How systematic oppression hurts everyone involved.

James Baldwin aptly sums up the point I want to bring out in this post, which supports what was said in another post.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself. (Nobody knows my name, 78)

In this post I have a few more quotes to share which shed further light on how systematic oppression hurts everyone involved. Even if, in a clear example, slave owners believe they are profiting from owning slaves, they are doing harm to their own humanity. Frederick Douglass gives a stirring account of this happening through his own experience of being sent as a slave child to live with a young couple who had never owned slaves before.

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of those heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me [to read]. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 81-82)

While traveling in Africa in 1965 Malcolm X arrived at a new insight about the way in which a racist atmosphere sinks into the psychology of individuals.

I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.

We both agreed that American society makes it impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color differences. And we both agreed that if racism could be removed, America could offer a society where rich and poor could truly live like human beings.

That discussion with the ambassador gave me a new insight –one which I like: that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 371)

The last quote I want to relate to these others is from Michel Foucault.

Do not regard power as a phenomenon of homogenous domination –the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others: keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Society must be defended, lectures, 14 January 1976)

In all of this I see the importance of forming new networks so that power can circulate in liberating ways rather than oppressive ways. The problem with systematic oppression is that the oppressive system is within –and functions through –each individual. It is not just the 1% who are to blame for perpetuating this system. Each person relays power through everyday interactions. How can this situation be changed? In my opinion an important change happens when individuals choose to give power to each other –share power through solidarity –rather than exercise power over each other.

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Democratic traits?

Last week I bought a book which was first published in 2009 as Democratie, dans quel etat? The English translation has just been published this year.  It is a collection of essays examining what is meant by the word ‘democracy’. The first essay, “The Democratic Emblem” by Alain Badiou, is what I am focusing on in this post.

Alain Badiou offers a rather cynical view of democracy. He first criticizes the Western tendency to suppose that the “democratic world” is superior to the rest of the world. Fair enough. Then he harks back to Plato, specifically book 8 of The Republic, in which “Plato applies the term demokratia to a way of organizing the business of the polis, a certain type of constitution.” (8) After a few words about how both Lenin and Plato saw democracy as no more than a particular form of state, he says, “The capacity of the democratic emblem to do harm lies in the subjective type it molds; and, not to mince words, the crucial traits of the democratic type are egoism and desire for petty enjoyments.” (8)

Here I have to take issue with what Badiou takes for granted. In the shadows of the words, “the subjective type it molds” many debates of twentieth century French philosophy lurk. Specifically, Louis Althusser seems to have influenced professor Badiou’s perspectives. Badiou was a student of Althusser and has built his intellectual career on Althusser’s peculiar slant on Marxism. Althusser’s cryptic remarks on ideology and how it molds the subjectivities of individuals haunted my university studies as well. It was pivotal to the raising of my political consciousness to puzzle through what it means for mental and physical habits, hopes, preferences, styles of reactions, all that constitutes subjectivity, to be shaped by the various ideologies that exist in the societies we are immersed in. Althusser at times in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses seems to think of “ideology” as a mysteriously united force in the universe –sort of like the Nothing in The Never ending Story –which threatens to swallow everything that is not it. Badiou appears to be thinking along similar lines when he accuses democracy of molding a subjective type with the traits of egoism and desire for petty enjoyments. He makes no attempt to distinguish the subjective type that the democratic emblem molds from what any other ideology molds, such as capitalism, protestantism, science, or the communism which he endorses. He seems to just see contemporary society as egoistic and desirous of petty enjoyments and blames that on democracy. What is it about democracy that could create such traits? It is much more complicated than Badiou’s sweeping statement implies.

Continuing on with Alain Badiou’s article, he goes on to accuse democracy of being stuck in a perpetual youthfulness void of the wisdom of age.  This, again, he claims is based on Plato. Badiou says, “Plato’s thesis is that sooner or later this manner of existence, grounded in the indiscipline of time, and its correlative form of State, representative democracy, will bring about a visible manifestation of their despotic essence. Because that is what it comes down to: the real content of all that youth and beauty is the despotism of the death wish.” (13). Badiou implies that “death wish” is a Platonic term –though it is a Freudian generalization –when, immediately after the last quoted sentence he says, “That is why, for Plato, the trajectory that begins with the delights of democracy ends with the nightmare of tyranny. ” (13)

If democracy is to end in tyranny, it seems to me that it is because it has never really been separated from the economic tyranny of the aristocracy, not because of the youthful lustiness which those old Greeks saw everywhere they looked. If democracy is to become the organizational principle of empowering communities to thrive and encourage positive traits it will be through becoming conscious of what non-democratic traits are woven into our institutions and minds, rooting those out and envisaging new ways to organize our communities and free our minds.