Archive

Posts Tagged ‘power’

There is no “alt-left”

February 22, 2018 4 comments

The alt-right (or perhaps just the corporate media) have invented the term “alt-left” to smear leftists like antifa who actually do something (as opposed to progressives who just vote). They seem to think if you imply they are simply the left-wing version of the alt-right (whatever that would mean) they must be as bad as the alt-right. The problem is, the term is meaningless.

It might be useful to point the difference between right-wing and left-wing. These terms are somewhat hazy, but I might, after fifteen years of hearing the terms bandied about, have figured out the difference.

political chart compass

The standard “political compass” looks like the image above. The more libertarian (ie. believing in freedom for all), the lower down. The more authoritarian (ie. willing to impose one’s vision for the world on others) one is, the higher up on the chart one is. Right and left are less often defined but no less significant. Here is what they seem to mean.

The right wing believes different people deserve to be treated differently, and it is inevitable different people will have different amounts of wealth and power. The top right thinks it is fine to use force to keep these structures in place, while the bottom right thinks if you reduce the amount of force (usually by reducing the amount of government) it will (inevitably) mean inequality. That is why racist ideology is essentially right wing: it holds people should be treated differently, regardless of what they did to deserve it.

The left wing believes people are essentially equal and should be treated equally. People should have roughly equal social power. The top left thinks redistributing wealth and social power should be effected by authoritarian means, while the bottom left thinks the ideal is to eliminate structures of power and authority, as those are the root of the problem.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Tony Blair are not left wing, nor are the progressives and “liberals” who support them. They waged war all over the world, threw people in jail for selling and buying drugs, deported millions of people and gave trillions of dollars to large corporations. These are right-wing policies. The only reason they were ever called left wing is their political opponents were even further to the right, wanting more deportations, more incarceration and more war. Or perhaps more accurately, the people who hated Hillary, Barack and others like them did not realize how right wing they actually were. One could also argue these people are centrists: they stand for nothing.

Castro Tony Blair war left

The alt-right, being mostly in the top-right quadrant, are willing to use violence to remove from society those they believe do not fit in their vision for it. They want to ethnically cleanse whole countries of non-whites, non-Christians and leftists.

Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep, explains why “alt-right” is still a useful term.

Here’s why I call them the “Alt Right” instead of just “Nazis.” The Alt Right is a composite of a number of far-right tendencies including anarcho-capitalists, silicon valley neo-reactionaries, MRAs, Klansmen, and other forms of fascists. Broadly, it’s a fascist movement, but it’s a fascist movement of a certain character. Calling them the Alt Right makes a clear, descriptive identification specific, and shows that this is a discrete group, or rather group of groups, with a set of visible, self-proclaimed and established leaders.

Alexander might have added that many American conservatives approximate the alt-right position. Fascists know conservatives are easily manipulated by feeding their prejudices and do so through media such as Breitbart and Facebook pages.

You may have heard of the “[right-] libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline”. There are several possible reasons why many right-libertarians have joined the alt-right. (See this video for some of them.) One of them seems to be that racists have convinced libertarians only white people appreciate or can be taught to appreciate freedom. They have thus embraced Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas about “physical removal” of anyone who they say does not believe in freedom, which in practice is anyone to the left of them, plus Muslims, plus anyone from another culture. You will likely hear much more about “anti-communism”, as many on the right label all those to their left communists.

Charlie Kirk socialism

The idea of the “alt-left” comes from horseshoe theory, the belief that the more extreme one’s politics get, the more one comes to resemble the other side. This theory is nonsense. The extreme left would never accept the enormous concentrations of wealth that have created so many problems in the world. The extreme left would not tolerate racism, discrimination against disabled or LGBT etc. people, class society, wage labor or slavery. I am thus bottom left and have nothing in common with the top right. There is no horseshoe.

the true political compass

Advertisements

Themes of Power in the Great White Hype

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Easily my favorite Samuel L. Jackson role is that of the Reverend Sultan in 1996’s the Great White Hype. Indeed, this often overlooked movie is one of my favorites, and the Rev is largely to thank. An imposing figure in gold and a turban, owning the screen with his wide grin, the Reverend Sultan is a boxing promoter clearly modeled on Don King. He understands and wields power as effectively as anyone in Game of Thrones, just in a different context.

It is easy to think the central theme of the Great White Hype is racism. The story revolves around a heavyweight boxing champion, played by Damon Wayans (in a role slightly reminiscent of Mike Tyson), who has become so good no one wants to pay to see his fights anymore. The Rev solves the problem of falling ticket sales by finding a white guy to challenge the champ. The Rev uses racism–not the vicious kind but a more subtle, competitive version that is easy to deny–to whip up interest in the fight and sell tickets in one fight between the champ, James Roper, and the man who beat him as an amateur, named Terry Conklin. His strategy works. White and black Americans become divided (again, not viciously; the fighting stays in the ring) on which fighter they support, and all are inflamed with the excitement of “their side” beating the other.

The subject of race is reasonably well explored for an average-length comedy that doesn’t preach to you. It is not treated as a simple division between black and white or whatever other color. We see how clever people use racism as a tool to blind others and then lead them in a certain direction. “It ain’t about race,” says the champ on hearing of the Reverend Sultan’s plan, “it’s about boxing.” The Rev laughs in his face. Divisions among black people are touched on here and there, as when the champ says “A white contender? The two words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.” And the challenger gets named “Irish” Terry Conklin because “it’s boxing: it just means you’re white.”

But to end our search for themes there is to miss the point of this movie. Racism is a tool to divide people and motivate them, but motivate them to do what? Divide and conquer is an old a strategy for getting people to do what you want, and it works. The people fork over their money in return for the thrill of competition. I cannot help thinking arbitrarily dividing the masses is a story that, though (or perhaps because) it is so common as to be essential to modern-day political power, is not clear enough to people. People do not realize how divided they are. They are unaware how these divisions sap their empathy, break up their community and make the prospect of solidarity in the face of power harder. They compete with each other in ways ranging from supposedly harmless sports to total war, fighting each other when they should be uniting to guillotine their kings and banish the aristocracy.

Power is always at risk. People are always trying to take power from you, and the more you have, the more you have to lose. Power is certainly a means to an end, as it means more of some of the luxuries of life (including people surrounding you willing to kill to protect you). But it becomes an end in itself. Powerful people constantly pursue and expand their influence. It is their 24-hour job. They often become paranoid, so even if their power is secure they could feel the need to lop off a few heads for good measure. They may find ways to imprison, kill or otherwise incapacitate more of their enemies. They may find ways to enlarge their armies, bring in more gold, build more castles or force more peasants into servitude. They might do all those things on the same day.

On that note, let’s go back to the Reverend Sultan. The man is the center of the boxing world. He lives in a palace with all the finest things. The Rev covers all his bases. His chosen title alludes to both Christianity and Islam and implies someone holy and trustworthy but also a man of power. All that in two words. The first thing he says to the media is “Glory be to God, all praises to Allah, God bless America”. He creates and cultivates this image so he can be all things to all people, much like a state that claims to represent everyone, uphold various rights, manage the economy, provide healthcare and education and keep people safe. He talks smack in front of the cameras but in person is steady, charming and intimidating, as the situation calls for. After he breaks his promise to the champ at the beginning, he, with the aid of his employees, puts on a big act to convince the champ of his contrition. Though the champ is never quite convinced, having dealt with the Rev’s bullshit before, this tactic works. It calms the champ down. The Rev proceeds to explain his plan to “create” a white contender for the heavyweight title. The champ is sold on the idea.

The Reverend Sultan came a long way

He is a skilled manipulator, painting a picture others want to believe in. Terry Conklin is skeptical when first informed of the Sultan’s plan. “I give my money to the homeless.” Terry puts his motivation in front of him for the Sultan to use against him.

“Good,” replies Sultan, “because if you take me up on my proposition and [fight the champ], I guarantee that you will personally wipe out homelessness in America.”

He tells Terry, “You can still kick [the champ’s] ass!…He’s scared shitless of you,” later confiding to Terry’s trainer, “When the bell rings, he’s dog meat.”

“This could be the fight of the century,” Sultan claims, but Terry sees through it:

“Yeah, right, until the next ‘fight of the century’.”

“You’re a shrewd man,” says Sultan, knowing complimenting most people’s intelligence puts them off their guard, “but if not for yourself Terry, do it for the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like Terry, Jamie Foxx’s character (whose name is never spoken) falls to the Reverend Sultan. Foxx plays the manager of the top contender. He attempts to act boldly on several occasions and always falters under the influence–sometimes no more than a look–from the Reverend Sultan.

The character that I think best illustrates how the Rev wields power is Mitchell Kane. In an exemplary performance by Jeff Goldblum, Mitchell Kane is an independent journalist making a documentary about the Reverend Sultan. He appears to us several times at the beginning looking into a camera and narrating his report. It begins, “You and I are going to take a very close look at this boxing promoter, this exploiter, embezzler, charlatan and demagogue.” Kane is the only one outside the Rev’s inner circle who knows how dangerous he is. Anywhere with a “free” press is likely to have some radical journalist speaking truth to power, but they, like Mitchell Kane, go mostly ignored.

Kane attempts to blackmail the Reverend Sultan. He forces Sultan to arrange a meeting. But the meeting is not in some coffee shop or even an office. It is in Sultan’s home, on his turf and his terms, in his sauna. He naturally has the advantage.

“So what do you want?” asks Sultan jovially.

“I want to destroy you,” answers Kane, as if he has been wanting to say those words for some time. He hands over photographs of the Sultan in compromising positions with prostitutes. Sultan laughs as he goes through them. “I like you. You have a goal and you have the balls to reach that goal. You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”

“Flattery is not going to work. I–”

“No, no, no, I want to offer you a job.”

After an apparently long discussion, Kane exits the sauna to find his documentary crew waiting for him. He addresses the camera. “Some have said this upcoming title fight is built around racism. But…” The Rev had co-opted him, appointing him his new PR guy with a nice, new salary. As is sometimes the case, the journalist (or the academic, or the social worker, or the more highly skilled union employee) likes what the powerful guy has to offer and sells out. Kane is soon throwing out nonsense like “In the cynical age that we live in, it’s rare indeed when someone or something becomes so transcendent as Terry and this fight have become.”

Julio Escobar gives the Rev more opportunities to show how he wields power. Cheech Marin plays Julio, president of the boxing association and thus the guy in charge of ranking professional boxers. Naturally, the Rev has Julio in his back pocket. The Rev has the money, so he is in charge. We see an example of this power imbalance in every scene featuring Julio. In Julio’s first scene, the Reverend Sultan finds out Julio’s assistant is smart, so he hugs her and says “You work for me now.” Julio objects:

“Hey, wait a minute, she works for me!”

“Uh, Julio, she works for me.”

“Okay, fine.”

Later, the Rev meets with Julio after finding Terry.

“I want the WBI to rank [Terry Conklin] in the top ten so I can give him a title shot,” says Sultan.

“You know Reverend, over the years I have bent and greased and stretched the rules for you…but even I cannot rank a fighter who has not had a professional fight!”

“Now, what’s it going to take for you to make this happen?” asks the Sultan suavely. “Money? Sex? Drugs? …Power?”

“Yeah, power.”

“You’re fired.”

“Okay! Money, sex and drugs.”

The Reverend knows you do not ask someone for power; you bargain for it, you demand it, you take it, but you do not get it by simply asking those people actively wielding their power over you.

“Don’t pull your shit out if you ain’t ready to use it.”

In the next scene, at a press conference, Sultan calls him “the honorable, estimable, incorruptible Mr Julio Escobar.” If you want to lie, lie big: turn the truth upside down. Smother the truth under articulate, high-quality bullshit.

Controlling one’s image requires controlling the message and only admitting being wrong if it benefits you strategically. Part of being in power therefore means somehow avoiding answering the tough questions. We have all heard politicians do it: attacking the interlocutor’s character; “That’s not the question. The real question is…”; etc. While leaving the room of the press conference, a white man accosts the Reverend Sultan and shouts “Julio Escobar is a whore on your payroll.” This man speaks the truth. He must be silenced, his comment forgotten.

“That is a libelous statement and a racist comment simply because Julio Escobar is of Latin descent.” Both barrels. The Rev continues the deflection as the man shifts uncomfortably. “Are you saying something about brown-skinned people? Do you hate Jews and Negroes as well?”

“I am a Jew.”

“Then you’re an Uncle Tom!”

The Rev turned another man from one who literally speaks truth to power into a “racist” in a brief exchange of words, discrediting him in the eyes of his peers and shutting up anyone else who might make the same accusation as he did.

Image is reality, and in the following scene the Reverend is complaining about initial media coverage after the announcement. He is addressing his PR guy, Saul, played by Jon Lovitz. “Why are they saying these things?”

“Because it’s the truth,” says Saul.

“The truth needs to be shaped and molded and framed, Saul.” Sultan is describing how PR (propaganda) works.

With threats, intimidation and co-opting for people who might present him with a challenge to controlling perceptions and images, the Reverend Sultan shows us both how to use power and why people with power are so hard to dislodge. Of course, the Great White Hype is about the world of boxing, not the coercive power of the state. The power of the state is incalculably more dangerous, and as a result, political-power relations are far more competitive and even more lucrative for the winners.

So what happens to the Rev? Does he lose his empire, or does he come out on top? Do you need to ask? He is the only one in the movie who truly understands power. He’s not going anywhere.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Hierarchy

February 2, 2017 1 comment

This post is part 2 of my series on why I am no longer an anarcho-capitalist.

A pure focus on the state distracts somewhat from the more general problem of hierarchy. Not all “authority” is bad, since I defer to the authority of the carpenter, the tailor, the bus driver and so on every day. That is ad-hoc authority: I follow them for now for my own benefit. Institutionalized authority is the problem. Anarcho-capitalists (ancaps) agree with this idea but limit their focus to the institutions of the state. But it is not only the state’s authority that is harmful.

Power corrupts. The state is not the only source of power. In a world where money buys influence, the lack of a state would only partially diminish that power. Money could still buy authoritative-looking media sources and spread any kind of lies, fear, hatred, etc.; it could be used to bribe any kind of leader (such as union leaders or town elders); it could be used to raise a private army, and once those things had taken place, the non-aggression principle (or NAP) would be no longer a norm but would return to, as it is today, little more than an ideal to aspire toward. The state would be reborn.

I disagree with other anarchists who look down on anarcho-capitalism because they think it would be even more tyrannical than today. If that were true, why would the rich not be at the forefront of calls to eliminate the state? They are the true beneficiaries of the state. They might be able to reconstitute the state if it were eliminated, but without it the accumulation of wealth and power would be more difficult. When I was an ancap, I wrote about how people in a stateless world could defend themselves against people trying to restore the state. I do not disagree with ancaps on everything. However, I no longer see anarcho-capitalism as the ideal. We could go much further toward freedom and justice if we dig deeper into anarchist theory.

Anarchists oppose institutional hierarchy. Hierarchy as we know it today is largely a product of state violence, what Marx called primitive accumulation, but does not exist solely in the state. It has transformed people from hunter-gatherers and self-sufficient farmers into dependent cogs in the wheels of the capitalist/corporatist/whatever-you-call-it system. The majority is, by the design of the system, locked out of making decisions regarding it. That is just as true in a corporate hierarchy as in the state.

capitalism Mr Peanut

People with money are far more likely to become owners and bosses than people without money. They can afford the best education and the best means to impress others (eg. nice suits, lavish parties). They can afford to start their own businesses and do not have to work for minimum wage. They can afford the accountants and lawyers necessary to navigate the complex regulatory state. The owners and bosses make decisions, including the decisions about whom to promote up the ranks. Hierarchy thus reproduces itself. When there are other hierarchies in society, such as in unions, powerful people can co-opt them by buying the influence of the leaders. Hierarchy thereby creates a class system, buoying the people on top not only through the state but through their informal influence, and keeping the people on the bottom down by locking them out of the decision-making process.

But why should workers not participate in decision making at the organizations where they work? It seems cruel to tell them they should buy stock in the company or start their own when these things are far easier said than done. It sounds a bit like “if you don’t like it here, move”. Moreover, ancaps often say those things in regard to the current economic system, not some ideal free market. It is almost as if they are mocking people for not having enough money to buy influence over decisions that affect their lives when the system they live under makes doing so impossible.

Business is full of high-profile scandals (along with countless others we never hear about) involving people in positions of power using those positions to harass or go to bed with those lower down the ladder. If you want to be part of our organization, or to get a raise, or whatever, you must “play ball”. You could call this activity abuse of power but any hierarchical system enables it.

All these reasons are why anarchists believe in non-hierarchical or horizontal organization–no superiors, no subordinates, everyone on an equal footing regarding decision making. In my view, that does not necessarily mean equal salary: I might choose to divide my time between two organizations and thus take only half the salary from each. It does, however, mean all employees can decide those things together, and do not have to beg or butter up their bosses for raises and time off or live in constant fear of getting fired for some mistake or failing.

To address the ancap concern, non-hierarchical organization does not require violence. It requires creating such structures as viable alternatives to the life of class, money and power. It could mean starting cooperatives, where employees are also owners; it could mean starting communes, where property is voluntarily given up; it could mean any other form of mutual aid, working with the people around you to solve your problems. The abolition of hierarchy is an ideal to be striven for, just like non-aggression.

Turning fear into empowerment motivates people and reduces stress. They take responsibility. They are accountable to each other. They do not need to compete for dominance. These things distinguish communities from corporations. Hierarchy, on the other hand, creates stress and fear, as people worry about getting told off or fired or merely docked an hour’s pay for coming in five minutes late. The people in charge have no responsibility to their employees beyond the necessarily unequal terms on which they were hired. (And in a stateless society, who is to force a boss to honor a contract? I have written on this subject too, and yet can no longer see how someone begging to be hired could ever bargain on equal terms with a rich person who can afford better representation.) As such, bosses can, say, fire employees en masse with no notice. Hierarchy creates positions of better pay and power over others that only a minority can fill, which others can only compete for like crabs in a bucket. (And if you do not think the ability to fire another for any reason you like is power over that person, we must agree to disagree. Being able to quit, at least in today’s world, does not compare, since the company can simply hire someone else.) People jockeying for power are forced to defer to the people on top, to kiss their boots, to show themselves willing to serve and dominate, to play a rigged game with a smile.

Hierarchy, anarchy, solidarity, freedom

To illustrate the problem, consider racism. A racist seeks to impose a kind of hierarchy. A racial hierarchy is not very different from a social hierarchy. I know of no perfectly fluid class societies where it is a simple matter for poor people to get rich. At least one survey has found a majority of poor Americans never even make it to the middle class. A racial hierarchy makes it impossible for all within the subordinate race to reach the top (without a revolution), though the masters can elevate some members of the subordinate race by creating house negroes and field negroes, dividing the subordinate race and refining the hierarchy. A social hierarchy is only somewhat less bad in that it makes it impossible for most to reach the top. That should come as small consolation to the poor.

Hierarchy necessarily creates inequality. Though my next post will focus on inequality, for the time being I can point out inequality is not an ideal. Forced equality is not, either, of course (again, anarchists are not Stalinists), but most inequality is simply unnecessary and harmful and too readily tolerated by ancaps. If we somehow eliminated the state without eliminating the stark inequality of power in society, the dominance and submission we know today would not disappear. It would simply regroup and return in a different form.