Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Real Oppression

We live in a world which seems about as violent as it ever has been, and it may well be that. (I don't know; I just got here.) We may be tempted to talk about how people are today more comfortable than they were, and that may be true for many but is false for many, too. Rape, murder, intimidation, disease, brittle bones, crumbling teeth... It seems to me that the myth of progress is pretty thorough. Wherever I've ever been, I could find the limits of modern bourgeois comfort if I wanted. And most of us, no matter how comfortable, can find those limits too, beyond which the old ways survive.

But though we often reveal our bourgeois arrogance when we speak of How Easy Folks Have It, the truth is that in some ways, we have become accustomed to subtler forms of abuse. And now I conclude my long-winded disclaimer and get to my main thought.

Across time, culture, and social evolution, we find ourselves dancing around this continuum of subtle infliction of power on one side and, on the other, coarser and more overt displays of power. Depending on your historical epoch, deceit was perfectly acceptable; to lie was no abuse when Odysseus first spoke, though to his Christian readers, it was his violence that was heroic, while his treachery had long since become a mortal sin. The Ottomans considered beatings routine. They weren't reserved for punishment; they were part of questioning. I have little doubt that the Turks, like their Christian fellows in the medieval world, found themselves superior by far to the Romans with their pagan bloodsport, wanton sexuality, and all that late-night-telly type stuff. But the fact is that Romans too saw themselves as a, oh, what's the going phrase here? "A nation of laws, not men." The Romans might yield to personal fiat in time, but they were profoundly legalistic. This set the terms, of course, for the imposition of power.

Where am I going with this? Well, I see anarchism and market libertarianism and all that shit as merely occupying different points along the same continuum. It's all part of the same headgame, you see. Humans don't want to admit their abuse and so they find ways to differentiate their abuses from those of others.

I did so in accordance with the law!
I hold Identity or Status X!
I didn't cripple him!
I didn't kill him!
At least he'll live!
I did as much as she did to me!
I didn't profit from it!
I didn't lose control!
I paid the bloodgold!
I only took what was mine by right!
He started it!
I had no choice!

And alongside every cop-out, excuse, and distraction, there is still the imposition of power and the normalization of what falls below the standards we set. Because here's what's consistent from the Age of Violence to the Age of Law to the Age of Negotiation or Democracy or Market or Merit or What-the-Fuck-Ever...

Where a society has legitimized certain kinds of contests where there are winners and losers, that society has almost always blamed the loser for his or her lack of power. If we dueled with pistols (or did so more often), we might fault a poor shot. As it is, many Internet Tough Guys love to blame the victims of violent crime for not being Batman. Accordingly, those who fail to spot a scam may be either Victims of Injustice if we might ourselves fall for it, or variously they are Fools if we feel we would be smart enough to avoid their fate. In each case, there are coarser forms of exploitation on which we can all agree--armed theft, for example. But where things get subtler, fewer and fewer are willing to call it abuse, and more say that the responsibility falls on the abused.

I don't know where the line falls, or if there's any line at all. To see violence everywhere solves nothing, but I certainly feel that there is abuse and power that exists beyond physical displays. To say, as the Randians say, that we should eschew fraud and violence, is an interesting starting point, but they are too comfortable with accepting market coercion. Maybe any revolutionary anarchist will, necessarily, favor the coercion of the engines she hopes to turn in her desired direction.

I don't know. My words are failing me. This is my best attempt to force out something worth another person's time. The rest of my head is fit only for tequila, weeping, and LiveJournal.


  1. Well, I see anarchism and market libertarianism and all that shit as merely occupying different points along the same continuum.

    Most interesting statement in the post to me, and I don't see how you followed up on it. (Not saying you didn't, it may have gone over my head, but I don't see it.)

    For my own part, I reject property and rights as anything other than construct, so I couldn't possibly take what was mine by right without admittedly living in a fantasy world.

  2. I don't think I really followed up on it either; this has been one of my sloppier posts in a while, but I slogged through for fear that stopping again would just leave me farther out of shape.

    I see anarchism and market libertarianism (as if either is a fixed concept) as drawing lines regarding Fair Competition and Unfair Competition. Randianism, as I've noted, sees deceit and violence as sins, and I think that's an okay start. But what they call Market Competition I call Force In Merely Another Realm, and they say "but that's not violence or oppression at all!"

    Likewise, many anarchists draw their own lines. (Naturally, there is little consensus exactly where these are drawn.) Some see overt violence as Completely Different than subtle influence and psychological motivation... I think I may rank violence above, say, the power of charisma, but I see a certain power in invisible social pressure, whereas many anti-state folks see dictatorship only where the truncheon and the jail cell are present.

    This response is as much slop as the original post, but thank you for asking for clarification. I am struggling to hatch out of this weird, solipsistic, almost autistic mode. I want to communicate again, and that means I need feedback. After all, what is read or heard is not the same as what I write or say. The message changes as it passes out of mine and into your jurisdiction.

  3. i read this in the morning ..then went out and about in my day ..with thoughts of subtle .. /c., what is your idea of what autism is in the way that you mention it here ..?

  4. Not to detract from your excellent point, Cüneyt, but I think the 'truncheon and jail cell' are behind a lot of the more subtle ways power works on people. Charisma is a heavily-veiled fist; psychological intimidation relies upon the implicit threat (however many layers down) of physical violence.

    Of course, simply campaigning against physical violence won't do anything to deal with invisible social pressures - but maybe one day, somewhere, among people who see physical violence as inherently abhorrent, its accompanying social violences will be likewise dispensed with.

  5. Anne, I said it haphazardly, and am referring to a particularly insular view of the world. One in which all points of reference are internal and in which connection with the world is limited, perhaps to a degree that is maladaptive.

    Philboyd, you are very, very right, though I don't believe it's exclusively the case that physical violence is hidden behind charisma. Men seek to avoid pain. They also seek pleasure, the pleasure of connection and esteem and intimacy. There may be other forces on which social power plays...