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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6 Responses to “Hierarchy, Dependence, Equality and Democracy”

  1. SouthAsian Says:

    The BBC has provided this description of the caste system. Is it accurate?


    • Vikram Says:

      “Manusmriti, widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law and dating back to at least 1,000 years before Christ was born”

      The very first line is false.

      First the easy part, Manusmriti is dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE, with scholars now leaning towards the later end of that spectrum.


      Second, there is not even one Manusmriti. Various versions have been found which are all inconsistent with each other. Also, although it was influential, there is no evidence that it was treated as law in any Hindu polity.


      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: Thanks. Is the rest of the write-up accurate in its description of the caste system?

        • Vikram Says:

          SA, the problem with the article is its insistence on locating caste rigidly within the framework of Hindu religion. In the most extreme case, such a perspective leads to statements like ‘Caste is the soul of Hinduism’.

          It is useful to start by distinguishin varna and jati. Jati is thought of as primordial, or tribal. Varna is dealt with more in the theoretical and theological domain.

          Like any theoretical tool, individuals or more pertinently in India’s case, jatis, can use varna to expedite their political, social or economic goals. Examples have been discussed previously on this blog, jati’s like Jats and Yadavs claiming the Kshatriya varna as they secure political and economic power.

          For various historical and practical reasons, the tendency of jatis is to claim Kshatriya varna. But there are also examples of communities adopting Vaishya varna as a conduit to upward mobility, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arya_Vaishya , and claiming Brahmin varna, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhumihar

          Note that even many Dalit communities claim warrior status as they become upwardly mobile, despite conversion to Buddhism.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Vikram: Thanks for the elaboration. Does the main point of the author hold that discrimination among Hindus exceeds the discrimination of Hindus by non-Hindus? This is useful to argue against the new Trump/Modi politics in which a majority is portrayed as a victim.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    Modi and Trump characterize the new politics – convince the majority that it is victimized:


    Although, as the author observes:

    “There is no doubt that discrimination against Hindus does occur in Uttar Pradesh, and at a large-scale. But this is, by and large, intra-Hindu discrimination, most often on the basis of caste.”

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