Occupy Theory: Chapter Three
The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore.
Society and History
“A new world order is in the making, and it is up to us to prepare ourselves that we may take our rightful place in it.”
- Malcolm X
“How many care to seek only for precedents?”
- Peter Kropotkin
A society, when seen as a kind of momentary static snapshot, has features, more features, and then even more features. In the nearly endless array of people, institutions, and objects composing any society, we need to highlight what is important and essential to pay attention to if we are to avoid errors of omission. We also need to at least initially ignore what is relatively unimportant to avoid being sidetracked by endless peripheral details.
Our first two chapters argued that seeing what is critical and leaving aside what is peripheral entails looking at the features that centrally define kinship, culture, polity, and economy. We need to examine the institutions centrally addressing the four functions as the core, respectively, of the kinship sphere, community sphere, political sphere, and economic sphere.
If we use the U.S. as an example, that means we should be looking, at least, at:
- families and their social relations
- racial and religious communities and their social relations
- political groups (officials of various sorts, electorates, etc.) and their social relations
- economic classes and their social relations.
Key institutions we should highlight and examine include:
- types of family and perhaps schools
- types of churches and other cultural community institutions with their languages and celebrations
- government branches and their local administrative variants including legislatures, courts, etc.
- economic workplaces, the market system, and consumer units.
We should pay attention to hierarchies of gender, race and religion, political power, and class including examining each hierarchy’s attributes, tenacity, and implications.
We should not highlight one or another of these four hierarchies alone, but should instead pay close attention to all of them because all dramatically impact people’s life prospects.
We should examine each social sphere to find the sources and implications of sexism and homophobia, racism and ethnic and religious bigotry, authoritarianism, and economic oppression and classism in the core institutions.
Obviously such a varied exploration of the four spheres could proceed for a long time - and, it must be admitted, so far we have only begun what is required. But suppose, to see where it might take us, we had done all that. Then what?
Well, these spheres of social life are a bit unusual. They are not self contained or isolated from one another. Rather, a society is a giant whole. The four functions all transpire in virtually every nook and cranny of that whole.
Thus, if we say the kinship sphere is all those places where kinship (sex/gender) dynamics occur, it turns out that while the center of the kinship sphere is families and other locales of intense gender interactions, the outer reaches of it extend to all of society. There are kin-dominated and kin-affecting relations in workplaces, churches, legislatures - not just in families.
More, the same holds when we look at other spheres. Community, political, and economic dynamics also extend to the whole of society, well beyond the institutions that define each.
For example, the core of the economic sphere is workplaces, markets, and consumption units, but the extremities certainly include families, schools, churches, government agencies, etc., since in all of these institutions at least some production, consumption, and allocation can occur alongside more central kin, community, and political aspects.
If we look at a society in a stable, non chaotic condition, people will largely fill the roles they occupy in the various institutions in society’s institutional boundary - which is, remember, just the array of all the roles in all the institutions society offers people. The structures of gender, race, power, and class will be continually created by those roles and will continually need people with certain expectations and inclinations to fit the roles. Society in a steady and stable condition requires that some people fit here, some fit there, but nearly everyone fits somewhere.
Suppose that a society is strongly sexist, relegating to women greatly excessive burdens and denying them access to significant benefits that men readily enjoy. This means the kinship sphere’s roles, by the practices they impose on people, produce men who feel superior to women and women who largely accept subordination to men. Suppose these men and women are fitting their sexist kinship roles nicely, and by their actions and behaviors in their household and other core kin relations wind up with the expectations, habits, and beliefs of sexism continually reinforced.
Now imagine that in the economy of the same society, at the same time, men and women fare similarly to one another, with little or no gender differentiation, so that men who, by virtue of their experience in households and their upbringing, expect to be above women, instead typically find themselves as often as not economically equal to or even below women in income and influence. And similarly, women, who by virtue of their experience in households and their upbringing expect to be subordinate to men, typically find themselves, as often as not, economically equal to or even dominant.
This disjuncture between the requirements and implications of kinship and the requirements and implications of the economy would obviously pose a problem. The economy and kinship sphere would be out of alignment - or, to use a term we prefer, “out of whack” - creating tension, dislocation, and possibly also resistance.
We do not expect to see this type of disjuncture between these two spheres of social life - at least not without there being conflict and then changes due to realigning violated expectations - and, indeed, we will talk more about how two or more spheres being out of whack might be resolved. However, for now, what we can anticipate when society is quite stable and without conflict and fundamental change, is that any substantial hierarchy born of one sphere will tend to invade other spheres, creating a degree of consistency for actors in both. In what manner, we will soon see.
The general idea is clear and simple. Just as inside a single institution you would not anticipate seeing one important part of it having roles causing people to be x-like, and another important part of it having roles causing them to be y-like - where being x-ish contradicts being y-ish and vice versa, unless the institution was in turmoil - we expect something very similar for a society.
We expect, that is, that each sphere of social life - meaning the ways that its main social institutions address and accomplish the four key functions of society - will typically tend to welcome and induce particular habits, beliefs, expectations, and desires in people filling that sphere's roles. Corporations mold us. Families mold us. Citizenship molds us. Communities mold us. Each sphere will have requirements for us, depending on the roles we fill in the associated institutions.
When conditions are largely stable, as is most often the case in typical societies, this might mean, for example, that there are habits, beliefs, expectations, and desires consistent with sexism, racism, political authoritarianism, and classism within the institutions of the four spheres. However, the four spheres overlap so much and so intimately, that each sphere’s implications radiate, like a field of social influence beyond their own structures and into the other structures in society, and we expect this to cause the sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and classism to tend to expand from each originating institution and sphere into the rest, so that there is at least compatibility.
Past and Future History
“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
- William Faulkner
Elaborating the above observations leads to a view not only of society at a moment, but of society changing from moment to moment - which is history.
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
- Rosa Luxemburg
If we look at the history of any society, again at a snapshot, one of the ways the four spheres entwine with one another we can call “social accommodation.”
A social sphere, let’s say kinship or economy, creates a particular set of social expectations, habits, and beliefs, let’s say sexism or classism, by the behavioral requirements of its roles. This typically means that these social spheres each impose a hierarchy on the actors filling their roles.
Next, accommodation occurs when the hierarchy created by one sphere is respected by others. Thus, if kinship creates a gender hierarchy - and the economy accommodates kinship’s sexism - it will, overall, not pay women more than men or give women power or status above men. It will obey and especially not violate the expectations and patterns of behavior emanating from kinship.
Similarly, if the economy creates a class hierarchy, then if kinship accommodates the economy’s classism it will, overall, “produce” young men and women who are ready to fill the class-divided role slots of the economy, rather than producing folks not suited to their likely positions.
Think of each sphere as a kind of school that - along with accomplishing its own functions - conveys to people filling its roles various beliefs, habits, knowledge, skills, and expectations. If what one sphere creates and requires of people is contradicted by and even undone by what another sphere creates and requires, then the two spheres are at cross purposes, disrupting one another’s operations. Each sphere would prepare people who would not fit the other but would instead clash with the other. This would not persist without changes occurring. So in stable situations, after those corrections occur, we tend to see what we are calling accommodation in the alignment of any two of the four social spheres.
If one sphere creates and recreates a set of powerful patterns the other three will at least, if society is stable and functioning smoothly, not seriously violate and contradict those patterns in their own different contexts. Thus, in this way, the basic attributes of kinship, racial, political, and economic hierarchies are at least not violated and are in fact typically abided by other spheres. To the extent that there are features that are “out of whack,” there will be tension, resistance and disruption, and forces pushing for recalibration. Social spheres, in stable contexts, do not for too long cause people filling their roles to not fit the roles of other social spheres in the same society without turmoil occurring.
But this is not the only possible interrelation between spheres. Rather, not only can they accommodate each other, they can, over time, come to more fully reflect and even reproduce one another.
“The higher the buildings, the lower the morals...”
- Noel Coward
Co-reproduction exists when the field of influence emanating from the kinship sphere, to continue with that example, is so powerful that it actually redefines the roles in other spheres of social life to the point where instead of simply not violating sexist hierarchy, the roles in those other spheres also produce and reproduce it.
For example, with co-reproduction it isn’t just that women earn less than men. Rather the actual role requirements of work (and of allocation and consumption) are transformed by the influence of sexism to themselves generate sexist behavior and expectations. Economic roles become imbued with sexist assumptions and patterns to the extent it literally imposes those attitudes and behaviors on its actors. The field of influence from the patriarchal kinship sphere insinuates itself in the very manner of carrying out economic functions - not just in who does what, but in what is done - thereby altering the make up of economic roles.
What it is to be a male business person and his female secretary, or a male doctor and his female nurse or a male x and a female y - changes from what economics alone would dictate of those roles. Instead of gender neutral definitions of how to carry out the tasks, it would incorporate gender attributes that assume and continually recreate sexist outcomes. The economy becomes a seat of the creation and recreation of sexism. What people do in their economic roles generates sexist assumptions, beliefs, habits, and expectations. Even if the kinship sphere were to be somehow changed so that its sexism generating attributes were attenuated or even eliminated, an unchanged economy that had become co-reproducing with kinship in its old form, would still produce sexism.
A female economist, Batya Weinbaum, was the first person I ever encountered making this sort of observation. She looked at workplaces in the U.S. through feminist eyes and she didn’t just see men earning more than women, or having jobs that were better and more often on top, a result of accommodating kinship in who gets what positions. She instead saw that the actual composition of work - the role structures, the positions themselves - changed so that some work was not just done by a woman or a man, but was altered in its make up, in how it was undertaken, in what tasks were included, and thereby in the expectations and requirements associated with it, until it was literally man’s work or woman’s work - meaning work that imposed on those doing it male and female assumptions and habits.
Indeed, Weinbaum looked at workplaces - and as highly attuned as she was to the dynamics of gender roles, she could literally see mothers and fathers, even sisters and brothers, inside the workplace - and saw people doing things in the manner and with the implications that were typical of sexist families. This is co-reproduction, a condition that is powerfully important, particularly when we later consider what is required to make fundamental and lasting changes in even one much less in all four social spheres - and thus attain a new type of society.
To pin it down, in a co-reproducing situation, the dynamics of the origin sphere are incorporated elsewhere, substantially redefining other spheres’ qualitative ways of accomplishing their functions so that the other spheres start to also produce and reproduce the features emanating from the original source sphere. The economy not only doesn’t violate the sexism of kinship, it alters so much that it reproduces sexism - and likewise the kinship sphere reproduces classism rather than merely accommodating to it. Similarly for the polity and culture regarding all others, and vice versa. When a sphere is strong enough in its field of force, other spheres alter so as to incorporate its logic, reproducing its features, not merely abiding them.
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
We could ask why aging happens, but we don’t mean by that question, how come it happens given that it ought not happen or even that it might not happen? We mean, we know that aging always happens, but there are likely central reasons that also always operate. What are those reasons?
With history the situation is different. Yes, time passes, but changes are not inevitable. History happens - depending on what we mean by history - sometimes, but not other times. More, there is no limited group of causes.
If we look way back to the great Egyptian societies around Cairo six millennia ago, we can see that there is a real question lurking there. Big historical change wasn’t automatic - like aging in an individual is automatic, in that it always happens and always occurs a year at a time.
It is 4,000 BC. We stroll around in ancient Egypt and take an inventory of the society we find. We know enough to look first at the four spheres of social life, specifically at the roles people fill in the economy, polity, kinship, and culture. We examine easily visible indicators of the character of those roles evidenced in the look, feel, and features of their outputs - for example, the details of technologies, buildings, clothes, rituals, government, daily work, and so on.
We take our leave for a bit, indeed for many years, and then we return. We look again. We find that there are new people, as old ones have died and their offspring came of age. That’s changed. There are also new buildings and houses, some from the past having collapsed, etc. That’s changed. There are new clothes. There are a few modest new rituals, and so on. But, we also notice that in a very profound sense the new is in its essence the same as it was before - and indeed is unchanged, even for the most part, in its details. And this isn’t surprising, because when we then also look at the social roles in the society - the religious, decision making, productive, and cultural roles - those are all as they were, too.
Time has certainly passed. Some modest changes have happened, but history, writ large, has stood still. Strolling around after the time warp delay, we could easily be in the same society, the same place, as before the time warp delay. It would take a discerning eye to even know time had passed.
Now this little thought experiment didn’t occur regarding a passage of ten years, or fifty years, or even a hundred years, but regarding a passage of 3,000 years, thirty centuries. And yet, despite the passage of such eons, the basics and even most of the details remained as they were on the earlier visit. After 3,000 years less change was visible than between 1900 and 2000. Hell, it is possible there was less change visible than between 2000 and 2010.
There was, in ancient Egypt, very modest, snail’s pace, social evolution. That is, there were very modest changes consistent with the continuation of the defining features of the old order, which is, as we have seen, the defining features of the four spheres of Pharaohnic (Egyptian) society - though actually, in fact, there was not even much of that. And even over the thousands of years there was no transformation of those old defining features themselves.
The same descriptive label (Pharaohnic, we believe some historians use for it, though perhaps there is a more accepted technical term) was accurately applicable to the society before and after the 3,000 year passage. The same social roles pertained, and actually not much that was second, third, or even fifth order changed, either. Social evolution happened, pretty much by definition, with the ticking of the clock. The calendar’s pages turned. People were born and died. New leaders replaced old leaders, new priests replaced old priests. New clothes were worn instead of old worn out clothes. But if you look at the hieroglyphics - the pictures revealing style and substance - it was hard to distinguish before and after. And if you dig around archeologically, there was virtually no change in the substance of the defining roles in society. History, one could say - if by history we mean substantial changes in structures - apparently doesn’t necessarily always happen, but, instead, occurs only sometimes.
Why does history in the form of social evolution happen at all? Why do more or fewer changes happen consistent with the existing defining order - the four existing social spheres and their defining roles, and thus the existing human center of attitudes, consciousness, and expectations common to various constituencies in society, and the existing institutional boundary or totality of critically influential social roles?
There are lots of reasons. New ideas may be hatched. New technologies can flow from those ideas. Changes in weather or geography can occur and impact housing and clothes and some habits, as can somewhat altered tastes or talents. There could also be migrations. Births could accumulate. This type of change happens, sometimes less, sometimes more, but always at least somewhat. So this type of history - called social evolution - always happens.
When some infamous commentators have said about modern times that “History is Over” or that “Capitalism is Forever” or that There Is No Alternative,” they must be talking about something other than social evolution, because they know there will always be changes of that sort. There will be new styles, new designs, and new knowledge. There will be new applications of it all, yielding not only trends and fashions, but new options, behaviors, and outcomes.
Folks who proclaim an end to history know all that. What they really mean is there will not be new defining roles leading to and deriving from new defining institutions. There will be more social evolution, yes, but there will be no more fundamental transformations of how we accomplish social functions.
Sometimes, “history” just refers to time passing. That’s true when we call social evolution, which more or less always happens, history. Other times, however, by “history” we mean the social revolutions in defining role structures that are more rare. An end to history in the former sense would mean there is no further change at all. An end to history in the latter sense would mean new things keep happening, but the basics remain in place.
Okay, to be in accord with the most familiar and frequent practice, let’s use the word history to refer to all of it. Time passes, changes happen - or not - and that is history. You can reasonably reference it mainly by noting years passing. Social evolution, no matter how modest or grand, is change occurring over time that reproduces the defining features of the old order. Social revolution, however, which is also part of history, also occurs over time but only when there are changes that overthrow the defining features of the old order and introduce, in their place, new defining features that bring new roles that dramatically change life’s options and prospects. As to social evolution’s engine, we know that many things can play a role. Ideas and their applications, natural changes in weather or geography, new tastes, and many other variables.
As to social revolution, what causes that is not so obvious. We know that by definition social revolution means change in the defining institutions and thus in the roles that are available for people to fill in one or more of the four social spheres.
Social revolution doesn’t mean violence. It doesn’t mean chaos. It doesn’t mean progress or reaction. It could involve any or all or none of those, but it means change of a certain type and degree, which may come about in any of a large variety of ways. So in asking for potential causes of social revolution we are seeking to identify phenomena that could cause such changes.
Karl Marx confronted this question of why history in the large sense of social revolutions happens at all. He made great progress but also went, we think, significantly wrong. Looking at some specific periods in history and noticing that social evolution was common, but that social revolution only happened sometimes, Marx suggested - or at least the school of thought named after Marx say that he suggested (whereas others attribute to him personally far more flexible and rich views) - that history moves by virtue of a very particular kind of tension embodied within societies.
Marx showed, rightly, for example, that in capitalism there is a built-in drive to keep on accumulating - that was his word for it. He famously wrote that for the capitalist the guiding mantra was “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets.” Due to the pressures of competition for profits and market share, Marx taught, a pressure to keep on transforming natural resources and human capacities into more and more outputs, including constantly innovating, etc., was built into the actual logic of the system. This wasn’t just an option that might be pursued. It was an inevitable part of the fabric of these societies. It was built into the defining relations and role structures. This pressure would persist regardless of whether people liked the results or not. And the ensuing perpetual drive to accumulate, clearly meant, he argued, there will at least be significant social evolution - indeed, he contrasted this positively with prior systems, like the Pharaohnic, that had no such built in pressures and were, as a result, far less innovative. But one might note that maybe accumulation could happen and auger social evolution and only social evolution, with the surrounding capitalist system constantly reproduced. Whether it was subjectively because Marx didn’t like that surrounding system, or objectively because his investigations led him to the following observation with no influence from his hopes and desires, Marx came to the conclusion that the inevitable accumulation drive of capitalism did more than just pile up new products. Rather, it also created a tension or a contradiction in society between ever-growing and innovating technical and social capacities on the one hand, and old forms of organization and exchange that operate incompatibly with the new potential for full utilization, on the other hand. Marx argued that this tension would eventually, in society after society, cause the old social relations to be overcome by the new productive possibilities leading to new social relations, and in that way leading, as well, to a new economic sphere with new roles and, therefore, a social revolution.
This is not the place to get too deeply into these claims which seem to us to identify one possibility that could occur, which is that technical and even organizational innovations can drive new productive possibilities which, in turn, can fuel social changes via effects on population’s actions. As with the old Marxist way of seeing class, this is a possibility that is still, at most, only one possibility, while there are actually many other possibilities as well. More, we would suggest that the possibility that social relations will be burst by growing productive forces isn’t even likely to transpire or to yield comprehensive results, if it occurs alone. But whatever one thinks about what Marx called a contradiction between “forces and relations of production” as a possible locus of revolution - as with broadening from a narrow two class conception that is often typical of many anti capitalists, (which we did back when we were discussing how to understand the economic sphere) - so we will now also broaden our approach to understanding history’s engine, or better its engines, from what is often typical of many anti capitalists.
Consider some possibilities, each of which at least augments or broadens a Marxist view. Along comes some kind of technical innovation - like birth control - as but one example that is not about production per se. This innovation, in turn, leads to changes in social relations and outcomes, which fuel new attitudes, which cause gender struggle and finally, push all manner of evolutionary changes, some highly consequential for life situations. But, we can also imagine this innovation sparks, say, women to see outcomes differently, to resist their subordination, to discover sexism’s roots, and to transform defining kin relations. Does this have to happen? No, it doesn’t. But could it happen? Yes, a fundamental transformation could be propelled by a technical innovation impacting attitudes and actions in the kinship sphere.
Consider another possibility, the economy and polity - and probably also kinship and culture in some societies - generate a big imperial war. In fighting that imperial war it happens that various historic roles are violated. For example, perhaps there is a severe labor shortage and women who were previously excluded from an economy that was accommodating a sexist kinship sphere now must be incorporated and even treated equally so as to take advantage of their talents and capacities, winning the war being paramount. Women begin to discover their own potential, previously deemed to be nonexistent. Likewise, the same could happen with some oppressed cultural community that is welcomed into the military and, given fair conditions to generate both trust and military efficiency, are treated equally with others rather than in a racist manner. Again, previously subordinated people could discover potential that they had long forgotten they had.
We can imagine, then, that this jolt in circumstances unleashed by the dictates of trying to win a war could unleash new expectations and hopes, unmet and even dashed upon the war’s end, when women and blacks return to far more sexist and racist circumstances than existed for them during the war, in turn fueling resistance, leading to insights into the true causes of gender and/or racial injustices, and then leading to transformations. Surely this will involve at least social evolution, but it could also involve social revolution, affecting certain spheres of social life, or perhaps all spheres of social life. The general ideas in these examples emerge easily enough. When events and occurrences within one sphere, or between two or more spheres, directly cause either consciousness to get out of accord with old role requirements in a sphere, or cause two spheres to get out of accord with one another and then consciousnesses to alter and get out of whack as well, it can lead to lasting changes. The turmoil might reestablish or merely innovate old social relations a bit, yielding only social evolution, or the turmoil might cause dramatic changes in defining features, yielding social revolution.
Here is another, arguably, still more interesting possibility, at least as far as contrasting with the familiar Marxist possibility. Some people create new institutions. On the one hand they do this for addressing some social functions, on the other hand they do it to guide and enrich fighting to win changes in old institutions. The new approaches to dealing with social functions, such as new household or neighborhood arrangements, new workplaces, or whatever, develop wider support and participation due to being compelling and even inspiring in how they treat classes, genders, and communities better than past ways of handling the same functions. The organizations gain steadily more participants by the weight of their victories and by the manner in which their activities reveal new possibilities. Their actions arouse new desires and provide means for collective expression, fulfillment, and for further victories. Both the exemplary functional and fighting institutions - whether we are discussing new families, workplaces, modes of allocation, means of governing, cultural communities, or movements for changes in various spheres of life - may themselves in turn have roles that breed new habits, expectations, and desires and that also popularize those and militate for the wider acceptance of the innovations. This path, too, this time based on acts of will by affected people, can lead to social evolution or even to social revolution - as can a combination of all the mentioned patterns.
The point is, history is not preordained. It is not an inexorable process. It is not an outcome of one simple dynamic. It is not based solely on classes, or genders, or communities, or political constituencies. History can unfold due to many diverse causes, propelled by many diverse motives, engineered by many diverse groups, and inspired and advanced by many diverse acts and insights, including many diverse dynamics within and among society’s social spheres and its relations to ecology and other societies - all either due to intentional choices or unintended occurrences. Life is like that. History is like that. But narrow theories are not like that - and are often, for that reason, not helpful and even counter productive.
Further Refinements in Four Orientations
“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
- John Maynard Keynes
One of the problems with having a theory is a tendency to bend the world to fit the theory rather than to continually check the theory against the world, including giving the world preponderant weight in any dispute between the two. To fit reality to a preconceived expectation is particularly destructive in social situations because unlike with physical theories, in social situations exceptions to prediction abound. However, there is another type of problem for us to address.
Suppose you have a set of concepts composing your viewpoint that gives you guidance in looking at events and relations, in posing alternatives, and in evaluating and implementing possible paths forward. Think of concepts and viewpoints as being a set of instructions - look here, look there, emphasize this, check for this predicted relationship when you see that, look for that when you see this, and so on. The problem is, one might start to see the world as if through a filter that cleaves very closely to one’s viewpoint, sometimes seeing what isn’t there or is minor, and missing what is there and perhaps even major.
We know that if we look at the world with a red filter, we will see the red part highlighted, but we will tend to mute out or even miss that which is yellow, blue, or green. The same holds if we look through a yellow filter, seeing only that which is yellow, and not the other colors. Of course the analogy between looking at the world with colored filters and looking at the world with concepts is a bit tortured and exaggerated, yet nevertheless there is considerable truth lurking in it.
Suppose I adopt a feminist perspective. It highlights for me some important types of consciousness - relations among men and women, and institutions, like families, and their roles - and it also orients me away from wasting time on what it deems unimportant secondary or tertiary relations.
But what if some of that other muted stuff is, in fact, key? Indeed, what if some of that muted stuff has differences from my expectations that bear on what I care about accomplishing. Well, I may manage to get beyond my initial views to perceive the unexpected key relations, or I may not. I may cleave so tightly to what my framework predicts will be the case that I simply can’t see beyond its limits.
This has lots of implications, but here is a big one. We have said that in any society, by virtue of inevitably present human needs and social realities, there are four social spheres. We have said, as well, that each of these four social spheres will likely emanate a field of influence that propels its logic outward to produce at least accommodation in other social spheres, and sometimes co-reproduction.
In other words, it turns out we have already arrived at additional refinements. First, our approach says to the feminist, intercommunalist, anarchist, or anti capitalist that to avoid missing key elements of reality you must become an adherent of the other three perspectives as well as of the perspective you already favor.
Second, our approach notes that a person identifying mostly as being a black person, for example, or a woman, or a subordinate citizen, or a worker, will, in adopting the framework most relevant to their own centrally felt condition not gain all that much missing insight. That is, regarding their own intensely felt condition, even without taking aboard new and carefully formulated concepts, the person is already quite alert and sensitized. They already almost reflexively highlight the key, and even many secondary factors, operating in their priority sphere of focus. However, their capacity to see that which is central in the other spheres of life is limited, perhaps very heavily limited, by their lack of related experience, and so in a very profound sense those other spheres are where they need the most conceptual help and guidance.
The point is this. If I am a white male worker, I need more conceptual help understanding the roots and implications of sexism and racism than I do understanding the roots and implications of the classism that I am already - by my own situation - attuned to and focused on. Similarly, if I identify as a feminist, it is with the other spheres - not the one I myself most directly and automatically relate to - that I need the most conceptual help with. And so the second point is that we not only need to have a fourfold rather than single sphere approach, but individually we need to put more effort into having concepts for the spheres we are weakest at, and even prone to misunderstand, than into the sphere (or spheres) we are strongest at and already largely understand. This is, of course, almost exactly opposite to most people’s reflex agenda of pursuing more reading and thinking about their own circumstances. So for precisely this reason it is quite important.
As an example, if I analyze a capitalist market economy just in economic terms, I will come to the conclusion that in choosing a new working class employee, or a person to become a coordinator class manager, the key thing the owner will care about is the person’s inclination to abide the dictates of class and economy - which means to work hard without attention to personal dignity or seeking additional bargaining power, while willingly enduring boredom, taking orders, and putting out, in the case of the working class hire. And, for the coordinator class hire, while paternalistically administering and keeping subordinate the workers below, enjoying ample income, but not working to unduly enlarge it and in any case accepting ultimate authority from above without challenge, as well as producing at a frantic rate.
But what if there is a sharply racist culture at play, or a sharply sexist one, in the society that contains the workplace. Then things become more complex in choosing among working class or coordinator class applicants. There are new variables such as not violating and indeed perhaps even reproducing the requisites of those two hierarchy creating spheres. Women and or blacks who I might hire for one position or another - if I ignored race and gender implications and derivative implications for class that I would not see if I was ignoring race and gender - I might not hire, favoring, instead a white and/or a male hire. Or, in fact, especially for the working class position, this could operate in reverse, since I might be able to better control and extract labor from a doubly down-trodden individual. If there is a pecking order of status, security, and influence established elsewhere in society, then in the economy I don’t buck it, but use it.
Another variant of this same type of refining of views we already revealed earlier. The Marxist - or at least some marxists - tend to see society as economy based, with everything else in a “superstructure.” They argue the economy, their prioritized sphere, is essential - since without it, we die. They note that the economy yields opposed constituencies, or classes, and that the one at the bottom, the working class, is key to arriving at new social relations. The economy has its own internal dynamics and those dynamics can (and some Marxists would say they must) yield disjunctures which arouse dissent leading to opposition and finally to fundamental change. And, in this view, this change then imposes a kind of outward field of influence that changes the rest of society as well, called society’s superstructure.
Can this, more or less, happen? Yes. But contrary to some formulations it is certainly not inevitable, nor is it inexorable once elements of it have begun, and even more to the point, it is not the only thing that can happen.
First, the feminist, or the intercommunalist, or the anarchist (now focused on polity) can argue, quite like the Marxist, that their function is essential. Their sphere also produces opposed constituencies. Their sphere can also affect consciousness and arouse resistance. When the Feminist does this, she may see kinship as base, and all else (including economy) as superstructure. A very insightful feminist, Shulamyth Firestone, roughly four decades ago made exactly this case, as an argument ad absurdum, against class relations being alone critical. She literally took marxism’s arguments and words and simply rewrote them with new references to kinship instead of economy.
And so, too, for the intercommunalists or anarchists, who can just as reasonably emphasize culture or polity as base, and the rest as superstructure, as some have done. So actually it is not the case that only one claim is right and the rest wrong - which is what an adherent of each perspective might, and often will, argue, and what each will often act on as a guiding assumption. Nor are all the claims to importance wrong. Instead all these claims are possible, but none are inevitable. And more, it is also possible for what happens in one sphere to be reversed by pressures from other spheres, rather than to propel other spheres to change in accord.
In essence, we must say goodbye to prioritizing one sphere before analyzing all spheres - an approach called monism. We must say goodbye to taking one aspect of society as a priori preponderant in importance. We must say hello to a more balanced and comprehensive stance, called holism, which sees the mutual interconnectivity and entwined influence of all four spheres.
“Your theory is crazy, but it's not crazy enough to be true.”
- Niels Bohr
Think of our effort as slowly filling a conceptual toolbox. We dig into this toolbox when we need to understand existing relations and history, and, as we will soon see, also when we need to propose new relations (vision) or new paths forward (strategy). The toolbox is big, and so far only part of it is in place. In our toolbox, so far, we have the idea of four societal functions essential to a society existing and persisting - economic, political, kin, and cultural. We also have the idea that societies exist in context of, and influencing and being influenced by, the natural environment, as well as many other societies that together establish international relations.
We next have the idea of four social spheres corresponding to the four inevitably present and important social functions. And we have the idea that each sphere has defining institutions, which in turn have defining social roles. More, we focus also on institutions and their roles, both in each sphere and also taken all together to constitute a kind of institutional boundary of society, and we focus, too, on people’s consciousnesses, values, skills, and expectations, particularly as shared by large groups defined by institutional roles, all together constituting a kind of social center of society.
We have in mind, too, that each social sphere affects the lives of people, via that sphere’s roles, often generating hierarchies - for example, of class, gender, sexual preference, race, religion, ethnic and national group, and political power or influence. Each sphere also, again by way of its roles, produces in those who function in it particular shared attitudes, interests, beliefs, habits, and expectations - typically arrayed in ways that line up from one sphere to another so that what each sphere requires and upholds does not seriously violate the requirements that other spheres require and uphold, and, sometimes even tends to reproduce and enforce the requirements born of the logic of the other spheres.
Indeed we also adopt the insights that have emerged to serve the interests of subordinate populations in each of the four spheres - three approaches (feminism, intercommunalism, and anarchism) we adopt largely whole just as they have been often used before, with only modest refinements to take account of mutual interconnections and influences. One approach, however, (anti capitalism) we substantially modify by seeing three key classes rather than two, based not only on monopolies of property but also on monopolies of empowering work - adding the new concept of the coordinator class between labor and capital, with its own attitudes and interests.
We highlight, as well, that sometimes the requirements and implications of social spheres can get out of whack, either internally within one sphere, or between two or more spheres, or, for that matter with innovations in any one sphere that have been proposed or enacted, sometimes even with the explicit purpose of propelling change. In these ways there ensues social evolution that occurs within the limits of reproducing old defining relations, but also sometimes a less frequent and more profound social revolution, replacing old roles with new and fundamentally different ones.
In light of all this, our next task is to broadly apply these ways of thinking in books two and three of Fanfare to issues of vision and strategy. As we do this, our conceptual toolbox and our broad perspective about social change will get some new resident concepts, while some of the concepts already in it will become sharper and better understood. First, however, a few examples of using our new concept to understand some existing social phenomena.