Saturday, October 22, 2005

Reflections Found in Chaos

Reflections Found in Chaos

As an anarchist, I argue that all forms of social oppression and coercion are fundamentally illegitimate. They may be justified only tendentiously and temporarily on the basis of extreme need, and even then only when fundamental rights are not violated. Anarchists hold, in general, that social institutions, though not determinative of all human behavior (otherwise no revolution against them would be possibly), project outwards both in cultural/attitudinal forms (what I term “fluid” power) and in solid forms (institutions such as corporations, states, etc.). These institutions of culture, polity, economy and gender are particularly vital because they contour individual relations no matter the merits of the individual. Consider that a racial slur is insulting to some no matter the intent of the speaker because of the social generalization of the individual circumstance. To quote Michael Albert in his article “The Personal is Political” (the New Left phrase that describes how seemingly individual circumstances can be linked by social institutions), “In each instance we uncovered that "the personal is political," i.e., the experiences, feelings, and possibilities of our personal lives were not just a matter of personal preferences and choices but were limited, molded, and defined by the broader political and social setting. They feel personal, and their details are personal, but their broad texture and character, and especially the limits within which these evolve, are largely systemic. In this sense, the contribution of the New Left was to say that we suffer a "totality of oppressions," systemically based, entwined, and all needing to be eliminated via a "revolution" in existing institutions, and the creation of new liberating ones. The 'personal is political' therefore meant that our personal lives are in considerable part politically delimited and determined so that improving our personal experiences meant we must collectively address political relationships and structures.” What does the practice of sociology have to inform my political practice?

C. Wright Mills, in his classic “The Sociological Imagination”, explains the basis of sociology: “When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble... But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million are unemployed, that is an [social] issue...” One can add to that argument the point that, even when one or two people are impacted, it may still remain a social issue: perhaps a small clique of people so obsessed with material possessions and status that they defraud billions for status symbols, clearly not normal behavior but caused by social influences. Yet Mills is clearly not immune from these influences: He argues that the common person is “[s]eldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history... They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society...” (my emphasis). And, of course, Mills provides the solution: a sociological imagination possessed by a select few who will tell us ordinary folks without the quality of mind to understand the world where our selves come from and who we are. Funny, I thought that every individual person was the best judge of their own best interests. Why does the working class need education about the injustice of managers? Or blacks, Latinos and Native Americans need primers on racism?

Steven A. Holmes argues that there is a phenomenon (he terms it the “whoops factor”), wherein “shoddy research or the misinterpretation [thereof]... moves on quickly to public outcry, segues swiftly into the enactment of news laws or regulations...” He implies that Americans have a “willingness, almost eagerness, to accept a Hobbesian view of man as a brutish thug...” Might this be, in line of the above arguing for an institutional focus, that the constant “disaster pornography” (as Baudrillard termed it) script that is run by mainstream news organizations and lawmakers in fact has the intention (as it clearly has the effect) of causing widespread public panic and confusion, increasing as the claims are disproven, causing increased mistrust and apathy about institutions? Holmes, of course, describes how his own preferred school of inquiry can help prevent this. My response is that those struggling for social justice must teach intellectual self-defense and common sense tools to people to help save them from the deluge of falsehoods coming from their ostensible ideological superiors, rather than relying on the same institutions that benefit from this campaign to clean up their act.

The Horace Mirier article, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”, points out that, “The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs...” This indicates to me that people can in fact live under revolutionary conditions, that the attitudes of capitalism are not in fact ingrained and eternal. Unfortunately, this writer in 1956 could take a rather instructive look at his own zeitgeist by this standard, as he goes onto say, “... for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies... a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists...” Strange, I wasn't informed that a culture of disparate people with different attitudes and backgrounds can have psychological ailments such as “sadism” and “masochism”. Is this anthropologist also an experienced clinical psychologist? Anecdotes of 19th century anthropologists indulging in fantasies of differential cranial size along racial axes come to mind. And might Americans be argued to be masochistic, as they suffer under a system that they seem to despise; as Noam Chomsky notes in Necessary Illusions, “Polls show that almost half the population believe that the U.S. Constitution -- a sacred document -- is the source of Marx's phrase "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," so obviously right does the sentiment seem”? Simultaneously within the same article, a description of why radical politics are possible and an example of why radical critique of our institutions (in this case, racism and imperialism) must be launched lest such prejudices influence otherwise good people (in this case, good scholars) occurs. This indicates quite a bit to me about radical critiques' simultaneous potential efficacy and absolute necessity.
Each of these authors provide critiques that are valuable to those of us with a radical agenda, yet each reveals their own limits in fending off the influence of elitist social norms. If such intelligent individuals can fall prey, what about the rest of us? The solution is clear: develop the movement institutions that will allow us to carry on the fight together, catching each other's errors.


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