Sunday, July 10, 2011

Absorbing the Resistance

One way in which the socio-economic hierarchy (and the large-scale impoverishment of much of the human population that it entails) has managed to perpetuate itself throughout the development of capitalism must be credited to the way in which various actors interested in maintaining (or exaggerating) the status quo have strategically redirected and absorbed the resistance movements that have cropped up in the past couple centuries, making sure that none presented any series challenge to the system. Potential resistance elements are used to clean up and contain the damage caused by capitalism (the band-aid approach), such that they are essentially working to support the system, further its viability, rather than change it.

I could perhaps expand this discussion beyond capitalism, looking at resistance and the political-economic order prior to the development of capitalism. However, partly due to the limitations of my own knowledge, I stick to the capitalist era.

The Welfare State
The first rumblings of resistance (in the 18th and early 19th centuries) came primarily from within the ranks of the newly formed working class. The workers were being paid next to nothing, their working conditions were abysmal. The revolts that accompanied the emergence of capitalism had the potential of disrupting the whole project, of putting an end to it before it even began. If it were not for the engineering of the welfare state, this would likely have been the case.

The welfare state looks, on the surface, like a simple compromise between the workers and the capitalists. Particularly so if you, like the workers, view the state within the framework of social contract ideology, rather than seeing it as a tool of the capitalist class. In fact, the birth of the welfare state is more the solidification of a relationship between the capitalist class and the state which has more or less held, albeit with increasing complexity, since that time, wherein the state is used as a means to diffuse risk (for example, in the welfare state, by subsidizing the cost of labor, pacifying the workers, etc.).

The Technocrats
As these workers' struggles continued in waves, before essentially petering out after the Depression of the 1930s, another group of potential defectors was emerging (throughout the 19th century before reaching an apex in the early 20th, coinciding with the second phase of capitalism). These were educated, science-minded, socialist-leaning professionals. Socialist, but not Marxist. They believed strongly in the welfare state, and sought to expand its functions to include technical administration of population and territory for the purpose of increasing productivity, efficiency, health, and happiness. Their "socialist utopia" was one in which bureaucratic experts managed and ordered all aspects of human life, mitigating the harmful effects of capitalist industrialization (pollution, disease, poverty, crime). Their primary goal was to root out sources of pathology: to decrease pollution, to eradicate disease, to remove and/or rehabilitate the "criminal elements" in society.  However, they never addressed the real causes of any of these "pathological" elements.

The technocrats were easy to take care of. Since they, too, held faith in the state's ability to solve social problems, they were effortlessly absorbed into the state. Government agencies were created so that they could apply their expertise in public health, urban planning, criminology, environmental science, social work, pyschology, sociology, etc. As part of, or in alliance with, the state, they tinkered away, implementing haphazard projects at worst, taking some of the sting out of the harshest aspects of capitalism at best, but all the while they were supporting the forms of domination (the state, industrialization, science, bureaucracy) responsible for the ills of the current world order. Like the welfare state, governmental bureaucracy and its technocrats are still part of the political-economic infrastructure.

Foundations and Nonprofits
Following WW2, with the third major phase of capitalist development, another group has risen to the fore. These are people who would be technocrats - they are practically interchangable - yet they choose to work "outside" of the state. In part, they view independence from larger governing structures as a way to maintain the authenticity and progressive ethos of their movement. The rise of nonprofits (a very large profileration in the post-WW2 era) has also been a means by which the burden of bureaucratic governance and responsibility for mopping up the messes of capitalism has been transferred away from the state and consequently been "privatized."

The function of foundations - essentially large corporate tax shelters that also, to a much smaller degree, serve as a source of funding for nonprofits - ensures that the nonprofit organizations with the most resources will pursue projects in compliance with corporate interests. Hence, nonprofits may nominally be "independent," but the reality is that they are dependent upon states and corporations for funding, both of whom then control the agendas of these organizations.

The common thread among all these resistance movements is that they have all sought solutions within the state, all tried to work within power structures rather than trying to fundamentally challenge them. They have expended a large amount of resources and energy making minor adjustments to, but leaving basically intact, the structures of domination by which they are oppressed. A lot of human effort that could have been used for systemic change, wasted on small "tweaks."

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