The Root is Power

One of Henry David Thoreau’s most famous sayings is “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

A series of serendipitous events this week pointed me to this central truth. Two of my Twitter friends, Jakob Petterson and Natalie Reed (, raised the question of when environmentalism and racial and gender justice started being propagandized as matters of purely individual consciousness. Today, coming out of my natural foods cooperative, I saw one of those “peace poles” designed to be mounted in your front yard as a moral statement.

The central identifying feature of a reformist effort is that it fails to strike at the root of oppression — power. All such efforts aim either at changing individual behavior without regard to the individual’s position in the overall system of power, or at creating an authoritarian institutional framework staffed by upper-middle class “helping professionals” to protect the individual from oppressive behavior.

In the late 1960s Charles Reich’s vision of social change in The Greening of America put a shift in consciousness ahead of changes in the power structure. What really mattered was not dismantling the power of the centralized state and giant corporations, but seeing that those institutions were run by people in beads and bell-bottoms who, like, had their heads in a good place, man.

In the utterly godawful Captain Planet cartoon, all the villains like Horrid Greedly were motivated, not by material incentives to externalize their costs on society, but by an irrational hatred of nature. And the proper response was to encourage kids to recycle and turn off lights in empty rooms — not to attack corporate capitalism’s basic structural imperatives to utilize production capacity through planned obsolescence and grow through extensive addition of subsidized inputs rather than increased efficiency. Which stands to reason, of course — the latter alternative doesn’t sound like something Ted Turner would much cotton to.

As for those ridiculous “peace poles,” I have nothing against consciousness-raising as one weapon in the arsenal of the peace and social justice movement. But if that change in consciousness consists of Coleman McCarthy teaching “peace studies” classes about “Martin Luther King and the Rabbi Christ,” it’s just as much an opiate as the consciousness it’s replacing. The only effective change in consciousness will be one that involves seeing through the Matrix — that is, understanding war in the context of the system of power it serves. We have war because the people running things have a material interest in fighting wars. War, like all other state policy, is an instrument of the ruling class’s interest. Like every other aspect of the power structure, it’s just another means of extracting surplus labor every waking moment of our lives; in Morpheus’s words: “When you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes.”

The feminist concept of rape culture, although frequently misunderstood, describes a fundamental principle that’s more broadly applicable to all forms of oppression and exploitation. One effect of rape culture is to confer a form of male privilege even on the protectors of women. The ubiquity of the threat of rape, and women’s dependence on “good guys” for protection, directly empowers patriarchal institutions in a way that — whether or not they intend it — creates a power differential on behalf of men.

One example of hacking at the branches rather than striking the root of oppression, in the case of feminism, is the tendency to ignore the way patriarchy interlocks with other forms of structural oppression — particularly class oppression. So the internal structure of the Second and Third Wave feminist movements replicates the hegemony of the upper middle class in the larger society. The movement is disproportionately led by an establishment from the managerial-professional strata with a tendency to see themselves as managing the less privileged — sex workers, transgender women, working poor women, etc. — “for their own good.” And their policy agenda gravitates toward the needs of managerial-professional women: Cabinets and boardrooms that “look like America.” Of course this obscures the oppressive nature of the power of cabinets and boardrooms as such, and the mutually reinforcing relationship between patriarchy and hierarchical corporate/state power.

This same good cop/bad cop dynamic characterizes all power relationships. The liberal reformist fights oppression, not by attacking the fundamental sources of the bad guys’ power, but by creating a class of good guys to protect us against the bad guys. The “protectors” are empowered by the preexisting system of oppression; they see their primary role, not as dismantling it, but to make it more bearable — and hence, in objective terms, more sustainable. More often than not, liberal reform involves simply putting the oppressive power structure itself under the control of “progressive” or “enlightened” people who make the system seem a bit kindler and gentler but leave the fundamental processes of exploitation and oppression in place.

A good example is environmental policy in the form of a “Green New Deal,” which leaves the basic structural imperatives of mass-production capitalism in place — but converted to the production of bullet trains and wind generators. And of course the leading advocates of this model are uber-capitalists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who want to make green technology the basis of another Kondratiev long-wave or “engine of accumulation” by enclosing it (via “intellectual property” law) as a source of rents.

Even when our overlords are sincerely humane, the goal (as explained by the farmer in Tolstoy’s parable) is to treat the livestock as kindly as possible — consistent with the primary goal of keeping us inside the fence and continuing to milk us. So long as the alternative is between the phony Reagan/Thatcher model of “free markets” versus New Deal liberalism or Social Democracy, I have no quarrel with those who take advantage of the opportunities the latter afford to make oppression more bearable. After all, in its essence the neoliberal model of “free markets” is as statist as state socialism — and I’ll take the form of oppression that weighs less heavily on my own neck.

But sooner or later, we need to look up from the tasty oat mash that nice farmer gave us and start thinking about how to break out of this fence.

The Root is Power” on C4SS Media.

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