From Peak Oil to Peak Hierarchy

In the beginning was the Horizontal, and it was everywhere, but it was local. Then came the Vertical, and it was stronger, and became global, eventually tempered by the Diagonal. But one day, the Horizontal learned to interconnect, and it too became global, outshining the Vertical. As it became the strongest, it became tempered by the Diagonal, and learned to master the Vertical.

– Found in an artifact from Planet Earth, in the document known as the P2P Bible, date unknown

The key issue that I would like to address today is whether there is something akin to Peak Oil, regarding the balance between hierarchical relations, decentralized relations (including representative democracy), and distributed ‘peer to peer relations, respectively the Vertical, Diagonal, and Horizontal modes.

Have we reached, or are we about to reach, some kind of tipping point, let’s call it Peak Hierarchy?

This thought capsule is prompted by the rediscovery of the Theory of Power by Jeff Vail and a visionary piece by Vinay Gupta.


What I get from the study of Jeff Vail is a simple, profound, but disturbing truth: for most of history, it has simply been the case, that hierarchy has trumped the more flatter forms of social organization. The choice was always stark and simple. Join the hierarchical race, or be outcompeted by the social forces that do.

Here are two quotes by Jeff Vail on the social origins of hierarchy that drives this point home.

A. Hierarchy is driven by fear and insecurity

Jeff Vail:

One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible.”

B. Hierarchy as a function of surplus production

Jeff Vail:

The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.”

I have no doubt that this is true, but we have to examine, 2 other factors next to the Verticality imperative, i.e. the Diagonal and the Horizontal imperatives.

First, the strong emergence of decentralization and diagonality.

From the 19th century onwards, vertical power has become tempered and challenged by decentralization and representative democracy. There is a first argument to be made here, taken our system based on decentralized multinational corporations and representative democracy as the core of our present system. It could be argued that democratic states, and ‘democratic capitalism’, has become more competitive than pure vertical plays. Symbolic of that change is the fall of the centralized Soviet system. (the key today is to watch China, though verticality is dominant, and diagonal democracy is still weak overall in that part of the world, the question is: can the system remain competitive, especially in a knowledge-based innovation economy, if it doesn’t adapt to decentralization, and ultimately distribution?)

Second, there is also the emergence of a new form of horizontality, no longer local and disconnected and unable to compete with hierarchical forms, but able to scale globally, through the global coordination of a multitude of small teams, outside of a logic of command and control. I think this is the significance of peer to peer (and peer production specifically), and that it points to the concept of Peak Hierarchy.

In my view, we have already reached the point in history, where ‘peer to peer plays’, i.e. interconnected horizontality, outcompetes hierarchical and diagonal plays. The two examples we have are of course Linux and Wikipedia.

In other words, we have reached a point in history, a true turning point, where a new form of social organization, starts to outcompete hierarchy. (But of course, just as early hierarchy was a hybrid with the system out of which it arose, so the new early forms of p2p are hybrid forms within the dominant system)

If this is true, and I of course believe it is, then we have indeed already reached Peak Hierarchy. It should be historically situated at the mid-point between the moment that Linux became the dominant technological force in the internet, and that the Wikipedia was outreading and outproducing the Brittanica. From that moment on, faced with these undeniable examples of success, the scramble for adaptation to distributed forms of organization, to integrating participation in the very heart of hierarchy, has started to make itself felt. There has been a magnetic reversal of the poles. The chaotic attractor has become the peer to peer mode. Hierarchy is still dominant, and will stay so for a determinate amount of time, but social forces are already looking elsewhere, mostly unconsciously, but nevertheless.

This is unprecedented, and is changing the whole course of human history. Of course, it will take time to play out, see how difficult it was to realize the truth of Peak Oil, how adamantly the forces of biospheric destruction fought and are fighting back. But we can also see that it is ultimately a losing battle for them. It can also be so, because if they would win, they would destroy themselves and us, and still loose.


This is where Vinay Gupta’s article comes in.

Vinay sees four trends that will change our social structure:

1> Power is about to become as cheap as information: Solar energy’s price (Nanosolar, Konarka) is coming down below 1 cent per kilowatt hour, or maybe 20% of the cheapest current grid power.

2> Computers and cellphones are going to finish their global spread. The cellphone is also fast becoming a computing platform and will empower and enable local communities worldwide.

3> Poor people are going to start getting angry. “With liberal access to information, they are going to become very, very politicized, en-masse, shortly after the arrival of the network.”

4> The entire system we currently call “government” is going to be challenged at every level.

What I want to point out is the enormous contrast between the denial and gloom and doom of the mainstream system, and the deep-rooted optimism of the peer to peer forces as represented by people and movements like Vinay Gupta and the Swadeshi movement, and there are thousands upon thousands like them (the 7,000 pages of documentation on such movements in our wiki are but a fraction of what is happening). We are no longer happy with reforming the system, and asking ‘them’ to change the policies. We are no longer satisfied with wanting a revolution, to start doing things our way ‘afterwards’, fated to replicate the very hierarchical forces we wanted to replace. We are already past that point. We are already, like the Christians in the Roman world, constructing the new world we want to live in. We are changing our subjectivities, our relational networks, and the very structures we want to live in. Just as the Roman elite could just not comprehend the new Christian mentality, neither can the current elite understand what is happening. An entirely different new world is growing and gestating within the old, not directly challenging it, but nevertheless deeply transforming it, not tomorrow or in the future, but right now.

(This is of course not to deny that there will be many defeats and pitfalls on the way!)

And for the first time in history, the new game we are playing, let’s call it the anti-monopoly game, is winning from the old game of monopoly.

This is the meaning of Peak Hierarchy: horizontality is starting to trump verticality, it is becoming more competitive to be distributed, than to be (de)centralized.

The two combined forces of Peak Oil and Peak Hierarchy, are going to dramatically change the world we will live in. It’s time to prepare ourselves to the new logic of our coming political economy and civilization.

(and you can help us do that, by supporting our fundraising drive, see our Tipit campaign on the right: we need your support to further document, research, and promote the emerging p2p alternatives)

14 Comments From Peak Oil to Peak Hierarchy

  1. AvatarVinay Gupta

    Michel, great piece, thank you! I do think we are in the middle of enormous changes!

    One thing: I really, really hope we aren’t like Christians in the Roman world, replacing a highly functional system of government that produced a high standard of living for a good part of a continent with a tradition that forcibly repressed knowledge and progress to the point it took 1600 years to get back to plumbing!

    I’d like to be cozily on the right side of some historical inevitability, sort of helping inevitable changes happen a little faster and more smoothly. I don’t dislike the industrial order – I’m a huge fan of mass production, for example, which makes me a heretic almost everywhere – but I do think our current forms of production are generally-speaking inadequate to reach the five billion people that have not become wealthy so far.

    Great things coming!

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  3. AvatarAre Karlsen

    I find these perspectives and visions very interesting. I participate in a non-hierarchical house church in Norway, and have P2P-contact with other similar house churches in Norway and England. This is a movement now expanding in many countries, by the means of internet.

  4. AvatarAre Karlsen

    Vinay Gupta,
    I´m afraid you have a little too romantic view of the antique world, taking into account the life and rights of women and slaves, not a small part of the population.

    And don´t forget that christianity is more than the church. Much more.
    It was in the christian world that knowledge and progress came forth, like democracy and science.

  5. AvatarJaap van Till

    One of the best and most successful examples of Horizontal cooperation is . I recommend it: it works,
    bridging distances and boundaries !!

  6. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Vinay, Arle,

    Arle, feel free to tell us more about your type of non-hierarchical church, this is right in our alley here (see for some link on open anabaptism and the emergent church).

    The closure of culture by the christians is well described by the book, The Closing of the Western Mind. Nevertheless, I’m reading a book La Societe Feodale, a very current historical overview, where it is written that the around the year 1,000 (I would have to check the reference and the date to make sure, it could also be after the first medieval renaissance, i.e. around 1300), life expectancy was already double that of roman times, so not a bad achievement for a seemingly obscurantist age.

    But, in the end, it is not about having a romantic view of either rome or what came after, rather, I think what we’re after is a historical analogy of the change dynamics, that lead to one system being replaced by another. And like Tony Negri mentions repeatedly in Empire, the strategies of the Christians are interesting in that regard,


  7. AvatarAre Karlsen


    We are taking inspiration from the first biblical churches, which was non-hierarchical house churches. Traditional corporate churches have as you know hierarchical structures. But there has been an ideological stream through the whole church history about non-hierarchical ideas.

    We have no traditional leadership, but have defined all functions as servants, like it is in the Bible. Servants in the true meaning of the word. Mutual submission has replaced the hierarchy.

    Our church is no institution, is no juridical subject, has no defined structure and own no property. All gatherings is taking place in the homes of the participants. The churches may therefore just be that big, before they has to split up.

    My values for the christian community is this:

    Preach the gospel to the poor – do not entertain the rich
    Mutual submission – not hierarchy
    Servanthood – not leadership
    Body – not institution
    Serving gifts – not offices
    Dialogue – not monologue
    Carry the weak ones – not idolize the stars
    Compassion – not moralism
    Fellowship – not rhetorics
    Mutual testing – not muting
    Relations – not organisation
    Transperancy – not secretiveness
    Tolerance – not conformity
    House church – not corporate church

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  9. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Yes, done, I’m aware and have read his essays and book. I would argue that markets are decentralized, dominated by large corporations, and internally they are hierarchies and markets exclude those without monetary means; peer to peer is distributed on the individual level. This is why I distinguish, in the first statement, the Diagonal from the Horizontal.

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