Occupy Theory: Chapter Three

The following is an excerpt from Volume One of Fanfare for the Future, titled Occupy Theory and authored by Michael Albert of the U.S. and Mandisi Majavu or South Africa. Occupy Theory is available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle, and the Apple IPAD (soon), as well as in print from the ZStore. 



Chapter 3:

Society and History

“A new world order is in the making, and it is up to us to prepare ourselves that we may take our rightful place in it.”
– Malcolm X

Society Snapshot

“How many care to seek only for precedents?”
– Peter Kropotkin

A society, when seen as a kind of momentary static snapshot, has features, more features, and then even more features. In the nearly endless array of people, institutions, and objects composing any society, we need to highlight what is important and essential to pay attention to if we are to avoid errors of omission. We also need to at least initially ignore what is relatively unimportant to avoid being sidetracked by endless peripheral details.

Our first two chapters argued that seeing what is critical and leaving aside what is peripheral entails looking at the features that centrally define kinship, culture, polity, and economy. We need to examine the institutions centrally addressing the four functions as the core, respectively, of the kinship sphere, community sphere, political sphere, and economic sphere. 

If we use the U.S. as an example, that means we should be looking, at least, at:

  • families and their social relations
  • racial and religious communities and their social relations
  • political groups (officials of various sorts, electorates, etc.) and their social relations 
  • economic classes and their social relations. 

Key institutions we should highlight and examine include:

  • types of family and perhaps schools
  • types of churches and other cultural community institutions with their languages and celebrations
  • government branches and their local administrative variants including legislatures, courts, etc.
  • economic workplaces, the market system, and consumer units. 

We should pay attention to hierarchies of gender, race and religion, political power, and class including examining each hierarchy’s attributes, tenacity, and implications. 

We should not highlight one or another of these four hierarchies alone, but should instead pay close attention to all of them because all dramatically impact people’s life prospects. 

We should examine each social sphere to find the sources and implications of sexism and homophobia, racism and ethnic and religious bigotry, authoritarianism, and economic oppression and classism in the core institutions. 

Obviously such a varied exploration of the four spheres could proceed for a long time – and, it must be admitted, so far we have only begun what is required. But suppose, to see where it might take us, we had done all that. Then what? 

Well, these spheres of social life are a bit unusual. They are not self contained or isolated from one another. Rather, a society is a giant whole. The four functions all transpire in virtually every nook and cranny of that whole. 

Thus, if we say the kinship sphere is all those places where kinship (sex/gender) dynamics occur, it turns out that while the center of the kinship sphere is families and other locales of intense gender interactions, the outer reaches of it extend to all of society. There are kin-dominated and kin-affecting relations in workplaces, churches, legislatures – not just in families. 

More, the same holds when we look at other spheres. Community, political, and economic dynamics also extend to the whole of society, well beyond the institutions that define each. 

For example, the core of the economic sphere is workplaces, markets, and consumption units, but the extremities certainly include families, schools, churches, government agencies, etc., since in all of these institutions at least some production, consumption, and allocation can occur alongside more central kin, community, and political aspects. 

If we look at a society in a stable, non chaotic condition, people will largely fill the roles they occupy in the various institutions in society’s institutional boundary – which is, remember, just the array of all the roles in all the institutions society offers people. The structures of gender, race, power, and class will be continually created by those roles and will continually need people with certain expectations and inclinations to fit the roles. Society in a steady and stable condition requires that some people fit here, some fit there, but nearly everyone fits somewhere.

Suppose that a society is strongly sexist, relegating to women greatly excessive burdens and denying them access to significant benefits that men readily enjoy. This means the kinship sphere’s roles, by the practices they impose on people, produce men who feel superior to women and women who largely accept subordination to men. Suppose these men and women are fitting their sexist kinship roles nicely, and by their actions and behaviors in their household and other core kin relations wind up with the expectations, habits, and beliefs of sexism continually reinforced. 

Now imagine that in the economy of the same society, at the same time, men and women fare similarly to one another, with little or no gender differentiation, so that men who, by virtue of their experience in households and their upbringing, expect to be above women, instead typically find themselves as often as not economically equal to or even below women in income and influence. And similarly, women, who by virtue of their experience in households and their upbringing expect to be subordinate to men, typically find themselves, as often as not, economically equal to or even dominant. 

This disjuncture between the requirements and implications of kinship and the requirements and implications of the economy would obviously pose a problem. The economy and kinship sphere would be out of alignment – or, to use a term we prefer, “out of whack” – creating tension, dislocation, and possibly also resistance. 

We do not expect to see this type of disjuncture between these two spheres of social life – at least not without there being conflict and then changes due to realigning violated expectations – and, indeed, we will talk more about how two or more spheres being out of whack might be resolved. However, for now, what we can anticipate when society is quite stable and without conflict and fundamental change, is that any substantial hierarchy born of one sphere will tend to invade other spheres, creating a degree of consistency for actors in both. In what manner, we will soon see. 

The general idea is clear and simple. Just as inside a single institution you would not anticipate seeing one important part of it having roles causing people to be x-like, and another important part of it having roles causing them to be y-like – where being x-ish contradicts being y-ish and vice versa, unless the institution was in turmoil – we expect something very similar for a society.

We expect, that is, that each sphere of social life – meaning the ways that its main social institutions address and accomplish the four key functions of society – will typically tend to welcome and induce particular habits, beliefs, expectations, and desires in people filling that sphere's roles. Corporations mold us. Families mold us. Citizenship molds us. Communities mold us. Each sphere will have requirements for us, depending on the roles we fill in the associated institutions.

When conditions are largely stable, as is most often the case in typical societies, this might mean, for example, that there are habits, beliefs, expectations, and desires consistent with sexism, racism, political authoritarianism, and classism within the institutions of the four spheres. However, the four spheres overlap so much and so intimately, that each sphere’s implications radiate, like a field of social influence beyond their own structures and into the other structures in society, and we expect this to cause the sexism, racism, authoritarianism, and classism to tend to expand from each originating institution and sphere into the rest, so that there is at least compatibility.

Past and Future History

“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner