Category Archives: Radicalism

The problem with consent.

I have written a great deal about consent. The reason should be obvious: consent is a fundamental principle of ethics, and yet we seem to give it little respect, diluting the concept beyond all recognition. Some people also confuse voluntary agreement, or even just agreement, with consent (“yes is yes,” “enthusiastic consent”).

In a great entry on this very subject, Meghan Murphy points out the ridiculous argumentative load we put on consent:

Consent is the magical fairy dust which turns rape into sex; trafficking into free speech; and sexualized abuse, torture, and subjugation into sexual liberation — or so many people claim.

Indeed, for liberals (especially liberal feminists) and voluntaryists, “consent” seems to be the only standard of morality, but when they say “consent” they really mean “agreement.” There is a huge difference between the two: as I’ve written before, consent is a much more narrow concept than agreement. Saying “yes” does not equal consent. For instance, we recognize that sexual relations between a person in a position of authority and another person who is under their authority is immoral and improper, even if both said “yes.”

But beyond the sexual realm, which is the topic of Murphy’s entry, we can look at consent as a social problem. Consent is not a simple matter. For example, it is generally believed that the social order is in place based on the consent of the governed. Well, that’s obviously false: no one explicitly consents to whatever social order or structure is in place. But it is a fiction that serves the interests of those who are in power and those who benefit from that power, in short, those who already agree to the social order. It is those who disagree with the social order who are most likely to incur its wrath, but we then punish them in the name of that same social order they haven’t even consented to.

In short, there is an equivocation between “consent” and “compliance” or “submission.” The inferiors in a hierarchy are constantly asked to acquiesce to their own subjection. They do so because they have no other choice, as to refuse to acquiesce either means losing whatever place they already have, or losing face and risking punishment, if the former is impossible. But this is not “consent” on the same level as consent for an action between two superiors in a hierarchy. A worker agreeing to work late is not the same as two managers agreeing on a budget. A child agreeing to clean its room is not the same as two parents deciding where to go eat.

These are qualitatively different experiences, because inequality makes agreement more or less mandatory. As an inferior, you’re not really weighting alternatives, you’re managing expectations. Beyond being free from certain kinds of oppression and having certain opportunities, privilege also means not being pressured to say “yes” or to conform. It means being able to make up your own mind.

Consent as ideology cannot be distinguished from habitual acquiescence, assent, silent dissent, submission, or even enforced submission. Unless refusal or consent or withdrawal of consent are real possibilities, we can no longer speak of ‘consent’ in any genuine sense.
Dr. Carol Pateman, “Women and Consent,” Political Theory, vol. 8, p. 149.

There are some people, especially in BDSM, who believe that they can truly consent to submission. This is a bizarre concept, but it’s all part of the murky realm of “non-consensual consent” in BDSM, where consent is redefined and reframed so much that it basically reduces itself to a contract and a safe word. They are not “consenting” to submit any more than other inferiors consent to submit.

Another problem with consent in a context of inequality is that we only consider relevant consent to specific actions, not to the structures that mold those actions. We simply assume that the structures are valid and assume that any further issues are problems with the individuals involved (“bad apples,” “evil people,” “a twisted mind,” and so on). This is obviously closely related to vulgar individualism and the refusal to look at systemic issues, which I’ve written about extensively, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Consent does not exist for the inferiors, but for the superiors, who want to ensure obedience and maintain the illusion of consent. And the illusion of consent serves to justify ongoing oppression and exploitation. Pornography, prostitution, BDSM, black imprisonment, child control and abuse, workplace exploitation, and even war, are justified by a mechanical “yes,” a contract, or the belief in some hypothetical future consent.

The confusion between privilege and power.

I find that there’s a lot of confusion between privilege and power. People think they are criticizing the former when they’re actually equating it with the latter.

So you get people arguing against privilege saying things like “well, I’m a white man and I’m oppressed!” First of all, many of those people feel “oppressed” because some of their privileges are being revoked. Studies show that 50-50 representation in a dialogue makes men feel that women are dominating, because they are used to men dominating dialogue. They might be defensive because their privileges are under attack, or they might misread the situation due to a pre-existing bias.

What I wanted to point out, though, is that this can also be due to a confusion between privilege and power. For instance, a poor or middle-class white man can speak about being oppressed by the government or corporations, and this can often be a valid criticism. But what they’re complaining about is inequality of power, not a lack of privilege. Power, in its economic form for example, is something that both individuals and institutions can have, but privilege is something only individuals can have. A corporation, as institution, can have economic power or legal power over you, but it can’t have privilege.

So there is this common conception that if your life is shit, then you can’t have privilege. This is considered so obvious as to be a truism, but there’s nothing particularly obvious about it. Your life is never guaranteed to not be shit. You can have privilege and still have a shit life, and you can have power and still have a shit life. You can be an oppressed, exploited person and still have a good life.

This gets into issues of intersectionality: a person who is white and male but very poor may very well have a shit life. Since we do, after all, live in capitalist societies where money talks, your economic class is no small matter. But it’s important to remember that money is a form of power, not of privilege.

I can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around… I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty and those wounds still run very deep…[But] the concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not in others.
Gina Crosley-Corcoran

So why is privilege important at all? Because it’s a system of advantages granted to a group or a class of people on an arbitrary basis. Privilege is basically the reverse side of oppression. Black people are treated like criminals as a class, therefore white people have privilege in that they are not treated like criminals as a class. Women as a class are targeted for sexual objectification and sexual harassment as a class, therefore men as a class have privilege in that they are treated like whole human beings. Children are not granted most basic human rights or dignity as a class, therefore adults as a class have privilege in that they are considered to have human rights and dignity.

Having privilege means that you are part of a class of society that benefits from the way institutions oppress some of us and benefit others. It does not mean that you personally always benefit from all the advantages of your class. An individual is not a class. A male homosexual may be harassed for sexual reasons, and adult prisoners have their basic human rights revoked by the State. So there is no guarantee that all members of a given class will experience privilege in the same way. In some cases, they may see no personal advantage to themselves. But this does not deny the existence of the privilege. Personal experience is not counter-evidence to a systemic criticism.

So white people complain that people are trying to impose “white guilt” on them, and reply by saying that they don’t own slaves. This reply is inadequate because not owning slaves personally does not prove that there can be no “white guilt,” since one person cannot represent an entire class. But furthermore, it is pointless for these people to complain of mistreatment, because they are not white people as a class. There is no conspiracy out there to blame any single individual out there for slavery, Jim Crow laws, or the incarceration culture. Systemic and institutional racism is the issue, not individual guilt.

I’ve often referred to people confusing systemic analysis as a form of individual blame. For example, many women feel that denouncing the fuckability culture means blaming them for following it. Many men believe that denouncing male entitlement to sex means blaming them for being men. Likewise, I think that white people feeling blamed for black people denouncing the racism of white people partakes of the same fallacy.

The issue of “reverse racism” is equally relevant. Of course a white person may point out prejudice in a black person’s words. But to call it racism implies that black people as a class are oppressing white people as a class, which is just not true. A given black person may use their power against a white person, which may very well be oppression, but that does not make it racism. Racism is more than a prejudice: it is a hierarchy of “race” (where white people are superior to black people) which is used to justify economic, legal, cultural, and historical oppression. Saying that a black person is racist against a white person is to simply muddle the issue, making a hash out of words that have a clear meaning.

Finite and infinite games, and their relevance to radicalism…

This entry is about games. Not games in the sense of entertainment, but in the more general sense of any system that has participants, rules regulating their interactions, and an objective. Playing Monopoly is a game, and so is a job opening, a corporation, an election, a family, and so on. Most of our interactions with people exist within some game, even if we’re not conscious of it.

In his seminal book on the subject, James Carse states that we can differentiate between two general kinds of games: finite and infinite (hence the title of his book, Finite and Infinite Games). They are so named because they have different kinds of objectives. Finite games must end in the victory of one of the participants or groups of participants, and the participants generally seek to win. Participants in infinite games, on the other hand, have as their objective to continue the game for as long as they can.

Hierarchical societies drive such a wedge between the personal and the political, between work and play, between “idealistic values” and “realistic pragmatism,” that it seems strange to use the term “game” to describe parts of social institutions. To us, a “game” is something individual, personal, trivial, that can have no connection to “real life.” This prevents us from understanding the similarities between games of the same kind simply because one is “personal” and the other is “serious.”

Finite and infinite games have a number of important differences:

* The ultimate objective of the participants in a finite game is to win (and earn a reward, whatever that may be), that is to say, to end the game. The ultimate objective of the participants in an infinite game is the perpetuation and expansion of the game (not of their interests, or of their team, but of the game as a whole).

* In a finite game, the rules, which rarely change, are determined by an authority set apart from the participants. In an infinite games, the rules are agreed upon by the participants and change when adaptation is required (such as when new people enter the game, when external conditions become more hostile to the game, and so on).

* Because participants to a finite game must overcome others, their usual orientation is competitive. Because participants to an infinite game must support each other’s work in order to keep the game flourishing, their usual orientation is cooperative.

This means that finite games have all the attributes of competitive systems (such as a strong tendency towards conformity, greater hostility towards others, low motivation, low efficiency) and infinite games have all the attributes of cooperative systems.

Furthermore, it also means that new people entering a finite game generally make it harder for others, while new people entering an infinite game generally make it better for others.

* Participants in a finite game must take their assigned roles seriously in order to be good competitors. Participants in an infinite game cannot take their roles too seriously if they want to be good cooperators. As Carse states, “seriousness is a dread of the unpredictable outcome of open possibility.”

* Being rewarded with power is the ultimate goal of finite play. For participants in finite games, power is what sets the rules and one’s reward for winning. For participants in infinite games, power (applied by the outside world) is usually an obstacle, a source of hardship, and something they must adapt to in order to keep going.

To this list I would add the perspective of conceptual metaphors. The primary conceptual metaphor we use to discuss finite games is war (attack/defense/destruction). I don’t think there’s one primary metaphor for infinite games, but sometimes we use biological life (growth/flourishing/death) and journey (progress, regress, leaps and bounds).

A game is not either completely finite or completely infinite: most games are some admixture of the two. For example, most artistic endeavors in a capitalist society are both infinite games (in that the participants combine their creativity and talents in order to keep producing art) and a finite game (in that they must compete for popularity and money within a capitalist society), so it will have elements from both sides to varying degrees.

What made me connect this concept of finite and infinite games to radicalism was the realization that hierarchies are more likely to produce finite games, while egalitarian structures are more likely to produce infinite games (if they are successful). Hierarchies produce finite games because the elite in a hierarchy generally sets the rules for everyone else. They also generally have rigid roles depending on one’s place in the hierarchy, and those roles must be taken seriously. Competitive systems (which are usually hierarchies) provide incentive by giving rewards.

Equally importantly, if you think about it, every radical anti-capitalist game that we know is much closer to infinite games than finite games. And on the flip side, all social constructs are the subject of finite games.

The latter point is easier to explain. The nature of our social constructs determines which attributes are signs of superiority and which are not. People strive to be the most masculine or the most feminine (and to be attractive within those limitations), to possess the best mate and best children, to have the best proofs of intelligence, to have the most money, to be in the “right” religion and political ideology, to have the highest social status, to root for the winning team or play for the winning team. There lies the bulk of our finite games. And they are all pro-status quo and profoundly alienating.

Infinite games are the kind of games that give people Slack (to use a Subgenius term). Every property of infinite games indicates that they can make people freer, happier and less stressed, while finite games, as we know, usually do the opposite.

The family, not in the sense of a breeding unit but in the sense of people coming together in intimate relationships, is the simplest and purest example of an infinite game. Everything about finite games (authoritarianism, competition, power, seriousness) is the enemy of love.

Systems like open source programs and Wikipedia are examples of infinite games which are well known to people. They are by and large cooperative, seek to remain as democratic and egalitarian as possible, and their objective is the flourishing of the system itself (generating as many useful open source programs and data as possible).

In general, self-government systems fulfill all the main criteria for infinite games. By definition their rules are set by the participants, not by an authority. They are set up to be egalitarian and cooperative. And power, either within the system or outside of it, is an obstacle to the continued existence of the system. It seems to be a fair generalization that the more radical a system is, the closer it is to the ideal of an infinite game.

I think the two main elements that a game analysis brings to our concept of hierarchy and radicalism are, first, in connecting the personal with the political and, second, the importance of seriousness in maintaining finite games in existence.

Unfortunately I think people can misuse this concept of playfulness. What we’re talking about here is the realization that the roles we play in finite games have no bearing on who we are, and that they are just masks we wear because they are imposed on us by society, that they are not as important as infinite games, which are the real substance of our lives because they are the only places where we’re really free.

Take the issue of gender. Queer theory states that by “playing with gender” (which they call “genderfucking”), meaning positioning oneself at any point between the two genders (as described by Western culture at any point in time) or beyond, we can deconstruct it and thereby oppose it.

But this process does not actually “play with gender” because gender is a social hierarchy, not just two roles disconnected from any greater social context. All it does is reinforce the importance of gender by building a myth that changing our position relative to those two roles, which themselves remain unquestioned, is somehow a rebellious activity. It does nothing to put into question the hierarchy itself.

The main problem with finite games is not their existence, but that we take them (and the roles we play in them) seriously, and force other people to take them seriously. The game of gender consists of people taking gender roles, with one (man) established as superior to the other (woman), where the objective is to attain the highest status within those roles (i.e. for women to identify with the male establishment, and for men to exploit women).

Despite their pretenses, queer and transgender theorists still take that game very seriously indeed. In fact, they sometimes brag about how good they are at it. An infinite player (one who finds infinite games more important than finite games) would not give such reverence to gender roles as they do. And that’s what makes queer and transgender theorists dangerous to themselves and society.

Religion is another good example, because Carse has opined that religion is an infinite game because it’s lasted for so long. I certainly disagree on that account: while I would say some religions are closer to that ideal (the most modern religions, like paganism and Subgenius), most religions are very much finite.

There’s two aspects to that. One is that every sect of a religion wants to become the most recognized, representative sect (as we see with Protestants vs Catholics and Sunnis vs Shiites, that usually involves anything up to outright genocide), and another is that many religions seek to marginalize, demonize (often literally) and overthrow all other religions.

From what I’ve seen, Carse tries to get around this by claiming there’s a fundamental difference between “religion” (which is infinite) and “belief” (which is finite). I have not read his book “The Religious Case Against Belief,” so I don’t know what his argument is, but I find the concept dubious to say the least. I think religious thinkers tend to idealize religion into a kind of abstract, transcendent mush.

The Christian religion without any of its beliefs is only empty buildings and a bit of poetry. A religion like Buddhism, on the other hand, does quite a lot better without beliefs, even though, again, it’s questionable whether many people would be Buddhists if it had no beliefs. Beliefs are what connects the abstract, transcendent mush to a culture of believers. “Religion” as defined by Carse may be a beautiful, fulfilling thing, but there’s little reason for anyone to care about it.

The status quo is good for finite games because the power and permanence of their rewards depends on the power and permanence of the society that acknowledges the validity of those rewards. The status quo is bad for infinite games because the power structures of society are a constant obstacle against the perpetuation and flourishing of these games. You can probably have an idea of where a game (or a system that is also a game) lies on the scale of finite to infinite by how much the power structures in society are for or against it.

The fetishizing of non-violence.


From Sidewalk Bubblegum.

Apart from a few environmental groups, it seems that the strategy of the Left has been all about non-violence. In fact, many on the Left have argued (and I was one of them, as you can see on this very blog) that using violence reduces one to the status of oppressor. Others argue that violence is spiritually harmful, that there’s no point in resisting because we can’t change anything, and that salvation can only come from the spiritual or mystical realm. People may also point to the success of non-violent strategies in the past.

All of this is well and good, but non-violence is only one kind of strategy, and it doesn’t always work. For that matter, violence does not always fail. Both are viable strategies and, depending on the context of the situation, they may both be warranted. To limit oneself to non-violence is arbitrary and therefore not a rational decision.

For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
Nelson Mandela

Have there been non-violent movements that have succeeded? Of course. But there have also been violent movements that have succeeded, such as the Bolshevik Revolution, the ongoing Zapatista rebellion, the Viet Cong, the Spanish Civil War (before it was torn apart by the Communists), and the ongoing revolt against oil interests in Nigeria, to just name those. Many violent “eco-terrorist” operations have also been successful within their limited scope.

The Nigerian example is a good one because it started with a non-violence campaign (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) which failed when all its leaders were executed by the Nigerian military dictatorship. This failure was followed by the rise of a guerrilla group (Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force), which has significantly hampered oil production in the Niger Delta.

But people who reject violence will automatically reject any such examples because they have an a priori commitment that violence cannot “really solve” anything (again, I know, I was one of those people). When violent strategies are discussed, what they imagine is some kind of all-out war, which obviously cannot seriously be proposed in the case of fighting against the biggest and most technologically advanced army in the world.

The Zapatista are able to stand their ground despite extreme reprisals because they are fighting against a relatively small army that is not using its full force against them. The Viet Cong were able to fight the US Army because they were on their home turf, received weapons from the communists, and had the support of the population around them. A small-scale activist movement operating in the US has none of these mitigating factors.

But there are other violent tactics than guerrilla warfare, including expropriation, sabotage, and assassination. These three categories themselves include a wide variety of tactics (what do you expropriate and how? what do you sabotage? who do you assassinate). These tactics are more desirable because they minimize the chance of harming innocents and minimize risk to activists.

Many non-violent tactics are misused by leftist groups and are therefore a waste of energy and risks people’s lives for no clear reason. Protests and marches seem to be proposed as the solution to everything, but a protest in itself doesn’t accomplish any objective. Protests can serve as a show of force or as a non-violent tactic to draw State brutality, but they must be incorporated as part of a wider strategy.

Getting your face bashed in or getting arrested when you’re not sending any message and won’t get any sympathy for it only wastes suffering. The willingness to fight is a precious commodity for any movement, but it seems like leftists just love to squander it.

A tactic which is a favourite of the liberals (i.e. the soft right-wingers) is to change your consumption patterns: that if everyone buys different food, buys certified products, boycotts the evil megacorps, recycle the right way, victory will be achieved. But a strategy that requires the active participation of a majority of the population is a losing proposition from the get-go.

Of course it is a good thing for a person to deliberately and consciously change consumption patterns, but it won’t solve anything. Individual action, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot bring about systemic change.

These tactics, and other liberal tactics like using the legal system, pressuring the government for new laws, and otherwise working within the system to reform it, can all be useful if integrated within a larger strategy. But in themselves they cannot bring about social change. At best you end up with a movement co-opted by the capitalist establishment and aimed squarely at maintaining the status quo. The examples of this are legion.

Now I do want to address my former argument against violent activism: not doing so would make me a hypocrite. My argument was basically the following: the State can be defined as a monopoly on legitimate force, the people violently fighting against the State also believe they have a monopoly on legitimate force, therefore they are both equally evil.

But my argument made no sense logically: if it did, then any act of self-defense would be as bad as the initial aggression, which is clearly not the case. While it’s obvious that both acts cannot be justified, it cannot be proven logically that both acts are equally unjustified unless one adopts further premises.

There is, for example, the liberal belief that persuasion is always superior to violence, that opposing viewpoints are the result of a lack of education and debate, and that by convincing our opponents to correct their “error” (generally, by throwing facts at them), we can end social ills.

But this is a silly conceit. Social ills are not, by and large, the result of cognitive errors. People do not hold to aberrant political views (e.g. capitalist, authoritarian, misogynistic or racist positions) because they are mistaken. Like most liberal conceits, it completely ignores the social context we all live in, that these aberrant views are the result of, amongst other things, a systemic and sustained deformation of people’s values and motivations, and cognitive biases which are not easily changed (because they are part of the way our brain works). Mistakes have very little to do with it.

Adopting a stance of non-violence does make one feel superior, but it does not make one superior. It’s easy to preach non-violence when one has no way to effectively use violence anyway. And the overwhelming violence of the State makes it easy to make the simple-minded equation that violence=hierarchy and non-violent=anti-hierarchy. But the enemies of freedom and equality also often use non-violent methods (even the State itself occasionally deigns to do so, whenever it suits its objectives).

The stance of non-violence is ultimately a delusional one, because it assumes that all opposition, no matter how irrational or violent, can be met with persuasion. I already pointed out the bizarre nature of this belief in my debate on voluntaryism. This is as bizarre as believing that all personal problems can be solved by wishing hard enough. It just has no connection to reality.

Another area where people will argue incessantly is on the issue of self-defense. They will readily accept the just nature of personal self-defense against an immediate threat, but they do not accept self-defense against an institutional threat (such as the State or international capitalism). Neo-liberalism has conditioned many people to believe that “only individuals are real, institutions are not real” (I go into some detail about this here), and therefore they cannot conceive of using violence against institutional threats as “self-defense.”

Part of the problem is semantics: “self-defense” as a term depends on your conception of what constitutes “defense” and what constitutes its opposite, “aggression.” If you don’t believe that what a corporation does can ever qualify as “aggression” because corporations don’t really exist and only individuals do, then you obviously will not label any response to corporate aggression as “self-defense.” The only thing that qualifies as “self-defense” under that definition is an immediate response to an immediate event.

The problem here is that institutions usually assign actions across a wide number of people: there is not one person responsible for polluting a river, not one person responsible for criminal negligence that leads to the death of dozens of workers, not one person responsible for sustained patterns of discrimination and injustice. Fighting against these crimes does not involve fighting against individuals, but rather against institutions. What that means is the resources used by the institution to perpetrate its crimes are the primary targets, not individuals.

To kill individuals to prevent an institution from doing something is, most of the time, futile, because members of an institutions are usually interchangeable (unless their function is highly specialized). Killing ten cops, or even a hundred cops, will not in itself help stop the State, as there are plenty of other sociopaths ready to take the job.

Christianity as an elitist institution.


From Mimi and Eunice.

In pointing out Christianity specifically, I do not wish to protect any other religion. I do think most religions are elitist, and insofar as a religion is defined as worship of God, all religions are fundamentally elitist by definition.

The patriarchal nature of religion is well understood and a lot has already been said on that particular topic. What I want to do here is go beyond that conclusion and look at the fact that religion is inextricably bound to hierarchy and acts as a major vector of its propagation.

Whenever I talk about a topic like this, I get some benign fans of religion comment that I’m misrepresenting Christianity and that it’s really a religion of peace and understanding, that Christianity is not hierarchical at all, and that in fact Christianity is radically egalitarian because it’s all about “loving one another,” the Golden Rule, or things like that. They read the Bible very, very, very selectively.

Now, I have nothing against people who want to believe in such claptrap. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about loving one another or the Golden Rule (although the Golden Rule is ultimately a support of the status quo). There are always religious people on both sides of any issue, including the good side, because holy texts can be made to support one’s personal position no matter what it is. But by whitewashing Christianity, they are thereby whitewashing the hatred for homosexuals, children, women, POC and Jews supported by the Bible. Liberal pick-and-choosers act as a defensive screen for the conservative hate-mongering bigots.

It has been a common observation that religion bolsters existing power structures. There are many possible reasons for that. Clearly a religion will spread much more readily if it is supported by the power structures in place (e.g. Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire).

But equally importantly, religion has probably always been a tool of cultural identity and social cohesion, therefore it must be conservative in the cultural sense (that is to say, it must always be reactionary in nature in order to fulfill the role of cultural identity). In Western cultures, where extreme power disparity has existed for a long time, this means that religions must support hierarchical thinking. In other cultures, which were more egalitarian before they were colonized or converted, traditional values may be less hierarchical, but this is not the case for Europeans.

So for us, religion is primarily a hierarchy-building and hierarchy-justifying enterprise. But because holy texts can be used to justify anything, they have also been used to justify various forms of egalitarianism; most important in this regard has been the belief that, thanks to Christianity’s innovative universality, salvation is available to all regardless of sex or race. But, and here’s the rub, salvation itself is not actually universal, only access to salvation, which means that anyone who is not Christian is still an enemy. And the demonic is beyond even access to salvation, so any group of people labeled as demonic is automatically excluded from salvation.

But these meager scraps of egalitarianism thrown to us as a consolation prize still exist within a context of universal power. We are only equal insofar as we are all subservient to God, creations of God, and made equal according to God’s plan. When God’s plan states, or is interpreted as stating that certain people (children, women, Jews, black people) deserve a lower place in the social hierarchy, then the egalitarianism goes out the window.

Equality must always give its seat over to the elitism of God-belief. It remains, as everything else in Christian “morality,” relative and conditional. God is the source of salvation, God is the judge, jury and executioner, God sends you to Hell (regardless of Christians’ delusions on that subject). Consider for example this statement from Christians For Biblical Equality:

We believe in the equality and essential dignity of men and women of all ethnicities, ages, and classes. We recognize that all persons are made in the image of God and are to reflect that image in the community of believers, in the home, and in society.

The first sentence makes no mention of the “biblical” aspect of this “biblical equality,” but the second sentence gives the game up: “biblical equality” can only be “biblical” by first acknowledging God as the ultimate cause and absolute standard, of which we are only a pale reflection. “Biblical equality” hides God as a jack-in-the-box behind its pretenses of “equality.”

Christians ignorant of history like to make ridiculous claims that Christianity eliminated slavery or that Jesus was pro-women. Given how much slavery there is in the Bible, and how slavery is not denounced anywhere in the Bible, and how slavery, you know, still exists even in Christian countries, the first claim is rather silly.

As for the second point, well, it’s interesting to note how badly Jesus talked to his own mother, treating her little better than a dog. While he gave lip service to loving your neighbor, Jesus, everyone’s favourite empty cypher or vanity mirror, never spoke up against any hierarchy, notably including slavery.

The Bible was a hierarchy manual and has been used as such for centuries. The us v them mentality has always been part of Christianity, because Christianity divides people in two categories, saved and unsaved, orthodox and heretic, good and evil.

All the major hierarchies are represented in the Bible: Patriarchy (under the guise of “complementarism” and the otherization of female biology as “unclean”), heteronormativity (promoting the death penalty for homosexuals), childism (promoting violence against children, including the death penalty), anti-environmentalism (stating that nature is the property of humans), natalism (be fruitful and multiply), statism (Romans 13), and so on.

What is the message that religious fanatics feed to their children? That they should live in fear: fear of God, fear of sin, fear of Hell. Whether you like it or not, religion is used to keep children in line, even by theetie-wheetie liberals (and yes, even atheists sometimes send their children to church in the hopes the fear will rub off!). Fear has always been a tool used to keep people in line.

Taking the full measure of this hateful concept called “agency.”


From Sidewalk Bubblegum.

I’ve already written quite a bit about free will and agency, and it may seem like a rather abstract subject to discuss. But to liberals, agency is increasingly becoming the be-all and end-all of ethics; they are eager to sacrifice the well-being and lives of millions of women and POC in its name. So it behooves us to be very careful indeed about this agency business and name it for what it is.

I’ve 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. Because free will, after all, is nothing more than the philosophical term for agency, which is a more recent sociological term.

No proponent is eager to point that out, and for good reason: free will is being increasingly discredited by our recently acquired knowledge of the brain and by modern scientific experiments, and more and more thinkers and scientists are rallying to the side of determinism. And if free will is discredited, then so is agency. If free will is a regressive concept which leads us to a conceptual dead end, then so is agency.

My new point on free will is this: we commonly associate active characters, people who take charge of their lives, people who get things done, with free will and passive characters, people who are subjected to events, with determinism. People argue that if determinism is true, then we must all become passive victims of fate, unable to change anything in our lives.

On the face of it, this is nonsense: determinism is a causal issue, and our active or passive nature is a personality issue, so there’s no direct relation between the two. There are still, and will always be, active and passive people regardless of what anyone thinks about the nature of reality. In that sense, it’s as ridiculous as a Christian doubting the kindness of a person because they just learned that they’re an atheist; how could one abstract concept make you doubt the evidence of your own eyes?

But the association of volition with activity is interesting from a political standpoint. Who is categorized or portrayed as active, agents of change, leaders? Men, white people, adults. Who is categorized or portrayed as passive? Women, POC, children.

Well, isn’t that interesting? Look at who’s blamed by the concept of “agency,” who the liberals are pointing fingers at: it’s used against women in pornography and prostitution (“they decided to be abused!”), and it’s used against POC in capitalism (“they chose those jobs!”) and police abuse (“they want to live the thug life!”).

But who actually has the power to act otherwise? Well, rich people, for one. People who have a higher social standing, people who have more power in general, have a lot of options, while poor people, people who have less power in general, have fewer options.

In a sense, this is somewhat tautological: power entails having more options. But I state this because it tells us who is really being served by the “agency” strategy. Just to take the example of prostitution, a majority of prostitutes are destitute, have been sexually abused in childhood, and have few other choices available to them. Women who have more money have the option of not entering the sex industry.

Obviously we still cannot say that this minority of women who enter the sex industry even though they have other viable options “decided to be abused.” Few people outright want to be abused, and they are usually victim of the many misrepresentations and frauds surrounding the sex industry. But this minority is the only demographic being portrayed anywhere remotely accurately by “agency” rhetoric, in that they did have other options. Most women involved in prostitution don’t.

So “agency” rhetoric seems to be made to portray the people who are at the top of the ladder as the default. This is not overly surprising: we already know that males and white people are the default humans and everyone else is in a sub-category. But the “agency” rhetoric sends a deeper message: it says “women who are victimized by pornography or prostitution, POC who are victimized by capitalism or the legal system, deserve to be victimized because they, unlike the default humans, don’t have the option to get out of it.”

Here’s another thing. Is it a coincidence that, as the word “agency” is becoming omnipresent in feminist discussions, the word “victim” is being erased out of existence? Or are both symptoms of a greater ideological disease?

“Victim” identifies a party that was harmed and, by corollary, a party that harms. “Agency,” on the other hand, normalizes exploitation and puts the spotlight solely on the person that was harmed, scrutinizing their “choices.” But this already is the standard tactic used against rape victims. The way people analyze “welfare queens” and police shootings of black people also reflect this tactic: the agent (the victim) must always be scrutinized until some fault is found. No one else can ever be blamed.

They are desperately trying to evade the most important step in analyzing exploitation: to name the oppressor. They will say anything, use any form of misdirection, exploit any psychological vulnerability, to prevent you from doing this. And they are, by and large, successful. Even people who are sympathetic to the victims will rarely have the courage to name the oppressors; instead, they will quickly become apologists for the oppressors so that we know they are not “extremists” or “bigots.”

It’s also used in the reverse way: people who are said to not have “agency” (which is an arbitrary and socially constructed conclusion, since there’s no such thing as “agency” anyway) are thereby deemed to be worthy of being victimized (“children can’t make decisions for themselves, so parents must do it!”). We will harm you anyway, but at least it’s not your fault!

“Agency” is really such a hateful, depraved concept, isn’t it?

Comparing self-governed systems with command systems.

I have been using the term “self-government” for a while now without really defining it. I prefer to use this term instead of a more political term because it designates not a political system or a worldview, but a kind of process, a way of looking at social relations, which can be applied to any part of society.

A good starting point, I think, is this quote from famous ethnographer Pierre Clastres:

Yes, the state exists in primitive societies, even in the smallest group of nomadic hunters. It exists, but it is unceasingly averted, its realization constantly prevented. A primitive society is a society that directs all of its efforts to preventing its leader from becoming the leader (this can even lead to murder). If history is the history of class struggle (in societies where there are classes, obviously), then you can say that the history of societies without classes is the history of their struggle against the latent state, the history of their effort to codify the flows of power.

But if the history of societies without class is marked by their ability to constantly resist the emergence of a political hierarchy, it is also true that the history of States is marked by their ability to constantly adapt to resist revolution and the emergence of anti-State counterpower.

The ability to generate loyalty and silence opposition has always been a dominant factor in the way States have been, and are, structured. The study of power in any form is primarily the study of the methods by which one can obtain obedience and bypass or eradicate dissent. What I call self-government is therefore always latent in all State societies and all command systems.

Societies are always in movement, in accordance with the laws of cause and effect, as Plato and Marx surmised. The concentration of power in the State, and in command systems in general, and the dispersion of power by self-government, can be made as a metaphor of “two fundamental forces” (similarly to the fundamental forces in physics). The history of mankind can be seen as a constant tug-of-war between these two universal social forces.

The question will necessarily arise: if that’s the case, then why is it that we see so little self-government in today’s societies?

First, I think this question misses the mark to a certain extent. It is not that there are no self-governed systems in our societies, but that they are not formal. Our formal decision-making apparatus is mostly composed of governments and corporations, both of which are command systems. But even within the tightly wound Western societies we live in, we still observe islands of cooperation, solidarity and moral independence.

But the main answer to this question is that late-capitalist democratic societies are especially well adapted to the manufacture of consent. Perfected systems of public schooling and elitist colleges, a long tradition of democratic institutions, the linkage of unions with States and corporations, the dependence of the mass media on State and corporate information, the inequality inherent to capitalist economies, all conspire to elicit obedience to the status quo. I’ve also reviewed a wide variety of ideological mechanisms of control.

There are many examples of self-governed systems for us to take lessons from. I have listed a number of them on my Vision Statement, although these are all specifically societies and not just systems in general. Other self-governed systems that merit examination include Summerhill School (on which I’ve already written quite a bit), the recuperated factories in Argentina, anarchist organizations (like many unions around the world, and publishers AK Press and CrimethInc.), and other self-governed organizations and companies all over the world.

Now, here is my comparison between self-governed systems and command systems.

Command systems Self-governed systems
BASIC STRUCTURE vertical, hierarchical horizontal, egalitarian
Command systems function by funneling commands downwards and funneling money and time upwards. Self-governed systems function by shared decision-making and sharing of money and time.
MOVEMENTS OF POWER.. concentration (for the elite), dispersion (for the subjects) constant dispersion
Because they are hierarchical, command systems must concentrate power upwards in order to function, while keeping inferiors as powerless as possible. Self-governed systems, on the other hand, can only survive by constantly dispersing power as much as possible, both within themselves and within society.
FLOW OF INFORMATION.. closed, controlled, censored open, free
Because of their hierarchical vulnerability, command systems must suppress information and keep it circulating within a small elite group. This leads to weaknesses such as vulnerability to groupthink and an incomplete perspective. Self-governed systems benefit from spreading information and freeing information to the general public.
DECISION-MAKING decisions are taken by superiors and obeyed by inferiors decisions are taken collectively through consensus or vote
In command systems, the owner or leader (sometimes a group of owners or leaders) takes a decision, with or without consultation, and their subordinates obey.

In self-governed systems, decisions are taken collectively, taking into account everyone’s preferences, values and expertise. Because self-governed groups must be small, decisions that affect a lot of people are usually taken in a federated manner (with groups sending representatives) or by global vote. In this perspective, the concept of a leader who takes unilateral decisions is only superficially efficient because it formulates decisions that only fit the expectations and knowledge of one or a few people, not dozens of people.

SCALE inhumanly large scale small scale, face-to-face
Being predicated on boundless growth, command systems seek to become as big as possible. Large scale systems also foster the reliance on a technical elite which dictates problematics and solutions. Self-governed systems function best when they are small, or broken down into small units, and when people can communicate face-to-face (see also the point on humanization below).
LEADERS appointed or voted, unaccountable informal figures or accountable roles subject to constant rotation
Due to the large scale of command institutions, leaders are necessarily disconnected from the values and interests of their base, and they are not (and cannot be) held accountable for not acting in accordance with those values and interests. Because self-governed systems are run by individuals coming together to accomplish common objectives, leadership in such systems is subordinate to those objectives. In order to prevent the accumulation of power which brings about a command system, leadership roles must be regularly rotated between individuals and they must be held constantly accountable for the decisions they take.
ECONOMIC VALUES profit, boundless growth individual flourishing and collective autonomy
Command economies and economic units are profit-seeking and are predicted on boundless growth, which means they are antithetical to human flourishing and environmental flourishing. While self-governed economic units are also forced to seek profits in order to survive within command economies, they are more oriented towards the individuals’ values and their control over their own production.
OWNERSHIP private property common ownership
Command systems are based on the principle that means of production, the products that result from them, land, water and natural resources can all be exploited as property on the basis of whoever can afford them. Self-governed systems are based on common ownership, where resources as well as responsibilities are shared, usage boundaries are set by the group, and no one is deprived of enjoying a resource due to being unable to afford it. As rebuttals to the “tragedy of the commons” myth have pointed out, common ownership has worked for centuries, and still works today in factories and companies around the world.
INTERACTIONS competition and/or separation cooperation
Having people and corporations compete with each other, or work separately, is very inefficient but ensures obedience and the pursuit of a more competitive status (“rat race”). Self-governed systems are based on individuals pooling their intelligence, judgment and abilities to achieve their own objectives efficiently and with less stress.

Competition leads to conformity, distrust, lower motivation, and is least conducive to learning. Cooperation leads to more creativity, stronger links between people, motivates people to excel, and helps people learn better by focusing on what people want to learn and how other people come to understand it.

It’s worth noting that self-governed organizations usually do not have a competitive structure: in fact, they usually have a highly collectivist, quasi-communist structure (look at modern corporations, for example). It is one of the most paradoxical facts about capitalism that its economic units are the closest thing most people will ever experience to central communism planning.

POLITICAL STRATEGY divide and conquer, “us v them,” constant war humanization, class interests, we are all equally valuable
Keeping the general population from realizing its common interests is a primary concern of the State (and corporations as well), which is why they keep dividing the population into criminalized groups, status groups, racial and gender divisions, and so on. At the same time, they use a constant state of war (whether it be physical wars or political wars) to maintain people’s loyalty to the group as a whole.

The first and most essential rhetorical trick that must be used in order to divide people is dehumanization. A group cannot be marginalized or oppressed if it’s not first dehumanized. This is why the first and most essential process in a self-governed political system is humanization, to demonstrate the uniformity of class interests to people who falsely believe they do not need freedom, or to show that people who are being persecuted by divide-and-conquer tactics deserve rights.

Personal testimonies are powerful, and used by all political ideologies, because they let us empathize with another human beings and imagine ourselves in their situation. Non-violence is another strategy based on humanization because seeing people getting beaten by the authorities also invokes people’s empathy for others.

ETHICS imposed by the elite emergent from dialogue
In command systems, the rules that people use to evaluate each other’s behavior and performance are imposed from above, and have nothing to do with the values of those following the rules. In self-governed systems, those rules are established by the individuals based on their own morality.

In real life, social standards usually change according to moral upheavals, not based on command systems like law and religion. In fact, we usually see the opposite: laws and religious percepts are forced to keep up with changes in social standards in order to remain relevant.

Command ideologies see no connection whatsoever between morality and ethics, in fact they usually enforce a strict separation between the two, but that’s a bizarre belief. It’s been well understood by radicals for a while now that “the personal is the political,” and that any separation between the two is purely artificial.

JUSTICE punishment, revenge, threats, based on elite values contextual justice based on collective values
Because command ethics are authoritarian, justice in command systems must be authoritarian as well. Its objective is to remove threats to the hierarchy and its flow of resources and power.

Self-governed systems are egalitarian and cannot administer justice in an authoritarian way; their egalitarianism means that every individual is able to evaluate a person’s actions in their context and to respond to them in the most appropriate manner. Punishment is generally undesirable because it weakens trust between individual and therefore the system as a whole.

Furthermore, justice in command systems must always be based on a double standard: by virtue of their power, the elite and their lackeys must be allowed to do things that the subjects cannot be allowed to do. Justice in self-governed systems cannot have a double standard, if every individual is to have equal power.

EMPOWERMENT willingly agreeing with one’s exploitation and getting some benefit out of it, “agency” having actual power over one’s production and one’s conditions of life
One of the most powerful mechanisms for manufacturing consent wielded by hierarchies is the belief that one is empowered by agreeing to be exploited. This belief underlies much of the discussion around gender, race, class, and religion.

Strong hierarchies (including hierarchies of prejudice like gender and race) and class warfare are crucial factors in preventing the formation of self-governed systems. If people are busier hating each other than they are hating the elite, then they will have no interest in joining up to fight the elite. A fragmented populace is a weak populace, because the elite is always very well aware of its status and is always to a large extent united in values; the areas of disagreement within the elite is usually about tactics, how best to manufacture consent and suppress dissent, either through bribes (welfare, employment, abolishing repressive laws) or punishment (taking away welfare, using police violence, passing repressive laws).

Within self-governed systems, a likely imminent danger (unless we’re talking about a small group or organization tolerated by the State) is police violence or war. Beyond these, the most dangerous internal factor is the formation of a leadership class. This is why self-governed structures are as horizontal as possible and generally rotate important positions, so that no person or group of people may accumulate enough power or importance. Because people are conditioned to respond to authority, informal leaders are useful to present a unified PR front to the public while maintaining the dispersion of power within the organization.

All these properties I’ve listed above are relevant differences, but any given organization will not necessarily fulfill every attribute of command systems or self-governed systems (e.g. ancient Iceland, Scandinavian “third way” economies, liberation theology). But it seems that the more closely an organization fits one or the other side, the less likely it is to change.

While obviously slanted towards command systems, social institutions can operate in one or the other direction. One of the remarkable features of recent revolutionary actions have been their basis in specific ethnicities and cultures. This proves that culture can not only be a divisive construct which bolsters racism, sexism, and class warfare, but also a way to rally people together against their exploitation. I suppose it all depends on the culture you came from…

Religion and patriotism (and many other belief systems) are strongly symbolic (by which I mean that there is little relation between their content and people’s behavior or beliefs), and therefore can serve any end from genocide to liberation. The only thing you can truly say about religious and nationalist fanatics is that they have no qualms performing evil acts.

The family structure can be a self-governed unit, as long as there are no children and the adults involved consider each other as equals. When children enter the picture, all families become command systems.

Economic systems can be anywhere on the gradient from command systems to self-governed systems. I already gave Scandinavian “third way” economies as an example of a system that is not completely one or the other, as well as the fact that capitalist economic units are quasi-communist in nature. Even the most brutal and unequal capitalist economies contain within themselves the seeds of a better world.

Democracy is another ambiguous term; people of many different ideologies use it positively because there’s really a gradient of democratic processes which leads to very different results. “Democracy” as defined in self-government ideologies means small groups of individuals with shared objectives discussing face-to-face to vote for, or agree with, an optimal course of action. “Democracy” as defined in command ideologies means forcing large groups of people (up to hundreds of millions of people) to vote for individuals who can’t possibly represent them even if they wanted to do so. So it’s entirely possible to be both for and against democracy, as expressed by advocates of different positions.

Another advantage to the self-government framing, I think, is that it cuts through the confusion between Anarchism with anomie, which seems to be very common. I’ve already explained why anomie is tyrannical in nature: it is a strong command tendency.

Anomie is the absence of rules, a state of lawlessness. Self-governed systems are the exact opposite of anomie, in that they represent the position that rule-making power should be in the hands of the people who are subject to the rules. Command systems are more lawless, less legitimate, due to their double standards and their arbitrary source of authority.

Scapegoating: take responsibility for my sins, please.

It is well understood that the concept of scapegoat started as a way to channel everyone’s sins into a goat and releasing it into the wild, and the sins with it. In general, people widely accept the validity of scapegoating through their unthinking acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice, that one man’s sacrifice (all man all god, whatever the hell that means) can somehow transfer responsibility for everyone’s sins, as long as you believe in his sacrifice.

From a purely logical standpoint, this doctrine is an intellectual mess. There can be no such thing as delegation of responsibility for one’s “sins.” There is no reason why such delegation would only work if the person whose sins are delegated also believes in the validity of the delegation. It’s a ridiculous belief, and Christianity is an extremely bad framework to understand scapegoating.

I think scapegoating can be understood much better from the perspective of the manichean worldview. One of its basic premises is that the in-group is always right, good and noble; this entails a huge paradox because it fails to account for evil behavior and purposes within the in-group.

The most direct response is, as always, to ignore it, but this is only possible up to a certain point. There is only so much that one can ignore before the cognitive dissonance becomes just too great. Cults and governments get around this problem with information control, but unless you have absolute dictatorial control there’s only so much you can hide. And obviously you can’t attack the in-group, because the in-group is always right.

So the way out of this conundrum is to vilify, objectify and marginalize the individuals we believe are responsible. You have to set them apart from the in-group in order to preserve its moral purity. And you need to use labels and social roles within the in-group to differentiate between the “bad people” and the “good people.” So you’ve got “criminals,” unbelievers, “terrorists,” traitors and subversives, “suppressive people,” socialists and communists, and so on.

The scapegoat absorbs the sins of the population and, by doing so, becomes a subversive element (you can’t be subversive unless you’ve been marginalized first). Because of this, the scapegoat becomes the target of all the pent-up cruelty that would be reserved for the opposing out-groups. No amount of cruelty is too much to inflict on a scapegoat.

So you’ve got this attitude of “no cruelty is bad enough” against “criminals,” unbelievers, “terrorists” and all the other undesirables. People will always be in favor of more restrictions against “criminals” and their rights, no matter how cruel, because they “don’t have rights” or have “surrendered their rights” by standing against the in-group’s rules. This can only possibly make sense if rights are granted by some moral authority, but I’ve already debunked that notion.

Other examples of scapegoats in popular political discourse are abused women (who are called whores, attention-seekers), POC (such as the black men getting shot by police, who are painted as thugs and gang members and are portrayed worse than white serial killers), “immigrants,” welfare recipients (who are portrayed as exploiters of the system, and whose basic needs are portrayed as entitlement, because right-wingers confuse rights and entitlement).

Another excuse for scapegoating is the “it was consensual” defense. It seems that consent is another black check for any amount of abuse, such as rape and BDSM, workplace abuse, religious indoctrination and cults, and so on. Of course the vast majority of this supposed consent is actually imaginary: dressing “slutty,” being drunk, “consensual non-consent,” having a job at a certain workplace, belonging to a religion or a cult, are not acceptable forms of consent. But either way, people believe that there is actual consent there and that it excuses any amount of abuse.

Of course this abuse is often reframed in more positive ways. One way we justify abuse, especially against children, is under the strange contradictory concept of “tough love.” We also call it “teaching them a lesson” (because they need to be reminded of how evil they are) or that they “deserved it” (for being evil).

From all this we get powerful defensive responses when someone tries to debunk any instance of scapegoating: “how dare you defend them?” This is a powerful response because we’ve been conditioned to associate scapegoats with opposition against our in-group, and any support of a scapegoat is equated with attacking our in-group. It doesn’t feel good to attack our in-group and it’s easy to say things like “well, I don’t support what they do, but…” That sort of reasoning, though, fails to do justice to those labeled scapegoats, who are usually the victims in that situation.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 467 other followers