On Louis Dumont and the Debate with Nicholas B. Dirks
…As we learn from Louis Dumont, there is reason to think that people naturally think in hierarchies, and since they cannot easily rank what cannot easily be understood, it is natural, especially in regard to what is considered a practical matter, that people rank and value jobs they understand over jobs they don’t understand, even though those incomprehensible entrepreneurships and creative endeavors create the wealth that creates jobs, rather than simply distribute wealth and employment. Wait, who was Louis Dumont exactly? A fascinating thinker and author of Homo Hierarchicus who might provide resources for us to see why humans are naturally “low order,” which means we are naturally inclined toward Discourse which favors simple causality versus “high order” Rhetoric which favors dynamic creativity (as we arguably require today). If we are naturally hierarchical, then we naturally favor the creation of systems in which those hierarchies can be created, knowledge, and/or even rewarded, which means we might need a State that can do this for us. But if the State can do this, even if we create and win the hierarchies, the State has power over the systems which make these hierarchies possible and/or real, which mean the State (government plus corporations) really have the power. This suggests why a human nature which is hierarchical could favor problematic Discourse, and I do think Dumont makes this case powerfully, suggesting further reason why we must be intentional about Rhetoric and “being high order” (which is unnatural).
For Dumont, there is reason to think that humanity has a “hierarchical nature” for there is hierarchy everywhere we look (though the West might pick on India’s “caste system,” the West is perhaps worse off in having hierarchies that are hidden and invisible). Racism, xenophobia, sexism — all of these are fundamentally hierarchical problems, where one group is seen as better than the other for some reason, which would suggest that the concerns of Social Justice might often be evidence of Dumont’s thesis. At the same time, we must be careful to conflate “hierarchy” and “power” in Dumont, for Dumont does not think “power” is as fundamental as hierarchy (even if hierarchy can lead to power).
Imagine a king who could at any moment have his or her servant executed. In one system the king exercises this power, in the other, the king does not, perhaps because without the servant, the king will be unable to maintain his rule (hopefully, the society is designed in such a way that all the social positions require one another, for this is a great deterrent to keeping power ‘at bay’). “Power” is present in both, but only in the system where the “power” is exercised, does the power mean anything and prove “real.” This in mind, the existence of power as a form can prove hierarchy as a form, like smoke proves fire. However, the presence of “power” does not necessitate its “realization” or “exercise,” a point which I believe is vital for understanding why Nicholas Dirks and Louis Dumont do not ultimately disagree.
Arguably, the problem with Dumont is that he treats “order” and “hierarchy” too much like similes. Perhaps while Dirks would say we are Homo Ordo before we are Homo Hierarchicus, Dumont may say we are Homo Hierarchicus before we are Homo Ordo. This might be a new kind of debate between Rousseau and Hobbes, but that will require more thinking. To combine Dumont and Dirks though, perhaps we could say that where there are people, there necessarily will be the potential for hierarchy because there will be the necessity for order and natural human orientation for order. This would be a view more like Dirks’ and maybe somewhat Rousseauian, whereas Dumont, more Hobbesian, might say the presence of collectives necessitates hierarchy while mere “order” (free of status anxiety, essentialism, ego-presence, etc.) is only necessarily a potential. Does order come first that is corrupted into hierarchy or does hierarchy come first which can be positively evolved into order? Do we need a mixture of hierarchy and order? Perhaps a hierarchy of skills (based on external and object-based results) but not a hierarchy of selves? Hard to say — these are extraordinary questions that require reflection elsewhere — and please note the ever-present potential of hierarchy might be why there is always an ever-present potential of State involvement and growth (to create hierarchy institutionally, as there at the top of the hierarchy might (conveniently) see reason to do).
I would argue that the “power” present in India’s caste system was not exercised until Colonial Britain “realized” this power through taking control of the Brahmin caste, as Dirks correctly points out. I will argue this does not contradict Dumont’s message, as Dirks believes, because the “form of hierarchy” was present before Britain colonized India. Though Britain created the “modern day caste system” (which is power based), Britain did not create the “caste system” beget by human nature. As I understand him, Dumont argues the “form of hierarchy” was always present in India, and I believe he is correct, which would be further evidence that we need to emphasize the “pre-societal” or “un-institutional” in our thinking, which is to say the more metaphysical, as Deirdre McCloskey argues.
As Dumont writes…
The rest of this article can be found on Substack due to formatting problems on Medium :
Considering "Homo Hierarchicus"
Incorporated into Belonging Again (Part II) on Louis Dumont