In the latest part of his ‘For a New Left’ series, Dan Fisher examines the role of structural inequality in society and the social hierarchy.
In my last article, I discussed how appeals to freedom are meaningless without an underlying concept of what freedom actually is. Similarly, many political movements are driven by apparent persecution complexes. Only through a rational and consistent understanding of what structural inequality really is can we get to grips with the issue.
Parsing the How and Why of Oppression
Previously, I introduced the concept of the ‘Domain’. The ‘Domain’ is the collection of resources and conditions an individual needs to maintain a free and healthy life. But when some of these elements you require to live are owned by someone else and used as a means of controlling you, we can call this supremacy.
There are an almost infinite number of circumstances in which one person may have supremacy over another. We cannot use a structural analysis to deny the complexity of life’s circumstances. However, we can identify several broad patterns by which society is organised into a hierarchy. There are two elements to this process. First of all, some material conditions separate people from each other, whether that be a location, culture, or biological factor which gives one group a material advantage over another. Then, an ideology is formed which justifies the subordination of the less advantaged of these groups of people to the other.
“Material conditions separate people from each other, whether that be a location, culture, or biological factor which gives one group a material advantage over another. Then, an ideology is formed which justifies the subordination of the less advantaged of these groups of people to the other.”
The purpose of supremacy, that is, deprivation of rights to Domain, can be for the economic or political benefit to the oppressors. Either they derive some direct material benefit from their supremacy, or it reinforces their control over some other hierarchy. Exploitation occurs when the oppressing force extracts some amount of value from owning the domain of the oppressed. That is, they derive material benefits by controlling access to the means to sustain other people’s lives.
In our current society, although there are often safeguards in place, and we may have many specific rights, we do not have an inherent guarantee that we will be able to meet our Domain needs. Our worth is determined in some part by the value we can provide to others. If we lack the possessions necessary to sustain our own lives, others may choose to share that which we need or deny it to us as they see fit. Therefore only those who own enough wealth, whether in material goods or in value to others, to comfortably sustain themselves without worry, can truly claim to be free. Even then, many of those people will belong to one or another social group which renders them lesser in the eyes of others. They may be a target for physical violence regardless of how much wealth they possess, although their wealth certainly helps them to avoid potential dangers in the first place. However, even with all the resources in the world, it may not be possible to escape a social situation in which your autonomy is denied.
“If we lack the possessions necessary to sustain our own lives, others may choose to share that which we need or deny it to us as they see fit.”
Suppression occurs when the oppressing force is less interested in extracting value from the oppressed than they are afraid of their power. The oppressed are believed to present a danger to the existing hierarchies which the oppressors benefit from. This could be a political faction or simply an organised minority within the larger society. The purpose of the use of supremacy, in this case, is to dissuade the oppressed from using their domain in ways which the oppressors dislike. This can and often does occur in addition to the exploitation described above. The oppressed need not pose an actual threat, so long as they present a convenient target to direct discontent or resentment.
In the course of the oppression of one group of people, it is possible for other groups to end up being targeted in the process. Although we should be concerned for these secondary groups as well, it is entirely possible to lose sight of the original targets and place undue focus on these secondary groups, which ends up hurting everyone, since the causes of the issue remain unaddressed.
In pursuit of either political or economic benefit, the oppressed may ultimately be subjected to expulsion or even extermination, otherwise known as genocide. This occurs when their physical possessions–for example, land–are more valuable than their labour, or the oppressors consider them such a threat that mere suppression no longer suffices. Usually, expulsion will be attempted before extermination.
It should be made very clear that the world is not divided into black and white, oppressed and oppressor. The vast majority of us do not possess full control of our Domain, and the vast majority of us also benefit from supremacy of one kind or another. Rather than attempting to calculate whether someone overall is more of one or the other, we should focus on the fact that almost nobody is truly free, and develop the broadest possible alliance towards the goal of liberating everyone.
The Three Forms of Supremacy
We can recognise three primary forms of supremacy within human societies, as well as one form which exists as an interaction between humanity and the natural world. These systems are often not widely understood by those who would claim to oppose them, due to the distorting influences of relativism and postmodernism.
I will use pre-existing terminology to describe these forms. However, the common understanding of the terms I use will differ from their use here. These systems will be elaborated on in a further article, but I will briefly describe them here.
First of all, we have to separate capitalist and non-capitalist forms of supremacy.
The development of capitalism into its modern form created a system in which one individual cannot legally own another individual. In itself, this was and is a progressive, revolutionary change from previous forms of supremacy. However, within this system, private control of the Earth and its resources are still unevenly divided. There is no inherent right to access the necessary means of existence–what should be the Domain of the individual. Therefore many people, although not directly owned by others, may have their whole lives directed and controlled by others regardless, since they lack the means for self-determination. Although capitalism largely allows us the freedom to leave a job, it does not guarantee us access to another. Furthermore, the ability to travel to an area with more promising opportunities is often restricted by our very lack of access to financial security in the first place.
Where a fully capitalist system is not present, and in fact, much supremacy still occurs outside its boundaries, the situation is often far more brutal. Individuals assert their ability, legal or otherwise, to control not just the resources other people need, but the very bodies of other people in themselves. Everything from gang violence to modern-day slavery can be considered non-capitalist forms of supremacy. It should be noted that capitalism can still lead to this form of supremacy where legal and social protections are insufficient, and one individual can, through their control of resources, gain access to the bodies of others.
Imperialism, racism and aristocracy all describe ‘external’ forms of supremacy in which there is a legal or widespread distinction between separate groups of people, distinguished through some combination of geographical location, language differences or physical appearance, but almost always through birthright. This separation through birth is necessary to maintain the distinction across multiple generations, and it would generally be illegal or socially detrimental in other ways to damage this separation by producing offspring with someone of a different group.
The development of capitalism has in some ways helped to destroy this kind of ‘external’ supremacy. However, a capitalist form still exists through what we might call imperialism–a set of laws distinguishing the population of one geographic location from another, restricting their movements and economic opportunities. While many proponents of capitalism work to dismantle these restrictions, seeing them as impediments to the free flow of trade, most of the world’s population appears to believe this system to be fundamentally just and natural. What many today might call racism, though I will make some distinctions in a future article, also persists across much of the world, although explicitly racist legal structures have been largely dismantled.
Terms such as patriarchy, sexism and so on refer to a different kind of supremacy. This is an ‘internal’ form, in which the targets are the offspring of even the most high-status families. Children are separated from birth, not through birthright, but based on the physical characteristics they possess. Almost universally, this is manifest in females being considered the lesser of the two sexes. Although, fortunately, the legal systems which enforce this distinction have, with some exceptions, been dismantled in many places, there exists still widespread belief that such physical differences merit categorisation into a social class, distinct from but connected inherently to their physical conditions, which we call gender.
The third primary form of supremacy is ideological in nature. Although the targets of this form may well be distinguished by their place of birth and local culture, the antagonistic element is a disagreement in belief systems, whether political or religious. This is a more subtle form, since the distinction between believers and nonbelievers may not be physically apparent, although often this will be made clear through the imposition of identifying symbols or clothing.
Although this analysis is focused on mechanisms within human society and between humans, it is worth noting that humanity largely exercises supremacy over the natural world as well.
The Four Elements of Supremacy
The social structures which perpetuate supremacy can be divided into four elements. Ignorance, fear, ideology and institution. These distinctions are lost in modern formulations such as “racism = prejudice + power”, but they are vitally important to distinguish given that they require different strategies to confront.
The maintenance of any hierarchy requires a method of distinguishing between high status and low status. Sometimes this is largely obvious due to physical features such as with sexism or certain forms of racism. Sometimes it will be obvious due to different cultural conditions such as clothing or linguistic differences.
Any time there exist two groups of people which are identifiably different and do not regularly intermix, ignorance will begin to develop. People from each group who believe an inbalance between groups is natural will come up with explanations to justify it. They will assign characteristics to each side which explain why they are inherently suited to their existing positions. This, in particular, is not a result of indoctrination but a natural consequence of trying to make sense of the circumstances. Because it is not a product of indoctrination, it can be relatively easily overcome. Individuals from each side must come to interact with each other as equals and recognise the inherent humanity shared by all.
“Any time there exist two groups of people which are identifiably different and do not regularly intermix, ignorance will begin to develop. People from each group who believe an inbalance between groups is natural will come up with explanations to justify it.”
When there is interaction, and it is largely hostile, there will be fear, even if the hostile interaction is entirely one-sided. All those who exert their power over another individual and understand the limits of that power must recognise they are opening themselves up to potential retaliation. This provokes them to even greater acts of oppression in order to ward off this possibility. It goes without saying that those who are subject to physical violence or the threat of physical violence from another will fear the source of that violence. To overcome this fear, the oppressed must find a way to resist their oppressors, even if it is merely bearing the pain and showing defiance regardless. The only way the oppressors will be free of fear is once they are rendered incapable of threatening any individual’s domain in future. Upon witnessing the deliverance of just and appropriate punishment, former oppressors may choose voluntarily to surrender and join the side of liberation. Openly taking vengeance upon former oppressors now rendered helpless may boost morale amongst the liberators but will ensure that the remaining oppressors never consider surrender.
The rulers in any hierarchy will seek to justify its existence. They will, therefore, endeavour to spread an ideology amongst the population. This is much harder to challenge than mere ignorance, because it is largely uniform, widespread, and at least on the surface appears to align with reality. The way to challenge this is to expose it as a lie. First of all, individuals should directly witness the events which run counter to their ideology. Secondly, they must be presented with a coherent alternative. When presented with two otherwise equal sets of propaganda, individuals will, in the long run, choose that which most aligns with their experiences. By exposing the contradictions inherent in the ruling ideology, those individuals will be brought by degrees to distrust their rulers and listen to alternatives.
“The rulers in any hierarchy will seek to justify its existence. They will, therefore, endeavour to spread an ideology amongst the population.”
These ideologies can be broadly categorised into two kinds. A so-called ‘benevolent’ form and a ‘malevolent’ form. The former draws more from ignorance, and the latter draws more from fear. The benevolent form argues that the lower classes are intellectually inferior. They require the direction of the ruling classes for their benefit. The malevolent form argues that the lower classes are morally inferior. They must be deprived of power lest they threaten and corrupt the rest of society. It is also possible to have some combination of the two.
Finally, there is the institution. This is where the evil is truly made manifest. Individuals can believe whatever kind of wrong or cruel thing they like, but unless they can follow through with the implications of those ideas, they don’t pose a threat to anyone else’s domains.
This institution can be incredibly simple or incredibly complex. It is the method by which society approves of some individuals exercising supremacy over others. A simple example would be legally-overlooked street harassment. Individuals are free to use their domains to express themselves and their thoughts out loud. However, no individual is compelled to acknowledge or recognise that expression. When one person publicly threatens the sanctity of another’s domain, this is the beginning of supremacy.
An individual’s beliefs about the world are a combination of their own life experiences, their thoughts and ideas, and the various forms of propaganda or interpretations of the world they have been subjected to. If we wish to change the world, we must begin first by gathering those who have naturally come to the same or similar conclusions. We must then begin to disseminate our ideas and improve upon our arguments to win over those who are increasingly less in agreement already. The ultimate aim is to change the material conditions which give rise to these social hierarchies, but we must also endeavour to change those conditions as we go.
Editor-in-Chief of Uncommon Ground Media