Oppression and Subordination

Oppression is not an attitude, it’s about systems of power.

by Lierre Keith / Deep Green Resistance.

At this moment, the liberal basis of most progressive movements is impeding our ability, individually and collectively, to take action. The individualism of liberalism, and of American society generally, renders too many of us unable to think clearly about our dire situation. Individual action is not an effective response to power because human society is political; by definition it is built from groups, not from individuals. That is not to say that individual acts of physical and intellectual courage can’t spearhead movements. But Rosa Parks didn’t end segregation on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system. Rosa Parks plus the stalwart determination and strategic savvy of the entire black community did.

Liberalism also diverges from a radical analysis on the question of the nature of social reality. Liberalism is idealist. This is the belief that reality is a mental activity. Oppression, therefore, consists of attitudes and ideas, and social change happens through rational argument and education. Materialism, in contrast, is the understanding that society is organized by concrete systems of power, not by thoughts and ideas, and that the solution to oppression is to take those systems apart brick by brick. This in no way implies that individuals are exempt from examining their privilege and behaving honorably. It does mean that antiracism workshops will never end racism: only political struggle to rearrange the fundamentals of power will.

There are three other key differences between liberals and radicals. Because liberalism erases power, it can only explain the subordinate position of oppressed groups through biology or some other claim to naturalism. A radical analysis of race understands that differences in skin tone are a continuum, not a distinction: race as biology doesn’t exist. Writes Audrey Smedley in Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview,

Race originated as the imposition of an arbitrary value system on the facts of biological (phenotypic) variations in the human species.… The meanings had social value but no intrinsic relationship to the biological diversity itself. Race … was fabricated as an existential reality out of a combination of recognizable physical differences and some incontrovertible social facts: the conquest of indigenous peoples, their domination and exploitation, and the importation of a vulnerable and controllable population from Africa to service the insatiable greed of some European entrepreneurs. The physical differences were a major tool by which the dominant whites constructed and maintained social barriers and economic inequalities; that is, they consciously sought to create social stratification based on these visible differences.3

Her point is that race is about power, not physical differences. Racializing ideology was a tool of the English against the Irish and the Nazis against the Jews, groups that could not be distinguished by phenotypic differences—indeed, that was why the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars.

Conservatives actively embrace biological explanations for race and gender oppression. White liberals usually know better than to claim that people of color are naturally inferior, but without the systematic analysis of radicalism, they are stuck with vaguely uncomfortable notions that people of color are just … different, a difference that is often fetishized or sexualized, or that results in patronizing attitudes.

Gender is probably the ultimate example of power disguised as biology. There are sociobiological explanations for everything from male spending patterns to rape, all based on the idea that differences between men and women are biological, not, as radicals believe, socially created. This naturalizing of political categories makes them almost impossible to question; there’s no point in challenging nature or four million years of evolution. It’s as useless as confronting God, the right-wing bulwark of misogyny and social stratification.

The primary purpose of all this rationalization is to try to remove power from the equation. If God ordained slavery or rape, then this is what shall happen. Victimization becomes naturalized. When these forms of “naturalization” are shown to be self-serving rationalizations the fall-back position is often that the victimization somehow is a benefit to the victims. Today, many of capitalism’s most vocal defenders argue that indigenous people and subsistence farmers want to “develop” (oddly enough, at the point of a gun); many men argue that women “want it” (oddly enough, at the point of a gun); foresters argue that forests (who existed on their own for thousands of years) benefit from their management.

With power removed from the equation, victimization looks voluntary, which erases the fact that it is, in fact, social subordination. What liberals don’t understand is that 90 percent of oppression is consensual. As Florynce Kennedy wrote, “There can be no really pervasive system of oppression … without the consent of the oppressed.”4 This does not mean that it is our fault, that the system will crumble if we withdraw consent, or that the oppressed are responsible for their oppression. All it means is that the powerful—capitalists, white supremacists, colonialists, masculinists—can’t stand over vast numbers of people twenty-four hours a day with guns. Luckily for them and depressingly for the rest of us, they don’t have to.

People withstand oppression using three psychological methods: denial, accommodation, and consent. Anyone on the receiving end of domination learns early in life to stay in line or risk the consequences. Those consequences only have to be applied once in a while to be effective: the traumatized psyche will then police itself. In the battered women’s movement, it’s generally acknowledged that one beating a year will keep a woman down.

While liberals consider it an insult to be identified with a class or group, they further believe that such an identity renders one a victim. I realize that identity is a complex experience. It’s certainly possible to claim membership in an oppressed group but still hold a liberal perspective on one’s experience. This was brought home to me while I was stuck watching television in a doctor’s waiting room. The show was (supposedly) a comedy about people working in an office. One of the black characters found out that he might have been hired because of an affirmative action policy. He was so depressed and humiliated that he quit. Then the female manager found out that she also might have been ultimately advanced to her position because of affirmative action. She collapsed into depression as well. The emotional narrative was almost impossible for me to follow. Considering what men of color and all women are up against—violence, poverty, daily social derision—affirmative action is the least this society can do to rectify systematic injustice. But the fact that these middle-class professionals got where they were because of the successful strategy of social justice movements was self-evidently understood broadly by the audience to be an insult, rather than an instance of both individual and movement success.

Note that within this liberal mind-set it’s not the actual material conditions that victimize—it’s naming those unjust conditions in an attempt to do something about them that brings the charge of victimization. But radicals are not the victimizers. We are the people who believe that unjust systems can change—that the oppressed can have real agency and fight to gain control of the material conditions of their lives. We don’t accept versions of God or nature that defend our domination, and we insist on naming the man behind the curtain, on analyzing who is doing what to whom as the first step to resistance.

The final difference between liberals and radicals is in their approaches to justice. Since power is rendered invisible in the liberal schema, justice is served by adhering to abstract principles. For instance, in the United States, First Amendment absolutism means that hate groups can actively recruit and organize since hate speech is perfectly legal. The principle of free speech outweighs the material reality of what hate groups do to real human people.

For the radicals, justice cannot be blind; concrete conditions must be recognized and addressed for anything to change. Domination will only be dismantled by taking away the rights of the powerful and redistributing social power to the rest of us. People sometimes say that we will know feminism has done its job when half the CEOs are women. That’s not feminism; to quote Catharine MacKinnon, it’s liberalism applied to women. Feminism will have won not when a few women get an equal piece of the oppression pie, served up in our sisters’ sweat, but when all dominating hierarchies—including economic ones—are dismantled.


There is no better definition of oppression than Marilyn Frye’s, from her book The Politics of Reality. She writes, “Oppression is a system of interrelated barriers and forces which reduce, immobilize and mold people who belong to a certain group, and effect their subordination to another group.”5 This is radicalism in one elegant sentence. Oppression is not an attitude, it’s about systems of power. One of the harms of subordination is that it creates not only injustice, exploitation, and abuse, but also consent.

Subordination has also been defined for us. Andrea Dworkin lists its four elements:6

1. Hierarchy

Hierarchy means there is “a group on top and a group on the bottom.” The “bottom” group has fewer rights, fewer resources, and is “held to be inferior.”7

2. Objectification

“Objectification occurs when a human being, through social means, is made less than human, turned into a thing or commodity, bought and sold … those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms.”8

3. Submission

“In a condition of inferiority and objectification, submission is usually essential for survival … The submission forced on inferior, objectified groups precisely by hierarchy and objectification is taken to be the proof of inherent inferiority and subhuman capacities.”9

4. Violence

Committed by members of the group on top, violence is “systematic, endemic enough to be unremarkable and normative, usually taken as an implicit right of the one committing the violence.”10

All four of these elements work together to create an almost hermetically sealed world, psychologically and politically, where oppression is as normal and necessary as air. Any show of resistance is met with a continuum that starts with derision and ends in violent force. Yet resistance happens, somehow. Despite everything, people will insist on their humanity.

Coming to a political consciousness is not a painless task. To overcome denial means facing the everyday, normative cruelty of a whole society, a society made up of millions of people who are participating in that cruelty, and if not directly, then as bystanders with benefits. A friend of mine who grew up in extreme poverty recalled becoming politicized during her first year in college, a year of anguish over the simple fact that “there were rich people and there were poor people, and there was a relationship between the two.” You may have to face full-on the painful experiences you denied in order to survive, and even the humiliation of your own collusion. But knowledge of oppression starts from the bedrock that subordination is wrong and resistance is possible. The acquired skill of analysis can be psychologically and even spiritually freeing.

Once some understanding of oppression is gained, most people are called to action.

Read more from the Deep Green Resistance book online.

Distinguishing Categories of Violence

by Lierre Keith, an excerpt from the book Deep Green Resistance, Chapter Three: Liberals and Radicals

Distinguishing Categories of Violence

It’s understandable that people who care about justice want to reject violence; many of us are survivors of it, and we know all too well the entitled psychology of the men who used it against us. And whatever our personal experiences, we can all see that the violence of imperialism, racism, and misogyny has created useless destruction and trauma over endless, exhausting millennia. There are good reasons that many thoughtful people embrace a nonviolent ethic.

Violence can be used destructively or wisely: by hierarchy or for self-defense, against people or property, for self-actualization or political resistance.

“Violence” is a broad category and we need to be clear what we’re talking about so that we can talk about it as a movement. I would urge the following distinctions: the violence of hierarchy vs. the violence of self-defense, violence against people vs. violence against property, and the violence as self-actualization vs. the violence for political resistance. It is difficult to find someone who is against all of these. When clarified in context, the abstract concept of “violence” breaks down into distinct and concrete actions that need to be judged on their own merits. It may be that in the end some people will still reject all categories of violence; that is a prerogative we all have as moral agents. But solidarity is still possible, and is indeed a necessity given the seriousness of the situation and the lateness of the hour. Wherever you personally fall on the issue of violence, it is vital to understand and accept its potential usefulness in achieving our collective radical and feminist goals.

Violence of Hierarchy vs. Violence of Self-Defense

The violence of hierarchy is the violence that the powerful use against the dispossessed to keep them subordinated. As an example, the violence committed for wealth is socially invisible or committed at enough of a distance that its beneficiaries don’t have to be aware of it. This type of violence has defined every imperialist war in the history of the US that has been fought to get access to “natural resources” for corporations to turn into the cheap consumer goods that form the basis of the American way of life. People who fight back to defend themselves and their land are killed. No one much notices. The powerful have armies, courts, prisons, and taxation on their side. They also own the global media, thus controlling not just the information but the entire discourse. The privileged have the “comforts or elegancies” (as one defender of slavery put it) to which they feel God, more or less, has entitled them, and the luxury to remain ignorant. The entire structure of global capitalism runs on violence (Violence: The Other Fossil Fuel?). The violence used by the powerful to keep their hierarchy in place is one manifestation that we can probably agree is wrong.

In contrast stands the violence of self-defense, a range of actions taken up by people being hurt by an aggressor. Everyone has the right to defend her or his life or person against an attacker. Many leftists extend this concept of self-defense to the right to collective defense as a people. For example, many political activists supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, even taking personal risks in solidarity work like building schools and harvesting coffee. Indeed some people refuse to call this collective self-defense “violence,” defining violence as only those brutal acts that support hierarchy. I believe it is more honest to call this violence, and accept that not all violence is equal, or equally bad.

Violence against Property vs. Violence against People

Again, some people reject that violence is the correct word to describe property destruction. Because physical objects cannot feel pain, they argue, tools like spray paint and accelerants can’t be considered weapons and their use is not violent. I think the distinction between sensate beings and insensate objects is crucial. So is property destruction violent or nonviolent? This question is both pragmatic—we do need to call it something—and experiential. Destroying property can be done without harming a single sentient being and with great effect to stop an unjust system. Can anyone really argue against the French resistance blowing up railroad tracks and bridges to stop the Nazis?

But violence against property can also be an act meant to intimidate. This is the source of the unease that many progressives and radicals may feel toward property destruction. If you have been a person so threatened, you know how effective it is. Indeed, if violence against property were an ineffective approach to instilling fear and compliance, no one would ever use it. Burning a cross on someone’s lawn is meant to traumatize and terrorize. So is smashing all the dinner plates to the floor. A friend who survived a right-wing terrorist attack on the building where she worked was later hospitalized with severe PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Property destruction can have a crippling effect on sentient beings.

Whatever we decide to call property destruction, we need to weigh the consequences and strategic benefits and make our decisions from there. Again, “violence” is not a bad word, only a descriptive one. Obviously, many more people can accept an attack against a window, a wall, or an empty building than can accept violence against a person, and that’s as it should be. But wherever you stand personally on this issue, basic respect for each other and for our movement as a whole demands that we acknowledge the distinction between people and property when we discuss violence.

Violence as Self-Actualization vs. Violence for Political Resistance

Male socialization is basic training for life in a military hierarchy. The psychology of masculinity is the psychology required of soldiers, demanding control, emotional distance, and a willingness and ability to dominate. The subject of that domination is a negative reference group, an “Other” that is objectified as subhuman. In patriarchy, the first group that boys learn to despise is girls. Franz Fanon quotes (uncritically, of course) a young Algerian militant who repeatedly chanted, “I am not a coward, I am not a woman, I am not a traitor.” No insult is worse than some version of “girl,” usually a part of female anatomy warped into hate speech.

With male entitlement comes a violation imperative: men become men by breaking boundaries, whether it’s the sexual boundaries of women, the cultural boundaries of other peoples, the physical boundaries of other nations, the genetic boundaries of species, or the biological boundaries of ecosystems. For the entitled psyche, the only reason “No” exists is because it’s a sexual thrill to force past it. As Robin Morgan poignantly describes the situation of Tamil women,

To the women, the guerillas and the army bring disaster. They complain that both sets of men steal, loot, and molest women and girls. They hate the government army for doing this, but they’re terrified as well of the insurgent forces ostensibly fighting to free them. Of their own Tamil men, one says wearily, “If the boys come back, we will have the same experience all over again. We want to be left in peace.”

Eldridge Cleaver announced, “We shall have our manhood or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it.” This is a lose-lose proposition for the planet, of course, and for the women and children who stand in the way of such masculine necessity. Or as the Vietnamese say, when the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.

As we can see from these examples, whether from a feminist understanding or from a peace perspective, the concern that taking up violence could potentially be individually and culturally dangerous is a valid one. Many soldiers are permanently marked by war. Homeless shelters are peopled by vets too traumatized to function. Life-threatening situations leave scars, as do both committing and surviving atrocities.

But violence is a broad category of action; it can be wielded destructively or wisely. We can decide when property destruction is acceptable, against which physical targets, and with what risks to civilians. We can decide whether direct violence against people is appropriate. We can build a resistance movement and a supporting culture in which atrocities are always unacceptable; in which penalties for committing them are swift and severe; in which violence is not glorified as a concept but instead understood as a specific set of actions that we may have to take up, but that we will also set down to return to our communities. Those are lines we can inscribe in our culture of resistance. That culture will have to include a feminist critique of masculinity, a good grounding in the basics of abuse dynamics, and an understanding of posttraumatic stress disorder. We will have to have behavioral norms that shun abusers instead of empowering them, support networks for prisoners, aid for combatants struggling with PTSD, and an agreement that anyone who has a history of violent or abusive behavior needs to be kept far away from serious underground action. Underground groups should do an “emotional background check” on potential recruits. Like substance abuse, personal or relational violence should disqualify that recruit. First and foremost, we need a movement made of people of character where abusers have no place. Second, the attitudes that create an abuser are at their most basic level about entitlement. A recruit with that personality structure will almost certainly cause problems when the actionists need sacrifice, discipline, and dependability. Men who are that entitled are able to justify almost any action. If they’re comfortable committing atrocities against their intimates and families, it will be all too easy for them to behave badly when armed or otherwise in a position of power, committing rape, torture, or theft. We need our combatants to be of impeccable character for our public image, for the efficacy of our underground cells, and for the new society we’re trying to build. “Ours is not a war for robbery, not to satisfy our passions, it is a struggle for freedom,” Nat Turner told his recruits, who committed no atrocities and stole only the supplies that they needed.

Only people with a distaste for violence should be allowed to use it. Empowering psychopaths or reinscribing the dominating masculinity of global patriarchy are mistakes we must avoid.

A very simple question to ask as we collectively and individually consider serious actions like property destruction is, is this action tactically sound? Does it advance our goal of saving the planet? Or does it simply answer an emotional need to do something, to feel something? I have been at demonstrations where young men smashed windows of mom and pop grocery stores and set fire to random cars in the neighborhood. This is essentially violence as a form of self-expression—for a very entitled self. Such random acts of destruction against people who are not the enemy have no place in our strategy or in our culture. It’s especially the job of men to educate other men about our collective rejection of masculinist violence.

Editors Note: The organization DGR is founded on the ideas and analysis laid out in the book by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Aric McBay. To increase the book’s accessibility, especially to international audiences, we’re now making it available for free in two ways: