Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Power, Domination and the System

On the radical Left, broadly construed, there is a long history of debates concerning the relationship between the agency of dominant groups and the structure of social systems. On the one hand, talk of the 1%, for instance, calls to mind a dominant group—a ruling class—which stands over and above the majority of society. On the other hand, it is part and parcel of radical politics to condemn not just this or that dominant group, but the entire system. I suggested in a recent post that we don't have to see these two complaints as at odd with one another.

Still, numerous questions remain: Is power always exercised by one agent over another? Or is power built into the infrastructure of the system itself? Is domination, a familiar concept in the vocabulary of the Left, always a matter of one agent dominating another? Or does it make sense to speak of people being dominated by a system?

A couple of examples might illustrate the problems lurking for anyone trying to answer the questions above. Compare and contrast, for example, radical feminists who conceive of gender oppression as dyadic relation of domination between dominator (man) and dominated (woman), with post-structuralist feminists (influenced by Foucault, for example) who understand gender domination as a process in which agents are produced by a certain regime or system of power. (Note that I by no means aim to suggest that these are the only two viable positions on offer). The former—and it must be conceded that we're oversimplifying here—tend to tie domination to a certain kind of social relationship between an agent of domination and a subject of domination. The latter, however, might argue that domination is not something agents can be said to do to other agents at all; agents are dominated not by other people, but by non-agential features of social life (e.g. agents may be said to be dominated by institutions, social norms, practices, or by the system itself).

This same debate, in slightly different forms, surfaces in critical race theory as well as in the Marxist tradition. In the Marxist tradition, the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas in the pages of New Left Review during 1970s is exemplary. I've argued elsewhere that the debate between so-called "structuralists" and "instrumentalists" over the character of the State generally misses the mark; both fail to adequately theorize the complex dialectic between structure and agency, system and lifeworld.

Still, there are a lot of things going on in these debates—far more than a simple disagreement about the nature of social domination. But in this post I'd like to say something about the question of whether it makes sense to say that someone is dominated by a social system. I'd like to keep this discussion within a broadly materialist register, so I'm going to ignore approaches that reduce everything to linguistic/discursive matters. My question is this: does it make sense, within a materialist social theory, to speak of persons being dominated by a system? It clearly makes sense, in my view, to speak of some agent (or group of agents) dominating another agent (or group of agents). What's not so clear is whether it makes sense to say that someone can be dominated by some entity that is not an agent.

In most treatments of this question, players in the debate tend to talk past one another or dismiss the merits of the other's view entirely. This was to some extent evident in the famous Miliband-Poulantzas debate of the 1970s. It is evident in the contemporary literature in political theory on domination, and it surfaces quite often in exchanges between theorists sympathetic to Foucault's writings on power and those who are not. A more nuanced assessment is needed.

I stress, however, that these are not merely academic questions. The question of the relationship between dominant groups and the system we live under—capitalism—is in some ways a key question on the table in the Occupy movement. Marxists, in particular, need a nuanced way of emphasizing both that the system must be changed, on the one hand, and that it makes sense to speak of struggling against a ruling class on the other. There are also complicated questions about how various kinds of oppression tie into the ruling class model and the system of capitalism. Gaining clarity on these matters is politically important.


Let's begin with the example of dyadic social relationship between dominator and dominated. Let's say that the relationship is social (rather than merely personal) in the sense that it is structured by background conditions of various kinds (e.g. institutions, practices, laws, norms, social expectations, etc.) What makes a social relationship an instance of domination is that one party has a certain kind of power—a certain kind of unsavory influence or sway—over the other. That sway could be grounded in various ways. For example, it could emanate from dependence, vulnerability, coercive power, institutionalized authority, etc. But what matters is that one agent stands above the other in a problematic way, on the model of master/slave or master/servant.

Importantly, this kind of social relationship exists whether or not the master is benevolent or relatively gracious. A master who treats his subordinates relatively well is still a master. As Fredrick Douglass puts it:
"My feelings [toward slave masters] were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprung from the consideration of my being a slave at all. It was slavery—not its mere incidents—that I hated."
Paternalism—no matter how nicely administered or well intended—is still paternalism. What's problematic is a certain kind of social relationship—not, in the first instance, how well superiors treat those beneath them. Advocates of "socialism-from-above" systematically miss this point. Hence, apart from defending technocrats and administrative layers of elites who lord over dis-empowered populations of subjects, they place themselves in the same camp as philanthropic capitalists—think of Jeffrey Sachs—who propose a increased flow of aid and resources from powerful to powerless groups (while leaving the asymmetrical relations of power fully intact). To stand for socialism-from-below is to stand uncompromisingly against relations of domination as such, regardless of whether the "superiors" in question—be they bureaucrats, lords, or capitalists—are relatively benevolent or gracious. To stand for socialism-from-below means to stand firmly against social relations in which some group enjoys a certain kind of arbitrary, discretionary power over others. Socialism means empowering the masses of the population to take control of their own destiny and run society themselves.

Now, the point here isn't that the consequences of domination (e.g. poverty, deprivation, etc.) don't matter; on the contrary, the point is that the causes of those consequences—certain kinds of social relationships—are more fundamental than the consequences themselves. Merely examining a person's standard of living or level of consumption isn't good enough. Even if I have a relatively high standard of living, I am dominated if I am dependent on small, powerful class of people for employment and for the goods I need to survive.

So, even when the consequences of domination are relatively good—in the case of a benevolent tyrant—the relations of domination don't cease to be unjust. The Marxist complaint against capitalism, after all, isn't in the first instance that it distributes certain kinds of social goods unequally. That's because the essence of the Marxist complaint isn't about distribution; it's about production. We remain trapped in a liberal framework if we only think in terms of how given social goods get parceled out. Redistribution takes the existing relations of production as given and asks how we can mitigate the effects of capitalism. Marxist politics aren't fundamentally about taxation and redistribution; they are about founding society anew by transforming the structure of social production. Rather than merely examining how already-existing goods should get distributed, Marxism examines the exploitative social relations built into the basic structure of society, thereby laying bare how distributions come about in the first place.

But Marxists are concerned with more than just exploitation. Marxists have long argued that capitalism is a system built upon social relations of domination. There is a sense in which workers' lives in capitalism cannot ever be fully their own. Workers' lives—on the shop floor as much as in society writ large—are largely determined by the decisions of capitalists. Absent collective resistance from workers themselves, capitalists unilaterally make decisions about investment, the organization of the workplace, what is produced, the pace of work, wages and benefits, interest rates, levels of employment, and so on. Workers are, of course, denied the material benefits—high levels of comfort, consumption, financial security, etc.—that accrue from membership in the ruling class. But capitalists—because of their dominant position in the production process—enjoy a degree of decision-making power and control over their own lives that workers cannot never enjoy within capitalism.

In the workplace, the boss is a dictator. Without the collective power that comes from being organized in trade unions, individual workers are under the complete control of the boss while they're on the clock. They are forced to take orders, to do what they're told, to play a role in the boss's overall project, whatever that may be. When under the eye of superiors, workers are forced to work at the bosses pace. They are forced to show up when they're told to show up, and they forced to accept the wages that are handed down to them without complaint. They are to have no say in any of this. The only power the isolated individual worker has is the power to quit—and, ultimately, try to get a job working for a different capitalist. "If you don't like, you can leave... and there are plenty of others waiting to take your place."

So, the boss is clearly in a dominant position vis-a-vis the workers. The social relationship between worker and capitalist is one in which the capitalist enjoys a high degree of arbitrary, discretionary power over the worker's life. Workers are barred from participating in the governance of the workplace, where the discretionary power of capitalists reigns supreme. Their work-lives are determined by a group who neither shares their interests nor intends to share any of its power.

Of course, domination doesn't stop at the factory gates. Liberal reformers have often made this mistake and argued that because the working class has the vote it follows that the capitalists only dominate workers in the workplace. Outside the workplace, the argument goes, workers and capitalists are equals because they both enjoy equal political power.

If there were times in history when this argument could get at least get some traction—e.g. when there were a strong working-class political parties vying for majorities in government—it rings hollow today. It is obvious that the State is a class State—a capitalist State. It is not a neutral vessel that the working-class can lay hold of. The State is little more than a "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

So, the ruling class enjoys dominance not simply in the workplace but in society writ large. In controlling both the State, as well as the overall direction of the productive process as a whole, the ruling class dominates all other classes in society—working class and middle class alike. Of course, the threat posed by the working class to ruling class power means that the State will come down particularly hard on workers, sometimes leaving middle class groups relatively unscathed by comparison. But it remains true that the middle class is under the thumb of the ruling class and enjoys no substantial means of attenuating its power.


What I just sketched was the "dominant-group" model of power and domination. The focus is on certain kinds of social relationships between persons (or groups of persons). It is conceded, of course, that these relationships don't rest on thin air—they are structured by background conditions (e.g. law, norms, practices, institutions, economic organizations, etc.). But domination itself is only said to exist between agents—domination without agents is not possible.

Now, many—especially those influenced by post-structuralism but also proponents of structuralist versions of Marxism—will reject this as foolish. Some might argue that agents are nothing but the mere products of power or material processes. Others would stress the epistemic priority of functionalist explanations that derive from a theory of the system as a whole—as opposed to action-theoretic explanations that focus on the intentions and purposes of agents.

These opponents of the dominant-group model don't aim to extend or broaden the analysis. On the contrary, they seek to deny the conceptual space occupied by the dominant-group theorists entirely. For these opponents—call them eliminativists—it is fundamentally problematic to define power or domination in terms of relations between agents. Agents are just epiphenomena—what matters fundamentally is structure, systemic processes, the basic function of social institutions, and macro-level forces. It is fair, I think, to attribute this sort of view to Althusser, for example.

I think eliminativists are radically mistaken. I won't argue for that claim here (although I've criticized their views elsewhere (e.g. here), because I'd like to explore the more interesting debate between dominant-group theorists, on the one hand, and those who seek to extend and broaden our conception domination to include agent-agent domination as well as system-agent domination.


So, while preserving the analysis of agent-agent domination, I'd like to consider certain cases of system-agent domination. Why consider such cases? I think it would be a mistake to say that we should because we need to capture the unintentional character of certain kinds of domination. The dominant-group model, as I understand it, already captures that. Nor would it be correct to say that we need to understand system-agent domination because otherwise considerations of institutional structure fall by the wayside. The dominant-group model also captures such concerns insofar as it is a basic premise of that theory that social relations of domination are—in order to be such—structured by background conditions that include institutional structure.

The reason, in my estimation, why we need to consider system-agent cases of domination is that there are compelling examples, especially in Marxism, that go unexplained by a solely agent-agent approach.

What I have in mind, for example, is Marx's claim in capitalism people are dominated by accumulated dead labor. Humanity comes to be dominated by its own products. For example, as Alan Ryan puts it:
"Marx supposes that under capitalism, there are two sorts of oppression at work, rather than one. Capitalists oppress workers, driving them as hard as they can to extract maximum surplus value from them. But this is not because capitalists are individually brutal; they themselves are driven by their capital. The irrationality of a capitalist economy in which production is dictated by the accidents of market interaction is read by Marx as the blind tyranny of capital over its human subjects. The fact that capital is in any case only dead labor leads Marx to tremendous rhetorical flights in which he describes capital as a vampire, renewing its life-in-death by sucking the blood of living laborers...what humanity has done is create Frankenstein's monster; so far from the world submitting to human control, it has been set in motion as a blind force tyrannizing over all of us... Capital dominates all of us and turns all of us into its purposes."
The image of Frankenstein is apt. We needn't develop this fecund metaphor fully in order to see that capitalism is like a monster humanity has created which is entirely out of control. With the historical development of capitalism we get the tyranny of the bottom line, the iron cage of instrumental rationality, a tendency toward universal commodification, reified consciousness, and all the rest of it. But the paradox is this: history is made by human beings—it's not the case that it is merely something that happens to us. What we do or don't do in the here and now has historical ramifications. So, what we have is a situation in which a product of accumulated human actions—capitalism—comes to lord over and dominate the very beings whose actions and historical development brought it into existence. A system constructed by human beings through a complex dialectic of historical development comes to appear as something natural, inevitable, and immutable. The system destroys the natural environment, degrades human relationships, and shackles humanity to an end—accumulation for accumulation's sake—which it cannot really endorse and remain truly human. And we seem to have to ability to steer or control the system within the horizons of capitalism.

Even capitalists, who are a dominant group in a position to lord over and exploit the working majority, are shackled by the pressures of the system. A capitalist who refuses to re-invest today's profit in expanded production, who refuses to drive down wages and fight unionization drives is not likely to remain a capitalist for long. The coercive force of market competition locks capitalists into a situation in which their forced to sink or swim, accumulate or go bust.

But it's not as though all actions undertaken by the ruling class are wholly determined by the system. The ruling class, which is a group of consciously acting agents, makes blunders, fails to recognize their class interests, and sometimes even fail to do what the system demands of them. To say that they are in some sense dominated by a system they can neither wholly control nor fully understand is not to say that they lack agency. Nor is it to deny that they have power over others and, as occupants of a certain office in the economic structure of society, are in a position to make important decisions within a constrained set of possibilities.

The ruling class deserves the righteous scorn of the toiling majority. It is a mistake to think that the problematic structural features of the system absolve the ruling class of culpability of various kinds. In the heat of struggle against ruling class repression, to not feel this righteous anger is a political failing of a certain kind. If I'm a leftist in Chile in 1973, I resent the repressive counter-revolutionary violence instigated by the ruling class in a way that I cannot resent a natural disaster. We need to preserve the power of the dominant-group model while also allowing that domination is a relation that can obtain between agents and a system. Reductionist and eliminitivist positions distort the terrain here considerably.


Human beings make their own history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. As Alasdair MacIntyre once noted, phrases of this sort abound in Marx's work, and the goal of socialists has got to be to eliminate that "but", the caveat that must always accompany acknowledgements of the fact that we make our own history in the context of class society.

For that to be a goal, it has to be possible. Eliminativists foreclose it as a possibility. But in focusing on the workings of social systems as concrete, historical totalities, system-level analysis catches all sorts of processes that would go unnoticed from the perspective of the participant in social practices. We don't capture everything that matters if we only talk in terms of the conscious actions of dominant groups. But the system we criticize isn't natural, although some functionalist social theorists (e.g. Luhmann) would disagree. It is a human construction. As such, it is in our power to consciously change it.


Jon said...

Thanks for this excellent post. Glad to see someone working out the problems taken up by the revolutionary MacIntyre. Many people in the academy mistake structuralism for Marxism, and some who make this mistake from a liberal or neoliberal perspective are led to reject what they mistake for Marxism on the basis of considerations of method derived from empiricism or methodological individualism. Macintyre provides a bridge to those in this category seeking more satisfying explanations than liberalism offers by showing how authentic Marxism provides the resources for accounts of social structures in terms of the human action that produces, reproduces, sustains, defends, challenges, and dismantles them-- without ceding too much ground to methodological individualism and veering towards a vulgar materialism, as do other 'analytic Marxists' like G. A. Cohen.

So he's a good figure to be writing about to reach what I'd imagine is a wide audience inside the academy, right now.

Reading this post, I thought of the crucial last clause in this quote from the German Ideology: "The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity."

Anonymous said...

Very helpful post. I can't tell you how many arguments I've been in where the purported 'lack of agency' resulting from some analysis is taken to be a trump. Nietzsche recognized that truth can be inimical to life. We so need to get past this simple free will/determinism binary.

A couple of considerations. The thing-like quality of domination is often masked simply by its material embodiments plus the passage of time. An example is from the philosophy of technology, the work of Langdon Winner and others. Robert Moses in NYC built the tunnels out to the beaches and Long Island deliberately at a height too low for city buses to pass through, thereby making it harder for 'undesirable' urban types to make it out there. This is an intentional policy by an individual dominator. Yet as time passes, that's all forgotten as is the nexus of tunnel and bus height, etc. And so there develops a feeling that 'that's just the way it is' that the poor don't go to the beaches or whatever else out in the burbs. It gets naturalized etc. I think this is consistent with the analysis here. Like dead labor etc. groups set up structures that outlive both dominator and dominated and so their intentional aspects are disguised by their material enbodiments and time.

At my own university workplace, I am witnessing the unfolding of this very same process. A budgetary system for reward/punishment and distribution of operating funds was put in place a few years ago. It is a result of quite deliberate choices about what kinds of activities to reward (e.g., external research grants) and what to punish etc. But now even though they know better and have lived through the change, people are starting to see it as 'natural' and 'just the way things are' etc. Same kind of thing. It is very clearly BOTH a stucture (now) AND deliberate. It's just a matter of doing the hard work of tracing the choices from once upon a time.
Not surprising that historians whither under neoliberalism!

t said...

@Jon: Yes, I agree that MacIntyre does a great job of navigating the reefs of bourgeois individualism, on the one hand, and the shoals of structrualism on the other. In essays like "Breaking the Chains of Reason" and "Notes from the Moral Wilderness" he (convincingly in my view) argues that we need to be get clear on Marx's Hegelian background to properly understand his position on these matters. I don't think that requires Hegel's whole weighty apparatus. But I do think that it means that we should take a close look at Hegel's conception of freedom as rational agency (which, in good dialectical fashion, attempts to give a rendering of agency that does justice to both its subjective and objective dimensions without being reductive about either). Thanks for the GI quote, too. Very apt!

t said...

@Anonymous: the Robert Moses example is awesome. I'll have to look more into that. I'm extremely interested in the ways in which built environments get configured along the lines of ruling class policies but, eventually, take on a life of their own and assume a kind of naturalness. The temptation to see the built environment as natural is a very strong one. It's hard to see it as a human construction that has ideological functions and connections to the system and the ruling class.

I also agree that the neoliberalization of the university provides us with another excellent example of how structure and ruling class meddling come together. It's abstract and unhelpful to look at what goes on in the university solely in terms of "they system". That's a clear component of what goes on, but it's problematic to ignore the conscious agents in the Administration, many of whom have corporate pedigrees, who are deliberately pushing the neoliberal line.