Thursday, September 19, 2019

There Are No "Structures," Either.

These days we will hear academics  and advocates talk about “the power structure(s) in our society.” There are usually one or more adjectives before that: white, male, traditional, elite, institutional, religious.  Yet there is no structure. There are forces, and there are habits, but there is no structure. A structure is an object of some permanence in place that has solidity even when no one is paying attention to it.  It exists even without human agency. Power just isn't like that. The law is perhaps a structure in a society, though even that is stretching a point.  The overall metaphor is misleading, but I think it is intentional.  People who want to effect changes use that framing to keep discontent simmering.  If you think power manifests because of some structure, you will look in your own hands and those of your friends and see that you have none of this.  As with system in discussing the economy, you know for certain that you do not own any of this territory.  You do not possess levers or the access to that sort of power.  Therefore, you imagine someone else must have it. And they must be somehow keeping it from you.  The proof is that ten years later, or forty, you and your people still do not have any of that stuff in your hands. The idea that “structure” is not an accurate way to describe this will not even occur to you.  Especially if you’re halfway through your dissertation or electoral campaign anchored to that idea.

The people who use this idea don't just think it is true.  They need it to be true or their entire argument fails.

If you accept that framing, that power comes in the form of structures, you will be resentful your entire life, certain that you are being cheated and kept out of power by somebody, somewhere. If one digs down it is yet another Marxist victory, to get people to assume without question that there are Power Structures in society, and that’s how everything works. One no longer needs to observe actual cause and effect, as any result can be viewd through the prism of defeating the power structure or losing to the power structure.  It explains everything. Now the advocates and revolutionaries do not have to stoke the fires as continually, as language is doing some of the work for them. I have been clear in many posts that the language we speak does not control what we are able to think, or even what we are able t think.  However, the words we choose in whatever language we speak reveals a great deal about what we are thinking. I have said for years that if you let people talk long enough, they will tell you what they really mean, whether they know it or not.

When you encounter someone trying to assert that they have to work to confront the white or religious or male power structures, do not fall into the trap of arguing that it is not entirely white, or male, or longstanding or the like. Your answer is There Is No Structure. The concept is fundamentally flawed.  It is not a picture of reality.  You might get to point out that if they accept that framing, they are going to be miserable all their lives, and why.

The great exception is government.  Government is a structure, and you can measure power in titles, jurisdictions, and areas of authority. This is why those in government are just sure that the rest of society is organized according to various structures.  It is what they understand, and they think their fishbowl is the universe. They are puzzled (and sometimes resent deeply), that they somehow do not have control over these other invisible structures, which drives their endless attempts to regulate. Similarly, those who believe they are excluded from these structures prefer to work with something that is a structure, where they can see their units of control.

There are forces – cultural, economic, religious and a dozen others, and there are habits, an inertia that sometimes must be overcome if you want change.  But I you want to keep thinking of this society in terms of these imaginary structures that are opposing and resisting you, you are going to be miserable all your days, and make us miserable as well.

Update: From the Quillette article about Michel Houllebec
Houellebecq argues that the social structures which maintained Western hegemony by checking the societally harmful excesses of this competition, namely religion and the family unit, have been gradually lost to individualism and the market.
I think that is a good correction to my idea above. The family is a structure - but it is fading in this country. Even when there are families, they are smaller. So too with religion. It is a structure, but not only is it less used these days, it is less of a structure even when it is. It's not only "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose. Jews and Protestants do as well. What I know of Mormons and American Muslims tells me it's the same there.


Jonathan said...

Check your metaphors.

David Foster said...

Reminds me....the French general Andre Beaufre wrote an excellent memoir of his service in the French Army, which included colonial campaigns between the wars. At one point, frustrated with some issue or other, he asked his superior what the long-term plan for France's colonies might be. To which the response was:

"My poor dear boy! There IS no plan. There has never been a plan."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Not following you, Jonathan, sorry. All metaphors limp, as the saying goes, but is one or more of mine really not working very well? Or did I switch between them foolishly?

Jonathan said...

No, no... your argument is clear and I think you are right. I was trying for a play on "Check your privilege".

People often confuse metaphors with empirical reality. "Power structure" is a good one. So are "processes", "stages", "hard-wired" and so forth. David has written many good blog posts on this topic.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am relieved to hear it. If you had found me getting things wrong, I would have taken it seriously.

The number of people I take seriously is likely less than two dozen at this point, so you are in good company.

Cambias said...

There's an old story about President Taft sitting through some presentation in which a bright young thing kept talking about using the "machinery of government" to accomplish some good or other. At one point Big Bill leaned over to some other mustachioed gent waiting for it all to end and whispered "My God, he really thinks it IS machinery."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

So this goes way back. That's discouraging. It means it is unlikely to go away, even after a catastrophe.

Great example, though.