Flat or hierarchical world view?

[Note: Capitalization represents a hierarchy]

Mutual Aid is: Making decisions by consensus rather than relying on authority or hierarchy. Mutual Aid 101 #WeGotOurBlock


One of the most significant things I’ve been learning about Mutual Aid is the mutual part, that puts the focus on us working together, rather than “us” helping “them”.

And, related, the organizational model is flat, instead of the hierarchical organizational structures we are so accustomed to. This means no one sees themselves as superior, or above anyone else.


Back in the 1970s I attended the annual retreat of Pittsburgh Friends Meeting. I was in a small group discussion of about ten people and somehow we got on to the topic of how people see the world organized. Only one other person, Margaret McCoy, and I saw the world as a flat, non-hierarchical construct. All the others saw the structure of the world as hierarchical. Everyone is enmeshed in a large number of hierarchical rankings. God is on top. Under him (the use of the pronoun is intentional) is the government – national, state, and then local. Men are over women, parents over children, capitalist over laborers, teachers over students, the educated over the poorly educated, the wealthy over the common people, the famous over others, certain racial groups over other racial groups, American born versus foreign born, the privileged on top, and the rugged individual over the community, and so on and on and on.

I suggest to readers that at this point they should reflect on how they see the world organized, flat or hierarchical.

Reflect back on the founding of the United States. It is well known that those founding fathers considered slaves to be only 3/5 of a person. In addition, though, all women were excluded. Likewise only those few white males with a considerable amount of property were considered eligible to vote. In summary the United States was based on the myth that there were only certain people who were destined to rule the rest of the people in the world. When I arrived at Harvard College in 1961, I was informed, perhaps fifty times in the first few weeks, that as a Harvard man (no women in Harvard in those days), I was one of the elect few that were destined to rule. Even then at eighteen years old, I considered this nonsense as I found that my fellow Harvard students were not a whole lot different than my classmates from my public high school.

Even though at the time of independence in 1776 the United States got rid of the monarchy, American society lauds its elite – the rich, the famous, movie and athletic stars, politicians, and so on. This is a result of the acceptance of the hierarchical zeitgeist of the US. Many who voted for Trump were convinced to vote for him because he was a TV star and a rich man who represented the elite. For a person meshed in a hierarchical mindset, approval of, envy for, and support for an elite person is perfectly normal. This is how the elite continue to rule.

To return to white supremacy, it includes much more than racist classification. As such it can include others who are not “white”. White supremacists are quite willing to include blacks and others if they conform to the white supremacy world view – for example, Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, among many others, comes to mind. This then allows someone like Donald Trump to proclaim that he is not a racist at all.

The implications of this analysis are profound. In order to make American society equal and just, the hierarchical zeitgeist has to be replaced with a flattened view of society. This is a million times more difficult than removing Trump from the presidency.

David Zarembka, The Root of White Supremacy. Report from Kenya #630 – November 13 2020


Following are some things I’ve written and referenced as I’ve been learning about hierarchy.

Mutual Aid has been around since the beginning of human communities. I wasn’t aware of using the idea of Mutual Aid as an organizing concept until I met Ronnie James. As I think about how to characterize his role, I remember one of the important aspects of Mutual Aid is there isn’t a hierarchy with some people in leadership positions. In Mutual Aid, we all take care of each other, and all have an equal say in what we do.

You might notice I say “we” because I have been blessed to join in some of the work of Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA). Saturday mornings I look forward to gathering with my new friends to make boxes of food to distribute at the Free Food Store.

A Radical Act, October 29, 2020, Jeff Kisling


Mutual aid is inherently anti-authoritarian, demonstrating how we can do things together in ways we were told not to imagine, and that we can organize human activity without coercion. Most people have never been to a meeting where there was not a boss or authority figure with decision-making power. Most people work or go to school inside hierarchies where disobedience leads to punishment or exclusion. We bring our learned practices of hierarchy with us even when no paycheck or punishment enforces our participation, so even in volunteer groups we often find ourselves in conflicts stemming from learned dominance behaviors. But collective spaces, like mutual aid organizing, can give us opportunities to unlearn conditioning and build new skills and capacities.

By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together.

“Mutual Aid is essential to our survival” by Dean Spade, Truthout, October 28, 2020


One of the things this past year led me to is to participate in Des Moines Mutual Aid’s free food store. This continues the work of the Black Panther program in Des Moines, that began many years ago. It has been a revelation to see people come together, even during this pandemic, to fill and distribute fifty boxes full of food. To experience the joy as we do this together. And to see this is mutual aid, as we are also encouraged to take food.

I see there is no leadership hierarchy. There are people who have taken on the role of working with grocers and farmers to donate the food. But on Saturday morning the work flows effortlessly. There was one “team huddle” where we formed a circle, and each determined what our role would be as the cars came by one at a time. Someone opened the car door, someone put in a food box, another put in a gallon of milk. Everyone greeted those in the cars. I especially liked it when there were children. The always gave big smiles

Election, November 3, 2020, Jeff Kisling


I wonder why it took me so long to discover mutual aid. As I’ve begun to share this with other Quakers, I was told Quaker meetings, and other churches have always practiced mutual aid. That may be true of some religious bodies some of the time. Unfortunately, I think too many churches of any denomination use the model of ‘us serving them’ which is the opposite of what mutual aid means. Mutual Aid means what is says, working together to help each other. There is no hierarchy. I believe the ‘us versus them’ thinking is what has driven so many away from ‘organized’ religions.

A Radical Act, October 29, 2020, Jeff Kisling


When democracy came to America, it was wrapped in white skin and carrying a burning cross. In the early 19th century, the same state constitutional conventions that gave the vote to propertyless white men disenfranchised free Blacks. For the bulk of our republic’s history, racial hierarchy took precedence over democracy. Across the past half century, the U.S. has shed its official caste system, and almost all white Americans have made peace with sharing this polity with people of other phenotypes. But forfeiting de jure supremacy is one thing; handing over de facto ownership of America’s mainstream politics, culture, and history is quite another. And as legal immigration diversifies America’s electorate while the nation’s unpaid debts to its Black population accrue interest and spur unrest, democracy has begun to seek more radical concessions from those who retain an attachment to white identity. A majority of light-skinned Americans may value their republic more than their (tacit) racial dominance. But sometimes, minorities rule.

Many GOP Voters Value America’s Whiteness More Than Its Democracy by Eric Levitz, Intelligencer, SEPT. 2, 2020


Fania Davis of the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth points to the work community organizers have done in schools, prisons and other parts of the community, including organizations like MPD 150 in Minneapolis, and Showing up for Racial Justice. “We can’t rely on existing systems or governments to lead these processes,” she says. “If these processes are hierarchical, or top-down, or government-centered, we will just create a new future of hierarchy and systems of dominations.”

Does America Need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? by SARAH SOULI, POLITICO, 08/16/2020


This pandemic has brought into sharper relief what some of us have always known to be true: Capitalism, and the culture of hierarchy that props it up, is extremely screwed up. Rich celebrities like Kris Jenner are getting tested for coronavirus without having symptoms, while regular people who do show symptoms have a tough time getting tests. A journalist at a White House press briefing asked President Donald Trump, “How are non-symptomatic professional athletes getting tests while others are waiting in line and can’t get them? Do the well-connected go to the front of the line?” The president responded by saying, “No, I wouldn’t say so. But perhaps that’s been the story of life.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic Demonstrates the Failures of Capitalism by BY KANDIST MALLETT, Teen Vogue, March 24, 2020


The basic idea is that, in the face of the huge problems we are facing, we are taught that we need solutions with a huge impact in order to address them.  He (Eisenstein) writes about an implicit hierarchy that values the contributions of some kinds of people more than others–those with big reach, basically.  “That valuation is, you may notice, nearly identical to the dominant culture’s allocation of status and power–a fact that should give us pause.”

“The logic of bigness devalues the grandmother spending all day with her granddaughter, the gardener restoring just one small corner of earth to health, the activist working to free one orca from captivity.  It devalues anything that seemingly could not have much of a macrocosmic effect on the world.  It devalues the feminine, the intimate, the personal, and the quiet.  It devalues the very same things that global capitalism, patriarch, and technology have devalued.”

“We all have another source of knowledge that holds the small, personal actions sacred.  If a loved one has an emergency, we drop everything to help them because it feels like the most important thing we could possibly be doing at the moment.”

For Big Problems, Small Solutions, by Charles Eisenstein, UNTE, Winter, 2016


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