Howl of the Day: Oct 13, 2017

Political scientist Corey Robin has an interesting take on the current Harvey Weinstein debacle. Robin observes that power relationships leave little room for morality:

In virtually every oppressive workplace regime—and other types of oppressive regimes—you see the same phenomenon. ….

Those at the bottom of the regime, these less established actresses who need the most, look up and wonder why those above them, those more established actresses who need less, don’t speak out against an injustice: The more established have power, why don’t they use it, what are they afraid of?

Those higher up the ladder, those more established actresses, look down on those at the very bottom and wonder why they don’t speak out against that injustice: They’ve got nothing to lose, what are they afraid of?

Neither is wrong; they’re both accurately reflecting and acting upon their objective situations and interests. This is one of the reasons why collective action against injustice and oppression is so difficult. It’s Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand at work (in both senses), without the happy ending: everyone pursues their individual interests as individuals; the result is a social catastrophe.

This seems true, but at the same time, focusing on the power dynamic at play as opposed to the ends for which the power is used obscures something essential about the problem.

The structure of Hollywood discouraged actresses from speaking out about horrible treatment, no doubt – but, doesn’t any regime, workplace or otherwise, depend on having people who have more to lose than gain by shaking things up? Both organizations that protect rapists, and those that prosecute them rely on power dynamics that, in a manner of speaking, enable the powerful.

Robin is clearly right that these sorts of power dynamics can lead to social catastrophe, but focusing on the structural issues makes it hard to distinguish oppressive workplaces, organizations, or regimes from good ones. A Hollywood filled by benevolent and respectful producers would look very different from one dominated by perverts and rapists.

Broadening the point to politics, this takes us to the age-old question of what—if anything—distinguishes a just regime from an unjust one. Here too, the aims of the regime are critical. Although structural analysis has become popular as it appears to provide a view of politics free from value judgements, it abstracts from the essentially political, and thus can never tell the most important part of the story.

Image: Composite of Harvey Weinstein at the 2010 Time 100 Gala, by David Shankbone and The three monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil by John Snape. Both via Wikipedia. (CC BY-CA 3.0)