Conservative Dialectics

Traditionally, most philosophers who’ve talked a lot about ‘dialectics’, mainly Marxists and Hegelians, have seen it in an essentially positive light, as something that drives forward progress. I think it should be recognised, though, that very often, dialectical processes are conservative: they contribute profoundly to the stability of systems, and hold back progress. Of course this is, in practice, often quite obvious, but it may be helpful to put it in theoretical terms.

‘Dialectics’ is a tricky word to define. Maybe one way to stab at it would be to say that it means the way that things can most fully express themselves, be most fully what they are, by being contradictions, by opposing themselves to themselves, and that correspondingly, what look like total opposites are often actually the same thing.

For example, the philosopher Georg Hegel, who largely originated this meaning of the term, talked about the apparent opposites ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’, and argued (whether rightly or wrongly) that neither one could be understood without contrasting it with the other. They weren’t really opposites at all: they were two aspects of the idea of difference or change. To give a classic Marxist example, it might be said that the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, even though it looks like a clash between supporters of capitalism and an anti-capitalist force from ‘outside’, is actually the essential truth of capitalism itself: the system most fully expresses itself through this conflict within it.

So rough working definition of dialectic: an opposition between two things which are actually parts of the same thing, and the process by which the conflict between those opposites expresses that single thing.

What do I mean about conservative dialectics?

Well perhaps the best example is in patriarchal imagery. The structure of sexualising and objectifying women’s bodies is made immeasurably stronger by having two opposed voices to it. One voice says “women’s bodies are so sexual, they must be concealed – sex for women is essentially subjugation, so they must not have too much sex.” The other voice says “women’s bodies are so sexual, they must be displayed – sex for women is essentially subjugation, so come here and have sex with me”. Often this contrast is symbolised with images of a burqa on one side and a bikini on the other, but of course no garment in itself equates to an attitude.

The genius of this sort of structure is that it makes it twice as hard to resist. If you hate the first, repressive, attitude, where do you go? The second, permissive attitude is right there, welcoming you with open arms, agreeing with you that “aren’t they horrible, those old men trying to lock you away and cover you up? We support your freedom to wear whatever you want (and as little as you want, hehe) and sleep with whoever you want (like me)!” And if you hate the second, permissive, attitude, where do you go? The repressive one is right there, its arms slightly less open, saying “aren’t they foul, those dirty-minded pigs, drooling over you like a hunk of meat? Come, preserve your virginity and dress modestly, and you well have dignity as a human being!”

Of course, the two attitudes are at bottom completely the same, in their agreement that women’s bodies are 1) inherently sexual,  2) designed for looking at and acting rather than for acting, and 3) the property of someone else. The repressive attitude wants them to be the property of specific individuals – fathers, husbands, or even, if no male figure is around, the ‘trust fund’ of the woman herself, guarded and protected, ‘saved’ for some appropriate man (possibly Jesus), ‘her own’ but in alienated form. The permissive attitude wants them to be communal property, available to everyone on the street. It wishes for tits to be gotten out – for whom? For ‘the lads’.

A good phrase here is one thought up by Nine-Deuce at Rage Against the Man-Chine: “Prudishness vs. Dudishness”. Though the post with that title is still awaited, so I don’t know exactly what she’s going to do with it.


Actual progress against objectification has to be against both of these simultaneously: affirming the non-objecthood of the female body independently of its specific garments and actions. But the dialectical character of patriarchy makes this difficult by diverting resistance against one into support for the other.

A second, and very obvious example, is political parties. Do you hate the Tories? Vote Labour! Hate Labour? Vote Tory! And then, when you’ve found that you hate both of them…vote Liberal Democrat!

I won’t discuss this much because I think it’s almost common-sense. I will just add one thing. I believe it is part of the structure of the political system for parties to have, by and large, better policies the further they are from power. If you’re clearly not going to win, who’s going to vote for you? The frustrated idealists of course! How do you attract frustrated idealists? With wonderful, just, liberating policies. When you’re in power, you can drop it. This is largely why I have so little faith in things like the Green Party. Sure they’re nice guys now, because if they weren’t they wouldn’t get a single vote (well, unless they want to go to the other extreme and pick up votes by being super-nasty like the BNP). But I just don’t envisage that continuing through all the years of inching towards a majority.

The final example is a somewhat ironic one. I think a lot of revolutionary socialism plays this sort of role, largely that of the USSR and other Stalinist societies. What better argument could a capitalist leader want than “the only alternative is that guy over there with the prison camps and the Ukrainian famine”? And the heads of those societies could say that the only alternative to them was the bitter capitalism oppression that everyone had hated so much. I drift slowly towards the idea that the Bolshevik coup, the whole USSR, the Chinese Revolution, all served a pro-capitalist role¸ an integral role in the global economy of power.

Of course, thinking dialectically, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that they also played a role that undermined that system in the long run, if we suppose the system to be, ultimately, self-undermining.

Anyway, as I said, much of this will be obvious to a lot of people. But I thought it was interesting to identify this common feature in different places. Perhaps there should be a name for it?

7 Responses to “Conservative Dialectics”

  1. rumblegumption Says:

    I recommend Leopold, D. in Stears and Leopold (eds.) Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (2008).

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Oh hi nakul, I didn’t realise it was you. Why do you recommend this human?

  3. rumblegumption Says:

    Token Marx-specialist in Oxford’s Politics department. Makes the whole dialectics thing sound much less woozy than most people, and not entirely unsympathetic to the idea.

  4. Q Says:

    ‘…women’s bodies are 1) inherently sexual, 2) designed for looking at and acting rather than for acting, and 3) the property of someone else.’
    I wonder if there is any evidence that this is the prevailing view in both repressive and liberal people. It’s very easy to put words in the mouth of those with whom you disagree, but it isn’t productive to make a straw man. The notion of women as property is not an essential feature to the liberalism with which I am familiar. I will also add that if we are to equate jealousy with vile notions of property I am entirely for it, being unimpressed with all the jealousy out there…
    Monogamy continues not because of patriarchal oppression but because jealousy is a universal human emotion, not limited to patriarchal oppressors. Patriarchal oppressors prefer harems, not the institution of marriage as most widely practiced.
    It is marriage itself, which is in opposition to patriarchal goals, that is also in opposition to your ideas about property: the desire to label a person as exclusively one”s one. It also neatly shows that you can have contrast with more than two opposing sides. Marriage as currently understood allows people to become each other’s property, rather than one belonging to the other, and is perhaps a compromise between liberalism and oppression. In that case the dialectic still holds but liberals and you are on the same side and liberals are not merely another part of the patriarchy.
    Liberals will readily tell you this. To attribute to them goals that they do not profess, and are repulsed by, is quite a leap of arrogance. It might be pleasing, but if you start not to trust what people even say, and you see a conspiracy in their actions which there is no need to suppose then you might as well just admit that there is a God, since you’re seeing intent where there is none.
    If, on the other hand, you claim that they are foolishly and unknowingly serving to propagate a system that is itself not sentient or manifest in any one sentience then it might be best not to alienate them by pretending that they have revolting opinions that they also think are revolting.

    Jealousy is a fundamental trait and I don’t believe that it is culturally learned. When it comes to relationships (initially) and maybe subsequently property patriarchy certainly doesn’t encourage it, since it’d be easier to live over the serfs if there were no resentment by them.
    Jealousy needs to be addressed separately, and as much in women as in men.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “It’s very easy to put words in the mouth of those with whom you disagree”
    Right, like inserting the word ‘liberal’, which I never used so as to make it look like I’m making some kind of definite accusation against an identifiable group of people.
    Even if I had used the word ‘liberal’, that’s an incredibly ambiguous word so I have no idea who exactly I’m supposed to be ‘alienating’. Let alone who exactly it is that I’m constructing a conspiracy theory around.

    If you want to say that I’m wrong about ‘the permissive wing’ then, since all I’ve said is that ‘it exists and is widespread’, you’ll have to tell me that there’s no such thing as non-possessive objectification, or that it’s not widespread in our society. Maybe you think that but you’ll need to go beyond ‘my liberal friends would never say such things!’

  6. Q Says:

    I chose my own word which is more well-known and widely conflated with your permissive wing.
    I must have misread, because I thought that you had said that the permissive wing believe or fight for the belief that ‘…women’s bodies are 1) inherently sexual, 2) designed for looking at and acting rather than for acting, and 3) the property of someone else.’
    I wanted to take issue with number 2, which as far as I can tell is entirely unrelated to most people who would put themselves on the permissive end of your spectrum or to objectification.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Quentin, you have now said in quick succession:

    “It’s very easy to put words in the mouth of those with whom you disagree, but it isn’t productive to make a straw man” and “I chose my own word which is more well-known and widely conflated with your permissive wing.”

    Maybe stop digging?

    “…is entirely unrelated to most people who would put themselves on the permissive end of your spectrum”
    Who the hell are these people? Let me quote my first claim about this:
    “The structure of sexualising and objectifying women’s bodies…[has]…two opposed voices to it…The other voice says “women’s bodies are so sexual, they must be displayed – sex for women is essentially subjugation, so come here and have sex with me”.”

    Did I say “the political groups who promote civil liberties”? Did I say “the individuals who self-identify as permissive”? Did I say “the philosophical representatives of liberalism”? No, I did not. I said ‘a voice within the structure’ – a tendency within what I perceive as a system that functions to oppress women. That’s a very vague characterisation. And it’s clearly a systemic one, not an allegation that certain people (the centre-left in the USA, and the centre-right in Europe, presumably) have certain explicit opinions.

    If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.


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