How the system co-opts your desire to rebel
On recuperation and useful idiocy
I remember reading this book on Japan in 4th grade, i.e. when I was about ten years, and how I came upon this spread on the local punk culture. In retrospect, it’s maybe somewhat surprising that this was featured in middle school teaching materials, but punk was a rather prominent cultural movement over there during the 80s and 90s, brilliants fruits of which are the twin films Death Powder and Burst City. Highly recommended.
Anyway, reading on, I was told some nonsense about how these dashing-looking kids always became well-adjusted adults and useful workers, and I clearly remember feeling a vague sense of disappointment over this assertion that I didn’t fully understand. Seemed something like defeat.
Around this same time, I also had a tangible experience of how the classroom was essentially undemocratic. A couple of us had gone out and collected a list of names in support of a small change in our weekly schedule we desired, and a clear majority was in favour, but it was all quashed. “That’s not how democracy works”, said the despot behind the desk when we triumphantly handed her the list, and essentially told us to go stuff our little poll and our petty arguments.
This appeared a bit weird to me. Why did not this glorious system of democratic deliberation that was always preached to us, this very pinnacle of modern civilization, distilled from the blood of liberty’s martyrs, permeate also the way our insignificant school was organized? The relations of our workplace? Why was it not at least honoured here by throwing us a bone?
In retrospect, this was probably one of the most important lessons I’ve ever had through all of my years of public education. Indeed, that is precisely how their “democracy” works. You go through the ritualized motions and put your name on a little ballot, you air your grievances and get to feel like you’re part of the power process for a moment. Then some mid-level manager with a pathetic vestige of actual authority throws it all in the garbage with a wry smile.
At best, all of this political theatre is just therapy. A balm for the pain and frustration we experience on the thin ice of modern life. At the sight of all mismanagement and corruption, and under the weight of our utter powerlessness and domestication.
This therapy is of course quite useful for a system which generates immense and deeply rooted dissatisfaction. The causes for this are profound, and embedded in the structure of advanced societies as such. They ultimately relate to the suppression and deformation of human nature within the framework of violent complex civilization.
Nonetheless, the sources of this discontent are particularly potent and marked in our highly regimented technological social order, where the docile, atomized populace has almost perfectly internalized repression as an aspect of its own identity. In other words, the psychic tensions inherent to our social environment not only stem from such horrors as the radical disconnect from nature, our alienation from meaningful work, the loss of control or the destruction of the family as a buffer between the individual and the immutable social realities.
Significant mental pressure and internal conflict also arise from the fact that mass society is chiefly governed by internalized domination and our active reproduction of the system’s violence. Towards ourselves as well as others.
So yeah, it’s not particularly strange that half of the people in the industrial world are currently chewing benzodiazepines and spend most of their waking time immersed in various sorts of digital escapism. The social order needs a broad and versatile toolkit of outlets or substitute activitites to address all of that pent-up anger, frustration and internal conflict, aside from the outright repression of the prison, police or the asylum.
Yet the most important such tool is the co-opted rebellion, astutely deflected towards the system’s preferred ends. By this mechanism, those forms of direct political action which poses the most significant threat to the system’s operations are not only neutralized, but harnessed to effectively support it.
Conformity is disguised as criticism.
This process allows the neutered, yet still cathartic, expression of direct and sometimes violent rebellion to function as an outlet for the dissatisfaction and defiance that the social order invariably generates.
A prominent example is the myth of democracy actualized through the framework of parliamentarism.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to an opinion!”
Yes, the awesome power of the ballot. The power to sign off on some set of policies vetted and preordained by the ruling classes. The power to believe you actually have a say in any of this.
In 1917, the anarchist Emma Goldman rejected the entire suffragette movement for these very reasons. And a decade earlier, on the same issue, G. K. Chesterton bluntly remarked:
If there be something against nature in the idea of a horde of wild women governing, there is something truly intolerable in the idea of a herd of tame women being governed (Chesterton, 1910).
But this cooptation actually characterizes any and all political action directed towards redressing grievances while leaving the social order intact. Any reform movement whose end goal is to actually improve the function of this class-based system of profiteering subjugation that is bleeding creation dry.
A marketplace of assorted and officially sanctioned grievances are for this reason made readily available for any would-be rebel, apart from mere lifestyle or fashion packages and consumer activism, and the vast majority of us take the bait. You feel in your bones that a lot of things are deeply and terribly wrong, and these options on offer seem like a pretty reasonable explanation.
Feels much better than doing nothing, in any case.
And the most devious thing is that almost all of these causes are at least superficially worthwhile in and of themselves, yet addressing them in a limited sense and within the framework of moderate reform will actually serve to protect the system from destabilizing factors.
Our activism then becomes just a band-aid, masking the symptoms of structural iniquity, allowing the machine to keep functioning with minimal friction.
The intelligent opponents of woman suffrage, who were such on the ground that the representative system has served only to rob man of his independence, and that it will do the same to woman, knew that nowhere has woman suffrage exerted the slightest influence upon the social and economic life of the people.
Still they were willing to give the suffrage exponents the benefit of doubt. They were ready to believe that the suffragists were sincere in their claim that woman will never be guilty of the stupidities and cruelties of man. Especially did they look to the militant suffragettes of England for a superior kind of womanhood. Did not Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst make the bold statement from an American platform that woman is more humane than man, and that she never would be guilty of his crimes: for one thing, woman does not believe in war and will never support wars.
But politicians remain politicians. No sooner did England join the war, for humanitarian reasons, of course, than the suffrage ladies immediately forgot all their boasts about woman’s superiority and goodness and immolated their party on the altar of the very government which tore their clothing, pulled their hair, and fed them forcibly for their militant activities. Mrs. Pankhurst and her hosts became more passionate in their war mania, in their thirst for the enemy’s blood than the most hardened militarists. They consecrated their all, even their sex attraction, as a means of luring unwilling men into the military net, into the trenches and death. For all this they are now to be rewarded with the ballot. Even Asquith, the erstwhile foe of the Pankhurst outfit, is now convinced that woman ought to have the vote, since she has proven so ferocious in her hate and is so persistently bent on conquest. All hail to the English women who bought their vote with the blood of the millions of men already sacrificed to the monster War.
The price is indeed great, but so will be the political jobs in store for the lady politicians (Goldman, 1917).
No, we must dig much deeper than ever before.
We have to cut this beast at the roots, and when that grueling work is finally done, we’ll have to salt the earth by teaching all that’s good and true and holy and beautiful to every generation hence.
We must rediscover faith in something more than the machine, and laboriously grow it in a harder ground than anybody has ever had to till.
Yes, for you were meant to be with me
For we are built, trained, conditioned to disappear
We shall stay in the shadows
In the meadows afire
As thieves for hire
And we shall remain invisible, for we travel light
For we do not rush toward the light
And we dance if we can
With our eyes closed
All along the borders
All along the road
And we shall make our movements lighter
Like the boys on the wire
To regain the joy and fierceness
Of the essential man
Chesterton, G. K., What’s Wrong With the World, 1910
Goldman, Emma, “The Woman Suffrage Chameleon”, Mother Earth Vol. XII, No. 3, May 1917