Monday, 25 November 2013

Some Reflections on the Opposition and Oppression

1.  We live at a time of great desperation for the opposition. I’m calling opposition what one might otherwise call “The Left”. I’m choosing to use this term as I think it better reflects the manifold currents and forms of revolt which exist today (in whatever protean or diminished form). By saying opposition (or those who oppose the status quo) I am demarcating my object by reference to the solidity of that which is opposed. The solidity or at least consistency of the Right being I think of far greater degree than the opposition. In this way it is at least possible to speak of a collection or set of forces without essentialising or creating false unities. This is all to the good as there is very little practical unity in the opposition and I see no virtue in covering over this fact with synthesizing theory.

Where might someone point to show a victory or even the signs of moderate progress? Is it even possible to show examples of the government’s program being hindered in any way? Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic, there was the reported delay in changes to disability living allowance and the victory for the campaign to save Lewisham hospital A+E. All in all though these appear to be only delays and minor set-backs in what continues to be a massive attack by neo-liberalism on working people and the welfare state. What’s more for every small local victory there seems to be a larger corresponding defeat. Witness the privatisation of Royal Mail with barely a shot fired; witness the slow dismantling of the NHS and its non-reporting by the BBC. And in recent weeks there’s been the Unite Union routed at Grangemouth and the end of ship building at Portsmouth.  Where is the opposition, and what is it doing?

At a time when you might expect alternative politics to be flourishing the traditional organised far left have gone from borderline irrelevance to total disarray. In truth the rise of so called horizontal and social media centred forms of organisation like Occupy, Anonymous, and UKuncut had already shown up the antiquated nature of the old revolutionary party model, attracting a layer of activists suspicious of central committees and prescribed cannons of revolutionary literature. These old groups could however still muster a decent demonstration or short lived united front campaign, and continued to recruit from the student body. This tenuous grip, however, has over the last year been almost completely relinquished though a number of splits and scandals centred on a series of rape allegations in the Socialist Workers Party. Although it was these allegations and their handling that was the occasional cause for the mass resignations which followed, the scandal also prompted wider criticism from within the movement of the Leninist party model and its relevance to contemporary struggles. Everything from feminism to attitudes towards social media and the integration of current “intersectionalist” forms of social criticism were now very publicly being discussed. All this against the background of an SWP leadership that seemed determined to go down with the ship.

Although the SWP is only one party (the largest on the far left though perhaps not for much longer) its continuing collapse has perhaps been more prominent than it otherwise would have been thanks to coverage by a group of social media activists and writers collectively monikered the “Twitterati” or “left commentariat”. I’ve made several references to these individuals before, in particular highlighting their role in the dissemination and operation of so called “privilege theory”. Beyond their interventions into the SWP crisis this group of journalists and some-time activists form a coherent group or faction within the opposition and have become something of a bête-noire for parts of the traditional left and other non-aligned movements fed up with their stream of liberal pseudo-radicalism. There is a whole counter-discourse to their online comments that seeks to challenge their preeminence and reveal the less than radical implications of their writing. I suppose I would count myself at least nominally in this latter group. Perhaps more disconcerting are the limited signs of an alliance between these individuals and some of the elements that split off from the SWP crisis. The taking up of privilege theory and a risible fixation on what one might call the politics of Miley Cyrus is indication enough of a lack of discernment amongst those involved and that there is very little worthwhile that might be salvaged from the splintering of the Leninist party. See this recent intersectionalist mash-up from Laurie Penny and the International Socialist Network’s Richard Seymour for more grist to this banal satanic mill.   

Keeping busy Penny has also broken new ground along with her commentariat buddy Owen Jones by appearing on Auntie’s flag ship political spectacle Question Time; thus making the leap to “official” opposition. Here I am fully in agreement with Russell Brand’s analysis the other week that participation in the mainstream political spectacle does little more than justify an irredeemably corrupt system. Although I note that Brand didn’t extend his criticism to establishment institutions like Question Time, appearing as he did on the show in June this year. If I was harsh I might say that Brand shares with Penny and the majority of the commentariat a propensity to never let principle get in the way of an opportunity for self-publicity. A recent defence of Jones and Brand along the lines that they are the people “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years” totally obscures the question as to how their interventions direct and mold that consciousness and whether they offer a genuine opportunity for collective organization or just tokenistic rhetoric easily absorbed by our well oiled parliamentary democratic machine. While I support the critique of identarianism and its liberal moralizers, replacing identity with personality will not lead us out of the “Vampires Castle”. If we can steel ourselves away from the simplistic enjoyment of having aspects of our politics aired in the enemy’s camp we might better be able to address these questions. I don’t wish to labour on these people for any longer than is necessary. It is sufficed to post this excellent summing up from a denizen of that den of inequity known as Urban75.

“The bottom line is if you subscribe to any materialist analysis of the world, you are going to spend your political life being accused of sexism and homophobia by Laurie Penny unless you renounce your 20th Century misguided notions of socialism you're the enemy. Anyone too stupid, too uneducated, too technologically illiterate to partake in the narrow and elitist discourse of intersectionalism either at university or on twitter is a rape apologist, misogynist, privilege keeping piece of shit to these people. That this means they can pour scorn and contempt and effectively write off millions of people, for being white, being male, being healthy, being thin, being [insert non-transferable privilege category], it means they can politically rationalise their deep-felt hatred for anything that's not in their tiny fucking bubble. And whilst they do this the left withers and dies, unable to win support from anyone outside this exclusive club, and the far-right wins the support of millions of alienated people all throughout Europe.”

2.  For all the talk of oppression and privilege (and there is little else besides talk), there is a remarkable lack of discussion on precisely what constitutes a thing or state of affairs as oppressive. If I’m short in stature (which I am) in a room full of people six foot plus I may well feel self-conscious but am I oppressed? How about the relationship between teacher and pupil, or father and child, both of which entail considerable disparities between the individuals involved. Generally one knows if one is actively being oppressed; it’s a feeling much like a sickness without a discernible cause. Its symptoms can range widely: depression, outbursts of rage both righteous and undirected, self-loathing, shame, fear and despondency; the effects can manifest physically too.  Sometimes though these feelings are not linked by the sufferer to an agent or structure responsible and are instead directed towards some perceived personal failure. The government wants us to think this way about people on benefits and the disabled and those who never manage to “get on”. People like this we are told are simply lazy or lack the requisite ambition or will to spend every waking minute selling themselves. Since they blanket the media and are enforced through policy these ideas begin to be internalised even by people who are most harmed by them. There begins the the cognitive dissonance and misrecognition that are the signatures of what Marxists call ideology.  Ideology, as Louis Althusser diagnosed in the 1960s isn’t simply an epistemic error. It is not the case that the subject perceives a social world and then misunderstands it; rather ideology is the frame or constitutive matrix of understanding through which the social world is viewed and into which we as subjects are “interpolated”. It is coextensive with any situated perspective and since it is not an error of reason it cannot be reasoned away. Thus construed, misrecognition, as we learn from Jacques Lacan is always first and foremost self-misrecognition, and since ideology is in effect “in” the subject, gives to the subject a place and ground for understanding,  it can never be totally eliminated and altering it is no small task. The effects of oppressive conditions on the ideational content of representations and their concomitant influence on conduct was known long before the advent of Marxian and psychoanalytic jargon. One of the most influential instances was Mary Wollstonecraft’s analysis of the effects on women of their subservience to men.

“It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish, and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness of spaniel-like affection, have not much delicacy, for love is not to be bought, in any sense of the words, its silken wings are instantly shrivelled up when anything beside a return in kind is sought. Yet whilst wealth enervates men; and women live, as it were, by their personal charms, how can we expect them to discharge those ennobling duties which equally require exertion and self-denial” (Wollstonecraft 1995 pg230)

These insights apply to the situation of women in the late 18th century ideas inherited from the classical Republican tradition, a tradition which viewed liberty in a manner far removed from our own, even from those who today make most use of the term ‘oppression’. For Wollstonecraft and for the classical theorists of liberty what made power (any power) intolerable was not its mere existence but its arbitrariness. It was the unchecked, arbitrary power that men had over women that Wollstonecraft correctly diagnosed as putting them into a state analogous to slavery. Slavery is of course a state of domination in which even if you happen to be under the yoke of a mild mannered benevolent master you are still thoroughly dependent upon their grace and thus totally unfree. In such a state even if you are left unmolested your conduct, much like the conduct of the fawning women described by Wollstonecraft is affected. You won’t do anything to antagonise your master/husband; you will do or say whatever you can to keep him onside, and you certainly won’t speak out even if you feel you have just cause. We can easily imagine this transposed to political absolutism where bowing and scraping ministers of state tell the King only what he wants to hear for risk of reprisals. Under such relations of domination free-speaking (distinct from the formal right of free-speech) or speaking truth to power (Parrhesia as the Greeks called it) is extremely difficult and this in turn puts the fate of the polis itself into jeopardy. For if truth is foreclosed by fear and unchecked power corruption and barbarism naturally follow. The same goes for the possibility of individuals forming any freely assumed ethical disposition; insofar as such an ethos is dependent on a degree of autonomous will free from the fear of arbitrary interference we can say with Foucault that ‘the slave has no ethics’ (Foucault 1997 pg286).  

There are at least two important conclusions to draw from this: firstly, in distinction to the theory of negative liberty a person under a relation of domination does not actually have to be interfered with to be rendered unfree. The existence of arbitrary power over a person is sufficient. Thus you may work for a thoroughly generous and pleasant boss who you have never seen as much as raise his voice to anyone, but since in your workplace you have no grievance procedures or protection from being arbitrarily sacked, and there is no right to appeal or tribunals system in your country you are still very much in a relation of domination relative to him.  Secondly, since it is arbitrary relations of power and not power per-se that we are dealing with here, the notion of ‘oppression’ which we see being used so often needs qualification. Is the Niqab oppressive? Are high heeled shoes? I have seen both described as such. Since I think it is specifically relations of power we are talking about when we talk of social oppression it seems something of an abuse of language to describe any item of clothing as in-and-of-itself oppressive. As I elaborated in my previous post the political significance of the Niqab has been wildly interpreted by different parties; indication enough that rather than having any fixed meaning in-itself the multitude of meanings map onto the contours of a social antagonism that reveals the workings of power not just on the political but also the ethical landscape of our society. The example of high heeled shoes also calls out for an analysis along these lines and would no doubt yield a very different complex of power relations and normative imperatives compared to the Niqab. It is for this reason that subsuming both under an undifferentiated concept of gender oppression is highly unproductive, not least as it ignores the different ethical forms of subjectivity that are implicated in both cases.

It is this ethical side to power, how power affects the possibility of constituting ourselves as ethical beings which is often missing from discussions on oppression both in the intersectional and more conventionally Marxist camps. Wollstonecraft was acutely aware of the relationship between power and ethics and like the classical authors she studied saw the possibility of attaining virtue and the Good Life in being free from the sort of arbitrary power that women in her time were subjected to. In the modern era of neo-liberal individualism and freedom from all regulation whatsoever the notion of liberty that comes quickest to contemporary minds is best summed up by a gentleman from Iowa I encountered at the base of the Statue of Liberty last year. He told me liberty was “doing what you wanna do when you wanna do it”. We can laugh but in truth much of what neo-liberal society teaches us can be summed up by that pithy phrase. Freedom is freedom from the obligations and constraints that necessarily accompany life in a political community. From this perspective there is no room for the possibility that power might be enabling as well as constraining. The person of liberty is no longer the citizen of a properly constituted city but a paranoid loner holed up in an isolated farm house, gun under the pillow.

 3.  This kind of extreme libertarian thought is what animates the more conspiratorial wing of the opposition. Clowns like David Icke and Alex Jones (both of whom have received attention from the mainstream media in the last twelve months) are its most conspicuous adepts. But fellow travellers ranging from 9/11 truthers to full on reptilian New World Order lunatics can be found in or around pretty much all of the recent non-aligned movements from Occupy to Anonymous. Perhaps the most disheartening trend of the last few years has been the growth of this kind of conspiratorial analysis over more rationalist and socialist forms.  They are in effect the opposition that best mirrors our contemporary situation.  It is here that you can find most of the theoretical flux between overtly right wing positions like that of the US Republican Tea party and nominally more progressive forces like Anonymous. Both are likely to view power, whether in the form of the state or corporations as intolerable in and of itself, although the Tea Party do tend to focus on the former (by a bizarre twist of logic they tend to view the latter as an emanation of individual free enterprise even in the case of multinationals). The denuding and diminishing of communality implicit in this form of thought engenders  such “progressive” alternatives as the Free Man on the Land movement; a bizarre fantasy construct of legal theory where saying the right words in court or signing your name in capital letters will exempt you from taxation or paying for electricity.  For these people being compelled to contribute to a joint pot that might keep the street lights on or provide for universal healthcare and fire-fighters is tantamount to having ones kidneys removed. The legal mysticism that marks out the Freemen is the only unique part of a mind-set that is remarkably common in the US and increasingly prevalent here. Right across this spectrum of libertarian thought it is the simplistic view of power as purely a force of constraint which leads to their very similar and ultimately non-political form of politics; that is, a politics without political community, a politics of the wilderness.

The Republican (or neo-Roman) idea of liberty which has recently been given new impetus by the work of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit 1 offers a way out of this deadlock. It offers activists a way of thinking about power in society that bypasses the liberal and libertarian dualism of freedom and constraint. It suggests that power whether in the form of a properly constituted state or in any of the multiple forms of collectivity can be used to enable individual liberty rather than hinder it. Labour laws, employment tribunals, legislation guaranteeing sick pay and restricting the ability of bosses to arbitrarily sack people are all ways in which power can be deployed in such a way as to free people from potentially dominating relations. Pettit has gone so far as to describe such a strategy as anti-power. Insofar as the power of the state is deployed against the power of employers to nullify to an extent some of their ability to dominate individuals this kind of relationship is antagonistic (on the distinction between antagonistic and agonistic relations see the final section here). The collective power of trade unions is supposed to work in a similar way. The limit I think to this theory is that while it views power in a more positive light it still views its nature as essentially restrictive, albeit in this case by restricting the arbitrary power of some groups in order to enable the liberty of others. Pettit’s work is also notable for his focus on the notion of deliberative democracy and the important role of public contestation of power in both its statist and private form. This nod to the classical humanist emphasis on civic participation is for me one of the most attractive features of the neo-Roman theory.  From the side of the subject however it holds onto the liberal notion of the self-constituting individual endowed with rights whose ability to realise the Good corresponds to the degree in which they can maintain those rights and free themselves from interference, in this case arbitrary interference.

To counter this limitation I think that Foucault’s work, and in particular his later writing on the relationship between power, ethics, and what he called technologies of the self, offer significant advantages over and attenuation of the neo-Roman theory. As we’ve already seen in the discussion of Wollstonecraft Foucault shares with the theorists of republican liberty the idea that freedom equals non-slavery, with special weight being given to the insight that conditions of slavery or domination negatively affect the ability of subjects to constitute themselves as ethical beings. The principle difference between him and more analytic theorists like Pettit is in his insistence that power is always already there, that one is never outside it, that there are no margins for those who break with the system to gambol in (Foucault 1980 pg141). Furthermore he proposed the provocative thesis that power was not solely restrictive but “generative”, i.e. that individual subjects were at least partially constituted through it rather than just oppressed by it.  He also departs from the liberal enlightenment tradition in his critical attitude to the supposed subject of Rights and sceptical approach towards the kind of juridical consensus based deliberation favoured by Pettit. He notes that the institutional and communicative practices of such a deliberative model while pertaining to a universal and neutral form of communicative discourse are themselves the result of numerous struggles and social conflicts, the facts of which when obscured tend to background differences in communicative idioms and privilege the viewpoint of dominant groups. Thus any consensus reached in this way cannot be the basis of a power relation, but, at best its instrument or result. In itself such procedures cannot guarantee our freedom from arbitrary power.

Foucault’s anti-humanist and more holistic approach also bears upon the relationship the subject has to themselves in the sense of not being a slave to ones appetites or desires. Freedom, or rather ‘practices of freedom’ have the form of being a type of self-mastery in conjunction with others so as to minimize relations of domination. Crucially though unlike the Marxian promise of disalienation under communism such resistance against domination does not hold the possibility of a revelation that would uncover a true or authentic subjectivity beyond the view of power. There is no return to itself in the uncovering of humanity’s species being, rather the subject is always first and foremost the subject of power. But that does not mean that we are mere docile bodies, thoroughly subjectivized by impersonal forces around us. While the subject is always in-and-of power it is also the resisting subject, the subject of contestation and counter-conduct who refuses a form of governance and seeks to test its limits, and in doing so opens up new possibilities of subjectivity and forms of life.

4. There is a distinction which Foucault mobilised late in his life between relations of power and states of domination which I think could be well deployed in the intersectional discussions on oppression. The latter are states of such utter subjection, where the disparity between the parties is so great that negotiation or contestation is negligible or absent. These states are closest to those which animated the classical Republicans and led to the comparisons with slavery. Relations of power on the other hand require a degree of freedom on the side of the subject in order to function, where the dynamic between the parties admits of a degree of fluidity and changeability. It is these kinds of relations that predominate in liberal society, which as the French philosopher argued, entails at its heart a productive / destructive relationship with freedom. As he precisely diagnosed: “Liberalism must produce freedom, but this very act entails the establishment of limitations, controls, forms of coercion, and obligations relying on threats etcetera” (Foucault 2010 pg64). Thus it seems we have an admission from Foucault that freedom in the negative tradition, as non-interference, still has a place in his theory. A space of non-interference in which relations of power can be contested is a necessary condition for what he calls games of truth and practices of freedom to be conducted. As such: “liberation from states of domination is sometimes the political or historical condition for a practice of freedom” (Foucault 1997 pg283).

Within this hybrid theory of liberty and domination that is neither negative nor fully positive self-mastery is not so much a set of prescriptions identified with a teleological conception of the Good, the achievement of which would enable an individual to be considered free; but rather it is a constant technique or “care of the self” through which an individual gives themself the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination”(Foucault 1987 pg18). As highlighted by the Canadian philosopher James Tully, to contest a rule within a relation of power is not the prolegomenon to freedom but the practice of freedom, the enlightenment ethos itself (Tully 2009 pg127).

If we apply this idea to the sorts of “oppressive” relations held up in recent intersecionalist discussions, say physical attractiveness, we can see that it is difficult to construe the relationship between the relevant parties as being either a state of domination or in itself oppressive. Attractive people may have some advantages over people considered less attractive but that in no way means they have the ability to arbitrarily interfere with the lives of others. We could well consider the normative criteria of physical attractiveness arbitrary but the relation of power between those individuals and the rest of society is clearly not. Thus an appropriate approach to the disparity between those considered attractive and those who are not isn’t a kind of liberationist politics where the yoke of pretty people is to be overthrown. Rather, it is the more complex system of relationships that produce the arbitrary norms of physical form that should be tackled. This might involve contesting forms of cultural authority like the media and fashion industry that promote particular body images; struggles for recognition of different body forms in public life; and of course attacking the wider and all pervasive culture of commodification that runs through much of how we think about ourselves and our place in the world. A great deal of this is dependent on democratic forms of contestation and thus also implies the possibility of alliances with similar minded individuals and further struggles in other areas of social life to enable progress to be made2. Crucially, activists engaged in these sorts of struggles should recognise them as just the sorts of games of truth and practices of freedom that Foucault theorised. They are struggles that take place within power rather than just against it. They are fought not in the name of an essential identity but instead towards the possibility of an autonomous subjectivity, capable of renewal, always critical, with the possibility of thinking and acting differently. Or again: such practices aim not at self-liberation but rather the possibility of, and care of the self, with all the ethical implications that follow.

Taking this all into account I hold that the concept of oppression in circulation in much of the opposition’s discourse is inadequate. Firstly it holds the false promise of a world “beyond oppression”, which I take to mean the deactivation of all power, and thus to be impossible. Secondly the current trend for movements against social “oppressions” of various kinds has led to the elevation of the identarian category of ‘subject who is being oppressed’ (always singular, always essential). To the familiar class, racial, and women’s oppression we have now a huge spectrum of persons (or ‘wheel of oppression’. You can find it on Google) vying for status as oppressed identities to the detriment of all forms of collective solidarity. From where amongst these atomised micro sects of the “oppressed” do we find the potential for new forms of communality?  As I have tried to show there is another story which mobilises a tradition of politics and theory that gives us a more differentiated and I think more productive approach to power and domination in modern society. It takes the classical Republican insights regarding the undesirability of relations of domination and how those relations can affect the ethical constitution of an individual or community; and utilising Michel Foucault’s work we can see how power in social life is multi-faceted, dispersed, and does not entail merely repression but through our interactions with it constitute the possibility of living any ethical life whatsoever.

Our current political situation is a confusing spectacle. As I alluded to at the beginning the solidity of the Right, of the forces that are ranged against the opposition, represents a better starting point for talking about resistance to the status quo than the increasingly beleaguered term The Left. As should be clear from the above discussion, to describe some currents within the opposition as socialist, Left, or even progressive is way off the mark. With this in mind I think the distinction I have tried to present between states of domination and relations of power represents a much better theoretical frame through which to understand the terrain of contemporary politics than the undifferentiated catch all of ‘oppression’ to which seemingly anyone can attach their banner. Moving away from this term and the concomitant gamut of oppressed identities would permit the opportunity for a renewed focus on thinking community along the lines of resistance to arbitrary power and the necessary forms of democratic organisation needed to contest power relations including forms of government. Such thinking would ground community (whether a community of activists, or otherwise) in terms that eschew essence or identity and which put autonomy, ethics, and the overturning of domination at the heart of politics.


1 - See Pettit’s Republicanism: A theory of freedom and Government for detailed exposition of his political theory. Skinner’s Liberty before Liberalism offers a concise genealogy of republican freedom.

2 – Whichever strategy is deployed I cannot see any justification for the sorts of terroristic moralising done by some purveyors of privilege theory. Are disparities between individuals in society significant? Very often. Are they morally significant? In most cases I cannot see how. The fact of someone being blessed with height or physical attractiveness, or even being born white or into a rich family is not in and of itself morally significant, and I cannot but loath the attitude that to be born into “privilege” of any kind is to be a priori morally culpable, no more than I am culpable for being born in London and not Mogadishu.

Foucault, Michel 1980 – Power/Knowledge (London, Harvester Wheatsheaf)
Foucault, Michel 1987 - The Ethic of Care of the Self as a Practice of Freedom: an Interview with Michel Foucault on 20 January 1984: in J.Bernauer and D.Rasmussen (eds), The Final Foucault (London, MIT Press)
Foucault, Michel 1997 – Ethics:Essential Works of Foucault Vol 1 (London Penguin Books)
Foucault, Michel 2010 – The Birth of Biopolitics (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan)
Tully, James 2009 - Public Philosophy in a New Key: vol. 1, Democracy and Civic Freedom
(Cambridge University Press)
Wollstonecraft,Mary – A Vindication of the Rights of Men and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)