The repetition compulsion is all around us.

In a recent entry, I talked about the repetition compulsion preventing people from introspecting and being able to understand love as a concept. This generates a great deal of the “pro-violence” (which is to say, fundamentally, pro-state-crime) opposition which we Anarchists face. But apart from that, the compulsion has farther reaching repercussions in areas which concern Anarchism, including hierarchies.

The compulsion can only be fully expressed in a power relation, such as one between a parent and a child. it is a well-known fact that a person who is abused as a child will repeat the abuse on their own children, unless they are able to overcome the compulsion. But surely this must be true of other power relations as well. The child bully, beaten at home, repeats the compulsion on weaker children. The boss, having some degree of power over others, uses that power to fulfill his compulsions in the form of lies, arbitrary orders, verbal abuse, and so on. The priest, having been molested by his father or another male family member, molests young boys in turn. The policeman, taught to humble himself to authority and accept punishment, craves to become authority in turn and punish others. And so on and so forth.

It’s easy to see that the relation between the parent and the child is reproduced in other power relations as well. Above all else, there is the concept of disobedience as sin, which is prevalent in all these relations. What I mean by that is that disobedience is seen as being evil and worthy of punishment in and of itself, regardless of the context and the validity of the rule that was broken. In all power relations, disobedience is inherently evil because it represents a weakening of the power to set and enforce rules within the relation.

There are also a great number of other attributes of power relations, such as the constant presence of manipulation, the implicit threats and exhortations to “discipline,” the indoctrination aiming at making followers believe that they are the equals of their masters (“we’re all the same family,” “we’re all in the same boat”), and so on.

What does that mean for us? It means that abusive behaviour in hierarchies is to a certain extent a global problem, not an exclusively localized one. When we look at an abuse in a given workplace, an atrocity in a given region, a parental abuse of power, we’re not looking at the whole phenomenon. Even if we look at the perpetrator’s (or perpetrators’) psyche, we’re not looking at the whole phenomenon. In order to do that, we also need to look at the nature of power relations themselves, and how they warp the feelings of the people populating them.

I’ve discussed how “might makes right” necessarily entails contradictory ethical standards, one for the superiors and one for the inferiors, and is used to rationalize the State’s exclusive powers over others. But the issue is much larger than that. As Alice Miller points out, “might makes right,” as a principle, actually increases or decreases as you go along the hierarchy. The higher a person is, the more he’s allowed to run people over with his power.

It is clear from the foregoing that a relativity of traditional moral values is an intrinsic part of this system [of Judeo-Christian parenting]: in the last analysis, our status and degree of power determine whether our actions are judged to be good or bad. This same principle prevails throughout the whole world. The strong person dictates the verdict, and the victor in a war will sooner or later be applauded, regardless of the crimes that have been committed on the road to victory.
Alice Miller, For Your Own Good, p64

So not only does “might make right,” but various degrees of might make various degrees of right. We can observe this principle at work everywhere: in the schooling system, in the workplace, in politics, in the family structure, in the “justice system,” and so on. The thing is, to us this relativism (which exists even, or perhaps especially, in the ideologies which profess complete absolutism) is perfectly natural because we don’t know any better. This is how we are raised and schooled.

Being part of these hierarchies, and internalizing their relativism, makes it that much harder to look at reality. The lack of introspection means that we won’t look inside ourselves to try to understand the way we act or the way our superiors act, generally preferring to pinning it down to malice or a vague compulsion to submit/order people.

In fact, we humans are extremely bad at guessing intentionality in general: when we look at an action we consider negative, we tend to assume malice far more often than it really exists (see the actor-observer bias for a cognitive discussion of this). Just to give one example, a person cuts you off on the highway; you think that person is an asshole, but the person actually probably didn’t even notice you, and she’s probably an okay person.

This is not to say that malice does not exist. But even when it does exist, simply saying “this person is malicious” is not really an explanation. Once again we come back to the whole “blaming people” versus “trying to explain why things happen” dichotomy that I talked about so much when I analyzed the virtue of understanding. It’s easy to declare that a person is malicious and should be punished. It’s more difficult to try to come to grasps with the fact that we live in a kind of society that brings out the worst in people, and that we were raised to accept that worst in people as being the natural state of man.

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