The concept of “agency” is inherently reactionary.

I have written an entry about the three categories of explanation of human behavior, which I called anti-causalism (human behavior is caused by “free will”), adaptationism (human behavior is genetic) and social constructionism (human behavior is motivated by social constructs). I make no secret that I find the last kind of explanation to be the most rational.

It may seem pointless to bring this up on an entry about “agency,” and yet I think it is very much relevant to the topic. For one thing, it tells us that an issue which seems as abstract as human action is actually very much an ideological issue, with ethical, political and religious implications. Therefore, any term used to explain decision-making is an ideological term, and must be analyzed as such.

The term “agency” is assumed to be a technical, neutral term; questioning its validity or neutrality is seen as laughable and non-credible. But what does it really mean to say that someone has agency?

Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.

As I’ve discussed before, there is no such thing as “choice,” that is to say, selecting from different alternatives: because our minds are determined by the laws of nature, like any other entity that is part of nature, there can only be one alternative “selected.” We do not have the capacity to make “choices” or to “impose” them. The belief in “choice” is clearly anti-causal, and therefore betrays allegiance to anti-causalism.

The ability of people to change the institutions in which they live.

While an interesting definition, it tells us nothing about why individuals act. I do intend to discuss this issue later.

Agency- self-determination, volition, or free will; it is the power of individuals to act independently of the determining constraints of social structure.

In general, agency is contrasted with structure, agency being that part of human action which is not the result of the influence of social structures. But social constructionism is precisely the belief that our actions are the result of the influence of social structures; therefore by definition agency assumes the falsity of social constructionism.

It is impossible for any human being who lives in society to act “independently of the determining constraints of social structure.” Consider some of the social structures and social constructs which most preoccupy us: the family structure, religion, government, Patriarchy, the education system, the legal system, capitalism and class, race, gender, nationality, language, money. Can we honestly say that there is any human being living in a modern Western society whose actions are not affected by all of these things?

So I don’t believe there is such a thing as agency, because there is no such thing as “choice,” “free will” or some magical ability to change social structures; but besides that, my main point here is that the term “agency” is a Trojan horse smuggling anti-causalism into a discussion or debate, and no one’s the wiser because, like “choice,” which is part of everyday language, “agency” is part of everyday sociological language and few people think anything of it.

From a constructionist standpoint, the use of the word “agency” is nothing more than a roundabout way of blaming the victims. They do this by denying that the victims are actually victims, stating instead that they gain power (what kind of power? economic? social? relational?) from their own “choices.” Here is a typical academic example of such gymnastics (and again, just so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking the stupidest example, this is the very first result I got on a search for “prostitution agency sociology”):

Bell (1994) analyses the narratives of Pateman and MacKinnon and concludes that these writings and perspectives which became dominant in the 1980s, actually reproduce ‘the prostitute body’. Bell argues that this line of thinking which locates the prostitute as a powerless victim within a masculine discourse actually silences the voices of women, refuses to acknowledge women’s agency and results in the reproduction of ‘the prostitute body’. Equally, as Maher (2000: 1) notes, taking the position that woman who sell sex are only victims, powerless and not in control of their circumstances leaves women ‘devoid of choice, responsibility, or accountability’.

Consider carefully what is being said here. Stating that a prostitute is a victim of a structure of gendered exploitation “silences the voices of women.” Never mind that the anti-prostitution movement is made of women and bases its premises on the voices of ex-prostitutes as well as sociological studies of prostitutes.

Now consider the proposition that saying prostitutes are victims means they are “devoid of choice, responsibility or accountability.” Doesn’t that sound like people who say rape victims should be held accountable for what they did to provoke the crime? Obviously stating that a raped woman was “only a victim” leaves her “devoid of responsibility or accountability” because that’s precisely what it means to be a victim; victims by definition are not “responsible or accountable.”

The whole paragraph is completely vacuous, but counts on the reader’s (conscious or unconscious) bias against prostitutes to remind them that prostitutes are inherently wrong and responsible for their own degradation, all the while telling us that it’s the anti-prostitution advocates who are silencing prostitutes. This is a classic case of projection.

But the main “argument” (there is no real argument here) used against the anti-prostitution position is that it denies “agency” and “choice.” Because “agency” and “choice” are considered self-evident, anyone who argues for social constructionism can be denied on this basis. Not only that, but the mere use of those words is considered a valid argument in and of itself: anyone who denies “agency” must automatically be wrong, period. To them, it is such an absurd conclusion (or, most likely, they merely pretend that it is so absurd) that we must therefore deny the premises.

The end point of this complete reversal of victimhood lies in the term “sex work,” which seeks to normalize prostitution as “just another job” that we “choose” to perform. There lies a double fraud: first, it is predicated on the premise that capitalist work contracts are a “choice,” which in itself is a laughable conceit, and second, it is predicated on prostitution being a “job.” If our sole criterion for a “job” is work in exchange for money, then many slaves have slavery as a “job” and so do many prisoners have a “job” as prisoners, because both receive some money in exchange for their forced labor. But this is obviously nonsense.

Social constructionism states that the actions an individual takes are the result of how social structures mold the psyche and motivations of the individual. These social structures influence the individual through a wide variety of social constructs, which become part of how we explain facts.

The integration of gender explains why, for instance, we can understand when workers are exploited but “know” that prostitutes are personally responsible for being trafficked, beaten, filmed, addicted to drugs, raped and murdered; in the exact same way, integrating class means we “know” why poor people are lazy and undeserving, and integrating race means we “know” that black people are stupid and violent.

I have already discussed another major problem with “choice” as an argument: at best it can only mean that you believe you are in control of a situation. In that sense, the argument is now coherent but becomes trivial:

“Taking the position that woman who sell sex are only victims, powerless and not in control of their circumstances leaves women devoid of the belief that they are in control of their own life situation.”

Of course convincing people that they do not actually have power means they will lose the belief, or more accurately the delusion, that they have power. But this is true of any such delusion. People can also lose the delusion that their vote gives them power, or the delusion that religious belief gives them power. There is nothing strange about prostitution in that sense.

“Agency” is generally brought up in situations where it is inherently delusional; sociologists don’t waste time telling us about the agency of CEOs or presidents because that would be pointless. There is no point in talking about those people believing they have power, because they actually do have power; the whole victim/”choice” dance makes no sense in those cases. “Agency” is reactionary because it is always used to explain away the victims of whatever hierarchy (like gender) one wishes to support.

I said I would come back to the point about “agency” being “the ability of people to change the institutions in which they live.” Behind this definition lies the theory that we cannot be victims of social structures if we have the power (again, really a delusion that we have the power) to change them. If that’s true, then anything done to inferior by their superiors is, in a twisted way, the inferiors’ fault.

As perhaps a more extreme example of this argument, it was argued during the Gulf War (including by George Bush) that it was the Iraqi people’s responsibility to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Presumably the Iraqi people are at fault for getting bombed and killed by the American Army for not overthrowing Hussein (never mind that the Americans didn’t, either).

So again we’re talking about a purely reactionary strategy which aims to justify oppression through the delusion of power, but this time applied to entire groups of people. Because no individual has the power to “change the institutions in which they live,” this kind of “agency” applied to any individual must lead to the same conclusion: the victim is actually “responsible and accountable” for eir own oppression.

I do want to point out that this “ability to change” sort of definition is somewhat similar to how we define “free will,” a term which (contrasted with determinism) presumes that the human mind can somehow suspend causal laws. I can’t think of a greater “ability to change” than the ability to change the fabric of reality itself. In practice, “agency” is merely a non-religious, watered down version of “free will” which still permits people to blame victims while not relying on outdated pseudo-scientific beliefs.

The concept of “agency” is not just reactionary for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it is also a powerful thought-stopper. It cuts short any examination of why things happen in society, and most importantly for a supposed decision-making process, any examination of why people do what they do.

Saying someone does X because of “her agency” or because “she chose it” doesn’t tell us anything more than saying “God did it” in answer to some natural event. Any worthwhile explanation has to be causal or it will inevitably serve as a thought-stopping mechanism, whether it’s believed honestly or not.

In the end, this sort of thought-stopping about human action reduces everything to atomistic individualism: as I noted in that entry, it reduces all analysis to the individual, sets up gender roles (in the case of prostitution) as the standard of evaluation, and classifies anti-prostitution efforts (and anti-oppression ideologies generally) as undesirable based on individualist beliefs (“you can’t tell other people what to do,” “you’re making people feel bad by telling them they’re being oppressed,” “you are responsible for everything that happens to you,” and so on endlessly).

Even though “agency” proponents usually claim to be left-leaning and even radical, they end up, through atomistic individualism, propping up the principles of the capitalism they are reacting to, and in most cases unwittingly supporting its structures. They poison the very well they’re gathering water from.

7 thoughts on “The concept of “agency” is inherently reactionary.

  1. […] Fundamental to all sociological research are two concepts, structure and agency. I’ve already discussed how the term “agency” carries with it irrational and reactionary assumptions. Therefore […]

  2. […] already made the case that “agency” really means blaming the victim. But I think looking at uses of free will gives us some more clues as to the nature of agency. […]

  3. […] amongst other things that: “if free will is discredited, then so is agency.” Linking to another article, he argues […]

  4. […] coming dangerously close to agency talk, which, as I’ve explained at length on this blog, is merely another form of blaming the victim. By portraying victims of paralysis as “finding ways to live rich lives” (i.e. pretend […]

  5. […] in politics and philosophy is derived from some form of choice-talk and its bastard grandparents, agency-talk, free will-talk and […]

  6. […] obvious if you understand what “agency” is really all about, and that’s victim-blaming, more specifically, defending evil institutions by claiming the victims’ participation is […]

  7. […] used to blame the victims of pornography, prostitution, and other forms of exploitation of women, as I’ve written before, then “agency” rhetoric is inherently patriarchal. What it supports is men’s […]

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