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