May 28, 2021
From The Commoner
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In the first article of the series ‘The Cost of Power and Hierarchy,’ I discussed, at length, some of the foundational theories of perception, conception, the dynamic influential relationship between the subject and their surrounding environment, and how that relates to studies researching the effects of power and hierarchy on the physical and mental states of human beings. Like many other things in complex systems, there is a ripple effect. This research has far reaching implications, and I’d like to explore what those implications might be along with what we might be able to do about it. Just to clarify, in the research that was conducted and discussed in my last article, the behaviour and mental states of subjects could be changed simply by making them feel powerful (in relation to, or over, others). If power can so easily alter someone’s behaviour, then there are numerous dangers, or ripples, that we must consider in our own social arrangements.

The first ripple born out of the psychological impact of power is an environmental one. More specifically, power affects not just our conceptual frameworks but the way those frameworks address the natural world around us. The political philosopher Murray Bookchin spells out this dynamic in the following:

‘We must emphasize here that the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human, and in the structuring of the natural world into a hierarchical chain of being (a static conception, incidentally, that has no relationship to the dynamic evolution of life into increasingly advanced forms of subjectivity and flexibility).’

Throughout history, there has not only been a dialectical development of human beings resulting from social interaction, but there has also been a dialectical development resulting from human beings interacting with nature, and the nature of this dialectical development has changed form as an emergent property of how human beings interacted with one another. At the moment when human beings began to organise hierarchically and domination of one human being by another became a central value, that attitude and pattern of behaviour was transferred to the surrounding environment. It was codified into social norms and persists to this day. You do not have to travel far outside your everyday social circles to hear someone expounding the principle of strength through the domination and control of nature. It is quite common to hear, in science education, that we are the dominant species, and this line of reasoning is frequently used to justify the imprisoning and domestication of animals for our convenience and consumption. In the case of factory farms, we have little concern for their health. We also use this concept to justify hunting for the thrill of the sport, even to the detriment of a species’ population. It is used to justify such acts as deforestation and bleeding the earth dry of fossil fuels, which are subsequently burned and heat the atmosphere. The very instilled and internalised value of domination has leaked from the structures and institutions of our societies and spilled all over the natural world, culminating in environmental destruction and the climate crisis we find ourselves in today.

The topic of destruction of humans against nature leads us to another ripple that tends to sit at the edge of one’s mind when discussing revolution: violence toward other human beings. Most might try to come up with a moral or logical argument of the type the philosopher Albert Camus made when he stated that one person’s freedom is limited by another person’s freedom to rebel, insinuating that to commit violence or to cause the death of another means that you would be infringing on that person’s freedom. Those who see violence as a necessary tool might make the argument that violence must be committed in order to ensure that a revolution is successful and that, due to it benefitting the greatest number of people, the ends justify the means. However, after coming into contact with the evidence presented by the neuroscientists and psychologists in my last article, it might behove one to consider the ramifications of violence on one’s mental state. Does one not feel power over another when they triumph in the act of incapacitating that person with a swift powerful blow to the head? When standing over another’s lifeless corpse, surely a case exists of having a sense of conquering that human being, due to being a superior combatant in the throes of battle? It goes without saying that, in that case, empathy would have to be inhibited in order to commit violence to begin with; it would be extremely difficult to carry it out while being concerned about how your target feels. Those who aren’t able to inhibit their empathy usually become traumatised, as a result. Of course, these situations aren’t quite simple. The context that the violence exists in is extremely important, as well as one’s relationship to that violence. I don’t think it would be the case that someone defending themselves or their comrades would inevitably become corrupted by the process. It would be rather myopic of me to think that coming out of the other end of a conflict with another always ends with a feeling of power. Sometimes, you may feel shaken, vulnerable, lucky, or that you barely made it out with your life.

There is another category that I’d like to take into consideration, and that category includes both fame and leadership. The reason for including them both is because the same problematic social dynamics are present in both situations. When someone is venerated for one reason or another, the common phrase ‘looking up to’ is generally used (like, ‘I look up to you’), and this is due to the implicit hierarchical structure of that relationship. Let it be known that I am not talking about situations when one is looking for guidance from an expert on a specific topic. Those relationships flatten out if both subjects are cognizant of the particularity of expertise, the equal standing of both being experts in different subjects, and the reciprocity of advisorship in the act of information exchange. What I’m talking about is when one person or a group of people are given a generalised and heightened social status that places them above others in a holistic, as opposed to a particular, sense. Leadership and fame can be poisonous even in leftist circles; underlying principles are not an effective shield against the psychological impact of experiencing people regard you as an authority on all matters, constantly asking for and accepting your advice uncritically, showering you with praise, and generally inflating your sense of self and empowering your ego. You may begin to distinguish yourself from the masses. It might start out with casual elitism, condescending to ‘the average,’ externalising your issues and complaining that it’s due to their inferiority, and, if they would only listen to your advice, they would be much better off. These may then become delusions of grandiosity. You may start to consider yourself a misunderstood genius, or a visionary. You might then begin to self-rationalise and justify cruelty towards the masses. After all, from your perspective, you know what’s best for them. Let’s consider an example.

There is a communist group known as the Shining Path created and led by Abimail Guzman, who referred to himself as Chairman Gonzalo. The philosophy that the Shining Path followed, in addition to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, was the philosophy developed by Guzman, referred to as Gonzalo Thought. In Peru, Guzman and his followers would travel from peasant village to peasant village. While there, they would win over hearts and minds by selling big promises to the villagers themselves. In the town of Lucanamarca, it was stated that:

‘…the Shining Path came with a discourse of change, of ending poverty, of solving inequalities.’

However, what followed was a massacre. First, the villagers experienced forms of domination, abuse, and general intolerance. In reaction, they decided to take matters into their own hands, by killing the recruit Guzman put in charge of the town. It wasn’t long afterward that Guzman retaliated by killing sixty-nine peasants. Eighteen of which were children, none of which were capitalists. This same scenario was repeated in every village the Shining Path encountered. The question is: why? It becomes clear when you read about the principles held by the Shining Path. In ‘Line Construction of the Three Instruments of the Revolution,’ the Shining Path writes:

‘The Peruvian proletariat in the midst of the class struggle has generated the leadership of the revolution and its highest expression: The Great Leadership of Chairman Gonzalo who handles revolutionary theory and has a knowledge of history and a profound understanding of the practical movement…’

‘Our Party has defined that leadership is key and it is the duty of all militants to constantly work to defend and preserve the leadership of the Party and very especially the leadership of Chairman Gonzalo, our Great Leadership…’

Guzman, despite whatever his original intentions were, became a central figure in this organisation, venerated and held above the rest. His followers treated his word with absolute reverence, and that served to disconnect him from whatever empathy or concern he might have had for the common people. It gave him incentive to put an unrealistically high value on his own thoughts and desires, leading to the facilitation of rationalisation and self justification of his actions, no matter how cruel. If his original goal was to liberate the proletariat of Peru, then it was no longer that. His goals had instead shifted to become that of preserving and building his own power, and if that meant that he had to kill a few peasants to ensure their obedience, then that was what he was going to do. In his own words, Guzman stated:

‘Our task was to deal a devastating blow in order to put them in check, to make them understand that it was not going to be so easy.’

The next ripple to discuss is that of material relationships. Many have heard about the larger structural and systemic factors of material power imbalances, but one thing frequently missing in these discussions is the minutia. The reason for discussing this is that it’s really easy to get so caught up in the abstract that you forget how it applies to your day-to -day concrete reality. You can easily bring in culturally specific capitalist mentalities into your social spaces if you aren’t aware of them. Say you’re an enlightened small business owner. You pay your employees well. Maybe you even distribute the profit evenly between everyone and decide to share ownership to remove class dynamics. Capitalism solved! One day, you find that one of the workers isn’t working as well as you would want them to. This might sour your mood. You pay them fairly and they share ownership. The least they could do is to perform well according to your standards. You feel entitled to their obedience. However, if we are being logically consistent, it is not really fair. At the core of this material relationship, the worker is still being coerced to exchange their labour for the resources they need, and you still have power over that worker in that relationship. It is not until the worker has free access to resources, and is free from your expectations (as well as from the expectations of the greater social structure of abstract labour that is impersonally imposed), that the power can be levelled out. Moishe Postone, in his interpretation of Marx’s analysis, elucidates this by stating:

‘In capitalism social labor is not only the object of domination and exploitation but is itself the essential ground of domination. The nonpersonal, abstract, ‘objective’ form of domination characteristic of capitalism apparently is related intrinsically to the domination of the individuals by their social labor.’

Let us consider a living situation. Say you own a house (or you pay the rent; the scenario will work either way). The person you are living with is not able to pitch in. You might think that they should be doing something in exchange for the right to stay in your house. You might think that you would then have the right to make demands of them, and that they should have to adhere to your expectations, but this would be an act of domination. Shelter is a right, not a tool for leveraging power. If you happen to be of the leftist political persuasion, you might just consider allowing this person refuge. You would be curing one life of the ills of capitalism, and that is one small step to realising a post-capitalist future.

The comedian Amber Ruffin wrote a book titled You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey about what could be termed as the ‘casual racism’ experienced by her and her sister growing up. This book really opens one’s eyes to the insinuated power dynamics internalised and expressed subconsciously in behaviour. It gives us a good look into the lives of black women and the interactions they are forced to confront on a daily basis. For example, would you touch a stranger’s hair? Would you touch a stranger’s hair without permission? This sort of behaviour might seem like a minor annoyance at first glance, but it entails a structure of assumptions about what is okay in terms of violating space. There is a certain notion (one normally is not aware of) where one feels more comfortable violating the space of someone if they feel more empowered in relation to that person whose space is being violated. Through intersectionality, Black women are often the most oppressed social group, and it doesn’t surprise me that people, without permission, have touched the hair of both Amber and her sister Lacey, in the several instances depicted in the book. There are stories about stereotyping, which is a typical behaviour of people with power. Lacey was constantly harassed by security guards in stores. Amber’s parents had a successful daycare that was shut down by a woman who didn’t like that black people were more successful than her. There were also several workplace incidents of racism, of which Amber astutely sums up as:

‘…the more money you make, the more racist you are. This may be the case at a lot of jobs. You know what? I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s likely the case at most jobs… racist, racist corporate.’

Here we see the pattern again. The more money you have, the more material and purchasing power you have. This dynamic interacts with the social sphere, in terms of the social status you get when you are seen as someone with wealth, and you are then more likely to stereotype and treat others as inferior. Race as a concept forces hierarchical categories onto human beings, and racism is the disproportional power dynamic that results from that. There are, of course, poorer people who are racist. For these people, white supremacy has misled them into a sense of personal and group superiority over non-white people. They have been afforded a position of veneration and power based on the colour of their skin.

Now we get to the crux of the point, in which we explore solutions for the problems put forward. In lieu of the larger structural and systemic change that is necessary (like overcoming capitalism entirely), there are small things that we can be conscious of, and apply to the actions we make in everyday life. When organising in leftist spaces, we should prefigure the structure that we would like to see in post-capitalist society, thereby fostering the social consciousness that would subsequently lead to a sustainable ecological consciousness. In order to do this, we can use the process of formal or value-based consensus for larger decision making and interpersonal interaction. It would probably be best to not assign leaders, and if you think it necessary, then it would be appropriate to establish constraints to their abilities and hold them accountable to the will of the larger group. In terms of racism, the very process of consensus and horizontal governance works against it, stripping individuals of not only material power, but of a sense of superiority created by racial imbalances of power. Additionally, the value of abolishing the concept of race could be codified into the established policy, practice, and consciousness of the group.

In terms of the material circumstances, we should work to  forgo most concepts of ownership or value (including judgements and valuations imposed on others). In a majority of cases, the change of material conditions would need to precede the conceptual, but it is not impossible to instil these values and impose the conceptual on the material, due to the reciprocal dynamic of how these two functions interact. One way to resolve this would be to avoid ownership entirely, but another way is to contractually negate your ownership of something in whatever relationship you are in. That way, there is a physical document to which all parties consented, that can be referenced in case one party fails to uphold the agreement. The same can be said for relationships formed around an exchange of labour. Ideally, it would be best not to form these relationships at all, but in cases where people are trying to create an egalitarian space when there is a disproportionate distribution of financial means and are affected by the material pressures and incentives of capitalism, it can help hold those with the most leverage accountable. This obviously isn’t a permanent solution; that can only be achieved by doing away with capitalism as a whole, but it can help people manage these types of imbalanced relationships while they are forced to continue existing within the capitalist system. Whatever the case may be, the goal is to make sure there are not any material conditions forcing dependence. In situations where people are working cooperatively together, the labour that one is doing should be done for their own satisfaction, and the relationship should be based entirely on consent.

The reason why I emphasise these aspects of power is that there is still a lot of work that many of us can do, when it comes to the mere identification of the internalised, subconscious social fabric that ends up constituting the values that motivate our actions. We end up bringing hierarchical and domineering attitudes and behaviours into our relationships, our communities, and our movements. If we want to avoid replicating various forms of domination and imposing them on the environment around us, we have to root them out of our habits and patterns of thought. We are an important component of the infrastructure that will form the new society we build. On another note, if we are able to successfully channel our values in day to day interactions, we might just make our movements more appealing to those who might not yet have considered anti-capitalist ideologies, and we might strengthen the solidarity and social cohesion of those who already accept them.


Photo by Simon Spieske on Unsplash

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