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Multiple class positioning
The discussion of the previous chapter opens up an issue which is worth a more general treatment. There are multiple forms of class positioning operating on people as individuals. In the discussion above I argued that workers in rich countries can be both exploited members of the proletariat in relation to their own employers while at the same time they are also members of a class that is exploiting the labour of workers in developing countries. It is equally apparent that the gender order discussed in the previous chapter also creates another way of viewing class positioning – men can be exploited in the work place through a capitalist class process while also receiving benefits through the gendered exploitation of women’s work in the domestic arena. The analysis and representation of these issues has been well captured in the work of Gibson-Graham (2006), which I will refer to here. What this work relies upon is the poststructuralist concept of multiple positioning within discourses. As Foucault explains in the History of Sexuality (1980), discourses can cut through individual people, creating their subjectivity in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways (see also Weedon 1982). In Gibson-Graham’s work, this approach is used to consider relationships of exploitation, with the argument that particular individuals also experience their class position in multiple ways and are involved in a number of different positions in relation to different processes of exploitation and distribution.
Gibson-Graham begin their discussion by pointing to the difficulties marxists have had in describing classes within modern society – are professionals part of the proletariat or an altogether new class and so on? To avoid this they argue that we stop talking about classes as groups of people and instead look at the “social process of producing and appropriating surplus labor (more commonly known as exploitation) and the associated process of surplus labor distribution” (Gibson-Graham 2006: 52). They define these two class processes as “distinctive moments” – “the exploitative class process, where surplus labor is produced and appropriated, and the distributive class process, where appropriated surplus labour is distributed to a variety of social destinations” (Gibson-Graham 2006: 54). While I certainly have not given up on characterizing classes as groups of people in the account given so far, I am quite ready to see this as just a thumbnail sketch of class relationships. I will agree with Gibson-Graham when they say:
An industrialized social formation may be the site of a rich proliferation of class processes and a wide variety of class positions – producer, appropriator, distributor or receiver of surplus labor in a variety of forms. (Gibson-Graham 2006: 58)
They are also correct that class struggles do not necessarily take place between groups that identify themselves as classes with an overall social structure, “but take place whenever there is an attempt to change the way in which surplus labor is produced, appropriated or distributed” (Gibson-Graham 2006: 59). The concept of surplus labour that has been explicated here is somewhat different from that of Gibson-Graham’s and I will reflect on these differences as I explain their account. What I will agree with is their account of class positioning. Their key claim is the following:
Individuals may participate in various class processes, holding multiple class positions at one moment and over time. (Gibson-Graham 2006: 59)
To illustrate this, they consider the example of a Phillipines-born nurse, Sue and her Australian coal miner husband, Bill. Bill is a well paid mine worker and has invested some of his savings in a block of flats which he rents out and in shares in companies. He supports the conservative National party as a voter but also is an active member of his mining union. In his spare time he runs a small business shooting pigs and shipping them to market. As a husband he is very traditional and does little of the housework. Gibson-Graham make the comment that we can only see Bill as simply “working class” by ignoring much about his life which is important.
He is a wage labourer from whom surplus value is derived. He has little control over his own labor process. Yet he owns shares in productive capitalist enterprises and receives a small share in the profits of the mining company that employs him. (Gibson-Graham 2006: 60)
As they go on to say later, by receiving these dividends and profits he participates in a capitalist class process of distribution of surplus value – he receives surplus value that has been produced by employees.
The way Gibson-Graham account for his work as a pig shooter reveals some of the differences between the account of surplus I have been giving and theirs. They maintain that in his work as a pig shooter he functions as a small commodity producer and appropriates and distributes his own surplus labour. They mean that the money he makes after expenses have been paid is his to spend. For Gibson-Graham, this extra money, this profit, is a surplus since it is above and beyond what is necessary for his “subsistence”. He makes some extra money out of the work he does and exploits himself by extracting this surplus (exploitation) and giving it back to himself (distribution). I have considered these issues in relation to Mandel (above) and explained why I cannot accept a definition of surplus as an excess after subsistence (meaning biological subsistence) has been achieved. In my view he is not exploiting himself in this production, since he is getting back all the money that he receives for his pigs on the market. Nevertheless, I can certainly agree with Gibson-Graham that this work is an aspect of his class position – it concerns the appropriation and distribution of the fruits of his labour. I will give a fuller account of how exploitation may be conceived in relation to petty commodity producers in a subsequent section.
His wife, Sue’s position, is even more complex. She has had to give up her nursing job when she moved to the country for Bill’s work. She is a full time carer for her husband and three children. She takes responsibility for sending some of the family earnings to relatives in the Phillipines and gives some of her time to a support group for Filipina wives. She jointly owns the block of flats with Bill, yet she is dependent on him for access to the company owned house and for the household income. Her class position in terms of class processes, they describe like this:
Sue is engaged in a “feudal” exploitative class process of surplus labor production and appropriation in her role as wife and mother in the household. Her labor is appropriated by Bill in return for the provision of shelter and access to the commodified means of domestic production … Sue is also involved in a volunteer class process in which her surplus labor is appropriated by members of the Filipina group in town. A host of discourses about race, dependency, solidarity and national loyalty provide conditions of existence of this form of exploitation (Gibson-Graham 2006: 62)
I absolutely agree with their characterization of Sue’s domestic labour in terms of a class process of exploitation of surplus labour. I worry about the term “feudal” because it tends to suggest that the patriarchal exploitation of the present is a relic of feudal society. In fact patriarchy, as it is now, is specific to this modern period of history and while patriarchy as a social formation is trans-historical and cross cultural its specific form as exploitation varies immensely. The term “feudal” as they are using it here just means here that it is not a capitalist process of exploitation based on exchange value and money; it resembles the relationship between lords and serfs. Lords own the manor and allow serfs to work it and produce tribute in kind. A combination of dependency and contributions of work that are not voluntary. The comparison certainly makes some sense but it can gloss some of the specificity of capitalist patriarchy which is better captured in more detailed accounts.
A more important point of difference is that I do not recognize Sue’s volunteer labour for the Filipina wives’ club as an instance of exploitation. Gibson-Graham have to represent it like this because the labour is surplus in the sense that it is not necessary for Sue to spend that time providing for her subsistence (she has done that already as she has gone about her housework) and she does not receive any payment to provide for her subsistence in compensation for this volunteer labour. Both these aspects of the situation make this a case of exploitation within their definition of surplus. I would describe this situation quite differently. It seems awkard and contrived to see this as a case of “exploitation”. I would not define her contribution as a surplus of labour being appropriated by the Filipina wives’ club. This is a gift of Sue’s time, and is rewarded by a sense of social achievement, by prestige and by friendship and mutual emotional support. As a gift it is an expression of autonomy. She is not dependent on the wives’ club for anything vitally necessary and while she may feel a certain sense of obligation, this does not make her gift a form of tribute to a ruling power. So I am assuming an equivalent exchange is taking place here. Yet again, I certainly agree with Gibson-Graham that this is class process, in the sense that it is a process that involves the production and distribution of use values created through labour.
There is a lot to like in Gibson-Graham’s conceptualisation of multiple class positioning. I like this analysis as a way to look at how people are positioned in multiple class processes which exchange labour and its products in a variety of ways. It is probably a bit notional whether we consider these to be “structures” of class (broadly speaking) or “processes” governed by different discourses of appropriation. I have been generally happy enough to treat patriarchy and social class as structures that interpenetrate. It is a bit hard to describe some of the more structural aspects of this situation through the language of processes and without referring to social groups as classes. For example, you can speak about the proportion of income received by a certain percentage of the global population or discuss and quantitatively represent the economic dependence of women on men in families. In making these kinds of analysis we are considering classes or social groups as social objects, rather than as processes. But certainly, when we are looking at the economic system as composed of a multitude of different relationships, it makes more sense to speak of processes, and to accept the point that is central to Foucault’s analysis – that hegemonic structures are built out of local practices. As Gibson-Graham argue, a useful aspect of this kind of formulation is that it does not reify class and patriarchy as structures which have to be overturned all at once for any useful progress to be made. As the feminists of the second wave have made quite clear, the personal is political and political struggle can take place in reference to any class process, no matter how microscopic.
The exploitation of petty commodity production
As suggested above, Gibson-Graham seem to me to treat petty commodity production as a process in which the fruits of exploitation are all appropriated by the commodity producers themselves. Likewise they have a similar view of cooperatives operating in the market. So long as these organizations distribute their profits equally to all workers, they are completely different from a capitalist firm in which a surplus is extracted that is distributed to shareholders. As noted, I have some problems with the way they are defining surplus and subsistence and the definition of exploitation that they arrive at through this.
But leaving this aside for the moment, what I cannot accept is that the market is a neutral process in which unequal class processes cannot occur. People can be short changed by the market itself.
Let us begin by considering a paradox that occurs if we restrict our attention to the class processes within a firm. For example consider a large post-Fordist capitalist organization that decides to contract out some of its operations to petty commodity producers – but still pays the same amount to these petty commodity producers that they were previously paying to the workers who used to do the same job in their plant. More likely they are actually paying less. Let us say that this is a big car plant that has contracted out the assembly of brake linings to a small family firm. If the market is truly a neutral process then this new arrangement has removed all exploitation. The family assembling the brake linings is being paid the full market value of what they produce and distributing all the profits (in the sense of money that is not necessary to pay for their expenses) back to themselves. There is no third party appropriating some of the value of what they produce. Yet this is patently absurd. What is happening is that the big firm that is buying assembled brake linings is short changing them by paying less than a fair proportion of the market value of the car they actually sell in the end. The family is not getting a fair proportion of the sale price of the car in terms of the amount of hours of their work that have gone into it. Or we can think of this in another way. It is easier to understand with an example. Let us say the family is putting 160 hours a week into making brake linings. But the goods and services they can buy with the money they are getting for their brake linings only took 40 hours to produce.
We can generalize this last discussion to consider all cooperatives and petty commodity producers. Let us look at a specialist who is charging a very high fee for their services. The exchange they have with their customers is not an equal one in this sense. The poor customer may be doing 5 hours of work to pay for a consultation with the doctor that takes 15 minutes. A different example could be a cleaner employed by a professional family. With what they receive for one hour of their work they are buying the services of the cleaner for three hours.
What becomes increasingly obvious as we use our humanist framework to delve into the minute details of class processes is that assessing the extent of exploitation and the parties concerned is a massively complicated process. The descriptions of capitalism as a system based on statistics like working hours and wealth and income can give a broad brush stroke analysis of how exploitation works, but the detail in terms of transactions of hours of work is very complex. Nevertheless, it is my view that in the end what we are saying when we talk about class inequality is to make a claim about relations of exploitation that ultimately makes sense in terms of this multiplicity of processes.
The pain of the ruling classes
In the account so far I have developed the idea that social class and gender inequality can be considered to be structures based in unequal exchanges of pleasure and frustration, and related this to a concept of human nature. What could seem like an objection to this account is to ask whether the ruling class (or men as a ruling class in patriarchy) actually benefit from inequality. If there is an unequal exchange of pleasures and frustrations you would expect the ruling group to be living well at the expense of the work of the subordinate group. Yet there is some evidence that this is not always the case. If they are not in fact living well you might also wonder why such inequalities are ever set up if the people who are the exploiters are not actually doing well out of the situation. Could situations like this undermine the definition of exploitation being argued for here?
Related to this is another point. If ruling classes genuinely benefit from their exploitation of the work of others, what motive would they ever have for giving up their rule? It seems tempting to deny that the ruling class lives well in order to provide an argument that they would be better off by abandoning their control over society!
I will begin by looking at the second of these questions and assuming for a start that the ruling class (and men as a ruling class) do benefit. This does not create any insuperable problems for a leftist project where social class is concerned. The vast majority suffer and the ruling class minority do well. It is in the interest of the vast majority that a more satisfactory arrangement be concluded and the ruling class will definitely be disadvantaged by the change and cannot be expected to support it! It is also useful to note two arguments that have been advanced to show why it is not in the interests of ruling social classes to maintain their rule now – even though it may have been their interest in the past. One is that the productivity of modern industrial society means that the advantages of rule in material security are outweighed by the costs of rule in maintaining control over a subordinate class – you would do better by devolving power and enjoying a more peaceful and relaxed existence since there is more than enough to go around. That is Marx’s response to this issue in the German Ideology. I don’t mean that he thinks that the ruling capitalist class will find it in their interests to dissolve class society, but he does believe that once the revolution has taken place, an elite will not spring up to take on their role – because actually everyone will be getting the best possible deal out of communism. The other more recent argument points to the environmental disaster that class society is bringing about – it may be that the only way to avoid this permanently, in a situation where technological power allows massive environmental impact, is to devolve power to society as a whole. I have discussed this in more detail in other papers. The argument is that the ruling class is cutting its own throat by maintaining a system that will kill the environment on which their wealth ultimately depends.
It is more than a little tricky to come up with a similar set of arguments for patriarchy. How could a feminist project ever be successful if men as a group will be disadvantaged by the change and constitute an implacable bloc opposed to it and defending their own interests? Whatever it was that gave men an advantage in the first place is likely to prevent women from being successful in a feminist overthrow of patriarchy. The key second wave feminists, Firestone and Ti-Grace Atkins do have an answer to this problem as follows. I will join their account together to make my own sense of it. It has been constant childbirth and women’s consequent emotional links with children that have allowed men to take advantage of the human condition to exploit women. The current situation, where a much reduced birth rate and control over conception are in the hands of women has allowed the feminist movement to gain unprecedented power. In addition, the burdens of rule for men have persuaded many to give up their remaining advantages as the costs of continuing to oppress a newly empowered subordinate class of women mount up. These developments have tipped the scale and will gradually allow women to gain equality.
What these accounts share in common is that they are premised on the view that the ruling class has benefited from unequal exchange and genuinely lived more enjoyable lives through that. One set of arguments shows that a revolutionary project is still possible even if it might disadvantage the ruling group. The other set of arguments suggests that the relative benefits that the ruling class gains through exploitation are not as great as the benefits they would gain by devolving power – and that this is a situation that is historically recent. The ruling class have been quite rational in holding power, despite the real costs of rule, in the past, but this reasoning no longer applies because of quite concrete historical developments.
Having cleared these background issues out of the way, let me now look at the issue of whether the supposed pain of the ruling class is actually an objection to an account of exploitation based on the unequal exchange of pleasures and frustrations. My feeling is that to tackle this question adequately we have to make a fairly sharp distinction between social class and patriarchy as types of exploitation.
As indicated above, social class systems create work as alienated labour. It is under the control of someone else and the creative pleasure of choosing the distribution of what you produce is denied to the worker. These are structural features of class societies. In addition, the necessity to control a workforce to produce in a way that will suit a ruling class can mean that work is adjusted to make it easier to control. As a side effect, this can have the outcome of making it more boring and monotonous. The obvious example is the change from craft production to factory mass production. Braverman and others see this change as motivated by the necessity to control work in detail for the benefit of the capitalist class rather than as coming out of a politically neutral desire for efficiency. A similar argument could be made for the transition from the mixed tree crop poly-cultures of pre-class Europe to the grain agricultures of class societies. There is no doubt that growing grains is more boring work and there is more danger of famine. Yet grain production is much more easily controlled by a ruling class as the grains can be stored as a surplus and distributed to the ruling class and its armies. Rebellious peasants can be crushed very simply by destroying their crops, by fire, and restoring them after order has returned.
Consequently in all class societies there is a rough equivalence of hours of work as alienated labour, as a frustration of central human desires for creativity and autonomy. In terms of exchange, you can compare the work done with the goods received and define exploitation as an unequal exchange. The workers is getting less wealth in hours of work than they are producing. The surplus hours of work are being appropriated by the ruling class.
This is a perfectly adequate explanation of what defines exploitation in class societies. Consequently the question of what the ruling class does with this surplus; whether they actually use the surplus to live more fulfilling lives is another matter. They may or they may not – they are still the exploiting party in a process of unequal change with the subordinate class. This does not mean that the pain of the ruling class is not an important issue. As stated above, it may seem difficult to explain the persistence of class societies if ruling classes never gained from them. I will come back to this.
In relation to patriarchy, these issues cannot be separated so readily. This is because in all patriarchies, much of what defines exploitation is not the production of goods through hours of work with an exchange of goods between the sexes that gives men more goods for their hours of work than women. This may be part of the situation but it is not the only issue. Patriarchy is quite possible in a situation in which men and women equally share the products of their work in the production of material objects and may even share an equal number of hours of work producing material objects – though I would have to say that the latter case seems rare! Instead, much of what constitutes exploitation in patriarchy is interactions where the benefits received by men are a direct and immediate outcome of the process of labour of women, rather than being mediated through a material object. For example with the Mundurucú, women sit behind men, and do not look at men directly, and do not open their mouths in front of men, and bring the food to their husbands in the men’s house, and have unwanted sex with men. In our society men own their incomes and have autonomy while women do not have source of income through their housework, meaning that men have power over decisions in the domestic arena – a situation in which women’s deferral to men’s decisions is a frustration of women’s autonomy at the same time as it is a pleasure for men to be getting their own way. What situations like this mean is that as a whole, the unequal exchange cannot help but be one in which men are living well at the expense of the frustration of women’s desires.
Nevertheless, this may not be the end of it. It is still possible that in the end despite all this, a man could be living badly compared to a woman that he is exploiting. This could be the case because, despite the advantages in well being he is achieving through a woman’s labour, he is making a very poor set of decisions about the rest of his life. We can think of the alcoholic husband or the stressed out executive as examples where a wife can be exploited by her husband – because the exchanges between them are not equal – and yet may be living better.
What is actually going on here? The pain of men
My general sense of this situation is that men and ruling classes do live better than those they exploit. This reality is also at least a good part of the explanation of how exploitative class processes get initiated and maintained – the ruling group makes use of some initial advantage to perpetuate and consolidate a situation that is serving them well. There is certainly plenty of evidence for this if you look for it. Despite this, it is not an unmixed situation. There are always some very real costs in being the ruling group. Fundamentally, this is because your position is always under threat from below, a large part of what you do in your life is securing yourself against threats to your position, coming from rival parties within the ruling group or from the subordinates, or from those who get mediated advantages from your rule and may want to take over. This situation means that ruling classes can only survive and maintain themselves by socialising their heirs in a psychology that will make the maintenance of class possible. We can assume that this is not the result of a conspiracy but is an ongoing process of weeding out ruling class progeny who are not effectively socialised to maintain power, and passing on the strategies of socialisation to the next generation. Presumably aspiring ruling classes learn these techniques from those whom they want to imitate and later usurp. The outcome is a personality marked by an inability to empathize with others, who may always want to usurp your power, a fanatic dedication to success, with overwork the likely outcome, and an anxious insecurity about your status and position. It is this realization that is the inspiration for the Buddhist critique of class power, a critique that in my view goes too far in denying the real advantages for the ruling classes in most of history.
The key discussion of this topic for patriarchy is that of Chodorow (1974), whose work I will interpret in my own way. Let us start by saying that the relative absence of men from the early lives and daily care of young children is a phenomenon that is certainly not invariable but is still strong in all cultures. Chodorow ties this to birth and lactation as follows:
That this [original birth relationship] continues with the natural mother in most societies stems from the fact that women lactate. For convenience, and not because of biological necessity, this has usually meant that mothers, and females in general, tend to take care of all babies (Chodorow 1974: 46)
I will take it that this connection extends to infancy and in fact to all young children and is not really just a matter of convenience but instead an outcome of and buttress for patriarchy. Firstly, men devote time to the public sphere and ensure that women do the necessary work in the domestic sphere – they maximize time in the public sphere to maximize their social power and leave women to domestic tasks. Secondly, close emotional ties with children are a burden that hampers the freedom to act politically – men avoid them (Polatnick).
The first result of this connection of infants to their mothers is “infantile dependence”. The child does not differentiate itself from the mother, identifies with the mother and has primary attachment to the mother. At about the age of three, according to Chodorow, fathers and men become important to children and they start to form their gender identity in relation to this:
A boy’s masculine gender identification must come to replace his early primary identification with his mother. This masculine identification is usually based on identification with a boy’s father or other salient adult males. However a boy’s father is relatively more remote than his mother. He rarely plays a major caretaking role even at this period in his son’s life. In most societies, his work and social life take place farther from the home than do those of his wife. He is, then, often relatively inaccessible to his son, and performs his male role activities away from where the son spends most of his life. As a result, a boy’s male gender identification often becomes a ‘positional’ identification, with aspects of his father’s clearly or not so- clearly defined male role acctivities away from where the sone spends most of his life. (Chodorow 1974: 49)
Consequently much of a boy’s masculine identification is with the role of the man as he fantasizes it. It does not arise out of a close tie of affection and contact between the father and the boy who wants to become a man. Because what it is to “be a man” is so elusive in this situation, it ends up being defined in the negative, as everything that his mother and women, with whom he does have close contact, is not:
A boy, in his attempt to gain an elusive masculine identification, often comes to define his masculinity largely in negative terms, as that which is not feminine or involved with women. There is an internal and external aspect to this. Internally, the boy tries to reject his mother and deny his attachment to her and the strong dependence on her that he still feels. He also tries to deny the deep personal identification with her that has developed during his early years. He does this by repressing whatever he takes to be feminine inside himself, and, importantly, by denigrating and devaluing whatever he considers to be feminine in the outside world. As a societal member he also appropriates to himself and defines as superior particular social activities and cultural (moral, religious and creative) spheres. (Chodorow 1974: 50)
As Freud suggests, the father appears in the young boy’s life as a rival and as a dangerous power. The boy must suppress his attachment to his mother and come to identify “with his loved and admired, but also potentially punitive, therefore feared, father. He internalizes a superego” (Chodorow 1974: 50-51).
For women, these processes of psychic development are quite different. The girl’s continuing identification with her mother depends on real and continuing affectionate relationships. She comes to learn what it is to be a woman by imitating real role models with whom she already has a close emotional contact. The girl generalizes these predispositions to nurturing relationships in her contact with other intimates, with husband, children and other women. In summary, women grow up to have flexible ego boundaries that strengthen their ability to emphathize with other people and to provide emotional care. They also have a secure gender identity and are not plagued by concerns about whether they are living up to what is required to “be a woman”.
By contrast men are likely to compulsively deny connection to others and dependence upon them (Chodorow 1974: 66). As well, they are likely to feel insecure about their gender identity, needing to constantly prove their masculinity in feats of conquest and control over women and other men. Their heterosexual relationships are often based on dominance and power, rather than a close personal relationship. They have little emotional connection to their children. They relate to other men as competitive rivals, establishing their masculinity by proving their power in competition.
Clearly what has been described above can be considered a social mechanism for the reproduction of patriarchy, it is a feedback loop, a closed cycle. The first point of the cycle is that men are absent from the care of infants and young children in order to maintain their social power as patriarchs. In turn, this institution of socialisation reproduces patriarchy by creating a certain kind of psychological development for men. This psychological development equips men to be effective in gaining advantage from the labour of others; they are never held up by a concern for the well being of those whom they exploit. The failure of empathy and the inability to connect that they have developed to become men ensures that this is not an issue. This allows men to maintain patriarchy which continues to remove men from childcare. The loop closes. At the same time, this pattern of social reproduction systematically disadvantages men in terms of their sense of security and well being. This is an ongoing cost of the various advantages that men gain from their power over women.
As has been pointed out in a number of anthropological studies (Friedl, Spencer & Gillen, Turnbull), a common feature of many societies is an initiation ceremony for boys in which men represent themselves as terrifying and powerful monsters. Frequently this is accompanied by very real physical trials of adolescent boys which are designed to establish their worthiness to become men. There is usually a period of ritual separation from the women, who may be assigned the role of wailing at the loss of their sons. The South American societies, of which the Mundurucú is one, are a good example of such processes at work. Bamberger discusses a number of these rituals for South America and points to the mythology that goes with these events. The myths describe an original situation in which women had power and a later event in which men took power and gained control of ritual masks and trumpets; which are thereafter forbidden to women on pain of death or gang rape. Bamberger thinks that these mythologies refer to women’s original power as mothers over their sons and to the separation from women and the establishment of masculine power that men achieve as adults in patriarchy. She describes one such set of initiations for the Kayapó:
… boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen are led in ritual procession from their maternal households and installed in the men’s house after a protracted and elaborate ceremony that takes several months to complete. During the initiation period Kayapó boys are sent into the forest each day under the guardianship of ceremonial companions to learn forest lore and the techniques of stalking game. After the completion of their initiation ceremony, the young men reside in the men’s house until they marry and establish residence for themselves in their wive’s houses. At the men’s house they are taught male occupations: hunting, basketry, and the manufacture of weapons and ornaments, as well as such male secrets as the identity of the ceremonial masked dancers. (Bamberger 1974: 177-178)
Looking at the Mundurucú discussed in the chapter on gender inequality (Murphy and Murphy 1974), we can see much that fits with Chodorow’s account and makes sense of the pain of masculinity in patriarchy and its political role in maintaining masculine power. Men are largely absent from the childcare of young children since they live in the men’s house and only visit their wives. The men have absolutely nothing to do with their infants until they are walking and even after that, their relationship is intermittent. The women take care of young children continuously and take them with them when they go to the gardens or are processing the manioc tubers. Boys after the age of six hang around with each other and practice masculine skills while girls stay with their mothers and maintain their close personal relationships with adult women, assisting them in their work. By the age of eleven or twelve, the boys are sleeping in the men’s house. From the age of fourteen they join in the men’s hunting.
The Mundurucú were not observing any initiation ceremonies at the time of the Murphys visit but explained the ceremony that they had practiced in the past:
The [young boys] were taken into the men’s house when they were only four of five years of age and kept there for a period of two years. At the end of their seclusion, a cerermony was held in which the boys, equipped with sharp wooden beaks, played the role of jacamim birds and chased after the women, pecking at them. Again, the symbolism of the beaks and the pecking of the women has clear phallic components, and the rite is a statement of the partial separation of the boys from the women and an augury of their future relations with them. (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 105)
In Mundurucú society as explained by the Murphys, men exploit women’s labour and are preoccupied with status, whether as hunters or warriors. The greatest status is that of the warrior, and this description is of war parties as they were remembered by the informants. Parties of men would trek through the jungle and surprise another village at dawn, killing men and women alike and decapitating them and seizing the children. The heads were thrown in a basked and taken back to the village to be dried for trophies. The children were taken back to be raised as Mundurucú.
The taker of a trophy head, or Dajeboisi, occupied the most honored rank in Mundurucú society. During a ritual period of almost three years after his exploit, he was considered to be in a sacralized state and could not engage in ordinary social discourse, being approachable only through considerable protocol. (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 81)
Clearly, these demands on men to achieve competitive status in acts of extreme danger must be both exciting and also extremely stressful. The inevitability of failure for most men, who cannot be leaders of the hunt or war party or die trying, would be considerable. The failure of empathy for the fate of other people caught up in these events as victims is extreme. To be that kind of person is to be unable to conduct affectionate relationships with other people but to be constantly on guard to maintain status and defeat rival bids. The authors comment on the emotional insecurity of the men in comparison to the women:
And just as the individual male must continually assert his hard-won status, so also must the men, as a collectivity, guard themselves against the women. (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 230)
They note an origin myth in which women had control of the sacred trumpets that now men are only permitted to use and which are hidden in the men’s house. In the myth the men have to do all the work now forced on women and are also forced to have sex. The men take control as they threaten to stop hunting and bringing meat. Now, the women shut themselves in their houses and mourn for the loss of the sacred flutes when the instruments are paraded in the village. They are banned from viewing the instruments on pain of death.
The authors see this myth as a reflection of the original power of mothers and the struggle for men to separate themselves and establish masculine identity. As well, they note the insecurity implied in the myth:
Women are indeed inferior in the ideology of the Mundurucú men, but they are also threatening. Male status is not secure and immutable, fixed in nature and beyond challenge, for women once held power and can regain it if male vigilance is relaxed. (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 111)
As they argue, women are the stable emotional figures in the society, the “repositories of affective relations” (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 218). Men, as minor political figures and public actors display a “characteristic reserve and careful maintenance of personal distance” (Murphy and Murphy 1974: 218). So women have more real, friendly support from other women than the men get from each other. They argue that men fear female power because they associate it with the power of their mothers. Although men dominate women they are slightly fearful of them. The authors report jokes and myths in which the vagina becomes a dangerous biting animal, a crocodile or the like. While the men move to a new village when they marry, the women stay at home with the other women they have grown up with. Little boys are in a bit of a limbo from the ages of five to fourteen while girls of the same age remain with the other women. All of these features of the society make it difficult for men to create empathetic and close relationships with others at the same time as they make it easy for them to do what is necessary to maintain patriarchal control.
What about the ruling class?
We have seen above that men incur certain costs in their rule over women. The same argument could be made about the ruling class as a whole and especially about ruling class men, who are most responsible for maintaining the power of the ruling class. Good evidence on this is provided by a recent study of ruling class men, constructed from biographies of ruling class men: accounts from disaffected capitalists; hagiographic biographies; the narratives of employees; with a few successful interview studies thrown in (Donaldson & Poynting 2007).
While this survey gives much evidence of the pleasures of ruling class life it also reveals some characteristic stresses.
In terms of the pleasures of ruling class life, there is definitely the access to unlimited supplies of material goods and personal services of any kind. These ruling class men are able to live out any sexual fantasy of heterosexual men in this culture, using their power over money to attract women and command sexual services. They never do a stitch of domestic work of any kind. They do not have to engage in work as executives unless they want to. When they do so, they treat the business world as a game, not unlike gambling. They have complete authority in their companies and take pleasure in bullying subordinates and making choices about how to run their businesses. They also exercise considerable power over the political process, dominating decisions by governments. They can express their taste in lavish buildings and fast cars. Much of their time is spent in expensive sport and leisure hobbies, such as polo, yachting, gambling, skiing, dining out and golf. Even their bodily health is generally good.
Yet much about the lives of rich men is extremely stressful. Their early lives are made a misery by emotional neglect and active bullying. Both parents are distant but fathers are to be feared. James Packer’s father made a conscious effort to make his life difficult – to help him to be sure of himself and to “realize the way the world lives” (p. 38). Rupert Murdoch described his parents as “remote and tough … preoccupied with their own lives, quick to find fault, slow to praise and even slower to demonstrate affection” (p. 37). His mother said she did not want the children to be “spoiled”. Except during winter, he was made to sleep outside in a tree house in the garden of their country home, with no light. She thought it would be good for him.
What is particularly interesting about this early environment and its norms is that it is an exaggerated form of exactly the kinds of psychological processes that form patriarchal power itself. There is the absence of intimate emotional support from fathers, the repression of all that is feminine, the competition with other men to establish adult masculinity. Like these processes of patriarchy more generally, the impact is to produce insecurity and an anxious desire to prove oneself as well as an inability to connect with others and understand their perspective;
Even with time spent with their fathers so scarce and so tightly organised, there was something lacking, the boys felt, in their relationships with their fathers. Short, organised, infrequent the time with their fathers might be, but pleasant it never was. Adam Hochschild wrote that his father’s emotions ‘showed only through the cracks’ and that trying to win his approval by being affectionate towards him, simply didn’t work; perhaps, like another rich father described in Joanie Bronfman’s set of interviews, he ‘never was affectionate at all’ … Sir Frank Packer ‘seemed strict, a disciplinarian, a frightening figure who was tough on his sons’, said his son Kerry. Another of Joanie Bronfman’s interviewees got the hairbrush or the wooden hanger if he ‘stepped out of line’, but more often the brush because the hangers used to break. (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 30-31)
The authors argue that this physical absence and emotional distance “and its resulting loneliness and fear” were deliberate policies of parents intended to toughen their sons for the world of work and repeated by these men as they become fathers themselves (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 37). The long term impact is quite severe psychic damage:
With their childhoods characterised by the physical absence of their parents for long periods and brief, distant and unsatisfactory encounters otherwise, it is scarcely remarkable that men like Kerry Packer should recall their boyhoods as marked by loneliness, for these are the very things which cause it. ‘I have a black hole inside me’, he once told his friend Phillip Adams. Ronald Fraser describes the same sense of emptiness when talking about his childhood, ‘It’s a laceration that’s been with me since childhood, a loss, abandonment – I don’t have words, never have had. The pain just exists in me and I can’t give it any other expression’. (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 35)
Between seven and eleven years, boys are usually sent to a ruling class boarding school to continue this toughening process. Bullying is the norm and getting into a gang, going along with the gang’s leaders and conforming are the only ways to survive. Boys who cry at night when first arriving at the school are set upon with great ruthlessness – punished for their unmanly weakness. These competitive all male environments are continued in university colleges for ruling class men. Relationships with women are instrumental. Womanly qualities are hated along with homosexuality. Throughout all this period ruling class boys are taught to separate themselves from and despise people from other classes. Their superiority is constantly affirmed through lavish material dispensation, the market provision of all human services and social isolation from people with other backgrounds.
As noted above, it seems that these unusually harsh childhood experiences are deliberately inflicted to create men who can be successful in business competition; ruthless with subordinates and competitors alike. An obsessive acquisitiveness staves off an insecurity borne out of their emotionally starved childhoods. The authors quote Bronfman – these men are “aloof; insecure; insensitive to their own and others’ feelings, desires and mistreatment” (p. 236).
While work is optional for the ruling class, those who do work enjoy it as an exercise of power but are also often driven and compulsive in the hours they spend at work and their determination to be successful. They are likely to become depressed if they are not working and successful in business:
Those ruling-class men who do work often say they work very long hours, and indeed many apparently do … Sir Frank Packer is said to have spent twenty hours a day on his business until he built it up, and wandered around the building late at night switching off lights. Bartoleme’s study of 140 executives similarly recorded their complaint that their jobs left too little time for family and other things, and some were indeed ‘putting in a lot of hours’. It took not only most of their time, but nearly all of their energy, so that they felt ‘drained’. (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 185)
In business they are ruthless and enjoy bullying and the exercise of power, priding themselves in the way they can destroy the careers of their staff without a pang of regret:
When he bought the Sunday Times in 1976, Murdoch fired the majority of the staff and hired replacements more in tune with his media style. ‘Rupert’s a tremendous sacker,’ said a syndicated financial columnist who has known Murdoch for over twenty-five years. ‘The fear of losing jobs concentrates one’s mind,’ Murdoch has said … in true Beaverbrook tradition editors have been fired, long term companions have been discarded and his closest friends have had to take that symbolic walk around the park. (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 172)
When Conrad Black took over the London Daily Telegraph, he instructed his editor Max Hastings to sack 2,000 staff and made the comment that “Max is good at drowning kittens” (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 173).
While such ruthlessness can be seen as an advantage in maintaining or improving one’s position in the world of business, its premise is a personality that has been deprived of the ability to empathize and make real connections with people. This is a cost of power.
What is going on here? Class as a social game or social machine
The simplest point of view that one can adopt in reference to the pain of the ruling class (or men in patriarchy) is that there are certain costs incurred by a ruling class, but they are clearly worth it. It is the pleasures of the ruling class that explain the persistence of patriarchy and social class across millennia. On the other hand, against this is the evidence that much about the life of men as a ruling class in patriarchy or of the ruling social classes throughout history is far from satisfactory. Anxiety and the neurotic compulsion to compete, the constant need to guard against usurpers, the difficulty of making friendly and intimate social connections with each other or members of the subordinate group are all quite real costs of rule.
One possibility is that systems of gender and class exploitation arise as social inventions that trap people into roles that are not necessarily satisfactory for anyone concerned, but become inevitable as the original invention establishes itself as a self replicating social machine.
For Donaldson and Poynting, capitalism clearly operates like a machine with ruling class masculinity as one of its functioning parts. The ruling class is “historically continuous, integrated, networked and impervious to change with in built mechanisms operating to keep it this way” (p. 232). While these mechanisms are not set up by a conspiracy they are undoubtedly deliberate – ruling class men are constructed to be incapable of intimate relationships that might “hinder capital’s accumulation” (p. 233). Parents bring up their sons to “toughen” them by depriving them of intimacy and emotional security. This is consciously intended to enable them to maintain and increase their wealth. Yet in my view this cannot be entirely an intentional and consciously rational process. There is no doubt that the kind of childhood experience these men have gone through produces exactly the kind of personality type that is likely to replicate these conditions for their own children. There is much about it that is not transparent to the ruling class itself. While Kerry Packer maintained that his father made his childhood difficult to “make it easy for me to keep my head sure upon my shoulders” (Donaldson & Poynting 2007: 38), the reality is that this kind of childhood does not in fact produce adult men who feel secure, quite the opposite. They mask their insecurity with a show of confidence and superiority; they experience constant fear and distrust, which they keep at bay with further conquests; they are unable to enjoy the love and affection of other people. Surely little of this is transparent to those involved.
Class societies as machines
I would like to look at this issue through the problem of collapse. There is a lot of evidence that society today is headed for a collapse – the result of an oil shortage and of climate change – neither of these crises are being adequately dealt with. The most likely outcome is one which will not serve the ruling class well, yet they are very active politically at the present time preventing an adequate response. The coming collapse is by no means the first in the history of class societies.
An apt explanation of this collapse is described by Tainter as the ‘notion that fundamental limitations of social, political, and economic systems prevent an appropriate response to circumstances and this makes collapse inevitable’ (Tainter 1988, p. 54). As he goes on to say, ‘successful complex societies become locked into their adaptations’ (Tainter 1988, p. 56), something which Dennis and Urry refer to as ‘path dependency’ within the context of complexity theory (Dennis and Urry 2009, p. 56). More broadly, we can note that class societies are characterized by what Durkheim called ‘organic solidarity’ – the parts of the society are interlocked as a social organism or social machine. The people who operate the parts of such social machines are forced into roles which fit the machine’s functioning. Even the ruling class cannot operate outside this framework (Perlman 1983).
In terms of interviews conducted in the Hunter region on the problems of the environmental crisis, one of the most common responses and explanations of failure to act is that ‘as one person on your own’ you cannot accomplish anything. Business leaders state as a fact that they cannot do anything that might compromise their company’s position in the global market, and that anything outside of the growth economy must represent the end of all social order. Such comments acknowledge and reveal the participation of individuals in the social machine and their sense of entrapment in it.
Collapse can come from this automatism. The social machine of capitalism (competitive private ownership, wage labour, the growth economy) is serviced by its human parts. It has functioned well so far, in the sense that it has successfully replicated itself as a social machine, but it can also collapse if it cannot make appropriate changes in a new situation – like a car engine that works well when the car is on the road but seizes up when the car is driven into a lake. The detailed content for this analysis is the understanding of the roots of the current environmental crisis from the perspective of political economy. In capitalism, firms compete to make sales or are abandoned by their shareholders. Technological efficiency gives a competitive edge and produces growth as the outcome. Every individual company and nation is economically compelled to externalize the costs of environmental side effects in order to stay in the capitalist game. Workers are also consumers and voters. Because capitalism requires that you have employment to live adequately, the public are motivated to vote for parties that are going to increase growth and maintain job levels. As workers whose daily life is dominated by hierarchical work discipline, citizens cherish their increasing remuneration and its associated consumer spending as compensation for their “alienated labour”. That makes them unlikely allies for any kind of environmentalist plan that might threaten jobs, raise taxes or reduce consumer spending, all of which seem certain to be necessary to restructure energy and transport to avoid global warming – at least if we are intending to make these changes within the context of a capitalist economy (McLaughlin 1993, Trainer 1995, 2007, Coates and Leahy 2006, Kovel 2007, Baer 2008, Foster 2009).
The premise of this analysis is not that individuals behave in a patterned way because of an overwhelming determination of action by society. On the contrary, a social machine of the kind we see in class societies operates because each part in the machine is operated by humans who use their agency to maximize their own interests. The pattern occurs because groups of people constitute parts of a machine that interact predictably with other parts. What this also suggests is that class society itself, and its various modes of production, are invented as social games (Clastres 1987) or as discourses (Foucault 1979, 1980) which set up these machine functions and which go on to trap people in those frameworks (Mann 1986). Once the social game of a particular mode of production has been set up, people generally make choices that they believe will serve their interests, broadly speaking – for example for autonomy, regard, affection, bodily well being, creative expression and the like. However these choices are constrained by what is taken for granted – the inevitability and necessity of the social game in question. The particular efficacy of modes of production in perpetuating themselves as machines is to set people up as social groups whose relationship with other groups is an aspect of the social game. As people in groups go about “serving their own interests”, they also maintain the functioning of the social machine as a whole. The game, once it has been set up, locks people into a set of options which ensure the overall maintenance of the game itself.
The term “modes of production” is used here to refer to a set of social practices and relationships maintained over historical time and territorially extensive. The term “social formation” as used by Althusserians is probably apt, though clumsy. The three terms – social game, social machine and mode of production – work best together to describe it. The use of the term “mode of production” here is not meant to imply that the pursuit of bodily well being is the central motive behind history or that the production of material and useful objects is the central determining feature of any mode of production. This account clearly draws something from Durkheim’s theory of organic solidarity. Yet Durkheim applies this only to class based societies and the division of labour installed in them. My view is that something similar also applies to the social machines of classless societies, as I have discussed in reference to the Mundurucú. The “functionalism” of some of Durkheims’ work is not intended here. I do not mean to imply that social machines have their own teleology, and that parts can be explained in relation to how they function to maintain the whole. The machine itself is set up by human agency and the best way to understand this is to think of it as a game that has at some point been invented through a collective social process, and once invented, is operated by people and maintained with the effect of creating a social machine, through a set of rules of the game which are largely unconscious and come to seem to be common sense. Within a social machine, parts do in fact maintain the whole but this is not because people intend this outcome and work rationally to bring it about, nor because the social machine as a whole ensures this. It is merely an outcome of an effective social game that has become established.
The account offered here owes much to the following authors.
Fredy Perlman describes class societies as animated cadavers or as giant simple organisms, like insects or worms, operated by their human subjects who are equally enslaved to the machine functioning that they embody, whatever their social role.
Michael Mann traces the origin of class society to irrigated river valleys. He points out that the archaeological evidence shows a number of attempts to establish class societies that were successful for a time and then petered out as populations deserted their rulers. The final successful establishments of class in a number of locations were based in river valleys where irrigation allowed an increase in food production and then trapped the population in the irrigated valley so that they were unable to desert when the ruling class increased its exploitation. From this basis the initial class societies were able to conquer surrounding territories that were more thinly inhabited and less cohesive; sparking off imitation class formations in neighbouring territories that did not have irrigation to trap populations.
Clastres shows how the classless societies of the Amazon basin maintained their egalitarian condition through a set of institutions and understood frameworks – the role of the chief; the function of the warrior etc. These descriptions can be considered to point to the social machine that operated these classless societies. I have also considered this issue here in relation to Robyn and Yolanda Murphy’s book on the Mundurucú. Clearly, these Amazon basin societies were also the source for the Amerindian states of the Incas, Aztecs and Maya and so on. Clastres looks at examples within these classless societies of waves of millenarian religious enthusiasm which swept through whole regions gathering up followers and moving them physically across the landscape. His hypothesis is that these movements provide an insight into how the first class societies in this region came about. It makes sense to see this insight as pointing to the invention of a new social game, which pulled people out of the classless societies which they had inhabited and made them available for a new mode of production.
For the transition from feudalism to capitalism there is of course much written. In another chapter I have considered Weber’s discussion of the development of the discourse of puritanism and its impact on capitalist economic organization. Going back in this story, William Walzer writes about the initiation of the puritan movement in Britain in the sixteenth and seventeenth century – clearly the first of the waves of discourse that established the modern class societies of capitalism, as Weber argues. What he writes about is the way in which Feudal society was crumbling and leaving vast masses of people roaming the countryside displaced from their traditional rural environment. As a response to this social dislocation the puritan movement set up the disciplined conduct and the sectarian groupings that fought and won ascendancy politically through the English civil war. Aries and Foucault trace these developments on the continent and in the subsequent period of early modernity. In all these sources one can see the invention and imaginative construction of the new social machine of capitalist modernity.
Castoriadis also has much to say relevant to the setting up of modes of production. His book is entitled “The Imaginary Institution of Society” and is based in a psychoanalytic framework. All social formations are instituted and maintained through a set of unconscious fictions which govern the operation of social conduct. These fictions are literally things which are not true, pretences which we dream up, which since they govern and make sense of conduct, acquire a social efficacy and are true to the extent that they truly are socially significant. The difficulty of this approach is that if these premises remain unconscious it becomes impossible to describe them. So this cannot be taken too literally. On the one hand, these unconscious premises may readily be observed by someone coming from a different social framework that sees them as both fictional and as socially significant. On the other hand, the use of the term “unconscious” here is not meant to imply that they are never openly articulated but more that they govern conduct even when people are not aware that their conduct or their sense of the available options is being constrained by the operation of this imaginary. It is this understanding which is particularly relevant to collapse.
In conclusion, by seeing social formations as social machines, we can readily unpick the paradox of systems of structured exploitation which, taking all things into account, might not actually serve the ruling group as well as you might expect. What we can observe is both that there are always specific costs of class rule and also that the social mechanisms which set up and allow a system of exploitation to take place are not transparent to those who operate them. An original invention, a social game, if you like, can become solidified as a self-replicating social mechanism that fails to serve the ruling classes well – despite the fact that they continue to extract a surplus product from the subordinate class through that social mechanism. Or it can continue on through its self replicating mechanisms well after a point in which it ceases for various contingent historical reasons to serve the ruling class. In other words, they might live better with some other social formation in place but the social mechanism that has been set up does not allow alternatives to be realized; it is maintained by practices which become unconscious and pit people into teams that operate in relation to other groups in society, so that self interest, as it is understood at the time, always ends up by replicating the social order as a whole.
Foucault’s Analysis of Power
Foucault may be thought to be opposed to much of the conceptual framework that has been used to describe relationships of inequality in these chapters, whether we are talking about gender or social class. The first problem may be seen to be the reifying of class categories. For example I have not hesitated to talk about the ruling class extracting a surplus product from the subordinate class, or about men exploiting women. The second problem may be seen as lying in the way these chapters maintain the impression that exploitation or inequality are top down processes in which an exploiting group takes advantage of a group with less power. It could be said that Foucault has argued cogently against this, saying that power is a “bottom up” process. What I am going to say about these charges is that Foucault’s position is not as far from what I have been saying as you might imagine. I will also argue the usefulness of continuing to reify class, and power relations in the way I have been doing. So let us begin with a few key quotes:
Power comes from below: that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix – no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depth of the social body. One must suppose rather that the manifold relationships of force that take shape and come into play in the machinery of production, in families, limited groups and institutions, are the basis of wide-ranging effects of cleavage that run through society as a whole … Major dominations are the hegemonic effects that are sustained by these confrontations. (Foucault 1980: 94)
The most confusing statement in this is that “power comes from below”. Foucault does not mean that those with less power dominate those above them. He means that face to face close up and personal acts that take place throughout society (in the regions normally considered to be “below” the capitalist class) are the locations where power is exercised. Members of the capitalist class, the sovereign, the state or whatever, do not exercise power from above, power at a distance, by pulling invisible strings and dominating every interaction that takes place. Instead, in so far as we can talk meaningfully about a ruling class “having power”, this “major domination” is the effect, rather than the cause, of the outcomes of confrontations which take place at the local level. What Foucault is talking about as “power” here is exactly what Weber’s definition is talking about; it is a confrontation in which one party gets what they want and the other party does not. What Foucault wants to avoid is the idea that this transactional event is an outcome of a pre-existing social force, the power of the ruling class, which is manifested in this actual confrontation. Instead, the outcome of all these actual confrontations can be to constitute a hegemonic effect, a pattern in which it makes sense, but only as a shorthand, to speak of ruling class power.
For myself, an example is always helpful. I was doing the shopping at the supermarket in Toronto one winter evening. The young man in front of me clutched his purchases and vaulted over the checkout desk, running off into the night. Here was a local confrontation in which the young thief exercized his will by successfully opposing the will of the checkout operator and taking his goods without paying for them. Of course, such an event is a rare moment in a smoothly operating capitalist society. What usually happens is that the shoppers in line meekly hand over their money, despite the fact that they would rather do otherwise. This is a bottom level event; an event that acccording to Foucault, is not scripted by the ruling class and manipulated from above. On the contrary, according to Foucault, it is this pattern of events which together with other events constitute the hegemonic effect of ruling class power. I know that Foucault would never use a term like “ruling class power” but surely the “hegemonic effect” that he is talking about is precisely what others might refer to in this way. What is also interesting about this event is that the unequal struggle of wills, the confrontation, that takes place at the checkout, is one that does not necessarily pit into antagonism a powerful “person” and a powerless “person” at all. The customer is not necessarily less powerful in the ordinary sociological sense of socio economic clout, than the checkout operator. The repeated process of confrontation, always ending in the submission of the customer and the victory of the checkout operator, cannot be put down to a superior “power”, residing in the checkout operator themselves. This also is another reason why Foucault is stressing the idea that we should pay attention to the pattern of transactions rather than leaping to attribute a “social power” as the source of this regularity. The outcome of these considerations is that we should understand that power comes from the bottom up. In other words, the broad picture of social power as a structure is built up through individual social transactions, which could always go another way, but which in their repeated regularity create as an effect, the social structures which sociologists talk about as structures of social power.
To convince the reader that this is a sensible account of what Foucault means, I will quote two further passages from the History of Sexuality, the first of which talks about the instability of power:
Power’s condition of possibility … must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignity from which secondary and transcendent forms would emanate; it is the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable. The omnipresence of power: not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in relation from one point to another. (Foucault 1980: 93)
When he is talking about a unique source of sovereignity, Foucault means the king, the ruling class or the state. As he says in other contexts, the problem with the marxist account of capitalist society is that it treats the whole society as governed from a central point, in the image of a monarchy with the ruling class at its head. In the context of sexuality what he is particularly irked by is the Reichian notion, which had been popularized by the Situationists of 1968, that the repression of sexuality was a mechanism of capitalist power. He sees that view as implying that the capitalist class in some way could see that sexual repression would serve their interests and acted to promulgate and enforce it on society. He takes this as a ludicrous view of history and his account in this first volume of the History of Sexuality is to replace it with something a little more close to the historical record. In other words, he is arguing that the rules and regulations imposed on sexuality in the modern period were invented and spread by a whole host of agents, none of whom can be seen as simply agents of the capitalist class and for a whole host of transparent and patent reasons, none of which amount to the preservation of capitalist society. What is more, these regulations, far from simply stifling sexuality, also in various ways incited it, providing a point of leverage for power relations in families and society more broadly. For example he believes that the prohibitions on childhood masturbation actually encouraged masturbation, but in doing this they also provided an occasion through which parents, children and medical authorities could be joined together in a social relationship of surveillance, producing various kinds of pleasures for all concerned. It is not my point here to wonder whether this is a fair account, but merely to give it as an example of what Foucault is talking about as a “moving substrate of force relations” which are always “local and unstable”. “Force relations” are unequal because they always involve one party getting what they want while the other party is “forced” to do what they would rather not do. Each of these events engenders a particular “state of power” but this is local and unstable in the sense that it only exists in that particular transaction, the next transaction could see the less powerful party of the first transaction getting their own way. As instanced in the checkout queue when the thief jumped the counter.
The next quote returns to the theme that these unstable relations of power which take place point to point and are localized, can also line up as a pattern:
Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. And “Power”, in so far as it is permanent, repetitious, inert and self-reproducing is simply the overall effect that emerges from all these mobilities, the concatenation that rests on all of them and seeks in turn to arrest their movement. (Foucault 1980: 93)
It is important for the English reader to realize that the term “power” or “Pouvoir” is used in French in a way that is not common in English. It is often used in sentences that say things like “Power seeks this” or “Power does that” which are best translated in English as “The Powerful seek this” or “The Power elite do that” or even “The Establishment intends this”. Foucault plays on this usage here, slipping between it and the meaning of the term that is more familiar in English. So here. Power (either meaning) is everywhere, not because it (Power with a capital P = the ruling class, the establishment) embraces everything. In other words, not because the ruling class makes everything happen in society. But because it comes from everywhere – in other words relations of unequal power are everywhere in society where one person is getting what they want and someone else is being made to do something they are less than pleased by. And “Power” (meaning the power of the ruling class, the establishment) in so far as it is etc. In other words, when we talk about ruling class power we are merely noting the fact of the repetitious pattern of events that sees the worker trudging to the factory and accepting the money and queuing up at the checkout and so on. Power (the power of the ruling class, the establishment) is simply the overall effect of all these repeated interactions, the chain of events of power. Each of the elements in this chain, by repeating themselves as they do, prevent another possibility from taking place. For example the checkout operator takes the money from each customer and puts it in the till. It is then collected by the supervisor who takes it to the manager who banks it, and then the cash is deposited in the account of the firm and some of that money is removed and distributed to shareholders and so on and so on. Each part of this chain of events is a local and unstable act of power. The only thing that allows us to talk about this as an aspect of The Power of the Capitalist Class is that this chain of events is repeated, reproduces itself and thereby “seeks” to prevent an alternative. The last would have to mean that these repeated events occupy the social space in which an alternative arrangement of power could have taken place if people had acted differently. Foucault could not be reifying this chain of events as something which in itself has a goal, surely!
The strength of this kind of account is that it reminds us of the reality that broad scale social structures are just built up from individual behaviour and that this individual behaviour is always the outcome of choices that could be different. As an example I often think of the fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to these events taking place, it would have been a bold social scientist who could have predicted them. On the contrary the logical thing to have talked about would have been the strength of the Soviet State, its control of the economy and of armed force and the absence of a civil society or revolutionary movement likely to opppose it. Yet all these social structures just evaporated away almost, it seemed, overnight. Neither the members of the government, the populace, or the army itself behaved predictably. The local events which in their repetition, sustained the power of the Soviet State just stopped happening. Of course the most memorable image is the demonstrator standing in front of a tank.
In the account so far created in these chapters, I have made a somewhat similar analysis of the meaning of exploitation. In other words, I have argued that the “power” of men in patriarchy can be well understood by looking at particular kinds of unequal transactions between men and women. Likewise, I have suggested that class exploitation is best understood as being constituted by a quite specific set of unequal exchanges within society. I have made a similar analysis of mediated exchange. I have consolidated this analysis with the view that the individual social actor is always at the centre of multiple class processes which involve transactions of unequal exchange which can make up a variety of different class systems. Nevertheless, as noted I have not hesitated to describe these class systems in ways that reify them. I have spoken of “the” ruling class extracting “a” surplus from “the” subordinate class, and so on. I have discussed the “interest” which the ruling class might have in a system of exploitation and have also reified “social machines” as systems of constraint which have impacts on social actors, restricting the options which seem to be available to them and pitting them as social actors against each other in patterned exchanges.
Foucault’s strongest rejection of this reification of “power” is probably this statement:
Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercized from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations. (Foucault 1980: 94)
Here, he takes issue with the idea that an individual or group “has” power just because they typically exercize power. Such an individual merely is the winning party in a set of unequal transactions in which they get their own way and another party loses out. This is all that we can observe and there is no reason to postulate some quality residing in the one who usually is victorious that allows these victories – the victorious one does not “have power” but merely is the lucky winner in a great variety of instances.
Ultimately, the debate about how you word all this and describe it, might come down to a philosophy of science question. Within the philosophy of science, what has been called “operationalism” is a standpoint associated with positivist views of science. Operationalism holds that the true meaning of scientific terms like “atom” , “electrical charge” and the like is really just that they are a summary of the various “operations” which scientists carry out in declaring their presence or absence. These are not real entities in the universe at all, as we naively think. The terms we use for them are just a shorthand way of referring to a mass of individual localised events by which we operationalise our use of these terms. Does this start to sound familiar? Positivism of this kind is frequently used to deny the reality of causal powers. For example we normally think of the “weight” of a stone as being a causal power that inheres in the stone and causes it to behave in particular ways. No, says the positivist, all we observe is the stone behaving in particular ways, why are we talking about weight? Well, precisely because there must be something that brings about this pattern of behaviour, and what that something is we call “weight”. It is a causal power that tends to make a stone drop if you let it go from some height, makes it hurt when it hits you and so on. At least, that is what the realist who believes in the real existence of theoretical objects and causal powers, will say to the positivist.
So likewise with “social power” and “the social machine” and “class interest” and so on; these are postulated as social forces which can inhere in social bodies (like a social class or a society) – we may want to talk about the ruling class as a group which has social power and can influence events accordingly; a social machine is a social object that can have the power to influence conduct; a class may have a tendency to act in a certain way and pursue certain typical goals which we might decide to see as coming out of a class interest, a social force inhering in that class. In other words, the question one could ask of Foucault is why it is that certain patterns of unequal exchange or confrontations of wills get repeated again and again with similar outcomes if this pattern is totally random and not the result of some causal power that operates across similar events to cause similar outcomes. For example we might say that the causal powers that prevent people from jumping the counter and taking their goods home are the fear of arrest, the knowledge that others will not assist you to take on the police in armed combat and so on. These are all causal powers. They are both internal mental states which can influence action and are also discursively formed to be such through a social process which means that they go beyond the individual. They are real causal powers as they operate now in modern capitalism, even though we also realize that in certain circumstances, such as in a riot or revolution, they might cease to operate. It is always true that people could act in a way that is different to what is expected, and through doing this start to constitute systems of power differently.
The other thing to point out relevant to this is that Foucault is massively inconsistent in this program of operationalism. He constantly attributes powers to social bodies in ways that do not suggest these powers are merely made up of local events, which in themselves have no causal force. The concept of discourse itself is one of these. For example consider the following statement from the History of Sexuality:
I try to make an archaeology of discourse about sexuality which is really the relationship between what we do, what we are obliged to do, what we are allowed to do, what we are forbidden to do in the field of sexuality and what we are allowed, forbidden, or obliged to say about our sexual behaviour. (Foucault Date?)
This is a careful statement and I suppose it might be considered to fit the operationalist program, if we assume that the discourse about sexuality is not something which obliges us to do anything or forbids us; these obligations and vetoes are imposed by specific individuals. But a more obvious way to understand it is to think of the discourse as imposing constraints. Look at this other often quoted description of how discourses operate:
Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. (Foucault 1980: 101)
Here he is just about to talk about the discourse of the homosexual. As invented during the nineteenth century, the discourse of “the homosexual” “made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘peversity’” (Foucault 1980: 101).
In all this writing, the concept of “discourse” is used to refer to a social “force” or causal power that constrains and produces social events. So Foucault has no problem with the idea that a social force produces local events; he just does not allow that “power” is a social force which can inhere in a social group and account for the patterning of outcomes in a variety of social transactions.
Foucault also reifies whole societies as in this statement, and attributes causal powers to them:
Among all the societies in history, ours … have perhaps been the most aggressive and the most conquering; they have been capable of the most stupefying violence, against themselves as well as against others. (Foucault 1988: 195)
In the following statement he speaks quite happily of the causal power of a social institution, the state:
… the aim of the modern art of government, or state rationality: viz., to develop those elements constitutive of individuals’ lives in such a way that their development also fosters that of the strength of the state. (Foucault 1988: 200)
As the reader can see, I am ambivalent about Foucault’s rejection of the idea that social power can inhere in a particular social group or individual and be excercized in events of domination. I think the plausibility of this position rests in a positivist attack on the concept of causal powers, which I am comparing to “operationalism” in the natural sciences. Yet this program can never be realized, it does not make a lot of sense and is usually, as in this case, called into play against some kinds of attributions of causal powers while other attributions of causal powers are left alone. In Foucault’s case, the attribution of causal powers to social entities (like the ruling class) is not countenanced whereas the attribution of causal powers to other social entities (like discourses, the state, even society as a whole) is treated as unproblematic.
More broadly, as stated in an earlier chapter, it seems that social sciences are condemned to treat their subject matter through two overlapping and incompatible theoretical standpoints, neither of which conveys the whole truth of the matter. On the one hand, social processes are just the social events which are composed of individual behaviours, thoughts and interactions. On the other hand, these social events can also be understood as coming about through the actions of social bodies, with their various social powers, which emerge out of the individual actions contemplated in the first theoretical standpoint. These two standpoints are constantly referenced against each other – personal actions are described in terms of social bodies and their social forces and social bodies and their social forces are explained in terms of personal actions and intentions. As an analogy from the natural sciences, this is most like the two descriptions of electrons – as waves and particles. Each theory is equally true and each way of conceiving electrons is incompatible with the other and yet they are both necessary to get a whole sense of how things work.