Towards A Transformative Integrative Social Ecology of Inequality

“For traditional marxists, only a fundamental transformation in the economic sphere constitutes a social revolution. A change in ruling class and in the “mode of production” is a social revolution, whereas equally drastic changes in state, cultural, or kinship relations are not. For these marxists, drastic changes in the “superstructure” may contribute to a social revolution, to be sure, but only if they culminate in a change of the mode of production itself. And while feminists, anarchists, and nationalists are slightly less insistent on making analogous claims, in practice they too tend to view “social revolution” as a semantic term to be applied only when there is a fundamental social change in their favored sphere.”
Albert, Michael, et al. Liberating Theory. Boston: South End Pr., 1986.


“…for humans to ask what their “place” in nature may be is to ask whether humanity’s powers will be brought to the service of future evolutionary development or whether they will be used to destroy the biosphere. The extent to which humanity’s powers will be brought to or against the service for future evolutionary development has very much to do with the kind of society or “second nature” human beings will establish: whether society will be a domineering, hierarchical, and exploitative one, or whether it will be a free, egalitarian, and ecologically oriented one.”
Bookchin, Murray. Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future. Boston: South End Pr., 1990


“Intersectionality refers to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type, and that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression.”
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment  (Second Edition). New York: Routledge, 2000.


“Since human beings have a vast array of “purposes,” they have formed an appropriately large number of organizations.But only a few of these purposes and organizations weigh heavily in terms of generating social power. According to Mann’s analysis, Western civilization and the current power configurations within it àre best understood by determining the intertwinings and relative importance at any given time of organizations based in four “overlapping and intersecting sociospatial networks of power”. These networks are labeled ideological, economic, military, and political, and placed in that particular order only because it makes for a handy memory device—IEMP. This lack of concern with order of presentation is possible because no one of these organizational networks is more fundamental than the others.Each one presupposes the existence of the others, which vindicates philosopher Bertrand Russell’s  earlier demonstration that power cannot be reduced to one basic form; in that sense, says Russell, power is like the idea of energy in the natural sciences.”
Domhoff, G. William. State Autonomy or Class Dominance? Case Studies on Policy Making in America. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996.

A broad and inclusive methodology of social change will include an analysis of the social systems that structure society, an identification of key agents that either reproduce or transform the systems, and a projection of what sorts of change are possible, desirable, or inevitable. A disinterested social science would refrain from normatively characterizing the desirability of various social changes in keeping with a classic emphasis on objectivity and impartiality. However, it seems inescapable to “take sides” for or against certain types of social change that would at the very least benefit the putative social scientist.

The methodology of integrative social ecology that will be skeletally developed in this essay will therefore also be self-critical and identify the social characteristics of its author in order to enable more transparent critical evaluation of this methodology. Further, this self-disclosure makes it possible to take objectivity seriously, while also admitting a robust commitment to specific desirable outcomes of social change. Rather than offer self-disclosure in the form of biography, the proposed methodology will be used to identify and critique the relevant characteristics of the author. As the goal is a broad inclusive methodology of progressive social transformation, the usual suspects of race, class, gender, as well as other social systems of power and privilege will shape the critique.

From the above quoted selections, a listing can be generated of categories of social and ecological systems, organizations, and spheres of interaction. The listing is generated below in the order of their mention in the above quotes, not in terms of specific priority of influence. For the purposes of this essay, each system will considered to have potentially equal weight, though the possibility of ranking one or more systems as more critically important will be considered a possibility though a full examination of that question lies outside the scope of this initial essay.

Economy  //  Gender  //  Power/Politics  //  Race/Culture

Ecology  //  Sexuality  //  Military/Police/Martial  // Ideological/Religion/Irreligion

Using these categories, the author can be identified as working-poor, male, non-officeholding U.S. citizen, Caucasian, human, monogamous heterosexual, non-military, with a mixture of secular and religious ideology. The question of power and privilege bears on this person’s social interests in differing dimensions according to the specific systemic categories. All of these categories intersect to produce a person with definite interests in each field for either reproduction or transformation of those systems. A multi-systemic awareness can enable the author to question and critique the biases one inherits as part of privileged groups, in this case, Caucasian male monogamous heterosexual U.S. citizen most relevantly. In contrast, someone with very different characteristics such as an African female polyamorous lesbian immigrant would have a very different experience of those same power dynamics and concomitant interests in the transformation and reproduction of them. In addition to privilege and power biases, the author has some distinct interests in transformative change through being working-poor, non-officeholder, effeminate, and a possessor of unorthodox religious views.

As the goal of this essay is to outline an ecology of inequality, a likely question is why frame this methodology as ecological? The author’s life experience supplies part of the answer, with a religious upbringing prophesying a catastrophic end of the world and posing natural disasters as divine punishment for human sinfulness, as well as an early exposure to environmental crises with the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, scenes of waterway & land pollution prominent in 1970s media, smoggy skies, and animal species extinction statistics vividly raising an awareness of both the beauty and the precarity of the natural world in the era of industrial capitalism and nuclear weaponry. Specifically, economic equality as one important desirable social goal of a working-poor person must be situated within an objective evaluation of the earth’s capacity for providing resources for billions of people and non-human species. An equal share of even a lower middle-class lifestyle for every human being may not be feasible nor compatible with the continued flourishing of animal and plant species, ecosystem quality, and sustainable agriculture, though it cannot be ruled out entirely.

The eightfold categorical listing isn’t entirely self-explanatory, so brief definitions seem to be in order. An economic system is the organized dynamics of labor, production, consumption, and exchange. Gender is the biosocial system of male/female/intersex/transgender identity formation, power, and privilege. Political systems generate and sustain effective power for deciding and enforcing decisions of enfranchised agents. Racial systems construct identities based on language, appearance, family descent, geography, and culture to distinguish humans from one another. Ecology includes both the natural species and systems of the planet, and human intervention in either depleting, replenishing, restoring, or enhancing the condition and lives of those species and systems. Sexuality systems construct desire, emotion, and relationships as intimate, familiar, cooperative, distant, aggressive, or dominating with a complex connection to psychosexual embodiment. Organized coercion-using institutions, such as military or police, structure and are structured by a martial (i.e. Mars, god of war) system of conflict initiation/intervention. Finally, ideological forces structure institutions and systems of cultural meaning, ultimate norms, and narrative horizons which have traditionally been manifested in religions, but are also now embodied in more secular forms in many societies.

The intersectionality approach of Hill Collins or the complementary holism model of Albert each assume that these systems are indiscrete, they interact with each other, modifying, reinforcing, and exchanging resources. At the level of a specific person, the entire weight of these systems focus to form identity and agency, modified and elaborated in historically specific conditions, mediated by other persons who directly and indirectly impact human development. It is obvious, for example, that sex and gender identity are interrelated, but also usefully distinguished. Economics and ecology profoundly interact to produce wealth, poverty, health, and dysfunction.

Domhoff’s elaboration of Mann’s four systems of power highlight areas that are treated less directly in the intersectionality approach. However, Domhoff makes little use of sexual/affective dynamics to highlight how ideology comes to hold onto humans with more power than simple intellectual persuasion or external coercion. It seems to be no accident that the ruling forces in the U.S. and its European allies are almost entirely male, Caucasian, and wealthy. The celebrated transformation of Western societies from feudal, Christian, and monarchical to capitalist, secular, and democratic did have the effect of raising the living standards of women in the elite classes, changing the shape of gender in important ways, but still relying on a gendered division of labor, especially in childrearing. Capitalism commodified these functions to enable more women to hire substitute female caregivers, but not to share this work more equally with men. Some changes did occur in childrearing responsibility among some men in the aftermath of the 1960s feminist movement, but not a general transformation of the historical gendered division of labor. The paucity of male caregivers generally reinforces psychodynamic predispositions towards rigid social roles and submission to authority in children on into adulthood.

Social, economic, and other forms of inequality result in human suffering on a large scale and thus social activists throughout the modern era have called for greater equality, especially in economics, race relations, gender, and political power. By framing systemic inequalities within an ecological horizon, this analysis takes on an additional dimension of urgency and value. Some portion of humanity has often acted as if it were an exception to the laws of nature, a dominant species with a divine right to rule the earth, in the process degrading ecosystems and the living conditions of other humans and species deemed less worthy. The ecological and biological reality is that we are physical creatures sharing a limited world with other species whose worth is not reducible to what we can obtain from them. Egalitarian goals must be framed within an objective consideration of the limits of resource usage. Deliberate steps must be taken to preserve unique habitats for endangered species. Animal rights flow “naturally” from this ecological understanding.

The economic, political, gender, and racial inequalities of human society are reproduced in every generation, but also generate resistance. In the latter 19th century, the rise of capitalism generated the Marxian proposal of a working-class struggle for the revolutionary emancipation of humanity, an epochal shift that was predicted to overturn not only existing social domination, but produce a human society that was finally and truly free for everyone. This revolutionary idea mobilized powerful movements that won some success in a few nations of the world, at one point claiming the allegiance of dozens of nations. However, the political and economic practices of most of these nations, as well as the persistent opposition by capitalist nations, led to their collapse in all but a few nations today.

Many partisans of the Marxist philosophy have rejected the Communist governments as either outright betrayals of Marx’s actual principles or in some sense anomalous developments. Marx himself seemed to believe that the first working-class revolutions should occur in modern industrial core capitalist nations, not in more underdeveloped nations such as Russia or China. Given our integrative proposal, there is also some sense that the singular focus of Marxism on the “working-class” was too narrow. The stunning power of movements for racial or gender equality in the 1960s contrasted quite sharply with the dominant character of the then-existing working-class organizations as composed primarily by white males.

Nevertheless, a renewed interest in class struggle has been forming since the economic crisis of 2008, with a significant peak in 2011 with the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill protests in which state employees were targeted by austerity cuts. Similar mobilizations occurred in other U.S. states facing similar situations. An even more widespread economic protest mobilization kicked off with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in late 2011. For months, an encampment was set up in the shadow of the world’s most powerful financial district protesting rule by the “1% over the 99%.” While OWS has seemed at times to be dominated by whites, on the ground significant racial diversity is present. Gender balance is also the norm. However, in contrast to Marxist orthodoxy, OWS operates with a more egalitarian structure drawn from anarchist and liberal practices of general assemblies and consensus seeking. What further developments OWS or other economic protest movements can bring about is unknown, but egalitarian partisans certainly can afford to invest some optimism in these developments.

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