Cultural Mythologies of Inequality and Power

December 20, 2020

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“My view was, and is, that we need to think about power broadly rather than narrowly – in three dimensions rather than one or two – and that we need to attend to those aspects of power that are least accessible to observation: that, indeed, power is at its most effective when least observable.”

– Steven Lukes, Power: a Radical View, Second Edition, Introduction to the new edition, 2005: p 1.

I’ve had a difficult couple of weeks reading the world news: watching the President of the United States refuse to concede the election he most assuredly lost; reading the uncivilized and unintelligible bullshit people post on social media; watching the world burn with fever, the worst of it in my own country; viewing an angry, desperate, and wounded world defile itself; and wondering what it will take for people to understand how terribly harmful our subjugation to dysfunctional and abusive power structures really is for our survival.

Based on the increasingly hostile, absurd, and irrational social and political discourse, real and virtual, it’s time to impress upon the imagined virtual space a round of philosophical critical dialogue. Consider it civic engagement, if you will, and should you find it necessary to participate, make an effort to engage the text.

We have many cultural mythologies and social ideologies that buttress systems of inequality and power in America: permitting, enabling, and preserving its immutability. To have an honest and informed discussion about inequality and power would require at least a middling appreciation of the science necessary for reliably understanding the social sphere in structuring our existence.

While I believe this unlikely with a pedestrian conversation in an imagined space such as social media, let’s give it a try anyway.

This is an exercise of power: my rhetorical engagement on social media is a monologue, a singular voice. Despite your ability to “comment” on the post and engage the text (and each other), the text stands as the functioning structure of power enabling the entire social engagement. What the reader does with the narrative is open to ideas about “choice” but in the end, the monologue set the social into action, and the person initiating the virtual monologue has the power to simply erase it in its entirety without consequence. Be philosophical and consider the implications of that position as we explore concepts of power.

When I read the digital discourse of social media, the righteously stated and immobile opinions of the benighted populace, I’m always a bit perplexed by the arrogant sense of entitlement to boldly ignorant dialogue posited by the average person sitting behind a keyboard somewhere in America. I’m further flummoxed by the opinions and assertions from society’s non-elite that place them in social, political, and economic arenas with oppressive material consequences effectively subjugating their actual needs to judgmental ideologies: Judgmental ideologies that are so often created by someone else for your tasty little consumption.

This sort of social cognitive dissonance may be related to competing and broad sweeping social theories of power. Let’s examine some of those sociological theories.

Functionalism is a theoretical perspective that essentializes social stratification: it believes people are inherently different and unequal based on their functional value to society, that inequality is inevitable, beneficent, and plays an important role in structuring society. It is a perspective that assumes social stratification is a natural sorting of people by the value of their social functions, and the people at the top belong where they are, as do the people at the bottom.  It’s often referred to as the “meritocracy” approach to theories of social stratification, embedded within ideologies concerning upward mobility, work ethic, and deservingness.

This theoretical approach reveals more about a pathological human effort to validate the hegemony of rapacious psychosocial tendencies rather than a critical examination of how and why power structures function and for whose benefit. Functionalism is an indifferent approach to inequality and power because it effectively legitimizes dominance and subjugation by presuming it is simply meant to be that way: it refuses to peak under the dirty blanket of power while assuming social stratification is somehow fair and rational. The circular rationale presented by functionalism begs the question: the premise assumes a truth rather than supporting it. Functionalism doesn’t ask any questions about whose system we’re using to arrive at value judgments or why that system should be considered legitimate.

Asking the right questions is the only way to arrive at reliable truths.

Despite its obvious critical shortcomings, the functional perspective is utilized by a lot of average folks who don’t particularly benefit from the perspective, and I have to wonder why.

Conflict theory is a critical perspective that questions and excoriates social stratification: it believes social stratification is dysfunctional and harmful to society, inequality is maintained through a system that is fixed to benefit the rich and powerful by design, which results in an ongoing unequal distribution of power and resources. It is a perspective that assumes power structures are constructed by human design rather than determined by nature. Conflict theory asks questions about what existing power structures are meant to accomplish and for whom in order to arrive at an understanding of how power structures function sociologically and thereby arrives at value judgments based on the critically examined consequences of stratified social systems.

Functionalist theory requires that you believe the current (stratified) social systems are the only natural way that humans can exist, and then views every behavior through a lens of individual responsibility for determining success in a system that requires social stratification by its very design.

Conflict theory requires that you engage with material reality and examine the purposes, intents, and outcomes of stratified social systems, thereby evaluating the consequences of social stratification on the whole of society, and based on the premise that the social conflict created by social stratification is both constructed by and detrimental to society.

I’m of the belief that we can deconstruct every social creation to figure out how it works. Essentialism creates epistemological issues for me.

Steven Luke’s critical examination and radical view of power gives you three dimensions. The first is how we all typically imagine power: decision-making. This is your poli-sci view of power: naïve, like libertarianism.

Sure, we all make decisions every day. As consumers and workers and citizens and (insert identity here). The first dimension of power recognizes that power is an executed act of decision-making.

For instance: you want Cocoa Puffs? You go ahead and buy yourself some Cocoa Puffs, you decider, you.

The second dimensional view of power examines how people and institutions in positions of power are enabled to make decisions for us about the choices we are permitted.

This isn’t just that you hand over your power in being governed; running a society is a difficult task and we aren’t all cut out for the administrative and legislative work, so we agree you have to pick someone who can reliably make certain decisions for the good of us all.

The second dimension of power is this sort of quiet, behind the scenes dimension of power. It’s the people and institutions who make the decisions about your choices before you get to know about and participate in the choices: the people who exclude, conceal, and disallow items and issues to be on the agenda in which you are permitted a voice. It is the idea that the choices you are given are just that: given to you, hence decisions are restricted and controlled by others. You get to be the decider, but only from the choices you’ve been given by this other Decider.

For example, when you attend a city council meeting, you are permitted a voice in addressing aspects of the agenda open to public input. But you didn’t get to decide which items were going to be on the agenda.

And the third dimensional view of power is the one that made Luke’s view radical: that despite all your rage, you are still just a rat in a cage.

There is a tendency to weave off into fictional conspiracies better left to literary and film productions with Luke’s third dimension, but it is also a fascinating and persuasive critical tool for examining material reality. Decidedly suspicious, the third dimension of power skips over subjective behavioralist beliefs about power and goes right to the idea that people will adapt to whatever reality they are required to inhabit, and they will create, along with their oppressors, the ideologies, beliefs, and experiences that require them to accept their place in that world.

Lukes writes, “[I]s it not the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances shaping their perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial?”

We can apply these theoretical approaches to the socio-economic power relationships in America: and they do require thoughtful consideration for determining how it’s all packaged for our acceptance, compliance, and participation in the performance. It means problematizing our motives and intents: asking where they come from, what needs they fulfill, who they benefited and deprived. Attempting to deconstruct the variables only to arrive at absolute meanings about the world to support opinions that validate a current sense of human agency rather than conscientious awareness and insight about the world around us is normatively discordant; we have to wonder why and how a sense of solecism is preferable to an authentic relationship with materiality.

We should responsibly consider how altering power structures might arrive at more reasonable and effective methods of managing our social world. It means we should deconstruct power structures for the purpose of ensuring we make reliable decisions rather than decisions predicated on rescuing a series of beliefs based on a contrived cognitive dissonance and the unmediated emotional shit erupting from your limbic system. It’s time to unlearn how we “believe” and learn how to understand the world around us, even when it threatens the particularities of a current identity. In order to let go of the unproductive and ignorant bullshit, it helps to understand how power is constructed as well as the identities we actually have to choose from within our current socio-economic power structures.

Sometimes, when we understand how we are manipulated into belief, that our choices are manufactured as the only ones we have but they are still somehow our own, we get angry enough to let some of those unproductive beliefs go and strive for genuine awareness.

Virtual public social discourse concerning how our society should function often relies on historically constructed mythologies about American identity. To say that contemporary public opinions based in these mythologies concerning how society should be constructed is bereft of an historical perspective would be an understatement. Not understanding history also means misunderstanding the significance of those cultural mythologies within the historical moment for constructing a cultural narrative: what did those narratives represent about American life at that moment, what story did it tell about American identity, whose story did it tell, and what did it reveal about manifestations of power?

One of my favorite narratives, often used to shame the poor and create definitions of “deserving” and “undeserving,” is that “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” bullshit: rugged individualism. You can do it if you really want to, don’t be weak or lazy, ignore the man behind the curtain, it’s all about YOU. We repeat rigid expectations embedded in the mythologies of a cultural narrative that constantly circumvent reality at every turn; a common one I read repeatedly on social media is this variation: get a better job; can’t find one? don’t have the best skills? then get an education to get a better job (what? You racked up student loan debt equal to a first mortgage? Well what the fuck did you think would happen when you made that choice?).

It’s an unending circle of conflict, despair, disappointment, moving the goal posts, and then discordant blame. The mythologies of the past haunt our ideologies in the present. It’s like the religious fruit-loops in the Middle Ages who wore hair shirts and whipped themselves. Or those weird pious pole-sitters. We keep repeating the same self-flagellating methods of social control like insane little homo sapiens in need of a group therapy session.

In the period of early American expansion, Manifest Destiny, migration of “American citizens” into geographical areas “purchased” or “won” from European nations, and early constructions of the American Dream, you had to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Or you wouldn’t survive. If you were migrating across this big land mass, looking for a place to make a new home, needing to build that home when you got there, grow food and raise livestock, deal with the people you were displacing in the process and the conflict that will arise from that displacement, well, you’re going to need to believe in and encompass the qualities espoused as truly able-bodied and unflagging American identity to survive.

And if you examined the power structures that validated and enabled the outward settlement of what would become an increasing America, you would see how it benefited those power structures to encourage average Americans to become that American identity: to make a new life for themselves with a new homestead in unexplored country holding the riches of nature, to do the work of acquisition and settlement of their new world, to fight the good and moral fight to tame the land and its savages; and then you might also desire to understand who benefits and how. You might question what is accomplished in providing the mythology of rugged individualism as integral part of the American identity, and why we insist on holding onto that mythology in a very different world today.

While that is only one story of “America” working to create cultural identity, it reveals so much about how power functions, how unprincipled socially stratified power structures maintain an insidious sort of narrative power, weaving a cultural yarn that somehow warrants subjugation. Underlying the narrative of rugged individualism lurks a persistent American mythological ideology enabling a hierarchical socio-economic reality: that there is a top, that you can make it to the top if you work hard enough, that you should actually be trying to do so, and if you don’t make it, it is your own fault: a surreptitious approach to making people accept their lot in life, and to compel the judgment of others who should also accept their lot as well.

A hierarchical socio-economic system requires social stratification by its very design. Repeat it until you get it. For the populous to go along with a system that by its very nature will subjugate and oppress the vast majority of them, you must either compel or convince them to do so. In America, where we believe we are free to secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, our cultural narrative requires that we believe that we need not be subjugated and oppressed within the system, that if we work hard enough, if we behave the right way, if we consume the proper commodities, then we won’t be, we can’t be, and if we are anyway, it is a personal failing, certainly not that of a system that requires there be actual failures.

We deconstruct the historical narrative to ask questions about the current moment: how do we define what it means to be American, what values and expectations are espoused by that definition, why and how do we manage modern cultural identities that have been appropriated from another time and place in American history, how do we police the boundaries of American identity in the present, and who benefits from the work of our cultural narratives?

Our compliance with economic and social inequality allows us to ignore injustice, to refuse to acknowledge inequality, to turn a blind eye to struggle or suffering, and to attribute all of those things to personal failing, ineptitude, and a careless lack of responsibility rather than to the systems that not only enable but require disparity and inadequacy.

The manner in which society is constructed for and by its people – its governmental infrastructures, economic opportunities, social services, public and private attitudes toward its occupants, expectations for (and the reality of) the health and welfare of its citizens, including notable levels of discord and upheaval –  reveals both the distribution of power and the temperament of the narrative we have chosen to perform in order to support those systems.

Dissecting the narrative, deconstructing the performance, and examining the ramifications of our attitudes and actions that are all too often manufactured to meet the needs of the power structures pulling the strings is necessary; thoughtful, honest, and insightful scrutiny are all crucial to arriving at a reliable understanding of how and why we participate in and perpetuate inequality. We must arrive at an honest and reliable understanding because the world is a fucked up place for modern homo sapiens. Our social relationship with reality is delusional and toxic, we’re hurting ourselves, and we’re doing so to advantage the few at the top who really don’t give two short shits about the rest of us.

“We study history, it has been said, to rid ourselves of it, and the history of the power elite is a clear case for which this maxim is correct.” – C. Wright Mills

2 Responses to “Cultural Mythologies of Inequality and Power”

  1. G. Loring said

    You failed to address the effect religion has played in the “American” stratification or in the power structures throughout the world for that matter. It seems to be the first step in organization to create an audience for manipulation. Probably originally intended for communication purposes to aid in the survival of like minded groups of people and create a structure of same to address good, evil, the distribution of food, money etc. Necessary in those medieval times to create a sort of “civilized” society, for collectively they or we stood a better shot at survival. I think in this modern day America we have proved without a doubt that in humankind there will always be a certain percentage of those that are primal and will resort to any method to attain power and dominance through most generally and moronically those that think they can’t be and refused to be controlled.

    • Racheal said

      While I have quite a bit to say about the sociology of religion, that would be another entire essay altogether. This essay focuses on social theories of power and some of the analogous American cultural mythologies that buttress theoretical systems of power.

      Religion is often used as a tool of power, likely inhabits Luke’s second dimension of power by being one of those institutions that determines the choices from which you are permitted to choose, and while it can be an overall strategy for structuring social control and disseminating ideologies, it is not a theory of power but an apparatus in which power functions. For example, Movement Conservatism hitched its ride to the Moral Majority religious movement in the United States in the 1980s, and has continued to use evangelical and fundamentalist religious ideologies to perpetuate the culture wars in America in lieu of actual policies for governing. Power does not emanate from religion; religion simply provides a narrative tool used to manipulate and control. Or as Lukes wrote (and is quoted in the essay), “[I]s it not the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances shaping their perceptions, cognitions, and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial?”

      Religion is one the tools used in the exercise of power; it is not Power in and of itself.

      You could address the cultural mythologies utilizing religious ideologies as an example of how religion is used as a narrative tool in structuring inequality in America. For instance, the emblematic Protestant Work Ethic contributes to the mythologies around rugged individualism and upward mobility, as well as the tendency to blame individuals for their socio-economic position by attributing it to the strength of their moral character and by virtue of their productivity.

      While your comment posits some broad sweeping generalizations about the purposes of religion, the bigger issue is where you essentialize power as something “primal” that some people aspire to without understanding the sociological and theoretical purposes of the discourse on power. Relying on individual ideas about larger social issues, including attributing the social forces that structure society to individual action and control, is a consequence of the Functionalist Theory of Power, as discussed and problematized in the essay. It’s worth reading again with a critical eye to the shortcomings of functionalism, particularly how a functionalist perspective interferes with a critical examination of social stratification by attributing it to a natural outcome of individual actions and responsibilities instead of systems structured to do precisely what they do by design.

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