"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

May 8, 2010

Power or Liberation (Part Three)

Part One
Part Two

Power or Liberation (Part Three)

"...Computerized clinic
For superior cynics
Who dance to a synthetic band

In their own image
Their world is fashioned ---
No wonder they don't understand..."

Neil Peart (Rush), "Natural Science," from Permanent Waves

A few days back I wrote The Temptation Towards Punitive Asceticism, wherein I argued that opposition to power contains within it the seeds of new forms of power, especially within a set of persons perhaps best described as revolutionary ascetics, people who combine a withdrawal from the bad behaviors of others ("the sins of the world") with a desire to prevent future harm with punishment.

Responding to that premise ASP (Blog of a Sane Person) and Ethan of 6th or 7th, each offered a timely, considered and well stated critique.

Sane Person wrote:

"...I don't think freedom can exist without repression. In order to ensure everyone has freedom, we must also repress the impulses of those (of us) who would do things that limit or impinge on other people's freedom. Our freedom is necessarily shaped by the community which we are a part of, it is shaped by the constraints that are placed upon us, which are meant to ensure freedom for all and not just for those who might be superior or more powerful in some respect. So I don't think freedom can exist without some form or some quantity of repression. The question then becomes what is repressed, how much freedom is allowed and what possible consequences can result in excessive freedom or in too much repression..."

She proceeded to outline the suppression of pro-Nazi organizations and sentiment, in her native Croatia, where the local adopters of fascism had set themselves upon a program of genocide and consolidation.

Ethan, following that, wrote:

"...Particularly in reference to the part of this discussion that ASP points out, I have to say that deep down I'm always kind of secretly ambivalent about "the individual" and individual liberty. It certainly sounds appealing, but I fear that focusing on it too heavily interferes with thinking about humanity--and the world, and the universe--as a totality.

I tend, or maybe the more accurate verb is "try," to subscribe to a David Bohmian view of all-as-one, and as a result I'm tempted sometimes to think that subsuming the self to the totality is the way to go. Of course, that way lies the potential for fascism..."

Having spent several days trying to work my thoughts around these replies, I realized that I'd already begun to fashion the outline of a previously intended essay, which now took shape in a form colored by those thoughtful responses.

Driving my youngest to the physician, seeking treatment for an eye infection, I had one of those supra-immediate flashes of insight, where a problem resolves itself into a simple grammatical expression. One eye on the road, a blind hand scrambling for a pen, and the scrap of paper earlier co-opted as a bookmark, I lucked upon a red light, furiously scribbling:

"Capitalists can plan for what they will do. Resisters plan for what they refuse, for what they will not allow, for what they want to prevent."

I have struggled of late to understand why so many resistance movements, at the hint of insurrection or success, devolve so surely into totalizing and repressive attempts at the creation of a social perfection. I think, following the insight above, that we must look to our epistemology, specifically the episteme of justice.

Which of course, entrenched in the ambivalence of thought, leads to any number of new questions.

How do we know how to identify justice? How do we know what it looks like, in the actions of others? How do we know that we enact it? How do we identify just consequences, and unjust ones? What of the ramifications of our choices which we cannot so neatly codify?

I don't agree with Sane Person, and I find myself resolutely uncomfortable with Ethan's "subsuming the self," admitting as he does that down that way seems the temptation to fascism.

So what, then?

When Sane Person argues for repression, she creates the conditions of a new power arrangement which, at some point, some one or many will themselves form in groups, against. Questioning her argument, I also had to question my own premises. I have, to this point, operated on the assumption of a basic unit, the person. Short of collective and shared consciousness, each person remains a "heterotropy," a unit of action and awareness which can, past a certain point of physiological development, remain fundamentally isolated from all others and still exist, still know itself alone in the difference it demonstrates by changing its environment, its own self in relation to that environment, its own memory.

Comparatively, Sane Person's premise seems to rest on "isotropy," that of a common moral, human identity, where an existential and authoritative standard can and does provide (even if unstated in logic or symbol) a manner by which people can judge conduct.

As I argued earlier, I reject the reality, or the accessibility, of such a standard:

"...Coming at this another way, to have "right and wrong" you also have to have a perfect standard by which to judge what events and people fall on one side, and what events and people fall on the other. Picture that standard as a membrane, a division which sorts the myriad events and choices of any persons, or set of persons, in any place, during any time, into one of two categories. For the standard to work, it has to fulfill an absolute, unchanging, irreversible, untouchable and perfect function. It cannot fall to persons to decide it. If people have a hand in deciding the standard of right and wrong, it no longer works as a standard.

But, for any person to know that a particular example of conduct falls into one of the two categories, that standard must also remain intelligible, accessible and communicable within the contingent events of human action. People must have the capacity to decide their choices according to that standard, communicate them and then follow through. They must retain the capacity to interpret it, and apply it to changing times, or it becomes first opaque, and then inapplicable.

A standard of right and wrong, to work as a standard, must embody in each and every person, at each and every point in human space and time, both rigid perfection (to identify right and wrong, while excluding personal bias) and fluid contingency (that people might choose their conduct, and conform to it).

An imperfect perfection. A black whiteness.

A chimaera..."

Rendering that as briefly as possible, I mean to suggest that we cannot know absolutely if an action conforms perfectly to arbitrary categories, such as right, wrong, just or unjust. We can intimate. We can guess, but we cannot do so with a defensible certainty, because the categories themselves we cannot treat as perfect.

I believe Ethan recognizes this, since he moves immediately from subsumation to doubts about the consequences of it. If we subsume ourselves, we trust that the totality to which we adhere cannot do wrong, cannot embody injustice, or we trust ourselves to it knowing that this new creation exceeds us, and can still do wrong to others.

Assuming that people can come together in absolutely just associations depends first, I believe, upon the assumption of an absolute standard which persons can create, discover and most importantly, reveal to any and all others without the intrusion of human error.

Further, it assumes that people can create error-free organizations of shared effort, in the first place, towards which they can devote themselves in the abolition of known existing harm and error.

Understanding this, I think, might provide a lens through which we can see the tendency of resistance and revolution to transform, in the process of formation and coming into some authority, into repression.

Marx understood (and without falling prey to the mysticism of Heraclitus, Hegel and Engels) that opposition shapes all parties involved within its agonic field of contest. When he conceived of his materialist dialectic (and we must separate this from the idiocy of Lenin, Trotsky and New Left economic-astrologers, who took Hegel's Hermetic mysticism and made something worse of it), Marx provided a deft analysis of how contradictions shape the parties bound by them. A class of people suppressed in their creative capacity and serving the interests of others develop a shared experience, because they share similar material constraints upon their actions. They develop those conditions, then, in opposition to and because of the people who rule over them.

When a capitalist does such and such, deriving the majority of his own authority from the exploitation of those who labor for him, or suffer such consequences which reduce their alternatives (even to the point of death), he does not need take into consideration the possibility of error, because he does not have to. His enjoyment of life, his power, provides its own justification. The capitalist (like the aristocrat, the high priest and the ritual king before him) can plan for what he does, because he does not have to worry his own field of operation.

Those who labor beneath him, on the contrary, do not and cannot come to conceive of their lives as independent of his power, unless they never become aware of the immediacy of that authority. Some people, we can see, never arrive at the point of resistance.

But, those who do resist do so because they at some point understand themselves as subjected, because their conditions themselves provide them with a discernible contradiction. They conceive of their condition in opposition, in contest, in agonic resistance to those who deprive them of the fullness of life.

In other words, their resistance takes its very shape from the crucible of experience, from their subservience. They conceive of their existences as a wrong, and as an opposition to that wrongness.

Shaped by the authority used against them, by the power faction which need not question itself because its own power provides justification, the oppressed instead begin with a rejection. Their first response, "No!" Without that refusal, even only in the mind - no resistance.

This rejection establishes the ones with power as wrongdoers, as people who commit acts which themselves result in the suffering of others.

Herein lies the problem, I believe. The moral component which allows a woman to reject the pornographer, the abusive spouse, the culture of patriarchy; the moral recognition of one's own suffering at the hands of another which compels a man to develop a practice of resistance, even revolution, becomes through its repetition a standard which he treats as absolute, as a permanent justification.

Instead of understanding normalcy and the conditions of everyday life as an uncertainty, the rebel seeks by her resistance the permanent resolution of a problem. The problem of her own condition. In rejecting a conformity to a platform of experience determined by others, some who cry, "No!" into the heat of their own internal silences fashion a new identity which depends not only on the resolution of the problem presented by living as another's instrument, but which sets itself a teleology, an expansion of personal suffering outward, encompassing the scope of everyone else's existence - a drive towards a goal where no one can ever again use another, torture another, dominate another.

A goal which, it seems, rests on a the acceptance of a perfect justice, a perfect balancing of accounts, an appropriation not only of misbegotten goods, but also of moral value. No longer simply identifying the feeling of "I" as a perspective one has alone, this sort of rebel divides others into competing categories, surrounding himself with impostor selves and real persons, symbols of rightness, and symbols of wrongness.

Instead of experiencing her selfhood as a temporary community of incidences, as a series of leaps from platform to platform, as a process of unfolding, as a "movable feast" of alterable continuity, the absolutist rebel fixes herself into the confines of a single personality which must prevent harm, which must punish.

In this, the absolutist becomes like his oppressor, not as a victim freed or a prisoner escaped, but as a hostile instrument, one which still belongs to its owner but has turned against it. As he commodifies his needs and desires within a hostile marketplace of emotions and identity, the absolutist gives up liberation in favor of judgment.

In the same way that a consumer reduces her own awareness, boiling down identity to an artificially stabilized sense of self bound by the acquisition of one's own needs in the form of commodities, the absolutist shaves away experiences which no longer conforms to his needs, which now mimic commodities in the form of semi-permanent consumable possessions of justice, revenge and punishment - ones which he must replace, upon consuming them.

A person must fix the wanting self, accepting identity as a trap, or as a high banked river which ceases to flow if it loses its edges. This artificial fixity (whether encultured in consumers, propagandized as doctrine and education, or developed as a method of rejecting one's own condition) does not abolish the needs or wants around which it organizes.

It cannot abolish those needs - as the satisfaction of revenge, or the purchase of diapers - because it no longer has any shape, function or form without them. It depends upon a permanent series of needs.

Take a person, now, who has transformed her rejection of injustice into a search for permanent resolution. Not satisfied with escaping the direct experience of another's oppression, or with recreating new and separate conditions of greater liberty, responsibility and mutuality, this rebel develops a standard of judgment that depends upon the treatment of justice as the satisfaction of relatively enduring needs. Justice as the acquisition of a commodity, often in the form of revenge and punishment.

Such a person must consume the punishment of others, or he cannot retain his fixed experience of self in any coherence. This person must see the world as a stage of adversaries, and enemies, who he can judge against a standard of truth and error which rarely - if ever - brooks opposition, because it fixes his own identity and satisfies the understandable urge to avoid conditions he can no longer accept.

So long as she can judge, and therefore punish, her identity feels complete. She feels satiated. What began as a rejection of oppression becomes its satisfaction, as she represses others. Since she conceives as justice as a consumer understands commodities, as a means to complete needs, she can no longer trust or accept it.

And he finds himself a power, against whom others seek liberation...


A Sane Person said...

How would you prevent harm without repression? All repression carries with it a danger of excess. But if freedom is allowed without any kind of repression, how exactly is freedom ensured? How can all people have freedom, when others are free to abuse them? That, to me, is counter-intuitive.

Right and wrong, as you say, are arbitrary categories, but they are not unfathomable and certainly are necessary.*

Is it right for me to dehumanize, sexually objectify and physically hurt someone? Well, if my partner is a masochist and wants me to do this, then it is right for me to do that. But it wouldn't be right for me to do that to someone who doesn't want it. Right and wrong with respect to these actions is arbitrary because those definitions depend on personal perceptions of the participants, but that doesn't make "right" and "wrong" any less real for the people involved in those activities. So I disagree - I think we can know if an action conforms to the arbitrary categories of right or wrong.

The reason why resistance movements succumb to excess repression is because they are led by a minority of participants, and when people find themselves in the roles of the leaders, their main task is to ensure they remain there. No repressive or totalitarian regimes were born out of genuine desire to create a "social perfection," but simply to ensure the continuation of the regime once it found its way to power. I was still a kid while my country was run by a communist regime, but I do know that all the talk of "social justice" and practices that benefited the people were only a means of ensuring the continuation of the regime - because you cannot subdue people only through repression (this always results in too much unrest), you must also offer some benefits that will make them complacent (that's why capitalism, which is undoubtedly exploitative, chucks so much material shit at people so that they would be more concerned with attaining more stuff, than about being exploited).

Submission to the totality is not a way to ensure justice or a just society. Justice can only be achieved if everyone's individuality and every individual's well-being are taken into account, if people are perceived as persons with different histories and real needs and desires, instead of as units that comprise the community and which need to follow the rules of right or wrong that someone else will devise for them. Right or wrong is defined by the community - that is by everyone who comprises the community, with dutiful consideration of all its members (if that is respected than, for example, slavery becomes unacceptable to everyone, even though it could be of a great benefit to a minority of powerful people). If this is respected then there is always room for resistance and change and adjustments of the categories of right or wrong. They may be arbitrary, but they are necessary. And the best way to devise them is in constant dialogue with all members that comprise a community.

That is what democracy was supposedly meant to achieve. And its greatest success was in persuading us we have the power to shape our societies when in fact we are powerless. It is better than any communist regime. In communism you had at least underground resistance to the regime - in democracy people are persuaded to believe there's nothing to resist either because they are empowered or because there is no better system than democracy anyway.

*Categories of right and wrong cannot ever be anything but arbitrary - for them to be an absolute standard would require that people have absolute knowledge, which is unattainable. No practice should be opposed as wrong or promoted as right solely on principle - but only and always in accordance with what we know of its consequences, benefits or harm. And that knowledge changes - and also, the consequences, benefits and harm change, too.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

That is what democracy was supposedly meant to achieve. And its greatest success was in persuading us we have the power to shape our societies when in fact we are powerless. It is better than any communist regime.

How you can type this and call yourself a sane person is well beyond my comprehension.

The above quote makes utterly no sense.

By the way, I'm not stumping for communism here. I'm saying you're talking in circles, like a person with a degree of insanity, or perhaps a major cognitive dysfunction.

davidly said...

Thanks for reminding me a guilty pleasure.

Wave after wave will flow with the tide, and bury the world as it does.
Tide after tide will flow and recede, leaving life to go on as it was...

A Sane Person said...


You believe that the democratic system as is structured in your country offers the people the power over their elected representatives and an influence over how the country is run? Maybe your representative democracy does offer people real power over their government instead of a choice between several sides all of which essentially always represent only the powerful elite.

In Croatia, the voter is offered a choice between "left", "centrist" and "right" parties all of which represent essentially the same ideas and policies, with varying doses of nationalism. And when people come to the conclusion that the government is not doing the job it was elected to do, stuff like this happens: http://blogofasaneperson.blogspot.com/2010/04/resistance-is-necessary.html.

Our state firms, the wealth that belonged to the people, were privatized and sold off, usually for a fraction of what they were worth. Our higher education, which mere two decades ago was free for all students, is being commercialized - our tuition fees are among the highest in Europe now. Paying for health care is slowly being introduced (under the guise of "a badly needed reform"). Journalists who report on politicians' corruption and the censorship in the media are sacked, and corruption mostly goes unpunished.

All of those things are opposed, because all of those things mostly benefit the minority of powerful and wealthy people while our economy is collapsing under debt (foreign debt was €10 billion in 2000, now it's up to over €42 billion), unemployment (currently at 18.4%) and diminishing industry. We have no power over how things are run. We can go and vote for different parties all of which offer the same. They all work for each other.

But I guess that's my cognitive dysfunction preventing me from seeing how these people actually work for our benefit when they go against our interests and wishes and go unpunished for corruption and constantly introduce further taxes and expenses that burden the citizens, slowly transforming previously public services into pricey goods.

A Sane Person said...

Oh, yeah, and another example because I just cannot stop thinking about this (being cognitively challenged and all I guess) - we became a member of NATO last year, despite widespread opposition from the public and calls for a referendum. A petition was organized even, but it failed to get 400,000 signatures in 14 days (as is required by law in order to be considered a valid statement of the public will) because there were simply not enough volunteers or enough time. So the issue was ignored by all parties and the NATO membership was implemented without a referendum. Because that's democracy. Where people get to have their say.

Jack Crow said...


A quick question:

If I need to put you in chains so that I can define freedom for someone else, does your imprisonment not negate the very idea of freedom?

A Sane Person said...

Yes, but why would you have to put me in chains? Unless I've murdered someone or something.

Is sanctioning crime a repression that needs to be avoided?

Jack Crow said...


We did not address "crime" in the abstract. You stated that freedom depends upon repression.

A Sane Person said...

What is freedom?

If freedom is a state without constraints, than any constraint imposed - such as the prohibition of crime - is not freedom.

When I say that freedom depends on repression I mean that one's freedom depends on the repression of harmful behaviour of other people.

Why would I have to put someone "in chains?" I'd only need to do that if that person is doing something harmful. If that person's actions are harmful, why allow it? If that person's actions limit other people's freedom or rights, how are those other people free?

For example, if I cannot go out because I will face abuse or harassment or even physical threat (because I'm a different gender, race or ethnicity or something else), how can my freedom be ensured without repression of those harmful behaviours of others? How am I free?

Jack Crow said...


Then at best, in that theory, you can only have Omelas.

A Sane Person said...

I don't understand. What does that mean?

Jack Crow said...

I thought you responded to the thread which included that reference.

My apologies.




A Sane Person said...

I googled it and found a Wikipedia entry, but I still don't understand what you meant to say by "you can only have Omelas." Are you saying that what I'm proposing is equal to a society built on inflicting pain and misery of the innocent? Is sacrificing the freedom to do harm/oppress others equal to sentencing a child to a lifetime spent in darkness, silence and shit?

But tell me: how to you see freedom for those who are not powerful enough to protect or empower themselves, if we don't repress other people's desire to oppress them or harm them or humiliate them, etc? If all people's well-being and human rights are not taken into account, than what you are advocating is the freedom for the privileged and the powerful, not freedom for all people. (If all people's well-being is taken into account, than it becomes obvious that measures need to be taken to address the power imbalances and possible abuse of power.) How am I free if the more powerful are allowed to abuse, threaten, silence or discriminate against me? And what good comes from the unrestricted freedom to harm/oppress others that we must preserve it?

Is it repression when we prohibit discrimination? Should we allow people the freedom to be bigoted, to deny others the opportunities to flourish and have good jobs and go to university and be treated like humans when they go to the doctor, etc? Should we allow members of one ethnicity to threaten and debase members of another? Should we allow people to dehumanize members of a different gender/race/sexual orientation/etc, even though this leads to more violence against the group that is perceived as less human and therefore less worthy of human rights?

Should we allow the propagation of ideas that some humans are undeserving of human rights, because freedom is more important than actual people? Is freedom more important than actual people?

And what about crime, like murder etc. - isn't prohibiting crime also repression?

A Sane Person said...

Speaking of Omelas - do we not already have that kind of society, now? Do we not have an elevated class whose prosperity is based on the exploitation of others? Do not Westerners enjoy the multitudes of wealth that are frequently created by the poor who work for cents an hour and barely survive on what they earn? Doesn't America abuse the resources rich Middle East so that it could continue it's fantasy of unlimited growth and prosperity while people in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan live in poverty and fear?

That is the freedom of the powerful, whereby the powerful can oppress others for their own benefit. Omelas is like that, the society built on oppression of the underprivileged, so that the privileged could keep their freedom to enjoy everything they deem rightfully belongs to them, because - what is the misery of one compared to the unlimited prosperity and wealth for many? What is the oppression of some compared to unrestricted freedom for many?

But, if you think limiting people's freedom to do harm or oppress someone is analogous to putting people in chains, what about oppressed people? What about people who are humiliated, silenced, marginalized, discriminated against, denied job and education opportunities and generally treated like sub-human - is that not serious enough to be likened to "putting people in chains"?

There can never be unrestricted freedom for *all* people. Either the society will limit some rights in an effort to balance the power among all its members, or some of society's members will use their power to limit other people's rights.

So, essentially, you are right - freedom can exist without repression. It just won't be available to all people.

Jack Crow said...

Sane Person,

You keep referring to "repression" as a guarantee of freedom by relating it the control of crime.

First, crime is not an objective category. It depends in large part upon who has the power to define such and such a behavior as forbidden, what is or is not property and who does or does not have the freedom to use force.

That you continue to return to the suppression of crime as an example of repression as a guarantee of freedom, I have to ask why you're repeatedly confusing the terms.