It is likely that oppression has existed since the start of civilisation about 10,000 years ago when agriculture took hold. Once humans were settled in one place tending crops instead of hunter gathering, they would store any excess for low harvest years. As groups got larger these stores would need to be guarded resulting in a hierarchy and therefore oppression. It has evolved since so that many in the West are not aware of its affects on them. Oppression has resulted in many not believing that ‘the people’ can radically change the systems we find ourselves in. DGR believes in resistance and that changes can be made with the right strategy and tactics (see the DGR Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy) but first we must recognise that we are all oppressed in some way. This is the first of five blog posts on oppression and our responses to it.
In the past Britain had a very clear hierarchy which is similar to any civilisation. There is God at the top that chooses both the kings and the religious leaders. Underneath them are the nobles, the priests, and the military. Next are the merchants, traders, and skilled craftsmen. At the bottom of the pyramid are the bulk of the population, people in slavery or serfdom. All of this is accepted as God’s will which makes resistance that much more difficult psychologically. Standing up to an abuser-whether an individual or a vast system of power-is never easy. Standing up to GOD requires an entirely different level of courage, when the punishment was normally a slow and unpleasant end. This may explain why this arrangement appears consistently across otherwise diverse civilisations and why it is so intransigent.
The first blow against the Divine Right of Kings was in 1215, when some of the landed aristocracy forced King John to sign Magna Carta. It required the king to renounce some privileges and to respect legal procedures. It established habeas corpus and due process. Most important was the principles it claimed: the king and the church are bound by the law, not above it, and citizens have rights against their government. Magna Carta plunged England into civil war, the First Baron’s War. Pope Innocent got involved as well, absolving the king from having to enforce Magna Carta-not because he’d been forced to sign it, but because it was blasphemous. It was a crime against God to suggest that people could question or make demands on the king.
The West has had market economies for thousands of years, they are essential for feeding civilisations. Goods have to be traded, first from the countryside, then from the colonies to fill the ever-growing needs of the bloated power base. These market economies were nestled inside a moral economy informed by community networks of care, concern, and responsibilities. Property owners and moneylenders were restricted by community norms and the influence of extralegal leaders like elders, healers, and religious officers. This social world was held together by personal bonds of affection and mutual obligation.
As capitalism started to take hold, its cheerleaders started to break these bonds. To them freedom meant freedom from those obligations and responsibilities. In their view individuals should be free from traditional moral and community values, as well as from the king and landed gentry, to pursue their own financial interests. This new social order did not need bonds of affection and obligation, but impersonal contracts-and impersonal contracts that favoured the rich, the employers, the landlords, the owners, and the creditors while dispossessing the poor, the employees, the tenants, the slaves, and the debtors.
One of the most well known attempts to directly stop the progress of technology and capitalism in Britain is the Luddites. This group of English textile artisans were being replaced by less-skilled, low-wage workers following the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms. The movement started in Nottinghamshire in 1811 and then spread through the country to Yorkshire in 1812 and Lancashire in 1813. Mills and pieces of factory machinery were burned by handloom weavers. The movement grew so large that at one point it battled with the British Army. In January 1813 the British government found sixty men guilty of charges related to Luddite activities even though many had no involvement. Harsh punishments including execution or penal transports quickly ended the movement (1).
Even though we are oppressed in the West, we live in relative luxury compared to many in the world. Most of us in richer nations do not want to contemplate living without the comforts we are used to and it is highly likely that when the systems of oppression that provide these luxuries are threatened many will fight to maintain them. Capitalism is oppressing millions of people in developing nations as they are effectively slaves working to produce the items which we Westerners consume. We are all complicit in this arrangement.
Our centralised national government is needed to coercively suppress internal dissent, regulate trade, protect private property,and subsidise infrastructure essential to so called economic growth. This idea appealed to the wealthy for the obvious reason: they want to keep and expand upon their wealth. It looks very different from the perspective of the poor. The rich are able to accumulate wealth by taking the labour of the poor and by turning the commons into privately owned commodities. Therefore, defending the accumulation of wealth in a system that has no other moral constraints is in effect defending theft, not protecting against it. That’s the trajectory this culture has been on for 10,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture.
Unless born into a wealthy family in the UK most people have little option but to become wage slaves and are convinced this is what they should or want to do. It is near impossible to live outside the societal framework that exists requiring many to work long hours in jobs they don’t like; to live in urban areas in box houses where there is no choice but to pay for utilities instead of providing for yourself. Should you want to live on the land in the UK significant amounts of capital to buy or rent are required. Long gone are the days when a farm labourer’s wage is enough to rent a smallholding.
Western culture has resulted in the majority of oppression we live under becoming utterly consensual. As Florynce Kennedy wrote, “There can be no really pervasive system of oppression…without the consent of the oppressed”(2). 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. 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 own oppression. But it does mean that there will be no solution to this problem without an extensive and wilful cultural shift away from human domestication.
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 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.
There are few better definitions of oppression than the one Marilyn Frye offers in her groundbreaking book, The Politics of Reality. In it she writes, “Oppression is a system of interrelated barriers and forces which reduce, immobilise and mold people who belong to a certain group, and effect their subordination to another group.”(3) One of the greatest injuries of subordination is that it creates not only injustice, exploitation, and abuse, but also consent.
Andrea Dworkin has defined subordination for us and listed four elements: (4)
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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; if not directly, then as bystanders with benefits. 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 an understanding of oppression is gained, most people are called to action is some way.
There are four broad categories of action: legal remedies, direct action, withdrawal, and spirituality. These categories can overlap and can be helpful or even crucial to resistance movements, but they can also be diversions that dead-end in despair. Four blog posts will follow that look at each of these responses to oppression.
2. Kennedy, “Institutionalized Oppression,” p. 492.
3. Frye, The Politics of Reality, p. 33.
4. Dworkin, Letters from a War Zone, p.266