Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy

In connection with the discussion on dynastic succession, our reader had helped clarify our thinking by characterizing both traditional monarchy and traditional religion as institutions marked by hierarchical relations between human beings (see Monarchy, Religion, Hierarchy and Modernity). Further, the point was made that in societies ruled by such institutions hierarchical relations were not limited but extended to all social relationships.

The interesting question that followed was “What is wrong with hierarchy itself?” The answer was contained in the alternative that was posited by the reader: The alternative to hierarchy is not necessarily individualism, just equality.

The importance of this distinction ensues from the realization that hierarchies can never really be eliminated—if nothing else, the hierarchy of knowledge is likely to persist. For example, the hierarchy between an expert and a layperson (say a physician and patient, lawyer and client) cannot easily be eliminated. Nor does it need to be as long as it can be ensured that the expert would not able to exploit this dominance by making the client act against his or her personal interests. And this is where political and social equality come in accompanied by access to an independent recourse to justice.

And this leads to an important conclusion: Our struggle is not against hierarchy but for equality, both social and political. The link between hierarchy and dependence needs to be broken. And our commentator was right in suggesting that a monarchy based not on divine right but on a social contract would be moving in this direction.

(It is important to note that the hierarchy of incomes (income inequality) will also persist. But this is not synonymous with social inequality. That it remains the case in South Asia, with important implications, is an issue we will take up in a later discussion.)

For the moment, we elaborate on political equality and its fundamental importance to democratic governance. Tocqueville describes the link as follows: “Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs…. This love of independence is the first and most striking feature of the political effects of equality…. As each [individual] sees himself little different from his neighbors, he cannot understand why a rule applicable to one man should not be applied to all the rest… and legislative uniformity strikes him as the first condition of good government.” 

Tocqueville is very clear about the relationship of equality and independence to the system of governance: “Since in times of equality no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak… Men’s hatred of privilege increases as privileges become rarer and less important, the flame of democratic passion apparently blazing the brighter the less fuel there is to feed it.” On the other hand, “When conditions are unequal, no inequality, however great, offends the eye.”

As our reader noted: “In a democracy, political officials *represent* or stand in for their people in a particular role and are equal to them in fundamental ways.” Once this equality is compromised, the political system begins to transform itself into a patron-client formulation with all its attendant consequences.

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