My last post was a little literary, but its intention was very precise and even, in a broad sense, scientific. In understanding systems of oppression, systems of power, we should not suppose that they serve a purpose beyond themselves – to do so would be to walk towards conspiracy theories or religious devil-figures, which are distinguished precisely by supposing a conscious purpose “behind it all”.
But some ideological systems, I believe, are halfway to this, in seeing one oppressive system as the ‘purpose’ or ‘ultimate basis’ of others. The examples that spring to my mind are, firstly, right-libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and so forth, who claim that if the state was removed, the capitalist economy would lose its oppressive character, and secondly, some very crude state communists, who claim that if the capitalist economy was dismantled, the state would lose its oppressive character.
That’s not to say that such positions are necessarily or obviously wrong. I believe they are, but their truth is perfectly conceivable. I do think, though, that they perhaps offer a way of defining things – a way that is incapable of precision or objectivity, but perhaps is still helpful in the fuzzy world of revolutionary politics.
What I mean is – to define the difference between a right-wing anarchist, a left-wing anarchist, and a non-anarchist leftist (such as a Marxist), ask yourself what shape the oppressive structure they oppose has. If it has a single head labelled ‘state’, think of them as a right-wing anarchist, if it has a single head labelled ‘capitalism’, think of them as a non-anarchist leftist, and if it has two heads labelled ‘state’ and ‘capitalism’, think of them as a left-wing anarchist. If it has a head labelled ‘conspiracy’ think of them as a nutjob. If it’s two or more separate creature each with a single head think of them as unsophisticated.
Of course, that procedure leaves out possible other heads – to my mind, the most prominent being patriarchy, racism/imperialism and anthroparchy/human supremacism.
Having conjured up the idea of a multi-headed monster, it’s only a short step to call it a ‘hydra‘ and with that mean that heads can be re-grown if any one of them is left behind. For example, if the economic head is cut off but the state head is left, the vitality left in that state could grow back a new economic head, as arguably happened in Russia. Perhaps even if the anarchists could succeed in cutting off both the state head and the economic head, the vitality of the patriarchy head could grow them back – that habits of domination and aggression built through MAN!-hood could resurrect other oppressive structures.
But phrasing it like that, makes it sound almost impossible to defeat. What gives the creature this vitality? That question might be made metaphorical by asking what it’s “body” is. What is it that explains why these structures have been able to grow – if they are not inevitable and unavoidable, what pumps blood into them?
Without giving any particular arguments or evidence I’d suggest that it’s the bare fact of scarcity – the fact of the natural environment being hostile to humans, through disease, cold, heat, famine, predators, and the unrestrained growth of population to maintain this pressure. The residue of pain and frustration this leaves in people’s psyches, the habits of hostility and struggle that it develops, are the blood that nourishes oppressive structures between humans.
Which (again basically repeating what Orwell says) suggests that growing abundance and wealth would make people harder to oppress – which would certainly seem to be borne out by the history of the last few centuries. But ironically, this observation can then be made self-defeating – for example, in Russia, the government took to heart the idea that ‘oppression will end when people are rich enough’, and used it to ensure that people were never rich enough, because more more more wealth and development was always needed.
Capitalism of course does the same – we can never ever have enough. If we had enough we could relax and stop working, and that would destroy the economy. So there must always be more that you need!