The unjustified fear of role reversal.


From Harper’s Weekly: This image dramatically condemns the brutal racism of some white Southerners against blacks. The white man has killed a black child, and his plea of “self-defense” exemplifies the perspective among Southern whites that Reconstruction had led to “black rule.” The cartoon appeared just a few weeks before the presidential election [of 1876].

There is a common tendency amongst reactionaries to fear the possibility that the people they oppress might rise up and become the oppressors themselves. This leads them to violence against the oppressed (as in the image above) and an increased desire to repress anyone working towards the freedom of oppressed groups.

Historically the idea of role reversal has always been present: in order to placate the oppressed, holiday celebrations (such as Saturnalia, the Feast of Fools, and mumming) have sometimes involved slaves and master, poor and rich, trading places for a certain period of time. Nowadays, we have much more complex and effective political institutions serving this role, and role reversal holidays are no longer needed.

If you look at the rhetoric of reactionaries, you find this sort of reasoning pretty much everywhere. Racists see anti-racist theory as calling for the extermination of white people. Misogynists associate the end of the patriarchy with women controlling society. Capitalists associate Anarchism with mob violence and nihilistic destruction. Childists associate the idea of giving children freedom with children controlling adults and running amok.

One interesting thing to note about this state of affairs is that people who are scared of reprisals probably have a good reason to be afraid, that reason probably being guilt.

Either way, the fear of role reversal is an unjustified one. Newly empowered groups cannot attack the society that oppressed them, because they need legitimacy above all else, and only that society can give it. All movements which succeeded in bringing some measure of legal equality to an oppressed group have not to attack those who oppressed them. Instead, they have turned against each other and other oppressed groups instead. Feminist women have turned against each other (third wave feminism), the LGBT movement is already turning against itself (transgender v homosexuals), the zionists have turned against the Arabs. It seems that only black people have retained any hostility against the power elite, but they’ve been mostly unable to do anything about it.

It is not that reactionaries are smarter or that their ideology is superior. It is merely that they have more power. Oppressed groups cannot fight back, not only because depends on the legitimacy granted to them by their oppressors, but because they are integrated within society and depend on it. The livelihood of individual women, POC, and homosexuals depends on cooperation with the existing capitalist order. They therefore can hardly think of attacking that order.

As Audre Lorde famously said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. One could add to this that people living in the master’s house will hardly have much incentive in dismantling that house. The Anarchist concept of dual power provides the only rational solution: we must build an alternative house which provides a power base from which revolutionary elements can operate.

One thought on “The unjustified fear of role reversal.

  1. […] children can’t be in control!” Part of that is the fear of power reversal, which I’ve already analyzed. Another part is simple, unalloyed misopedia. But another part, I think, is concern (whether […]

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