the Disillusioned kid: Heterodoxy
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Friday, April 08, 2005


It should be clear to anybody who gives this thing even a cursory glance that there are many things I think are wrong about the world. I have in the past been accused of being "anti-everything". Inspired by Alex Gregory's efforts, I wondered if it might be worth trying to set out my underlying political philosophy.

Many left-leaning philosophies, particularly Marxism and many strands of anarchism emphasise the centrality of class struggle. They see the working class as the agent which will otherthrow the prevailing system, thereby liberating all of humanity. This is not to say they ignore other struggles, but it does explain how they see them fitting into the bigger picture. Regular readers will be aware that I do think class and the class struggle is important, but I don't believe that it should be elevated to a pre-eminent position in this manner.

The key thing which concerns me is oppression. In my opinion this can be broadly be considered to be synonymous with illegitimate power. Power here simply meaning your ability to exert influence over another in order to get them to do something they would not otherwise do (or to stop them doing something they would otherwise have done). Many anarchists have, at least rhetorically, opposed all power, but I think this is a mistake. If a child trys to run out into a busy road their parent will seek to stop them. This is a use of power, but not only are most people likely to consider that it is entirely justified, they are likely to think poorly of any parent who didn't act in this way. The question of legitimacy revolves around whether the use of power can be justified and the burden of proof lies with the person using power, not the person over whom it is exerted.

Oppression is a bad thing not only because of its deleterious effects on the victim, but also because it distorts our fundamental humanity. This is not an essentialist claim that there is a human nature which we have been alienated from. Rather it is an assertion that oppression prevents individuals, and as a consequence wider society, from realising their full potential.

Oppression arises in a huge range of forms along lines of class, race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, caste, status, nation, tribe, species etc. These interact with each other in complex ways and are probably best conceptualised as a web. (Conceiving of a hierachy of oppression, as suggested by Ward Churchill among others, has some value and is clearly useful in extreme cases such as a comparison of sexual harrasment and genocide, but in most situations is far more complicated and involvedl. Which is worse, for instance: dictatorship or imperialism?) A consistent anti-oppressionist (for want of a better term) would oppose all of these forms of opression, but clearly you could not hope to actively (or, perhaps more importantly, effectively) campaign against all of them.

Neccesarily you must prioritise. There are a number of approaches which could be taken here. You could focus on the most serious form of oppression; the one which affects the greatest number; the one you think you are most likely to be able to change; the one with which you have the greatest personal experience; those where the oppressors are physically closest to you; those which you have the greatest responsibilty for etc. In practice, however, you take into account all of these factors and others and ultimately make an essentially random choice.

One of the offshoots of this conception is that it implies a more pluralist conception of revolutionary change than is usual on the left. Most self-proclaimed revolutionaries seem to believe that in the aftermath of a succesful revolution when we have a new polity and economy, everything will be hunky-dory. In fact, such a revolution might well have a major impact in those spheres, but is unlikely to have such a major influence on gender relations or the way we deal with other species. (I am aware that the Russian Revolution did make important steps towards improving the position of women in Russian society, but this only went so far.) What is needed is revolutions in every sphere of human life. (I'm borrowing the term spheres from Michael Albert who argues that society can be conceptualised in four spheres: economy, polity, kinship and culture; broadly reflecting what he believes were the four key left-wing ideological movements of the 60s: Marxism, anarchism, feminism and nationalism. I think this way of thinking is of considerable value, but I am concerned about its focus on the anthropocentric; what about the environment and/or other species?)

Removing one form of opression may reveal others which we previously couldn't see. The task may even be neverending, but this does not change the fact that we should try. The acheivments of various anti-oppression movements over the centuries have won many important victories and vastly expanded the realms of freedom available today, at least to those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the western world. The best way to honour those movements and their participants is to continue their fight.

I should probably say something about moral consequentialism as well, but I think that'll do for now.

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