Monday, July 18, 2005

Four Forces of Society

Michael Albert has alleged that there are four fundamental force fields in society: economics, politics, gender/kinship relations and culture/race relations. . I've adopted this notion for my particular advocacy of tactics.

The first thing to note is that each taken most broadly is everything in the society, and advocates of the centrality of each use this fact to get away with privileging their outlook. My Dad made this error when talking to me about parecon, saying that a corporation is just a political institution because it makes decisions. So everything, even culture, economics, and gender, is just people making decisions. Everything is just production, consumption, allocation, distribution, and the prerequisites for it. Everything is just relations between men and women. Everything is behavior and culture.

But each notion, while it can encapsulate everything in the society, can only do so by losing a degree of accuracy directly proportional to how it impinges upon other concepts.

One of these forcefields may be dominant over another in a particular society, but there's no reason to pre-privilege any before looking at the society. Just by simple proportion, culture and gender may be far more important than politics and economics and impact politics and economics because each actor is more important and thus their personal life and quirks, altered by gender and culture, will have more of an effect. The polity seems to be getting weaker compared to the economy in modern society. And so on.

Bookchin seems to make this mistake in Post-Scarcity Anarchism when he alleges that all the traditional classes of hierarchical society are breaking down.

So what are some examples of what I'm talking about?

Americans eat a ton at breakfast and dinner - may that be because of our inability to take time off of work, unlike the French, who prefer large lunches? So this is the economy influencing the culture. Or is it? It seems that Italians prefer dinner even though they have similar work norms as the rest of Europe. (I may be wrong here - any one have a different perspective?). So it seems that in fact the culture is affecting the way work breaks are taken.

According to Homer, the siege of Troy was caused by the ego of a few men: Menelaus' anger at having his wife kidnapped, Paris' lust and vanity, and Achilles' tantrums over a slave girl. But in reality it probably was geopolitical interests, as the movie Troy argues - notice how the war continues even after Menelaus' death. So was it gender determining politics or just politics using gender as an excuse? (A war continued far after every stated reason for it has disappeared or been proven false? No! A quick aside: The Egyptians say that they captured Paris and held Helen in Egypt until they could find her rightful husband... all the time that the Greeks were parked outside of Troy.)

Tribal societies very much value their elderly. They are viewed as valued sages who can help with childbirth, farming, etc., with their experience. We treat our elderly in a far worse manner, and people dread growing old rather than being revered for their age. This seems at first to be culture. But is it? After all, the experience that the elderly has is impacted both in value and composition by the economy. If I'm in a tribe, I've probably done everything the tribe needs in my life: therefore, as an old man, I'm experienced. In a capitalist society, the advancement of industries as well as the specialization of labor seems to take away some of the value. Further, in technologically advanced societies, scientists replace old sages and experts as sources of technical information.

The Protestant Revolution at first seems to be a response to the corruption of the Catholic Church. But look again. In fact, for a good several hundred years, the Catholics let priests marry. It was a political choice to force them to have no wife/children and thus be beholden only to Rome. Luther's Theses may have been his ethical statement, but very quickly the German princes (and the English) leapt upon Protestantism to elevate the state over the church and thus fight off the Catholic limitations on power (such as the limits on inter-noble fighting that the Catholics managed to create).

The Italians seem to be such a laidback culture that fascism would hardly appeal to them. Did that make them vulnerable to a demagogue, or was it simply the inexorable progress of capitalism? Their resistance was incredibly courageous (and hardly known here, compared to the relatively tepid French resistance). What does that say?

Women have been made the inferiors of men for millenia. Yet patriarchy seems to change quite a bit. Chinese characters tend to be gender neutral, even though China crippled young women by binding their feet for centuries. In America, women were told they couldn't work even though the economy could have benefitted from them. Or could it have? There may not have been enough productivity to hire women as it was. But then why not hire an equal, though smaller, number of men and women?

Upper-class feminists seemed to have particular strategic notions; indeed, most early feminists were very successful or well-off women. Economics influencing gender? But then those feminists in turn changed the economy by increasing the work supply; one reason the 70s stagflation occured was because of a larger, more-women-centric workforce. Gender influencing economics? Fair enough, but as Bell Hook and others have noted, this upper-class feminism continued to harm or at least not represent those at the intersections of oppression (black women, say). Further, as women went into the workplace, suddenly the economic demands of the post-70s period made most of them into Supermoms handling a full-time job and all the domestic duties. Economics influencing gender?

The norm for beauty used to be Rubinesque women. Might this have been a cultural thing? Or was it the fact that a fat woman in those periods would have power and wealth and thus was attractive? And why is thinness the norm now? Is it because everyone can get fat but not everyone can get skinny?

Elites often foment racism to divide the working class or other victims of their system, but then they in turn become infected by their own ideology, it often seems.

I think this sketch should drive home the point Albert is making: Each one of these spheres of influence (and, in the case of badly designed spheres, tyranny and injustice) operate differently, interrelate and interact, and each needs a theoretical corpus that can handle both the task of understanding the field independently and understanding the interrelations.


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