Three Modalities of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory

Yesterday I tried to draw together a lot of different sorts of oppression through distinguishing the oppression involved in enforcing identities (and repressing the abnormal and deviant), the oppression involved in those identities themselves (whereby some people are marked as by nature needing to be dominated, and others as by nature fit for domination), and the oppression involved in multiple people expressing the ‘dominator’ identity (and hence having to fight and grind each down).

What I’d like to try and do now in the follow-up is make this a bit more relevant to history and politics. That last post showed the three modalities in their conceptual or symbolic connections, as an abstracted process happening in human minds. What I want to do now is show them as a causal system of interactions in the real world. A great deal of abstraction is still involved in trying to be suitably general, of course.

So, to take the longest possible perspective, I’d note that many animal species show us behaviour-patterns that seem like the germs of human oppression.

In chimps, in lions, in wolves, in chickens, etc. we can see behaviours corresponding to each modality. Animals fight for ‘dominance’, forming hierarchies and pecking orders, paralleling the ‘third modality’ I talked about. This also includes in some cases fighting as a group against other groups.

Animals that are larger and stronger use that power to abuse non-aggressing others (e.g. to steal their food or to kill their babies) and smaller weaker animals try to avert such abuse by submitting, usually with symbols and behaviours adapted from female sexuality and infancy, parallelig the ‘second modality’ I talked about. And animals are often suspicious of and hostile to what’s unfamiliar, so that their actions sometimes follow the pattern of attacking whatever makes no sense, paralleling the ‘first modality’ I talked about.

(of course many animals don’t show some or all of these behaviours – many animals aren’t social, or are merely pair-bonded, or use a different pattern of social structure).

The difference of course is that animal behaviour can’t be made systematic: it’s much more dependent on what individuals happen to feel at a given moment. With humans – or perhaps more importantly with language, and the consequent possibility of explicit oral tradition – they can be systematised and made more orderly.

I would argue that the three go together quite closely: in codifying one, the others too will tend to become more codified. They are in a sense three aspects of a single process. For example, to codify a certain law governing relations between men (e.g. that this land belongs to man X, and the others can demand a certain amount of its produce if they work for him there) you need to settle the issues that will lead them to fight.

If they are already unsystematically regarding themselves as the owners of certain women (even perhaps only in the way that both partners in a relationship can be ‘possessive’ – maybe ‘their’ women feel equally possessive of them, but happen to not be engaged in a vastly destructive fight against other women), then sex (consensual or not) with those women must be regulated as part of the agreement. And so it is decided that each woman will be the ‘wife’ of a certain man, and that man has the right to sex with her and others don’t.

The poor women aren’t involved in drawing up this ‘contract’, of course, so the first they hear of it is when they find out that now 1) they can’t sleep with anyone apart from this one guy, and 2) they can’t refuse to sleep with him – because now, those united, systematically organised men will work together to ‘uphold the law’.

Hence systematising modality 3 implies systematising modality 2. Moreover, this ‘upholding the law’ will imply modality 1 as well. ‘Laws’, after all, are made by humans, and so they’ll be framed in the terms of a human’s thinking. They will use abstractions in place of real people, and apply only under certain assumptions. Sometimes people’s behaviour will make those abstractions and assumptions useless. How will people respond? Well, if they are strongly invested in ‘the law’, then they are liable to be rather unhappy about this – especially if they fear that it could spread, and that everybody will start acting in ways that undermine the application of the law. So it’s liable to provke a defensive and hostile reaction. If enough people are invested in the law (even if they don’t benefit much from it, they may value the comforting release from responsibility that it offers) then that hostility can easily be deadly.

I’ve deliberately shown the sequence going from 3 to 1, while the previous post presented them going from 1 to 3, to illustrate how interconnected they are. None of them is really ‘for the sake of’ any of the others: they are all for one, one for all and all for the joys of power.

Now obviously there are tendencies in humans and other social animals that are not simply towards oppression and hostility. They interact with the development of systematic oppression in various ways. One way in particular is that the most innovative and complex functions and activities – science, philosophy, culture, jurisprudence, commerce, etc. – are concentrated towards the most privileged: towards ‘men’, towards members of dominant classes and races, etc.

A consequence of this is that it’s here that the greatest change appears: innovations in technology or organisation or ideas which de-stabilise the previous arrangements in all areas of society, which in turn produce changes in way that oppression functions in all three modalities.

In this light I want to look particularly at the Marxist analysis of history. The key processes in this analysis are class struggles: history is the sequence of different class societies. In the framework I’ve been discussing, the economic class structure of society is largely within the remit of modality 3 – because all property-owners, including even proletarians who at ‘own’ their wages briefly, have historically tended to be male, the disposition of economic roles between them is a matter of the organisation of ‘dominators’ – adult male humans who have at least some sense of themselves as deserving to rule and be in charge.

Marxism differs from more traditional political philosophy, of course, in that class-relations are also one of the third-modality relations that is often obscured by the cloak of second-modality relations: by assimilating slaves, workers and peasants (or indeed oppressed races) to animals, women, or children (brutish, unreasoning, incapable of self-control), their subordination is made to appear ‘apolitical’ compared to the subordination of, say, one group of wealthy citizens by another.

But if my analysis is correct, then Marxism still has a certain myopia about it, in not digging further beneath the surface. However, that isn’t the crucial claim that we need to consider. What Marxism, in a fairly orthodox form, seems to claim is that the economic structure of society is of primary causal importance – that it is through the development and articulation of third-modality relationships to their conclusion (which conclusion is proletarian revolution, supposedly), that the whole structure will be undermined and overthrown. This has a certain affinity with the above observation that innovative change is most likely in third-modality structures.

Such a claim may be true, but it’s not obviously so, and I don’t think it’s been convincingly shown to be true. How it might be shown true or false is indeed a difficult question in itself. But that’s probably enough for today. I will continue to discuss these issues, and may even emerge at the end with some settled opinions.

One Response to “Three Modalities of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory”

  1. Modalities of Oppression, Part 3 – Beyond Marxism « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Three Modalities of Oppression, Part 2: history and prehistory […]


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