The Pyramid Must Fall


On Politics, Micro-Politics, and Internal Politics
January 17, 2011, 8:06 pm
Filed under: revolution | Tags: , ,

This is in response to a post called “On Changing Our World: Affective Activism Means Understanding the Nature of Our Many Problems” by Jeremy Weiland. I suggest you go over there and read that and then coming back, so that this makes some modicum of sense to you.

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I started this off as a comment response on your blog, but your blog hates me, for one, and it obviously quickly grew too long to post there anyway. So, I’m posting it here, independently, so others can read it and so that you can read it more easily. So, here goes…

You’re casting non-violent sanctions as something aggressive and, in a certain sense, violent. A truly non-violent sanction one has against the beliefs of another is education. When you educate someone as to the flaws of a certain belief, they are more prone to no longer believing it. That, more than anything, is the left’s non-violent sanction. More than non-violent, it is good-natured. Education is an altruistic thing to do for somebody. It makes them more knowledgeable, their quality of life better, and the same for those around them.

I also disagree with your description of politics. Some left political activism may orient itself toward institutions, but mainly for the purpose of ending institutional discrimination. Notice, I didn’t say ending discrimination. I said ending institutional discrimination; making institutions more universal, as opposed to favoring and disfavoring certain groups. The same cannot be said for right-wing political activism, which most often has the goal of increasing institutional discrimination.

It’s important to be able to see what role discrimination plays in economics. For example, you’re a lowly employee; therefore you’re not an owner. That’s discrimination as it provides special privileges to entrepreneur-labor/capital and investor-capital that it doesn’t provide to worker labor/capital. In other words, worker-labor doesn’t go toward buying anything; it just goes toward the “owner’s” pockets. Ending these special privileges in government is tantamount to ending special privileges once bestowed to whites, or men, or property owners. So, one must ask why certain activists orient themselves toward institutions. It’s not always about harnessing power; sometimes it’s about dismantling power.

Also, remember, I started that last paragraph off with a correction. I said some left political activism is oriented toward institutions; not all. Some is actually directed toward individuals. That may seem counter-intuitive to some, but it’s true. What discrimination exists not on the institutional level must be combated somehow, right? This is called micro-politics. It was established long ago in the essay “The Personal is Political” by Carol Hanisch.

The culture is a kind of informal institution itself, is it not? It’s a kind of exo-institution that exists only in our collective minds and behaviors. That can be changed, too, through non-violence. Carol defines politics as “having to do with power relationships” in that essay, and that is what politics is to me.

I think our main disagreement is our differing definitions of politics. I don’t see it as being so narrow and specific as you do. I see it in the broad context of power relationships. Nazis represent a certain threat to society. They seek to use force on the general population to establish and maintain their preferred society. So is this not a political issue? Certain people want to seize power and change society in ways the populace wouldn’t of its own free accord. They feel powerless to make the populace adopt their values and opinions, but that can be seen as their values and opinions having flaws that only they cannot see. I think this is the situation Marxists are in. Maybe even anarchists. Although, sometimes it’s just a situation of having no exposure. And I think this is even something the worst fascists tell themselves; it’s just a lack of exposure, not repudiation. With hierarchy comes exposure but with exposure doesn’t always come hierarchy, if you get what I mean.

That’s not to say that minorities are never right and majorities are never wrong. It’s not about that. It’s about values and, like you said, there is more informing their values than rationality. There is subconscious conceptions of freedom, self-interest, abstract or philosophical ideas about the direction civilization, history, culture, humankind is supposed to go in, etc.

It may sound weird, but even individuals can be seen as institutions. They’re institutions on the micro-level. Their whole philosophy is an institution in their mind. But removing the discrimination from the institution of a person’s mind is not the same as removing it from the institution of an IRL government. You have to rally the left political forces in their minds to go up into their moral-legal “system” and change the rules that govern them. This is starting to sound a bit like the movie Inception, but it should be less deceptive than what they did in that movie, and of course less literal. You don’t have to go into their subconscious with a machine. You just have to appeal socially to the left political forces inside of them. Some people are right-wing dictatorships in their minds, brutalizing every internal occurrence of anti-discriminatory politics/values. That is, admittedly, a problem, but it is in the nature of hierarchy that the minority is ruling. So one can assume there is a leftist revolutionary class in their minds, waiting to overthrow the totalitarian governing them. For some, internal violent conflict is the only option and we have to spark that unrest/strife.

I agree with you that it’s a slow, hard process. But when you reject assuming hierarchy as an option, you take on this reality. You choose to affect people only so far as they choose to be affected. That is not to say that your endeavor will not be popular, though. It may indeed go viral and change the culture and individuals that way. But hierarchy is when violence is used to establish and/or maintain relevance in a culture. More than being open and honest and using a light touch, we must have the skills for it; which is why we must learn how our language sabotages us at every turn.

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2 Comments so far
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Thanks for your thoughtful response. Sorry you couldn’t post this in my blog comments. I don’t think we’re as far apart as you think; you have different working definitions than I, so neither of us will be able to have a conversation on our own exclusive terms. But that’s communication.

My goal in the essay was to distinguish two means of persuasion, because as activists what we want is to persuade people to see things like we do. Let’s call the first the “institutional means” of persuasion and the second the “personal means”. I understand the distinction is too broad for your liking, but just bear with me a bit.

You are right to see the two as having a common thread I did not articulate. Namely, that while the institutional means is concerned with the arbitrary ordering of people outwardly according to an ideological goal, the personal means is concerned with the arbitrary ordering within people according to value sets or philosophies. It’s behavior vs. mindset, essentially, but there are commonalities. When you say that an individual is like an institution, I’m right there behind you (I’ve written about this before though it’s mixed in with a spiritual approach that’s not really appropriate to bring up here; suffice to say, the idea of a “politics within the self” that shares dynamics with interpersonal politics is something we both see value in, but that is by no means a given among my audience). My definition of an institution deals more with organizations that begin to perpetuate themselves for their own sake and not merely for the reasons individuals created them, but I certainly understand what you’re saying: that there’s an organizational structure to be leveraged both intra-personally and inter-personally. Granted.

I agree with you that power relationships matter. But at the risk of overgeneralizing, power relationships are situations where each person is contributing, both the net gainer and the net loser. This doesn’t mean the situation is just – at least, not in some ultimate sense that you or I would deign to judge it (more on that in a bit). It means that the change that needs to happen inside the mindset of the participating individuals, both the oppressed and the oppressor. We contribute to the dystopia; we order ourselves within in such a way as to avoid questioning every thought and action anew.

That’s not easy or even intuitive always, and it doesn’t even mean it’s the most pressing need (if institutions are reinforcing the power relationship, then classical political activism is obviously part of the equation, and physical coercion must be met with something equal to it). It just means any stability to be conserved by status quo interests requires a detente on some level, even if buried beneath layers of cultural and psychological baggage. I’m not sanctioning the oppressor; I’m saying if every oppressed person was already philosophically ready for revolution, our work would be easy.

Now we come to education. I don’t consider genuine education a sanction, non-violent or violent. Genuine education is a voluntary interaction between two parties. The reason I didn’t bring it up is that it has the connotation of being dictated to another party. I find this dangerous because it assumes we have the truth and the other party just has to listen and learn. This is precisely the kind of mindset that is dangerous – to us as much as others – and it is not unheard of on the left (reeducation camps, anybody?).

The problem with being a missionary preaching the gospel is that it very often leads to frustration when people don’t buy your gospel completely. This can lead to the introduction of force or the non-violent sanctions I mentioned, which is something I assert we want to avoid absolutely. It also leads to a focus on behavior, observable adoption of the gospel, instead of mindset, or inner adoption. What is political correctness but a way to compel behavior without changing mindsets?

True change comes from people changing themselves. All we can do is offer opportunities to change. You can’t really help anybody else; all you can do is offer, but they have to accept (it’s hard enough to change oneself when it is chosen!) in order for that new identity to really harness the individual’s full resources and contribute to society according to the new paradigm. You understand this already.

So I have to assume that when you talk of appealing to another’s inner left-wing, you’re being a bit metaphorical. I certainly hope, because the assertion that a relatively recent ideological movement models that human condition writ large sufficiently, let alone the particular conditions inside another human being, drips with hubris of the variety I mentioned above. If we are going to appeal to universals, then we indeed have to tread lightly, for we have no way to demonstrate them other than opening the person up to their own inner truth. And the way that inner truth is articulated by another may not fit into your ideological goals.

That’s why I’m skeptical of “exposure” as some sort of problem. The ultimate goal of good ideas is to inspire more good ideas from others, not to teach them good ideas that they then can parrot back through their lives. My goal is not to “convince people of anarchism”; my goal is people who are happier and more integrated. But since I have no template for what each person looks like when they’re happy and integrated, I have to count on trusting them to free themselves, and maybe I get to ride along for a bit.

Ideologies are tools, but they cannot be the substance in the end because they are too narrow. A lot of what I attribute to “politics” is the flaws of ideological approaches, where we try to model the terrain instead of apprehending every hill and valley on its own basis. But the latter would require trusting people and not judging them according to preset rules we’ve determined.

I’m not saying rules should be discarded – rules like your concept of discrimination can help. I’m just saying that getting people to change their core, extra-rational values in line with an ideological ruleset or an educational curriculum smacks to me of a very narrow conception of the individual’s value and potential. So I resist strongly the idea that I have something to teach “as a leftist” that I don’t also have to learn. I’m not “right” – I’m merely offering an alternative approach, and should a better one than mine come along I’ll jump on that. With that mindset, how can I construct everything in terms of leftist ideology? It’s only a tool; the mystery we are plumbing in these interpersonal dialogues that mutually “educate” is much more nuanced than can be captured in an ideology.

So, again, I don’t think we disagree terribly – I think we simply construct things differently. It is because I can see the possibility of grave error on our ideological side that I can be compassionate towards those on the other side who exhibit what I consider grave error. And it is because discovering who we are is such an inextricable part of wider political change that I focus so much on it, and construct it terms that border on the counter-political. One can construct it differently, and you should feel free to continue. I only advise openness to that which you may not expect, so that you do not try to fight it because it’s not understood or predicted by your ideological model. But I gather I don’t have to argue that point too hard.

Comment by Jeremy Weiland

So, you both agree that discrimination as a means to oppress and exploit is acceptable. What you both are, are fascists. You both wish to ignore that what you are advocating is institutional. The system you advocate for is corrupt and despotic, yet you believe you can tart your fascism up with the pink ribbons of your redefinition of terms, and that most will be duped by your framing. Not true. You are seen for what you are, twisted little overseer wannabes of the plantation state system. Perpetrators of slavery and exploitation.

Perhaps you need to consult history, to inform yourself what happens to useful idiots like yourselves..

Comment by M




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