Category Archives: Radicalism

Pragmatist objections to radical ideas.

There are a few ways by which people can just dismiss radical ideas and go on with their lives without bothering to think about them. One way is to simply dismiss radical ideas as being unpopular, and therefore not worthy of consideration. This is, of course, a simple argument from popularity. How popular an idea is has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. It just makes it easier to ignore. This is not really an argument, just an emotional appeal (an appeal to our desire to be part of the group, part of the gang, not be an outcast).

There is, however, a further argument which is based on this. There are people who believe that truth should be judged based on its utility, and who call themselves pragmatists or concerned with practicality. This has nothing to do with pragmatism as it was formulated in philosophy, but has been a common straw man about it. Either way, their strategy consists of something like the following:

1. Radical ideas are unpopular and will never be implemented.
2. Ideas which cannot be implemented are not practical.
3. There is no point in holding as true something that is not practical.
4. Therefore, there is no point in holding radical ideas as true.

Some will even so far as to say that radical ideas are actually false because of this, but I have given a charitable version of the argument here.

There is a sense in which this argument is somewhat valid: if you think there’s no point in believing something, then don’t believe it. However, it is not clear why our standard should be “whether it’s practical.” Many of our fundamental ethical principles are not very practical, but we adopt them anyway. For instance, many people happen to believe that people shouldn’t be treated as means to an end, or that we should not initiate harm, or things of the sort. From what we know of human history and current events, this is supremely impractical, but that doesn’t make these principles any less valid. Indeed, if you agree with the idea that morality and ethics only arise because of our disappointment with the world, then the whole point of ethical ideas is to point to something better than what we have now, so they must be impractical almost by definition.

It seems that “practical” can be more or less equated to “whatever we have now,” because whatever we have now is already implemented. And indeed this sort of argument is often used to defend the status quo: we know the status quo can be implemented because that’s what we have right now, while ideas for changing it are inherently uncertain and therefore not practical. While this argument is more complex than the popularity fallacy, it does to some extent reduce itself to popularity as well, because what is considered practical in our societies is generally what is popularly understood and believed. Our accepted conceptions of the human being, of society, of economics, and so on, dictates what is seen as practical and impractical.

The obvious reply is that this is not how truth works. We do not determine truth by practicality in any area of life. Truth, as commonly defined, is correspondence to reality (I expound on my own closely related theory of truth in this entry). But it seems to me that we need to be more specific here, because there are a number of claims being conflated. What do we mean when we say, for instance, that antinatalism cannot be true because it’s not practical? The way I see it, there are three propositions involved here:

(1a) There is sufficient rational evidence for the proposition that “procreation is wrong.”
(1b) Procreation is wrong.
(1c) We can prevent everyone from procreating.

Proposition 1b is the antinatalist view, so any antinatalist must believe (1b). Perhaps there are some antinatalists who do not believe (1a), but generally speaking people who believe (1b) will also tend to believe (1a). The reverse is much stronger: people who believe (1a) are very likely to believe (1b), and indeed, if they are honest, they should believe (1b).

On the other hand, there are no antinatalists I know who believe (1c). According to the pragmatist, this makes antinatalism false, or at least not true. But “antinatalism” is commonly defined as the proposition that procreation is wrong, not the proposition that we can prevent everyone from procreating. If that’s the pragmatist’s argument, then it’s simply incorrect, since refuting (1c) does not refute antinatalism in any way. The pragmatist may argue that it does make antinatalism useless, but whether (1c) is true or not, antinatalism still has an effect on people’s lives and cannot be discounted as useless. If it has any effect on people’s lives and some effect on society as a whole, no matter how small, it cannot be useless.

In a sense, the argument assumes that (1c) justifies (1b), that the practicality proves the truth of the proposition. What I believe, based on how we validate truth, is that a proposition like (1a) is what is needed to justify (1b), that what we need is rational evidence that the proposition is true. (1a) is a statement of fact which has nothing to do with practicality or implementation of any kind: an argument is either valid or invalid, a piece of evidence is either relevant or it is not relevant, and so on. While it may be complicated to reason through, the question “is there sufficient rational evidence for something” is a statement of fact which ultimately has only two answers, yes or no.

Another area where people use this sort of argument is in the case of left-wing ideologies. Let me take Anarchism as an example:

(2a) At least most hierarchies are not rationally justified. (the Chomsky Principle)
(2b) We should organize society along egalitarian lines.
(2c) We can organize society along egalitarian lines.

An Anarchist is most likely to agree with (2b), given that it is basically a restatement of Anarchism. An Anarchist may disagree with (2a), although I would think it rather unlikely. But an Anarchist does not have to agree with (2c). Here, we must point out that, as in the case of antinatalism (with the Shakers and the Cathars, to name only two), there have been instances of communities organized along egalitarian lines, historically and in the present. But when the pragmatist argues against Anarchists, the argument is that “our society” (whatever society that might be) cannot be organized along egalitarian lines, not “a society.” That is to say, it may be pragmatic for a Zapatista to believe in Anarchism, because it’s their status quo, but it’s not ours.

But this view, if correct, leads to the rather distressing conclusion that their idea of truth is no longer universal, but is rather culture-dependent. This is a red flag which shows that what they call truth is not really truth but something more wonky. What they are talking about is something like an “accepted belief” or “popular belief.” Truth is truth regardless of where you are or what society you’re in (except for things like indexical propositions, which have a meaning that itself depends on context, like “I am tired”). While you may not have access to evidence that other people can access due to being closer to its source, it does not mean that you have a “different truth,” it simply means that you have less evidence on which to base your judgment.

Of course, the issue of whether any given hierarchical society can be organized along egalitarian lines is a difficult one and can be asked in many different ways (is it feasible if there is the will to do it? will there ever be the will to do it?). But the simple fact is that no one can provide a definite answer to that question. Likewise, no one can definitely say that it will never be the case that no one will procreate. I will grant that the possibility is vanishingly small, but it is non-zero. However, whether the possibility is zero or non-zero, the issue of practicality has no bearing upon the truth of (1a) or (2a). The arguments for antinatalism are either valid or invalid. The Chomsky Principle is either true or false.

In some cases, we get a variant of this argument, which consists of stating that, while there is a possibility, that possibility is too frightening to contemplate. I have discussed this in the case of gender. It is also sometimes invoked in the case of denying free will (if people start denying their free will, they’ll go on a rampage!). This is a similar sort of argument, in that it still relies on general agreement, popularity, the status quo, and so on. If people believe a given hierarchy or ideal is necessary, then they will balk at the idea of losing it, and based on that, other people will say “look at what might happen if we lose this ideal.” But this still has nothing to do with whether this is a truthful evaluation.

This way of arguing goes hand in hand with a reformist, gradualist mindset. Gradualists want everyone to believe that their way is the practical way, the realistic way, that slow, gradual change within the system is what will work in the long run, and that radicals and revolutionaries are “utopian.” So it’s a natural step from there to argue that radicals are simply not being practical, that their way will never work, and that therefore there’s no point in considering their ideas. Of course, this is all nonsense: most social changes have not been accomplished by reformists (rather, they generally take credit for the changes after they take over a movement and tear it to shreds in order to make it socially acceptable).

Because issues of practicality are rather difficult to analyze, it’s also easy for these people to frame radical ideas as personal opinions, something like “well, you may think that X is better, but that’s just your opinion and I can ignore it because most people disagree.” So that’s another way in which the argument can collapse into a popularity contest.

What do you do if you’re in a privileged class?

There is a huge tension between being a radical and being a person who has privilege in some hierarchy or other, as most of us have. As radicals, we see privilege as an external force, something to be abolished. As people with privilege, we see privilege as something that’s a part of who we are in society. Being a radical necessarily means the desire to abolish, to cast off, part of oneself. Since they are, after all, human, a lot of radicals are uncomfortable with that fact. There is also an unfortunate tendency to balkanize, to believe that one’s specific radical ideology is the only radical ideology worth pursuing, and that all others are pointless. This makes it easy to ignore privilege, and is basically the radical equivalent of “Oppression Olympics.”

The expression currently in fashion with the liberal/SJW set is “check your privilege.” This is used to shut down arguments from a person who holds a position of privilege, whether that privilege is relevant to the conversation or not, and equating such a position with an automatic disqualification from rational conversation. In general, “check your privilege” is not used to grapple with the concept of privilege, but rather to wield it like a weapon. Since it is wielded by people who, like most of us, have some position of privilege, this betrays a lack of self-awareness or irony.

So what should a radical do when confronted with their privilege as, for instance, a Western consumer, a parent, a man, a white person, or a married heterosexual (to name only those)? What they should not do is introvert and examine themselves for their merits or shortcomings. As any radical necessarily understands, criticism must be systemic in nature, and praising or attacking the individual, even if it’s yourself, is irrelevant. The radical which strikes at the root on one or many issues must not forget to do so on all issues. Reducing everything to yourself (“but I’m a good person!”) is reactionary, because it shields some hierarchies from analysis. So is simply ignoring hierarchies if you’re on the side that benefits.

The first step is to actually realize that you are a beneficiary of a hierarchy. This small step is already a great deal more than most people can muster, which is why it’s worth noting. Intersectionality, as used by liberals, has done a lot of work in helping people make that realization a lot harder. You can ignore the fact that you’re benefiting from one hierarchy by pointing out that you’re losing out in another. But ethnicity does not cancel out class, class does not cancel out sex, and so on. These are all separate social realities which must be addressed separately.

This is the place where people can work at rationalizing their benefits in order to go back to their state of mental comfort. The gamut of rationalizations run from biology (“I benefit because I am biologically/mentally superior”) to consequences (“If you take away those benefits, the world will basically end”). It’s important to realize that this is irrelevant to the whole process. Whatever your explanation for the existence of the hierarchy, it still exists.

If you are able to go further, the second step is to look at this hierarchy and how it manifests itself in your life, mainly in the expectations it places upon you (your social role), as well as your reactions to things that happen around you. As male, for instance, I am placed in the social role of man and expected to perform masculinity. I am aware of how this has affected my life profoundly and how it has colored my actions and thoughts. Many events in my life, which previously seemed mysterious or unimportant, are revealed, upon reexamination, to have been caused by people taking on, or reacting to, the man or woman social roles. I also understand that the way in which I react to events or things people say concerning sex or gender is grounded in my socialization and indoctrination as a man. Before you can criticize, you have to understand what it is that you’re criticizing.

The third step is self-criticism: realizing how your actions have harmed other people, or how the benefits you have received have been stolen from others. As a Western consumer, my life of plenty has been subsidized by sweatshop labor and slave labor in the Third World. As a man, I have benefitted from women’s labor and women’s grooming. As a person who passes for white with a white-sounding name, I benefit in added safety and financial opportunities (amongst other benefits) which exist at the expense of people of color.

Again, the point here is not to beat yourself up, or to give up because you don’t want to feel bad about yourself, but to engage in systemic analysis. People shirk from self-criticism because they want to “stay positive.” But this has nothing to do with being positive or negative. I am not automatically a “bad person” for being a Western consumer, a male, or white-passing. Neither do I get a “pass” for not being a bigot. It’s not about you, it’s about the hierarchies you benefit from. Besides, it’s wasted work to try to understand how hierarchies affect your life if you don’t do anything with that information.

If you get this far, this is the place where you should be able to realize that the rationalizations are false and that the people who are labeled superior and inferior in a hierarchy are actually equal, full human beings. You are able to do so because you’ve realized that the inferiors (which I use in this entry in the sense of “classified as inferior on some hierarchy,” not of “actually inferior beings”) are put in their situation by the hierarchy itself, not by some personal defect, and that they do not deserve to be inferiors. If you do not have the empathy or the reasoning abilities necessary to arrive at this conclusion, it is highly unlikely that you’d even get this far anyway.

When I say that superiors and inferiors are equal, I don’t mean that they are already equal in society. Of course you can always ignore reality and claim that the hierarchy somehow has no effect on people despite systematically imposing control on them and redirecting resources away from them. But again, I assume you do not have the combination of stupidity and cruelty necessary to contort your mind into believing such a thing.

If we are equal, then nothing can justify the status of superiors and inferiors, and we arrive at our status through accident of birth or, sometimes, accidental fortune or misfortune. Any person in a situation of privilege could have been born without that privilege. That being the case, it must be true that privilege is unjust.

Furthermore, you must recognize that the situation of the inferiors is different from yours. That is to say, that due to their particular situation, the inferiors cannot simply “stay quiet,” as you are able to. Usually people are able to stay quiet because they are not the ones being exploited or oppressed. To be an inferior is to cope, either by acquiescing or resisting. One must resist the temptation of jeering, or hate, those who acquiesce, but rather recognize that we are all reacting to our place in society in different ways.

The last step is to revolt against your social role. The way in which you do this depends on what you can, and what to, do. What you shouldn’t do is introvert and feel pity for yourself or rage against others, which is, as I said, a danger at every step. You need to look outwards. Read about radical ideologies which fight against the hierarchy you’re a part of. Join, or support, some form of collective action or community. As I’ve said before, being nice to oppressed or exploited people makes you a decent person but it doesn’t actually help make any systemic changes, which is why liberals are so keen on it. Go beyond just “being nice” and actually do something that makes an impact. Speak up against other privileged people when they rationalize. Make it clear you’re on the side of the people being exploited. Donate time or money, if you have any.

Note that none of this applies to the inferiors in a hierarchy. It would be pointless, as well as mean-spirited, to throw the points I’ve listed back in an inferior’s face and tell them that they should acknowledge their faults or acknowledge that they are both equal. Inferiors are under no obligation whatsoever to have sympathy for the people who are exploiting them. Doing so can only slow down, or completely halt, the process of disentangling themselves from the socialization and/or indoctrination used to enforce that hierarchy. “Naming the oppressor” is a huge step in that disentanglement. To spend one’s time pondering the equality between themselves and those who oppress them, or to reflect on how nice some oppressors are, while technically valid, is time which could be better spent understanding and naming.

My libertarian socialist political position.

For a while now, my political position has been within the domain of libertarian socialism. Libertarian socialist ideologies are anti-State, anti-capitalist center-left (in absolute terms, not in terms of political parties, which are mostly all right-wing), and they center around self-management and federated structures.

Fundamentally, politics is about the distribution and organization of power (and who gets to distribute and organize it, and who benefits from the distribution and organization). Statist ideologies mainly differ in the concentration of power they will allow the State, and other institutions, to abuse. Much of the disagreements between them lie in the balance of power they think is ideal for society.

Anarchists in general distinguish themselves from all those ideologies because they believe that power should be dispersed amongst the population, not concentrated in a few powerful institutions. This is a radical difference, which is seldom understood. Many ideologies have sought to bring about egalitarianism through concentrating power into a benevolent institution (like the Soviet State). No matter how well-intentioned, such institutions must fail because of the incentive systems which necessarily follow concentrations of power. Hierarchies seek to perpetuate themselves and power is an easy, addictive method to do so. And inevitably enemies of the regime will use that to their own advantage, as well.

It is not that power is an inherently bad thing. As Anarchists have identified, it is power in the form of hierarchies which creates the biggest problems, because hierarchies magnify the use of that power by their manpower and credibility. As St. Augustine said in the famous Pirates and Emperors story, “because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.” Private criminals are not one hundredth of the problem that corporate crimes and State crimes are.

We recognize the necessity of having some power around, if only to stop people from inflicting (physical) harm on each other or from generally impeding social autonomy (by destroying or diverting vital resources, for example). However, concentrating this power, whether in a State or some other institution, is a generally bad idea. Concentrating the power to determine what is legal and what is illegal is an even worse idea.

As a general principle, power should be kept in check by strictly delimited roles, direct accountability and, most importantly, task rotation. Keeping power in the hands of the same people year after year creates a group of people with interests that slowly diverge from those of the rest of the population, eventually creating a ruling class. The same is true of a State or a corporation.

Democracy is said to provide the accountability and task rotation. But this is a naive sort of statement. Democracy is a tool of the ruling class designed to provide the illusion of accountability and task rotation, while keeping power within the same class of people and not giving the population any real alternative which would erode their class interests. The only time egalitarian measures are implemented is when the more centrists amongst the power elite fear retribution.

What would replace democracy in a libertarian socialist system? All workplaces and cities would be self-managed, meaning that decision-making power about something would rest in the hands of those who use it, whether it’s a piece of machinery, a bridge, or a neighborhood. Each group would elect a representative or representatives to speak for them at a higher level, and on all the way up to the world level. While some decisions may have to be taken at the world level or the industry level, most decisions, I think, would be handled at the local level. The general rule is that decisions should be left to the lowest level possible.

With self-management being put in place and corporations replaced with work collectives, capitalism is necessarily done for, since it is predicated on the distinction between labor and capital. This does not mean that all work collectives would automatically start acting in the interests of the general population. However, from all the examples of self-managed workplaces I know, this tends to be the case. Workers generally live in the cities where they work, and have no intention of shafting their neighbors and friends, or attracting the ire of the population. This is partially because, in our capitalist systems, they often need material, legal, or political support from the public in order to flourish, since the States are never happy to concede anything to self-managed workplaces.

The main positive accomplishment of capitalism has been to link the world with flows of production. However, this positive accomplishment has come at a very heavy price, as neo-liberalism has amply demonstrated. In general, these flows drain valuable resources from the Third World for the consumption of the Western world. Self-management at a world level would reverse this, if only because these neo-liberalist resource drains do not benefit the population of the Third World countries that are targeted: they only benefit the power elite, that is to say, the business owners and politicians (the people who support so-called “free trade,” which really means: “free movement of capital”).

The same general principles apply to law and justice: the administration of justice and the construction of law must come directly from the people. I am not talking here about the conceit of jury duty, which is not administrated correctly anyhow. In our current system, the purpose of jury duty serves the same general purpose as democracy: to rubberstamp the condemnation of people who can be credibly condemned, whether they are really guilty or not. A true justice system serves the interests of the people, not the State. It does not imprison millions of people for the crime of being considered second-class citizens, for example.

Furthermore, as I don’t believe in blame, I don’t believe in the punitive function of justice. The courts should not exist to exact revenge on the guilty but to do what serves the needs of the people: restitution, i.e. trying to leave society in as good a shape as it was before the crime. Courts should not be adversarial but should seek to find the truth. But by far the most important element of any Anarchist justice system is the reduction of the incentives of crime. The end of the State and State police, economic equality, the elimination of sexism and racism, the end of the family being an all-important social unit, would all contribute to a dramatic reduction in crime. The fewer crimes there are, the easier it is to have a fair and timely system.

The construction of the laws themselves would follow federated lines: those who are affected by a law are responsible for its construction and maintenance. So for example the workers in a self-managed industry would make laws regarding their workplaces, consumers would make laws regulating products, women would make laws regarding VAW, abortion, and other women’s issues, and so on. Discrimination and prejudice would be countered, not by sporadic generosity from the power elite, not by the almighty “free market,” but by the equal power of those discriminated to assert their own humanity.

Here are some basic political principles I believe in:

1. The Chomsky Principle: We should in principle reject any hierarchical relation or structure unless it’s proven to be justified in some way. Since hierarchies are not a priori necessary for anything, we have no reason to accept them passively. The statement that a hierarchical relation or structure should continue needs to be be tested using the same standards of evidence that we would use to test any other statement of fact. Question with boldness the validity of any hierarchy, because the individual and social costs associated with any hierarchy demand a justification.

2. Egalitarianism: We should always assume that all human beings are equal, and to treat them as equals, unless we have contrary evidence. For example, we may measure two individuals’ “intelligence” as being different, but this does not mean we should treat one as superior over the other. Every instance where we treat people differently from each other needs to be justified, and we should also not keep pretending there is equality where there demonstrably is not (but that this does not automatically mean that some people should be treated as inferiors, unless THAT can be justified as well). This is basically just an extension of point 1.

3. Determinism: There is no such thing as individual choice, and no one can be blamed for their actions. Any institution or ideology which is based on the notion that people should be blamed, punished, or on vengeance, cannot exist in a rational society. The prison system is based on the belief that criminals must be punished. The capitalist economic system is based on the belief that poor people are to blame for being poor. Neither of these beliefs are rational.

4. Power should be broken down and distributed equitably amongst the population as much as possible.

5. The emphasis of any political change should be on changing our social systems to adapt to people, not the other way around. Nothing should be a more important consideration than people: not profits, not “law and order,” not power.

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.