The narrow nature of political words, and how that distorts discourse.


I know I’ve used this image before, but it’s perfect for this entry also.

I have to re-examine the way I, and all of us, use words like “freedom,” because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that these words are incomplete and inadequate compared to what they are supposed to mean. And this, I think, creates giant holes in political discourse and encourages atomistic thinking, evaluating actions in a vacuum, subjectivist morality (I know this is a huge one, and I will come back to it), and supports the status quo.

In order to get into this inadequacy, I must first review the three kinds of power, although my readers may already be aware of them. Expressed simply, power is the ability to make people do what you want. According to the classification by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, power can be usefully divided in three categories, which he calls condign power (force), compensatory power (money) and conditioned power (indoctrination). He furthermore ascertains that while condign power is still crucially important in some respects, it has lost a great deal of general importance in our modern democratic societies compared to compensatory and conditioned power.

The trouble is that we are still using words like “freedom” in their original meaning, as freedom from coercion. Living in a society without mass media and where most people farm for their living (entailing relatively limited compensation and conditioning), but where people with swords can carry you away for criticizing the King, such a notion of freedom would be very appealing indeed. Unfortunately, it no longer reflects reality. Our political language has become far too narrowed to express the three-dimensional use of power in our society and, by extension, the three-dimensional use of counter-power (so we often reduce activist issues to violence versus non-violence).

So we can identify three components of freedom:

1. Freedom- from condign power.
2. Freedom- from compensatory power.
3. Freedom- from conditioned power.

If we denote the presence of each of these components in superscript, the most common forms discussed are freedom1 and, very rarely, freedom1,2 (not sure what we should call the kind of “freedom” advocated by fascists and other authoritarians who believe in beating up and killing innocent people: freedom0, non-freedom, anti-freedom, or just plain slavery?). What I am saying is that we need to expand our concept of freedom to freedom1,2,3; and the same thing applies to choice, agency, human rights.

So when a liberal feminist says, for example, “prostitutes choose to sell their bodies,” this use of the word “choose” is really choose1. When I say that a majority of women do not choose to become prostitutes but rather engage in it because of economic pressure and psychological dysfunction brought about by sexual abuse, I am using choose1,2,3. The difference is that the former does not acknowledge compensatory or conditioned power, while the latter does.

A complete understanding of the concept of “freedom” must contain more than acting without having a gun put to your temple or being threatened with force if you disobey. It must also mean freedom1,2,3 from all other socially constructed necessities, such as the necessity of work, the necessity of conform to one’s social roles, or childhood abuse and the compulsions it generates. The freedom1 generously granted to us by the capitalist basically reduces itself to the freedom to starve.

Our conception of human rights logically follows from our notion of freedom, because a right cannot by definition interfere with the freedom of other people. A “right to property” is perfectly compatible with freedom1, but absolutely incompatible with freedom1,2. A “right to free speech” fits perfectly within the perspective of freedom1, but not within the perspective of freedom1,2,3. A right to health care or a right to potable water grossly contradicts freedom1 but is logically consistent with freedom1,2.

Political equality, being the flip side of freedom, can be qualified in the same way, equality1 being associated with freedom1, and so on.

Freedom1,2,3 can basically be defined as the absence of any external determinism on the human mind. This of course does not deny the presence of internal determinism on the human mind: I am not at all here talking about “free will” or any other such spook. The best way to express such a phenomenon, I think, would be in terms of possibilities offered to the individual. This definition provided by someone in the Occupy Wall Street group provides us, I think, with a good starting point:

Freedom is bound up with the idea of possibilities. The idea of limitless possibilities is the ideal of limitless freedom. The idea that anything is potentially possible, that’s what freedom means. And historically there have been very few people that have been allowed to have the kinds of possibilities that would allow them to be free. Society has progressed more and more people have been allowed to be free. But we still live in a state of unfreedom. Society does not live for its own sake, autonomously. It is still bound to something external to itself that structures it. The goal of history and transforming society must be to make these possibilities available to everyone.

Again there is a strong link posited between freedom1,2,3 and self-determinism: society, in the fullest sense of the word, must be autonomous if we are to be free1,2,3 at the individual level. But these possibilities must crucially be open to people who are different: people who already want to fulfill their social roles and not rock the boat don’t need freedom2,3, since they’d basically do what they’re doing anyway. It’s the freaks and the weirdoes, the geniuses and the subgeniuses, the visionaries and the innovators, who need to see their possibilities opened up. This is true of all rights and all choices as well: the State rarely mistreats those who are on its side.

I write a great deal of entries in opposition to voluntaryism or its corollaries. This is because I think voluntaryism is a major ethical error that people commit on a regular basis, that it leads to absolute hostility to radical principles, and that it needs to be opposed. But what causes voluntaryist-inspired thinking?

I think the fact that our political language is so narrow may be the root cause. Someone who only believes in freedom1 can then believe in equality1 (that as long as no one is being coerced, we are all on an equal footing), which leads to choice1 (that a choice is valid as long as we’re all equal1), which leads to voluntaryism (that coercion is bad but everything else is good as long as it’s chosen1). So by examining the narrowness of political language, we’re going to the root of the voluntaryist issue.

This leads me to subjectivist ethics, of which voluntaryism is only one variant. Subjectivism in ethics holds that saying an action is “good” means saying that some person or group holds a positive attitude towards it. “Abortion is bad” reduces itself to “I believe abortion is bad” or “I don’t approve of people having abortions” or “My culture does not support abortion” or “God forbids abortion” or some variant of such propositions.

One of the fatal problems with subjectivism is that, if whatever a person believes is automatically good, subjectivists are implicitly imputing infallibility to the human mind; otherwise there’d be nothing stopping a human mind from erring and stating that, for example, the Holocaust was good (I assume everyone reading this, subjectivist or not, believes the Holocaust was evil). But this can only make any sort of sense if you ignore all the social factors that mold the human mind. How can anything be infallible and at the same time be influenced by ever-changing external pressures?

So there is definitely a connection here, in that ethical subjectivism logically depends on supporting freedom1 against other kinds. Note that I am not saying that all subjectivists do support freedom1, but rather that subjectivism doesn’t make sense except if one also supports freedom1 (so don’t argue that subjectivism makes sense by telling me you don’t believe in infallibility). Anyone who understands that the human mind can also be attacked by non-coercive power cannot also believe logically that the human mind can be infallible.

Now let me go through each radical ideology in turn and look at how the narrowness of language changes how we look at them.

Starting with atheism, consider the term “freedom of religion.” What does it mean in practice? That children, who are most of the time indoctrinated (either by their parents, by a church, or some proxy) in a religion and are forced to identify with this religion from the time they can speak and think, who live in a society which puts pressure on them to adopt certain religions, can somehow make an informed decision about religion even though they are not even old enough to actually make an informed decision, even if they were actually given enough information, which we never are. So freedom of religion is definitely a sort of freedom1. It completely ignores the tremendous social pressures and conditioning applied to people’s religious beliefs.

But religion uses compensatory power as well. Just think of all the atheist priests we learn about in the Clergy Project who remain in their job simply because they can’t afford to lose that job and have no other skills to exploit. Think of all the teenagers everywhere who are deeply afraid of “coming out” and living as an atheist because they would lose financial support from the parents who supposedly love them. Think of people in highly religious countries who are harassed by religious people but don’t speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

I will not elaborate on the topic of Anarchism, but I think the relation here should be directly obvious. Anarchists recognize all forms of power as being inimical to social autonomy and individual freedom. Hierarchies and power go hand-in-hand, as the institutions in our societies which are most able to accumulate and use power are all hierarchical. Ultimately the Anarchist goal is to eliminate or neutralize all forms of power, not just coercion.

Antinatalism fights against procreation, which is pushed by massive indoctrination and financial incentives. We are all indoctrinated to believe that we must get married and have children, that being a parent is the best thing that can happen to you, that people who don’t have children are selfish. And marriage, which carries with it the expectation of children, is itself massively pushed, so much that now being able to get married is considered a basic human right. States give money through various programs to people who have children, and it is very much in the interest of States to maintain population growth (except in extreme exceptions like China), if only to maintain their tax base and the endless growth machine of capitalism.

Then there is radical feminism, which identifies the patriarchy as a system of hierarchical gender domination. The patriarchy is partially maintained by violence, but is also maintained by the inculcation and constant enforcement of gender roles, sexist institutions like capitalism, the military, religion and marriage (to only name those), the objectification of women, sexist pseudo-science and quasi-science, and so on. One cannot also forget the underpayment and non-payment of women’s work all over the world. I’ve also mentioned prostitution as another example earlier. Here is another example quoted by antiplodon at Anti-Porn Feminists:

Bart (1983; Bart and O’Brien 1985) has identified a heterosexual sex-rape continuum. At one end is consensual sex (both parties equally desire sex). At the other is rape. In between are altruistic sex (one party submits out of guilt, duty, or pity) and compliant sex (one party submits because the consequences of not submitting are worse than those of submitting). Using Bart’s conceptualization, Kelly found that most women “felt pressured to have sex in many, if not all, of their sexual relationships with men” (p.56). Yet she found that women perceived sex as coercive only when physical force or the threat of physical force was used.

This quote perfectly demonstrates the narrowness of the word “rape,” insofar as only violence or the threat of violence is perceived as coercive. Therefore most rapes are not even perceived as being rape, even by the victim.

I think the tripartite schema is clearly used here; the sex-rape continuum incorporates all three forms of power: condign (the violence of rape, the threat of violence in compliant sex), compensatory (fear of losing those resources which are controlled by the man, including shelter and money) and conditioned (the inculcation of guilt, duty or pity for not complying to a man’s sexual demands). Note that the gradient from sex to rape follows exactly the gradient from condign to conditioned power as well (rape/condign, compliant sex/condign and compensatory, altruistic sex/conditioned).

Uses of compensatory and conditioning power are generally organizational in nature. A corporation or a State pays your wages, not a person. And although specific people may indoctrinate you personally (parents, teachers, friends), indoctrination still relies on an entire society and its hierarchical institutions to back it up. Coercion, on the other hand, tends to be more individualistic in nature: ultimately, a person has to threaten, beat up or shoot another person. The organization of violence helps its effectiveness, but it is not necessary.

Now, radicalism as an approach to ethics puts the emphasis on systemic analysis, not on individual relations. What first concerns anti-theists is not whether this or that person was helped by religion, but the principles by which religion operates and their effects on society as a whole. What first concerns Anarchists is not whether some people had good or bad experiences with government bureaucracy, but rather the principles by which capital-democracies operate and how they affect people’s lives. I think you get the idea.

This means that radicals are naturally interested in freedom1,2,3, not in freedom1, because the latter view is unduly individualistic. Yes, obviously it is desirable for no one to be coerced, but to stop there is an oversimplistic analysis which assumes that actions and choices must be analyzed in a contextless vacuum. The correct perspective is to start from the premise that actions do not in fact take place in a contextless vacuum, but that they are inscribed within a social context which exerts compensatory and conditioned pressures on every individual, and therefore on all actions.

Those who actively affirm that freedom1 is the only valid use of the word “freedom” are quick in screaming censorship or fascism when radicals present a systemic analysis of an institution they favor. But this is a circular argument. If freedom1 was the only valid freedom, then fighting against compensatory and conditioned power could be censorship and fascism; but it isn’t.

I start from an egalitarian position, and from that position, I say that, to mangle a quote from Gary Lloyd, “[w]hen a boot (i.e. power) is on your throat, whether it is a coercive boot, a compensatory boot, or a conditioned boot is of no consequence.” All three “boots” lead to vast inequalities between human beings. All three “boots” flow from hierarchy and lead to internalized self-hatred, exploitation, suffering, death and genocide.

The major problem in separating these forms of power is that they are all necessary for each other. Genocide requires dehumanization of the enemy and massive resources to be perpetrated. “Property rights” require indoctrinated obedience and the force of the gun if they are to persist. Indoctrinating people to agree with a social goal, no matter what goal, requires some form of punishment for those who disagree and the means to produce and propagate an effective message.

I think it’s safe to say that at least most organizations, institutions and hierarchies, no matter what their goal is, rely to a certain extent on all three forms of power to accomplish their goals. Granted, there is an issue of degree, as most organizations, institutions and hierarchies also use cooperative methods to a certain extent. But outside of cooperative methods, they use a certain mix of the three forms of power to achieve any given goal.

I realize that a proponent of freedom1 would claim that, for example, using force to protect “property rights” is an entirely warranted and justified use of power, which therefore presents no problem at all. Of course they are wrong in that “property rights” are a legal fiction and are not actually valid. More importantly, to declare one use of force to be valid and another invalid means to have a conception of rights, and our conception of rights is derived from our conception of freedom, so the argument is actually circular.

I have also discussed the fact that many of our “non-coercive” institutions actually embody past violence. So even acts which are not in themselves violent were made possible by coercion. So there really isn’t any rational way of separating the two, and to claim otherwise is delusional at best. You’re either a radical or you’re wrong.

9 thoughts on “The narrow nature of political words, and how that distorts discourse.

  1. cyanidecupcake April 28, 2014 at 00:23 Reply
  2. cyanidecupcake April 28, 2014 at 01:08 Reply

    Re: “freedom of religion” – unfortunately, it’s only taken to mean that anyone can practice whatever religion they want (and by association, their children, as their property). It needs to also entail freedom FROM religion; we can’t ignore that the original concept (freedom of religion) was created by a bunch of Protestants railing against Catholicism and the Pope. Atheist adults don’t have it so great in the West, either; in many US states they can’t run for political office and at the workplace it’s only acceptable to talk about God. And I’m not sure how these fundies get into politics and have so much airtime when religiousity among Americans is decreasing. So I guess with the types of freedom you write about, the freedom FROM religion would involve all 3 (condign – threat of arrest, death, mob beatings etc. esp in theocracies) compensatory (charity and other “help”), conditioned power (indoctrination). The influence of the family (and fear of being outcast from them) probably falls under all 3 as well.

    • Francois Tremblay April 28, 2014 at 01:12 Reply

      Yes, I think you’re right about that. Freedom from religion is far more advanced in thinking than freedom of religion.

  3. […] fundamental principles of political discourse are not freedom, right, choice or equality. As I’ve previously discussed, these terms actually have three different levels of meaning, which fluctuate depending on the […]

  4. […] Tremblay wrote about how there are three types of force or power over others: condign (grooming, conditioning, blackmailing, threats), compensatory (financial, goods, etc.) and […]

  5. […] but rather depends on a whole conceptual underpinning of freedom, equality, power, and so on. How wide or narrow these concepts are defined will inevitably lead us to wildly different concepts of aggression. To a believer in rights1 like […]

  6. […] only means the absence of force, or freedom1 (for those who don’t know my nomenclature, see this entry for explanation), then the quote makes a great deal of sense. I argue against the free1 market and […]

  7. […] I’ve written about the vastly incomplete political definitions used in debate. Perhaps the most common view of freedom, the Libertarian, voluntaryist, neo-liberal view, states that freedom is the absence of coercion. This connects to the concept of freedom1: a sort of fractured, incomplete freedom which assumes that coercive force is the only form of power that matters, that has any effect on society. If you start from that premise, then a person who is not subjected to any coercion is “free.” […]

  8. sagor September 25, 2016 at 08:09 Reply

    No wonder defenders of such liberty (absence of coercion) are mostly people who believe the universe is no more than 6000 years old, we are living in the end times and spanking one’s own kids should be “freedom of religion”!!! The other group of defenders are the economic / political elites. Both of them seek control of other people who are their subordinates and this kind of liberty guarantees them unlimited opportunities to do so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: