I’ve been reading David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy lately. Slowly I should say – I’ve been reading it slowly. I’ve only just finished the second essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination,’ which I found particularly ‘great for thought’. The ideas in the essay are great to ‘think through other thoughts with,’ if that makes sense. I guess that’s theory, huh. Anyway, this is a comment on one of the key theoretical contrasts that Graeber draws between the political ontology of the right and the political ontology of the left vis-à-vis’ reality and the parameters of social existence. I want to cast a gender[ed] light on it.
Graeber begins by foregrounding the violence in ‘structural violence’; these are structures that can only be created and maintained by the threat of violence, ‘even if in their ordinary, day-to-day workings, no actual violence needs to take place.’ In fact, in contemporary industrialised democracies (in which the state has a monopoly on the use of coercive force), where the legitimate administration of violence is handed over to ‘law enforcement’, violence is not only less visible but it is cast in the language of common-sense in terms of rules and regulations.
‘All these regulations are enforced by violence. True, in ordinary life, police rarely come in swinging billy clubs to enforce building code regulations, but as anarchists are often uniquely positioned to find out, if one simply pretends the state and its regulations don’t exist, this will, eventually, happen. The rarity with which the nightsticks actually appear just helps to make the violence harder to see. This in turn makes the effects of all these regulations – regulations that almost always assume that normal relations between individuals … emanate not from the government’s monopoly of the use of force, but from the largeness, solidity and heaviness of the objects themselves.’
This administration of violence, cast in the language of common-sense in terms of rules and regulations comes to define what is and is not possible – what is or is not ‘realistic.’ This is why when someone asks you to ‘be realistic’, being realistic ‘usually means taking seriously the effects of the systematic threat of violence.’
‘The critical term here is ‘force.’ as in ‘the state’s monopoly on the use of coercive force.’ Whenever we hear this word invoked, we find ourselves in the presence of a political ontology in which the power to destroy, to cause others pain or to threatened to break, damage, or mangle others’ bodies (or just lock them in a tiny room for the rest of their lives) is treated as the social equivalent of the very energy that drives the cosmos.’
And this, he argues, is the essence of right-wing thought: ‘a political ontology that through such subtle means allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.’ He contrasts this with the political ontology of the left which, he argues, ‘has always been, in its essential inspiration, anti-bureaucratic.’
‘This is why I say that the Left has always been, in its essential inspiration, antibureaucratic. Because it has always been founded on a different set of assumptions about what is ultimately real – that is, about the very grounds of political being. Obviously Leftists don’t deny the reality of violence. Many Leftists theorists think about it quite a lot. But they don’t tend to give it the same foundational status. Instead, I would argue that Leftist thought is founded on what I will call a ‘political ontology of the imagination’ (though it could also, perhaps just as well have been called an ontology of creativity or making or invention).’
This develops into an interesting discussion about creativity, imagination and revolution, but I want to pause here to critically reflect on the contrast above.
When I first read this essay the contrast between opposing political ontologies made sense to me, but I had some uncanny sense that I was identifying with the political ideology of the right – not in terms of my politics but in terms of my experience with the threat of violence. ‘A political ontology that through such subtle means allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense?’ I know this. This is not just ‘right wing thought’, this is patriarchy. Consider, for example, the following excerpts reproduced with minor edits:
‘All these regulations are enforced by violence. True, in ordinary life, [men] rarely come in swinging billy clubs to enforce [gender] regulations, but as [women] are often uniquely positioned to find out, if one simply pretends the [patriarchy] and its regulations don’t exist, this will, eventually, happen. The rarity with which the nightsticks actually appear just helps to make the violence harder to see. This in turn makes the effects of all these regulations – regulations that almost always assume that normal relations between individuals … emanate not from [man’s] monopoly of the use of force, but from the largeness, solidity and heaviness of the objects themselves.’
‘When one is asked to be ‘realistic,’ then, the reality one is normally being asked to recognise is not one of the natural, material facts, nor some supposed ugly truth about human nature. Being ‘realistic’ usually means taking seriously the effects of the systematic threat of violence.’
‘The critical term here is ‘force, as in “[man’s] monopoly on the use of coercive force.” Whenever we hear this word invoked, we find ourselves in the presence of a [masculine/patriarchal] ontology in which the power to destroy, to cause others pain or to threatened to break, damage, or mangle others’ bodies (or just lock them in a tiny room for the rest of their lives) is treated as the social equivalent of the very energy that drives the cosmos.’
‘To my mind this is the very essence of [masculine/patriarchal] thought: a political ontology that through such subtle means allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.’
Yep. This is all too familiar to me, and to most women, I’d suggest. And as Graeber himself points out in an earlier discussion about ‘lopsided structures of the imagination’ created by structural violence – women don’t have the luxury of denying the reality of this violence. We expend a great deal of imaginative and emotional labour thinking about it every day because we have to. There is literally not a day that goes by where I do not have to think about the potential threat of male violence. Not one, single day. And when I say ‘think’ I mean consider it a very real possibility and ensure I have ways to either avoid or deflect it. I know this to be the case for most women.
Yes, feminist literature does often speak of structural violence as ‘structures that could only be created and maintained by the threat of violence’, but women – not just those who identify as feminists – also know intimately, experience, and talk about patriarchal/male violence this way as it manifests in our everyday lives and intimate relations.
The threat of violence male anarchists experience around police? That is the threat of violence that women experience around men in their everyday lives. So when I read that leftist thought is founded on ‘a political ontology of the imagination’ my immediate reaction is to add – ‘in relations that through such subtle means allows male violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.’ The latter is the fabric in which the former is theorised.
The threat of male violence defines ‘the very parameters of our social existence and common sense’ just as the state does, only in more intimate and immediate ways. There is seemingly nowhere that women are safe from the threat of male violence – the park, the workplace, the pub, and above all else the family home. Ask any woman about the strategies or measures they take to avoid being attacked on an average night out and you will start to get a sense of just how all-pervasive this threat is and just how intimately it defines the parameters of our social existence. It still surprises me – and this is a general comment, not a comment on Graeber – that men are so far from understanding the level of threat [from male violence] that women face every day, in all aspects of their lives.
Graeber once wrote somewhere, something along the lines of ‘if you’re not scared of the police then you’re probably middle-class.’ This could accurately be recast as ‘if you’re not scared of men then you’re probably not a woman, queer, or trans’. Add colour to this nexus and the threat of male violence increases. Aboriginal women in Australia, for example, are 3.5 times more likely to the victims of violence when compared to non-Aboriginal women.
‘Men are scared that women will laugh at them,’ writes Margaret Atwood, ‘Women are scared that men will kill them.’
These are the parameters of our social existence and commonsense. The political ontology of patriarchy allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence, and men need to recognise that they are the administrators of this violence.
*Please note that this is not an attack on Graeber nor an invitation to attack him so please don’t use it as a lightening rod for your ‘love to hate Graeber’ concerns.
7 responses to “On violence, reality, and the parameters of social existence: A comment on Graeber’s essay.”
Interesting springboard-piece, thanks. Have made a note to revisit (with your points to hand) some bookmarked chunks of Tolstoy (who is still relevant in this area IMHO) and the history of free/social spaces in 20th century Italy.
Thanks – can I ask what/which of Tolstoy’s writing on history and free/social spaces btw? I’ve not read much of his writing to be honest, but would be interested in that you mention.
Thanks for that, it opens up inner trails and insights. All violence is a scourge and a learnt behaviour that must be replaced by respect and dialogue from the earliest stages of childhood growth. Play not say. Share not smack. Communicate don’t reject.
Thanks for the reminder of Graeber’s book – had to get a copy for myself; now just need to find the time to read it!
If you haven’t already engaged with the feminist anti-state, anti-capitalist and more pointedly anti-patriarchy Kurdish led Revolutions which have been occurring in Rojava (Northern Syria) and Southern Turkey over the last dozen years or so, especially in the actualitites of the three Cantons of Rojava since approx. 2013, then might I suggest a look at Dilar Dirik’s Blog, particularly her latest post http://dilar91.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/feminism-and-kurdish-freedom-movement.html . It is a calling out toward a total and living re-thinking of the very meaningfulness of feminist liberational politics. It is a calling which really should be sounding most audibly in the ears of all feminist activists in Australia and probably most pertinently in the depths of the soul of this Land, the aboriginal woman. Dilar Dirik, along with several academics (including David Graeber) as well as independant scholars (such as Janet Biehl) visited the Cizîre canton of Rojava last December (2014). Links to some of their reports and other related information resources can be found here: http://slackbastard.anarchobase.com/?p=37355 . [Needless to say, I have merely provived the above info for other possible readers of this blog-site, in case it has been previously missed]
The recent 100th year remembrance of the antagonistic alignment between Australia and Turkey masks the alignment between these two Nations in genocidal and assimilationist politics. What has been happening in Rojava, in spite of and because of other activities, could probably be of great significance for this Land as well. Many on the Left, including several Anarchist groups, are often critical of the Rojava Revolution for failing to enact some kind of ‘pure’ type of revolution (of one kind or another). But all revolutions are contextual and pragmatic (cf. Spain, 1936); the point is, who are leading the living revolution – a vanguard or a people?
Here, in Australia, with the re-awakening of an Aboriginal Politic, the only Recognition necessary is Self-Recognition. The Kurdish people can reach back to a two-thousand year history, our aboriginal sisters and brothers can reach back before History even began!
The above is a very punctuated rant … I am trying to behave myself.
As far as I can guess, maybe @Jay’s reference to Tolstoy is to his book ‘The Law of Love and the Law of Violence’ (written c.1908; Tolstoy died in 1910), which is a critique of not only State violence, but also of Revolutionary violence – however, its underlying theme is a critique of false Christianity (i.e., state-sanctioned or institutionalized Christianity). I can again only guess at Antonio Gramsci and his critique of Hegemony for the reference to free/social spaces in 20thC Italy.
Hey thanks many @ITTY. If you’re in Australia, Syd for the anarchist bookfair in July lemme know. – Thanks in any case for your comments and input tho. Much appreciated. B.
I’ve begun reading this book as well. I often think in your terms, or how patriarchy and “manlyism” or brutishness comes into play, but I usually expand your analysis a step farther than you have gone to include all beings, and thus speciesism. I’m sure there are a few violent and/or sexist vegans in the world, but I feel it would be a very different, and less violent, world should more people think on that level…which would circle back to include women (one would hope), or a general milieu of ‘do no harm,’ or do not kill. I hope for this world, but realize that barbarity and civility are often defined through culture, or the utopia that culture strives to become, perhaps “civilization”? But of course it often isn’t necessarily “civil.”
There is a book that explores this theme in depth — the ways in which liberal political theory is itself predicated on a presumption of patriarchy: Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract. It’s amazing; possibly the most influential book I read in college.