In both egalitarian and hierarchical societies, power is jealously guarded. For egalitarians, the goal is to maximize freedom through group solidarity; for despots, the goal is to maximize the "freedom" of rulers to oppress the majority.
Among political philosophers, only anarchists have seriously considered the threat posed by hierarchy in human affairs. For this reason they have been labeled "utopian." Yet it may be that idealized notions of benevolent hierarchies are not only unrealistic but wildly implausible. Just as systems of domestic law have proven incapable of preventing tyranny, so too have international laws utterly failed to prevent war.
For anarchists, the reason for this is obvious: the logic of power is power. There is no law or principle so compelling that it will not be tossed aside at the first sign that those who hold power are in danger of losing it. Hunter-gatherers are able to prevent social dominance hierarchies because they act in a group wide coalition; under the state apparatus, with its entrenched hierarchies, this ability is severely curtailed.
Nevertheless, for the vast majority of political philosophers, the idea that a select minority should rule over the mass is taken for granted. James Madison, the "father of the American constitution," argued that a primary purpose of government was to "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority." His great fear was "levelling tendencies," in other words, real democracy.
If nation states existed in a vacuum, incapable of waging war against other states, minority rule would perhaps be tolerable, depending on the disposition of the men and women who happen to rule over the majority at a given time. The problem is that states are not content to rest on their laurels. Schopenhauer's famous quote about wealth -- that it is "like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we get" -- applies equally to power itself. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson explained the phenomenon in terms of "optima" and "maxima": "the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems. The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more."
Egalitarian societies are able to maintain optima due to a low center of gravity. In large hierarchical societies, wherein power becomes centralized, leaders or entire social classes can easily become despotic. As the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "Human beings are chimpanzees who become crazy drunk on power."
Austrian political scientist Leopold Kohr, who described himself as a "philosophical anarchist," regarded powerful states as the most dangerous expression of the maxima principle:
There could be no gentler peoples on earth today than the Portuguese, the Swedes, the Norwegians, or the Danes. Yet, when they found themselves in possession of power, they lashed out against any and all comers with such fury that they conquered the world from horizon to horizon. This was not because, at the period of their national expansion, they were more aggressive than others. They were more powerful.
Great powers may temporarily "check" one another, to the point where -- depending on the global power configuration -- some powerful states may seem positively benign; nevertheless, by their very nature, states must exist in an environment of perpetual conflict; when a "critical quantity of power" is reached by one state in relation to others, war or even genocide is a likely result. For these and other reasons, Bakunin believed that international law is always destined to fail.
There is no common right, no social contract of any kind between them; otherwise they would cease to be independent states and become the federated members of one great state. But unless this great state were to embrace all of humanity, it would be confronted with other great states, each federated within, each maintaining the same posture of inevitable hostility. War would still remain the supreme law, an unavoidable condition of human survival.
Every state, federated or not, would therefore seek to become the most powerful. It must devour lest it be devoured, conquer lest it be conquered, enslave lest it be enslaved, since two powers, similar and yet alien to each other, could not coexist without mutual destruction.
In my documentary The Power Principle, Noam Chomsky rhetorically asks, "Why wasn't NATO disbanded after the Soviet Union collapsed?" After all, "there was no more Soviet Union to defend ourselves against."
Why indeed did NATO not disband?
According to Chomsky, the simplest answer is that Washington was terrified of "Europe going off in an independent direction." In other words, U.S. leaders were frightened of a diminution in their power.
Speaking in 2005, American military geostrategist Thomas Barnett boasted that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, "demand for our services has increased 4-5 times." Instead of the "peace dividend" promised by Bill Clinton, aggressive war by the United States actually escalated.