Naming the (Multi-)System (Part One)

My political philosophy has always assumed a multi-systemic approach. I was never terribly attracted to the idea that our most important systemic enemy was capitalism as claimed by socialists, nor authoritarianism as claimed by anarchists, though both of these struggles are still pivotal battles within the global revolution we so sorely need. The analysis and method I’ve followed names eight interlocking systems of oppression, repression, exploitation, and domination. This method recognizes and advances the understanding that the systemic suffering we face is complex, not reducible to one system of oppression or domination.

There have only been a few attempts to develop a multi-systemic analysis. I have a fond respect for Michael Albert’s “complementary holism” which proposed four spheres of social life: kinship, community, economy, and polity. Intentionally going beyond this proposal, I developed my eight-fold model; economy, ecology, gender, sexuality, race, religion, violence, and politics, which proposed that each of complementary holism’s four spheres were composed of two distinct sub-systems, yielding an eightfold revolutionary analysis. I felt compelled to such an analysis by the actually existing history of social movements throughout and beyond the era of the 1960s. Whereas, economics and the labor movement seemed to embody the dominant systemic conflicts prior to that era, afterwards movements such as feminism, ecology, anti-racism, and anti-war activism came to the forefront.

My conclusion is that the overarching reality within which the social movements and systems operate is the ecological totality. Environmentalism as a science and political movement signals the advancing scope of human awareness and development. The physical, biological, psychological, and social sciences interconnect within a global ecological whole. While Marxism powerfully recognized and elaborated the inhumanity that capitalism visited on humanity, ecology recognizes and elaborates the ecocidal unnaturalism that industrialism, militarism, and racism visits upon the natural world.

Lessons from Anarchism and Deep Ecology

This conclusion means that the widest struggle and opposition that must be mobilized is a movement of movements for an ecological revolution. 19th century radicalism declared war on capitalism and the state in socialist and anarchist movements. The unfinished work of those movements must be redirected towards a multi-faceted ecological transformation. Anarchism has been most cognizant of this need, and the social ecology of Murray Bookchin is an important attempt at a comprehensive revolutionary ecology.

Bookchin’s most serious limitation was his privileging of anti-statism within his philosophy. As Noam Chomsky has often observed, anti-statism is “not a strategy” at all. However, we also would do well to avoid the opposite pitfalls of state-centered activism such as social democracy or Leninism. I propose that an integrative approach to the question of statism vs. anarchism will engage the political institutions as far as possible, while also building social movements that can operate as an effective democratic opposition to the existing state.

In contrast to Bookchin’s anti-statist social ecology, an opposing philosophy of deep ecology has won over large sectors of the environmentalist movement. At its most inspiring, deep ecology invites humanity into a rich love for the natural world that motivates us to preserve as much of its unspoiled beauty as possible, At its most troubling, deep ecology seems to advocate mass starvation as a necessary consequence of industrial degradation.

In contrast to a lifeboat ethics which sees mass death as inevitable, I embrace a more optimistic view that humanity is more than intelligent enough to correct its direction. In fact, this is the fundamental premise of ecological revolution. Rather than seeing science as the enemy of nature, we should see capitalism and industrialism as economic and ecocidal exploitative perversions of science. The cure for a pathology is not to kill the patient, but to address the disease.

Lessons from Socialism and Feminism

The primary limitation that I see in classical socialism is its economistic approach. Marx initially centered this approach on the social movement he saw latent within the industrial working-class, the revolutionary proletariat. The opponent and negation of the working-classes’ aspirations was the capitalist class.

While Marx later came to view the struggle against capitalism as more complex than a simple working-class revolution, he nevertheless rarely widened his focus towards the larger social and ecological whole within which capitalism originates and is reproduced. While every human being does have a trajectory of economic relations and nearly every human activity involves an economic production, it is simply not adequate to reduce humanity to these relations and trajectories of production.

The classical bourgeoisie was not just an economic class, it was a class with a cultural history, namely white European. The bourgeoisie had a political agenda, the republican ideal. Furthermore, it was the exclusive preserve of males. The wives and mistresses of the bourgeoisie were not members of the ruling classes, though some did manage to work into such membership as latecomers at best, after the rules and conditions that advantaged the elite white capitalist males were firmly in place.

Black feminist bell hooks has named the dominant system we fight as the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” which admirably parallels three of our key oppressive systems, racism, capitalism, and sexism. Her term has its usefulness in that it is confrontational language that evokes complex realities.

I question the inclusion of the term “patriarchy” as it implies that modern male dominance is essentially identical with ancient tribal extended families. Many of these societies had far less concentrations of wealth and power than ours, despite their investment in male headship of the clan. What has carried over from these earlier systems has been the privileging of men strictly on the basis of having male genitalia. While male privilege is diffused and stratifed by wealth and political power, it is still true that the overwhelming majority of the ruling class is men, wealthy men. While being male does not guarantee one will have any social power, if you are not male, you are systematically excluded from vast areas of social power. Capitalism and the modern state were created by (a minority of white) men, for (that minority of white) men, to dominate the planet itself.

Naming the “Necro-System”?

In the process of writing this blog, I challenged myself to come up with a name for the whole system that is opposed to the ecological revolution. I found myself wanting a term that embodied a concept like the “death-system” versus the “life-system.” The Greek word for death that kept coming up was thanatos, but “thanato-system” just didn’t have a ring to it. Then while searching for a term for “loving death” necrophilia came up. This led to the compound “Necro-System.” In a future blog, I hope to return to this phrase and explore its potential meanings.

3 thoughts on “Naming the (Multi-)System (Part One)

  1. Well, there’s always kyriarchy, derived from the Greek word for Lord, familiar to those familiar with the Latin Mass—”Kyrie Eleison,” or “Lord have mercy.” Also on a religious note, there’s the line in the Gospels where Jesus is quoted as saying (in the wording of some versions) “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” The phrase “lording it over” has of course become part of colloquial English. Another generic term for “lording it over” is Robert Fuller’s neologism “rankism.”

  2. I’ve heard the term “kyriarchy” before. I’m also familiar with the gospel passage, especially through the work of John Howard Yoder. Kyriarchy has similarities to “authoritarianism” so I think it might be too narrow to name the forms of power that we have in a post-democratic situation.

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