Friday, November 12, 2010

Where you are is what you know


We can think of any force, sufficiently empowered, as the graveyard of all social relations. Now we're exiting capitalist critique and entering the way of all totality of power.

It's very important to be able to "exit capitalist critique and enter the way of all totality of power"; or, rather, to pursue capitalist critique while under its wing. In a word, this is anarchism: Capital is one manifestation of an unequal distribution of power. It's not the only example, or the most important example in every case.

Every relationship contains some internal distribution of power which must be legitimated by its participants if social liberty is to exist. There are as many opportunities for abuse of power as there are types of relationships. Usually, people focus on whatever questions of authority arise out of the relationships they are in.

Because I experience the capital-relation as a form of subordination and patriarchy as a mode of power most directly (i.e. input from other relations, like race and sexuality are less constant), I emphasize them. Given time constraints and other real world obligations, any stance "against all authority" will inevitably become an examination of particular authorities at the individual level. What we learn from others is what they know best from their own experiences. We are, each of us, called to listen and to teach.

Thanks to almostinfamous


Justin said...

"Every relationship contains some internal distribution of power which must be legitimated by its participants if social liberty is to exist. There are as many opportunities for abuse of power as there are types of relationships."

If I understand, this is an excellent point. It is not necessary that all distribution of power is equal, but that where there are disparities, both parties agree to the disparity. This happens all the time when working with other people on something when depending on the task at hand and respective expertise, sometimes you defer to the expertise or leadership of others to get the task accomplished.

My brother is a fantastic blacksmith, and were I to enter his shop to learn how to sculpt, he would assume the role of authority or leader in teaching me. The roles would be reversed were he to enter my painting studio. The point is that it is temporary, based on consent, and the disparity does not become entrenched. That last part is where things get tricky and difficult when you move beyond relationships on a small scale and start discussing society generally.

JRB said...


That's right. The core anarchist principle, as I understand it, is that all authority is illegitimate without the consent of the people it affects. Or without some other social justification, if consent is not applicable (as is sometimes the case with children).

Absent such justification, hierarchical power is illegitimate by assumption. It has to prove that it has legitimacy, in every case. Otherwise it doesn't deserve to exist.

I think this is a much more practical method of applying anarchism than insisting "there must be no hierarchy" in all things. The question is whether disparities in power can be socially justified.

Jack Crow said...

As long as you use the words "power" and "authority" you keep the colonization in your head.

A person with more knowledge than you about a given subject isn't your authority. She's a person who can teach you.

You aren't an anarchist, or free, just because you agree to be led.

You're just a person who agrees to be led, or thinks you agree.

A hierarchy doesn't have to prove anything. It's existence is proof that others don't belong to it. It's existence not only implies that other are subordinate. It's very existence demonstrates this.

Consent doesn't legitimize authority. Consent is the sound the victim makes right before his abuser punches the ritual of submission into him...

Jack Crow said...

Let me use an extraordinary example, to light this from a different angle.

When two lovers come together and make love, physical coitus occurs.

When a man vaginally rapes a woman, physical coitus occurs.

It makes no sense, though, to use the word coitus, to describe both sets of interaction. Because the physical act of coital penetration does not describe the mode of relation.

In the same way, it just makes no sense to use "power" and "authority" and "hierarchy" in the manner used above. It's like treating all coitus as rape, or using rape to convey any kind of coitus.

The word "authority" might mean "expert" or "skilled and knowledgeable artisan." But, it also means "boss."

So, why invite confusion? Why give room for the colonization of mindspace to persist, or spread, by assigning benign meanings to words which in almost all circumstances carry awful ones? Would it be best to rehabilitate the word "rape"? Or just use it to mean what it really means for almost every other person who uses it?

Why not just use terms which don't convey the meanings for which most people, who live under authorities and powers, assign to the words?



JRB said...

Jack Crow:

I don't see any difference in principle. Do you?

By "power" and "authority" you just always mean what I would describe as its illegitimate application. So if I say a particular power distribution is legitimated by its participants, you say "No, it's not" because you've chosen a definition of "power" which is illegitimate by default.

The real question you are raising seems to be about the implications of using one approach vs. the other. You say: "Why not just use terms which don't convey the meanings for which most people, who live under authorities and powers, assign to the words?"

I am reading this to say, Why not just use the terms which convey the meanings which most people ... assign to words.

My answer is: I thought I was! Most people I know don't use the term "power" in a strictly negative sense -- hence the existence of concepts such as "working class power," and countless others that acknowledge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate applications.

Personally, it's not important to me what you use, as long as it works for you. I'm just offering this as something that I use. As CLR James says, what proves a theory is what you get out of it. This can be different things for different people.

Jack Crow said...

Because there is no cause to separate "power" from "control." If there is power, this is a victim of that power. Always.

It's the singular problem with Leninist communism (or democratic centralism) - the assertion that power is or can be benevolent.

It can never be benevolent, because for some people to have it, they have to use it.

It's not a thing. It's actions. Power is always people doing things to others. And if power is always people doing things to others - it is always a set of relations where one orders, and the other obeys.

And since we're not discussing a transition or revolutionary phase where people appropriate and take and generally knock assholes off their thrones, but a more general conceptualization of "anarchism," what you're advocating is a persistent state of affairs where people can have power so long as the constantly seek consent.

That might be demarchy, but it's not anarhcism. An-archy means, literally, without rule. No power.



JRB said...


One of the reasons why I prefer my definition is that it lets us examine power distributions internal to any relation, including consensual ones.

Think of BDSM, an erotic practice which is all about varying power distributions, if it is about anything! And yet it is legitimated by its participants via consent.

By your definition, BDSM is just the practice of sexual freedom. As you say, "if there is power, [there] is a victim of that power" -- therefore BDSM is a sexual practice "without rule," and rejects power as a legitimate principle. BDSM has nothing to do with power, and is in fact its opposite. This is not helpful.

Again, I prefer my definition because it lets us acknowledge power distributions internal to relations, whereas yours confines itself to what I would call the point of legitimation -- i.e. before we even look at what is going on inside.

I don't find it useful to say that "without rule" power ceases to exist as a meaningful category. Disproportions of power which may be legitimate at one moment may become illegitimate at another, due to changing circumstances, and so on.

I prefer to be able make these distinctions because I believe they are relevant, rather than just declare "freedom" as a condition absent of all power.

Jack Crow said...

There is no ruling of others which is ever legitimate.

Two (or more) lovers **playing** at roles they can abandon at any time is not one ruling the other.

That is why your definition covers the other abuses, and excuses them, by associating a term which is always about control and submission, and pretending that it can be used to cover play acting.

Why not just call play acting what it is, instead of rehabilitating power by applying it to play?

JRB said...


In that case I guess I will have to live with excusing abuse in your eyes.


Jack Crow said...

It's not "in my eyes," JRB. The terms matter objectiely, because we shape how we communicate with them.

You cannot feasibly argue any sort of anarchism if you propose the continuation of power relationships, hierarchy and control.

It's demarchy, at best.

Jack Crow said...

Assume Joe and Lucy.

Scenario one: Joe restrains Lucy, physically bullying her into submission. He ties her with a rope and begins to beat her. Finally, he sexually assaults her.

Scenario two: Joe and Lucy meet to play at bondage. Lucy and Joe agree to a safe word, setting the limits to their play. Joe restrains Lucy, tying her up with a rope. They engage in sexual congress. Joe releases Lucy.

In scenario one, Joe has exercised power over Lucy. He has abused her. He has taken her autonomy from her, and the relation between them depends upon her loss of autonomy and his subsequent mastery.

In scenario two, Joe has engaged in play, and roleplay, with Lucy. She is not consenting to Joe's power. She is playing with him. Joe has no power, until or unless he violates her autonomy. Power is the violation of autonomy, to the benefit of the violator. It has no other form. If one person is not exercising control over another, against that other's will - you do not have power. Because autonomy is preserved.

Seen another way - the actor on the stage playing Othello strangling Desdemona does not actually have power over the actress playing Desdemona. Because it is play. If the same actor, after the stage curtain falls, assaults and restrains the actress playing Desdemona, and then strangles her - now he has power over her.

One is a power relationship. One is not.



JRB said...


OK. Nothing to add to what I've already said, which is that you define "power" as what I call its illegitimate application.

That's your usage, and in my experience, it's less common, as Justin's post seems to confirm: hierarchies of power can and do and will exist within consensual relations for various reasons, so it is important to identify their structure, rather than group them all under a blanket term like "freedom," which is what your "all power is illegitimate" stance effectively does.

Jack Crow said...

No, it doesn't group them under an amorphous header. It assumes only that a person who control another has power. And a hierarchy, by its operation, is a power arrangement. It depends upon force, no matter that **some** members of it have more leeway (or consent) than other.

You're playing the cheap bourgeois, JRB - in assuming that because some **some** hierarchies allow **some members** consent, hierarchy itself can be good power.

There is no good power. Power is abuse. Only. Always.

This is not about equally valid, but competing definitions. This is you treating a hierarchy as if it doesn't depend upon punishment, enforcement and abuse, just because some of the members of it can give some manner of "consent."

Coldtype said...

"There is no good power. Power is abuse. Only. Always"

Sorry Jack that just won't do. My wife and I have power over our 5 year old daughter and 10 year old son because at this stage of their development we must. We determine bedtime and what activities are appropriate for them. This is not abuse.

For the past 20 years while working in my capacity as the Enemy (Chicago Police) I've had the unpleasant experience on many occasions of intervening in domestic disputes in which one party (usually the male) has subjected the other to physical abuse (sometimes to an extreme degree) leading to his subsequent arrest. In some cases the offending party resists this arrest with all of the power he possesses---in vain. His autonomy has been removed, violated, discarded---use any term you wish. Just don't call this abuse.

Richard said...

There are no objective definitions of terms.

Jack Crow said...


I don't frankly care what what you do to or for your kids, but if you demand their obedience and enforce it with violence or the threat of violence, you have power over them. And that is harm. Always. If you enforce an order of rank, with you at the top, and your children at the bottom, you are exercising power. If you act within a hierarchy, and sanctioned by it, you do so from power.

If you detain an even an objectively bad man in the service of the State, you still have power over him, because the State has your back. The hierarchy goes hand in hand with the power. Whether or not you ought to intervene has nothing to do with the hierarchy which defends your authority, arms you, equips and sanctions your violence. Whether or not a man ought to strike a woman (not, of course) has nothing to do with your state authorized capacity to harm him. If you act for a hierarchy, you do so from power. You abuse the man you detain and restrain, regardless of the social judgment of deserts.

Don't pussyfoot just because you were willing to take the dollar to enforce the law on others. That's your bag, not mine.


So "dog" actually means "cat"? "White" means "black"? "Up" really means "down"?


Jack Crow said...

And just to be clear, everyday usage is not exact or uniform. But it is objective.

If you write the sentence, "John walked to the store and purchased a carton of milk." does not mean:

"Sally bent over and picked a dime at the same moment that a bird flew over her head."

When you use the word "green" you are communicating an objective fact - that the color you see you identify as green. Even if you and I don't see the color the same way, because of subtle differences in the quantity and distribution of rods and cones, the term we use and share is itself an objective fact, and it does itself communicate an objective definition. We both use the same word, in the same language, to define the same observed phenomena, in a manner in which can in the future refer back to that word and understand and communicate again that it has the same meaning - even when our necessary differences of perspective mean that we don't see it with the same exactitude.

Subjectivism is bullshit, whether it's being pimped out by nihilist or Austrian school idiots, or people who haven't taken the time to think out how language actually works...

Richard said...

Seriously, this is your answer to my comment? Power is by no means in the same category of word as "dog" or "cat". It is a social relation. Dog is not.

Meanwhile, your response to Coldtype's comment about children seems to deliberately miss the point.

Richard said...

again, all of those examples are completely different than the example of "power"

Jack Crow said...

Oh, I see, Richard. You define when words have an exact meaning, and when they do not? Good to know. I'll defer to your power, wisdom and authority in the future. You da massa a' da words, not me, boss man. I iz sorry foh no' gettin't, massa.

Seriously, words have meanings. Those meanings drift over time, and depend upon context and syntax,but they are not without objective value.

And I understood what the cop was trying to say. I responded to it in the manner I thought it deserved.

I too have small children. If I boss them around, I have power over them. If I don't boss them around, I don't have power over them, **even if and when I remain responsible for them.**

I'm not confusing "responsibility for" with "power over." Why are you? Why was the cop?

Anonymous said...

It's a tad oxymoronic to declare "Subjectivism is bullshit", and then go on to bash people whose definition of a (rather all-encompassing) word doesn't precisely align with yours, yet who are in rough agreement **among themselves** about its meaning.

Consensus isn't equivalent to correctness in all things, but if four out of five people use "scarlet" interchangeably with "crimson", it's a safe bet they can speak meaningfully to each other about red things.
-- sglover

Coldtype said...

"If you detain an even an objectively bad man in the service of the State, you still have power over him, because the State has your back. The hierarchy goes hand in hand with the power. Whether or not you ought to intervene has nothing to do with the hierarchy which defends your authority, arms you, equips and sanctions your violence."-JC


"You abuse the man you detain and restrain, regardless of the social judgment of deserts"-JC

Nonsense. Actions have consequences. A man strikes you, you strike him back. That is not abuse. A man strikes his wife, I arrest him in her name. That is not abuse.

"I'm not confusing "responsibility for" with "power over."-JC

But you are Jack, deliberately in fact.

almostinfamous said...

i am really glad i made that brief comment - a sliver of light has become a whole window.

thanks, all :)

Cüneyt said...

First, JR, I am pleased that my thought proved a stepping stone, much as almostinfamous's proved for me.

Second, Jack Crow, I quote you:
"If there is power, this is a victim of that power. Always."

And I respond that this is a good way to think about government, but individually it simply cannot be true. I have a power to do murder, whatever the consequences, whatever the power superstructure. And yet I do not do it.

Is that a sufficient safe guard when you work with organizations and institutions? Absolutely not. But let's be frank: the Rotary Club has as much power to wield weapons and harass individuals in the street as many terrorist organizations. That it does not says something. You must talk about how power is used and how coercion is used through which channels. You can't say something so sweeping as "power kills, power victimizes. Always. Forever and ever." (I paraphrase, of course.) What JR is talking about it analyzing a mechanics of power. We see how the machine works and then respond in kind. We do not smell the scent of gasoline and behold the outlines of an engine and climb up a tree to scream like a troop of apes.

Your fear is forgivable, and actually wise. But what you say is incomprehensible, and ultimately leads me to ask how you define power. You seem to ascribe value to it automatically.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I wish I could assume "power over" automatically is benign just because it's a parent wielding power over a child.

Unfortunately I suffered abuse as a child, from my parent.


You hairsplitting pseudo-intellectuals are doing nothing better than unwillingly making Jack's points for him, while you pretend to be showing his arguments' flaws.

I find that amusing, but in the most sad and pitiable ways.

Coldtype said...

"I wish I could assume "power over" automatically is benign just because it's a parent wielding power over a child"-CFO

I make no such assumption Oxy. NECESSARY power over others in these limited examples doesn't fill my eyes with tears. Sorry. Benign? Hardly, but it's a tradeoff we can live with (in these examples) in the delicate balance of REAL LIFE. I'm sorry that you suffered abuse at the hands of your parents. Mine whipped my ass on occasion as well. It would appear, however, that we've managed to survive the ordeal of childhood with our wits about us.

JRB said...

I like to think that we're all just buddies helping buddies out, in the words of a special buddy.

Cüneyt said...

Fuck you, Charles. Me and my brother went through hell when we were kids, and then put each other through hell. Doesn't mean that my brother or I abuse each other now, even though we have the power to do so. Doesn't mean I don't have a war with myself every time I order my son to do something. Power to do something ain't the same as doing it, so if you're on that boat then fuck you once more.