Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Anarchist Grand Theory of Domination

Brian Martin (2007), writing in the peer-reviewed journal Anarchist Studies, claimed that certain anarchist theories are in need of further development, including “a high-level grand theory of domination, oppression, inequality and/or hierarchy... A grand theory of domination would be a specific anarchist contribution” (p. 108). While there are numerous sociological critics of grand theory (c.f. Mills 1959, Merton 1968), this task may be reasonable given the radical character of anarchism and the centrality of inequality and domination to its theoretical lens. With anarchism, it is meaningful to speak of a comprehensive theory to describe patterns of domination, since the philosophy treats these patterns as enduring phenomena in the recent human epoch and they are the ultimate consequence of hierarchical institutions and authority.

Grand theory aims to explain a large amount of how the world works, and its conclusions are not dependent upon time or place for qualification. Consequently, a grand theory needs to be universally robust in its explanatory power. Anarchism has tended to assert a broad, comprehensive argument that hierarchy creates domination and inequality. Below I describe key anarchist assumptions and observations about domination. Each may serve as a proposition needing verification from further evidence--a task that I undertake later in this paper.

Proposition 1: Domination is based upon the successful use of hierarchical power.
Hierarchy in human relations is an overwhelmingly negative and dehumanizing force. The “power over” that some possess is the foundation of domination. As Hartung (1983) notes, “Anarchism generically begins with the assumption that patterns of domination--including classism, racism, sexism and heterosexism--can be traced to the hierarchical imposition of authority” (p. 89). Each form of domination in society derives from institutionalized hierarchies where some use their privileged positions to wield power at the expense of others. For example, exploitation is the result of some people (e.g. capitalists) employing economic power within a capitalist economy, dominating those with less power (e.g. workers)--thus resulting in class inequality. In order to end domination, hierarchy needs to be removed.

Proposition 2: Domination results in negative consequences for individuals.
Domination eliminates desirable human states of being, harms individuals, and limits human potential. The process of domination robs the dominated of agency and choice, autonomy, empowerment, self-identity and self-esteem, freedom, self-determination, and personal safety. Individuals, and the groups they are in, are harmed in their present condition, sometimes through hardship, deprivation, or violence (whether physical, mental, or emotional). Domination also stunts human potential by restricting possibilities, crushing ambitions, curtailing dreams, and causing people to put up with poor conditions.

Proposition 3: Domination results in negative consequences for society.
The practice of domination taints human relationships and interactions into manipulation, tension, distrust, malice, revenge, danger, and violence. Consequently, domination pollutes society and degrades its overall cooperative potential. Even people who are in very advantageous positions are impacted by missing opportunities for broader friendships, experiences, and perspectives. Since social relationships and interactions are the meaningful fabric of daily life, it is important to reduce domination for the good of all people.

Proposition 4: Inequality takes many forms, more than we can identify or comfortably analyze at once.
In addition to major forms of social inequality—such as class, gender, and race—others can always be identified. In fact, new forms of inequality are regularly being “discovered”, noticed, and articulated. This “multidimensionalism” is an important trend in the study of inequality (Grusky & SzelĂ©nyi 2007). For example, recently added forms in the field of sociology—but by no means new in the real world—include sexuality, spatial location, information access, age, nationality, ability status, and others. Even race and gender are themselves relatively new research subjects in mainstream North American sociology, since most sociologists in the first half of the 20th Century were highly-educated White men who did not appreciate forms of inequality that they did not personally face. It is likely that societies will identify new forms of inequality in the future. In addition, inequality forms in other societies are likely different and unfamiliar to foreign scholars. Understanding the varied forms of inequality helps to understand the world more accurately and thus we can formulate appropriate solutions to problems.

Proposition 5: The privileged do not have an ethical “right” to their privileges.
Existing social structures and relations are not natural, biologically-determined, or ordained by god. Thus, potential dominators do not “deserve” their power and authority, nor the privileges that accompany them. No person or group should dominate any other person or group. However, privileges do not always need to be taken from the privileged, but sometimes privileges merely need to be extended to the disadvantaged. For example, academic professors with job tenure should not have their privileging tenures taken away from them, but rather comparable tenure ought to be offered to all occupations so that other people can share the same privileges as professors. Or, men should not be stripped of the respect society offers them, but women ought to be extended comparable respect to raise them to the same level of men. Consequently, privileges may not be monopolized by some to the detriment of others, but need expansion to benefit all.

Proposition 6: The disadvantaged will regularly (but not always) rebel.
Rebellion is a “natural”--or at least expected--consequence of domination and disadvantage. Domination creates desires, emotions, and goals within dominated communities that can and will clash with various hierarchies. People who are disadvantaged and deprived will likewise seek redress and a means to improvement. Ensuing conflict may lead such communities and individuals to attempt to counter their subordination. Additionally, the ways and extent to which inequality harms people is partially dependent upon the resistance offered by those in disadvantaged positions. But, it is difficult (if not impossible) to predict in advance who will revolt, where, and when. It is usually difficult for others to identify and notice the feelings, conditions, and deprivations that some people are experiencing. Indeed, the factors that will make a certain group “snap” may confuse observers. For example, those in revolt may seem in some respects privileged, like students or middle-class Blacks in the 1960s. Therefore, analysis of a revolt is always easier in retrospect. But, why do people not always rebel when injustice is present? Anarchist-sociologists seek to determine these factors in order to help enable more rebellion. “Rebellion” is also a broad term, and may look orderly or chaotic, reformist or revolutionary. Protest could take the form of pressuring for legislative or policy-oriented changes that will help the disadvantaged. Protest could also attempt to directly stop some sort of domination from occurring. Other forms of radical protest may aim to acquire, grow, and expand the means of self-empowerment. Rebellion could even be represented by anti-social behaviors like crime or sub-cultural separatism. In every case, however, rebellion is the act of the disadvantaged against their position in a hierarchy, whether fully conceived of as such or not.

These six propositions are, I believe, a fairly conservative starting point for an anarchist-sociological view of domination. To test the veracity of these assumptions, I apply these propositions to three central, enduring forms of inequality studied most everywhere in modern sociology. Since grand theories must be robust and generalizable by their very nature, it is important to apply this theory to a diverse array of inequalities, not just one or two in isolation.

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