Sometimes, this is actually the right way to go
Megan Erickson has a great Jacobin piece defending the concept of public education against the "unschooling" fads. While it's full of great points, it also has some interesting bits on hierarchy, like this:
Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream. There is value in learning to cope with a little coercion, in knowing what it means to cooperate on a daily basis with someone who doesn’t love you, someone who’s not your family member.
Yes, yes, and yes. This doesn't get said nearly enough, and along with her point about the difference between privilege and authority, it takes this from a good essay to a great one.
While Erickson's piece is focused on education, the same assumptions behind "unschooling" — extreme suspicion of any power structure — underlie a whole slew of other movements, from open source to consensus protest groups.
Sometimes, in some arenas, this approach works just fine (with information especially) but in many it doesn't. Sometimes hierarchy is exactly what's needed.
Education is a good example. Cultural knowledge, built up over generations and imparted in a structured fashion, acts as a useful shortcut. One of the most formidable tools our species has, it gives younger minds the foundation needed to advance further and even outright break what they were taught when necessary. Personally, I don't know a serious educator that doesn't believe in the necessity of both discipline and time to explore on one's own.
The fetish for decentralization at all costs plays out even worse in politics. I doubt the cause of social reform that Occupy ostensibly stood for was well served by endless debates and meth heads ending up in control of finance.
Admittedly, driving this is a reaction to an overabundance of terrible hierarchies in everywhere from government to the workplace. Consensus, for example, evolved because even the ostensibly alternative organizations of the post-World War II period were numbingly bureaucratic. Faced with that mess, swinging hard to the other direction makes visceral sense.
That said, it's not particularly effective. Jo Freeman nailed the problem in the feminist movement's early days. In The Tyranny of Structurelessness, she detailed how decentralized discussion groups ended up hamstrung when they moved towards political activism:
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness -- and that is not the nature of a human group.
Knee-jerk decentralization works about as well as abstinence education does in sexuality. Power, as Freeman observed, does exist. It will come up. People will organize to use it, disagree about how it's handled, and seek outcomes that favor their views.
If ignored, its manifestations become less transparent and more toxic. If accepted, people can start creating structures that take its thornier side into account while using its advantages.
And those advantages are real. To pivot off Erickson, there is value in not coddling every opinion. There is value in ending debate and making decisions, in allocating responsibility, in clear divisions of power. At its best, structure is an acceptance of human imperfection.
It exists because we do not all agree. We will be ugly, petty, tired. We will not all love each other.
Blessedly, we don't have to. The hope of the future is that the imperfect will build the workable, and that means using ideas that don't require saints.