling our Bodies
Slavery is the ultimate control of people’s bodies for economic exploitation. A slave has no autonomy, because his actions depend on the permission of another who “owns” him. Within our society today, slavery is not as obvious as it used to be when blacks were “owned” by white slave masters. Today, the control of our bodies takes on many different forms: the use of our bodies and labor as economic goods to be traded on the market in exchange for security in the form of monetary compensation; the steady supply of mostly poor minorities into the private prison system whose bodies are used as slave labor for the benefit of corporations; the control of women’s bodies through legislation under the guise of “protecting” the woman and the “unborn” which deprives women of their fundamental choice to make decisions about their bodies; regulation of homosexual conduct and relationships which deprives consenting adults of making decisions about how to use their bodies in a sexual way; the vindication of the George Zimmermans of the world who – with the full backing of a systemic and cultural ideology of white supremacy that views black bodies as worth less – internalize these poisonous values and believe in their inherent right to decide the fates of innocent black people and deprive them of their right to exist as dignified human beings without being stalked, marked, harassed, and murdered with impunity. And even those of us who are victims of oppression in some other way, nonetheless, often become agents of the system, internalizing its values and beliefs and turning on those below us in the hierarchy who are deemed “inferior” or “less than.” In this way, hierarchy not only controls our bodies, but also our minds.
Working Toward a New Paradigm
A hierarchical system that facilitates social and economic relationships is extremely harmful because it creates relationships of power that are based on coercion in which freedom cannot exist. Power and freedom are essentially opposites: power seeks to control and dominate while freedom is about autonomy and self-determination that yearns to determine its own path of expression. While there are varying degrees of freedom that can be bought by moving up the system of hierarchy, no one is truly free – not even the ruling class because its supremacy solely depends on the subjugation of the masses.
Our goal then is not to move up the hierarchy because this only legitimizes and perpetuates a dysfunctional system of inequality and oppression; the goal is to completely abolish hierarchy, which only the people can do. We cannot look to those in power who depend on the system for their privilege to make things better for the majority of people. Logically, the ruling class will not threaten its own interests and power. Our immediate short-term goal must be to stop further inequality by building mass movements of solidarity with one another. It is important to note, however, that not every person must get out into the streets to protest; rather, each person can contribute to this movement in different ways, even if it means just standing up for truth instead of “going along to get along.” Awareness is key, but we also need to take action. What that action is, each person must determine for themselves.
A violent uprising against the most technologically sophisticated military in history is certain to fail and will do little to improve relations between various social groups. Because the system of supremacy has – through its divisive nature – literally “taken our best friends away from us” and discriminated against many of them, we must confront our own shadows and acknowledge all the ways we personally perpetuate the system’s ideology and judge ourselves and others based on its oppressive values. As a result of the division, there is much distrust between various social groups and if we wish to move forward in solidarity, we must work to repair those social bonds. Likewise, we must also confront the internalized fear and desire for acceptance that pushes us to sacrifice truth in favor of comfort and privilege. In other words, we have to reach into the depths of our souls and take our individual power back. A power that is not dependent on the approval of the system, but rooted in self-acceptance and self-awareness. It is truly a radical process that seeks to transform human consciousness by bringing about a revolution from the inside out. We certainly have our work cut out for us; but, at this point, evolving into a new consciousness is our only hope.
1. The system we live under is often described as capitalism, oligarchy, corporatocracy, or plutocracy. Regardless of the label, all of these structures are extremely hierarchical where most benefits flow to the ruling class at the top at the expense of the majority of people. While hierarchies occur in all systems – even socialism and communism – in those structures inequality between the different classes is much less pronounced and resources are much more evenly distributed.
2. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, (Oxford University Press: 1987)