Modalities of Oppression, Part 3 – Beyond Marxism

I’ve written a couple of posts recently about my own attempts to comprehend (in very abstract terms) the relations among different forms of oppression, and how quite different sorts of processes form a single whole. I finished the second with some inconclusive comments about Marxism, which remains the paradigmatic reference point for a historical theory of how communism will triumph. I also posted recently about socialist feminism, liberal feminism, and radical feminism, though again somewhat inconclusively.

What I to do now is become fractionally more conclusive, by directly considering the key claims of ‘Marxism’ and offering the beginnings of a broader theory that would seek to expand it while remaining materialist, in particular in the direction of radical feminism as opposed to socialist feminism.

This will involve my own understanding of Marxism and of materialism; I’ve studied the subject a little, but many others have studied it more. Marxism is often caricatured (and also often affirmed without much in the way of argument) so bear this in mind.

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Three Modalities of Oppression: trying to fit it all together

A few days ago I made some comments about relating different sorts of oppression to each other, and the subject is both very interesting and quite tricky. It occurred to me that matters might be illuminated if we distinguished different ‘modalities’ of oppression.

(‘Modality’ is perhaps an unnecessarily fancy word, it’s sort of like ‘types’ but I prefer the connotations)

It seems to me that there are three major modalities in which violence and conflict and exploitation are manifested: oppression in the imposition of identity, oppression as the essence of that identity, and oppression as a consequence of clashing identities. What do I mean by these phrases?

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“Borders and Beyond” Conference: the politics of abolising migration controls

Most of today was spent attending the first ever conference of the newly-formed academic group “Society for the Abolition of Migration Control”, entitled “Borders and Beyond”. It was a good collection of discussions, so I though I’d convey a flavour of some of the themes that were raised, around the general topic of open borders/abolishing migration controls. In particular, there were divergent attempts to contextualise it politically and evaluate its class-significance.

Towards the beginning of the day, talks were largely factual; people with detailed knowledge of the workings of the migration system explored a lot of the mechanics of how it worked. A key theme that emerged was the ‘internalisation’ of ‘border controls’ – rather than simply being focused around the actual borders of countries, migration controls actually involve various practices of control, surveillance, and stratification, which operate throughout the country – on the street, in the workplaces, in people’s homes, in hospitals, and of course in prisons for the innocent detention centres.

The interesting bits came later, when different views on the political implications of the demand for open borders were raised. What was interesting was the range of outlooks that abolishing migration control could fit into.

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“Equal Pay for Equal Work” – what’s wrong with this principle? Part 2

Why do I think that the principle ‘everyone should receive only as much as they contribute’ is in the long term a bad one? I’m going to develop a three-part answer to that.

Firstly, attempts to apply it in practice will tend to involve a lot of power-over, a lot of judgement and control, which will tend to discriminate in favour of the powerful, and against the weak, especially women and disabled people.

Secondly, the reason why it involves this element of control is that it rests on the fact of alienation, and as society reduces alienation it will become less and less relevant.

Thirdly, the more strenuously the principle in question is applied, the more it will hold back social trends towards reducing alienation.

So that first point. To give any practical meaning to ‘rewards proportional to work’, the concepts involved must be, as an experimental scientist might say, ‘operationalised’: made capable of rigourous measurement and quantification. But it makes no sense to let people record their own level of work – if you trust people that much, why not dispense with the whole affair and make consumption goods freely available, trusting people to take appropriate amounts?

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“Equal Pay for Equal Work” – socialist or capitalist? Part 1

An interesting contrast between political debates of the last few decades and those before is the way that the idea of ‘receiving what you worked for’ has shifted sides.

That is, in the 19th century, the claim that the products of people’s labour were being taken from them unfairly for the benefit of those who hadn’t worked as hard was a typically socialist claim – the workers should throw off their ‘parasitic’ employers and establish the sort of just society in which people are given only as much as they produce. The value of work and effort was affirmed, the way that it justified and ennobled the worker.

Since the establishment in many Western countries of a substantial welfare state, though, that same idea has to some extent become a conservative and pro-capitalist talking point: that ‘the state’ is ‘robbing’ productive people of the wealth that they’ve earned and then unfairly lavishing it on the feckless and workshy. It’s more common now to see people on some sort of ‘left’ defending the idea, not of everyone receiving as much as they contribute, but of people receiving even if they haven’t contributed.

Now this presents an interesting spectacle for those who want to both maintain an ongoing connection with the 19th-century socialist tradition, and also deal fully with modern developments. In particular, it poses the question: what should socialists think about this principle, of receiving only what you put in?

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Solipsism and Capitalism, Part 2 of 2

In yesterday’s post I argued that some philosophers misinterpret perception as being a two-term, self-object experience, while I feel it is better captured by a three-term, self-object-world relationship, and that moreover it is this basic mistake which creates what I called the feeling of ‘claustrophobia’ that sometimes appears in epistemology and the philosophy of perception.

Now I want to consider why that mistake got made, and why it was shared among a variety of prominent, and often sharply disagreeing, early modern philosophers. I want to suggest that it reflects the sort of society they were trying to come to terms with.

I’ve remarked in the past on the ‘fit’ between the mentality appropriate to science (rational, reductive, totalising) and the mentality appropriate to market-based profit-maximising (rational, reductive, totalising). I’ve suggested that this results in an ideological bias in capitalist societies towards a dogmatic over-emphasis of science.

I would suggest here that there is also a certain ‘fit’ between the way that the social world appears to the capitalist mindset, and the way the world of thought appears to the sort of almost-solipsistic mindset I have criticised, that is liable to make such an approach, though mistaken, attractive to philosophers working in a capitalist milieu.

The primary point of resemblance is this: if one neglects the fact that all specific objects are always perceived (and thought of) against the background of the world, i.e. in necessary connection with the world, one gives to them a sense of independence from each other. When one then says that there is in fact a world (as there obviously is), that world will seem like the mere adding-together of a great number of discrete things, an aggregate, a heap.

Similarly, in a capitalist economic system, each actor operates independently, with their own goals, seeing no inherent connection or bond between themselves and others. Society as a whole then appears as simply a random collection of self-seeking individuals, a heap, an aggregate with no unity or meaningful connection.

Indeed, one arrives at Thatcher’s famous quote: there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals (and families, in the quote, but since house-bound home-makers are similarly invisible in capitalist ‘civil society’ and in most philosophy, we can ignore that). And the mistaken starting-point in philosophy that I discussed is the metaphysical equivalent: there is no such thing as reality, there are only individual objects.

A consequence of this is solitude. Capitalism as a market economy is the reign of ‘private’ interests and ‘private individuals’. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no meaningful subject of concern, pride, hope, or love beyond oneself and one’s handful of ‘private’ friends. Contrasted with, say, the confidently ‘public’ life of a citizen in democratic Athens, or the loyal member of a grand dynasty, a guild, a secret society, etc, the bourgeois operates within the narrow confines on their own soul.

It isn’t hard to see how this parallels the fear of solipsism in philosophy, the worry that just as the absence of a community beyond self interest prevents us from emotionally ‘getting outside our own heads’, so the absence of a world beyond discrete objects prevents us from cognitively ‘getting outside our own heads’.

In both cases, we could express this in a contradiction: socially, capitalism promotes a sort of self-interest that undermines the foundations for social cohesion – and yet social cohesion remains necessary, because without legitimacy and state force, property rights cease to be respected and the market vanishes. Philosophically, the very processes of thought and reason which are supposed to let us know the truth about reality threaten to abolish our knowledge of it.

I should stress, the aim of this parallel-drawing is not to substitute political critique for philosophical critique – it is merely to pick off where philosophical critique leaves off, to fill in the ‘logical gaps’ that philosophical crtique uncovers. By looking outside of philosophy itself, we see how these systematic errors reflect the systematic traits of society, and how the contradictions of capitalism infect even speculative philosophy.

Irrational or Unreasonable? State Spending and Square Circles

Chris at Stumbling & Mumbling has an interesting discussion of whether big fiscal deficits and high government borrowing may be a necessary structural feature of capitalism.

After all, we’re hearing now of a ‘fiscal stimulus’, that the government must borrow and spend in order to re-start the economy in the bad years. But the converse is that it should be running a fiscal surplus – bringing in more money than it spends, and paying off debts – in the good years. And that almost never happens, for political reasons.

The obvious explanation is some form or another of “to be politically acceptable to everyone, governments must spend more than they raise”. Everybody wants a bit of extra money, nobody wants higher taxes.

Now on the face of it, that sounds like a typical example of voters being stupid (I’ll focus on voters, though they’re not the only ones exerting influence for more more money money). It’s rather like the residents of springfield, who in one episode, having seen a bear wonder into town and then wonder out again, march with pitchforks on the town hall twice, first demanding a high-tech “Bear Patrol”, and then demanding to not be made to pay the “Bear Tax” introduced to fund it.

And in a certain sense, of course, demanding more spending than can be funded clearly is irrational, in that it’s impossible: the money will have to be payed eventually, only with interest.

But I think nevertheless it might well be reasonable. Let me explain what I mean.

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