Counterpunched: We Have No Theory of Power

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

–Frederick Douglass

The freethought movement has recently come in for a barrage of criticism, but not from the usual sources: in the past few months we’ve been battered from the left. It’s one thing to be attacked by right-wing fundamentalists and Fox News pundits – I expect that - but when columnists in the leftist political newsletter Counterpunch and radical Marxists like Ralph Dumain start throwing punches, I’m caught off-guard.

Perhaps this is why so many of their blows land: the movement does have a problem with sexism (as Jeff Sparrow contends), it does tend to overlook issues of economic justice (as David Hoelscher avers, twice - and I’m as guilty of this as anyone, something I’ll address in future posts), and it hasn’t grappled sufficiently with critical theory (as Ralph Dumain argues).

The freethought movement in the 21st Century, and Humanism as a philosophy, has been (for a while) and remains ill-equipped to fend-off challenges from the left. Partly, I imagine, this is because much of modern “movement Humanism and atheism” grew up in the US, where their main opposition has been regressive right-wing religion. Our conceptual and persuasive repertoire has been honed to defeat fundamentalist ideologues, not to discourse learnedly with disciples of Foucault. We have sharpened our wits on other mental whetstones.

But part of the problem is more fundamental, representing a serious gap in the intellectual edifice of  Humanism and freethought: we have no theory of power. All three critics linked above allude to this problem. Sparrow writes:

“insofar as the New Atheism represents a coherent intellectual trend, one of its central characteristics is an absence of any theory of ideology”

Dumain thinks similarly, arguing that “the atheist – humanist – skeptical movement, particularly in the USA…addresses only one half of the cognitive sources of irrationality of the modern world, and is ill-equipped to grapple with the secular forms of unreason, which can be denoted by the term “ideology”.”  Hoelscher’s excellent essay on the lack of discussion of class and inequality of wealth within our movement can be seen as an in-depth analysis of one manifestation of the same problem: while we are attuned to individual deficiencies such as dogmatism and irrationalism, the movement has had a tendency to overlook structural problems such as oppression – and when it does attempt to tackle sexism, racism, classism etc. the response is often swift and retributive.

In general, I find the criticisms these three authors offer to be fair ones. If you search through the philosophical output of the most significant contemporary freethought advocates, you will find very little discussion of structures of inequality and oppression, or of the mechanisms which create and sustain such structures. For instance, neither Corliss Lamont’s The Philosophy of Humanism nor Richard Norman’s On Humanism - two of the finest single-volume expressions of a comprehensive Humanist worldview – include any real analysis of the way in which power is marshaled in the service of elites.

Paul Kurtz, one of the most prolific Humanist philosophers, while certainly interested in issues of injustice (including, as Hoelscher notes, issues of economic injustice), likewise does not take a systematic structural view of the problem. He speaks vaguely about the creation of democratically-governed economies and international institutions, but writes little about the powerful interests which ensure that such radical visions do not come about.

The major New Atheist authors tend to criticize religion (rightly) as a sort of cognitive error or collective mistake – a “delusion” or a “spell” which must be broken – whilst mainly avoiding the ways in which religion is reinforced and propagated by societal institutions and social practices. Perhaps predictably, when they bring their intellectual backgrounds to bear on the topic, what you get are evolutionary, philosophical and, to some extent, political explorations of religion, none of which fully address its sociological aspects.

This freethought tendency, I argue, is linked to another: the tendency to focus our critical gaze on the individual, rather than the group or community. When racism, sexism, homophobia and other systematic forms of oppression are discussed, it is often in service of the reform of individuals rather than the melioration of social conditions and institutions which shape individuals in the first place.  If only people would be more reasonable, more rational, the suggestion seems to be, then they would be less sexist, racist, classist etc.

When reading the works of major atheist activists I often get the sense that their theory of social change goes something like this: 1) identify the cognitive errors to which people are prone; 2) demonstrate to them, individually, how they are mistaken; 3)… ; 4) PROFIT! I exaggerate, but it is striking how individualistic and skeptical of communal action our movement is at times. While other social movements devote huge resources and energy to local organizing and institution-building, the freethought movement has relatively few, relatively small organizations dedicated to the collective realization of our aims, and essentially no political presence at all.

A neat example of these problems can be found in Richard Norman’s On Humanism (a truly excellent book and one I thoroughly recommend, despite the forthcoming criticism). Writing on the problems of injustice and oppression – the only time in his book that he does so that I can find – he offers:

As a matter of fact, whatever progress there has been towards greater equality and the combating of injustice has been made possible by the clearer perception of what human beings share in common. The protest of oppressed groups has been that ‘we are human beings like you’, and progress comes when that truth is recognized…the myth of women as creatures of ‘intuition’ rather than ‘intellect’ has served for millennia to prevent women from developing and and using to the full their shared human powers of intelligence. (p, 81)

I’m not saying Norman is wrong about this – indeed, I think the insight that the expansion of our concept of who we consider “human” is at the heart of moral progress is extraordinarily important. But the picture is fantastically incomplete. Strictly speaking, progress does not come when the truth of our shared humanity is recognized, but after years and decades of struggle against powerful forces which want to keep us down. The problematic myths freethinkers like me love to skewer are only one part of the picture – and sometimes a small part, a symptom of an underlying problem. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The myopia toward power often found in major contemporary freethought texts is triply dangerous: it can blind us to forms of structural oppression which demand our attention if we wish to call ourselves “Humanists”; it deprecates the communal and the collective with its continual focus on the individual; and it propagates an inaccurate view of how social change occurs, which in turn debilitates our efforts at achieving our aims.

I’ll follow up on all three points in future posts.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • BenSweaterVest

    I made this for you…

    • James Croft

      LOVE! Can I put it into the post?

      • BenSweaterVest

        Yea, of course! Like I could ever say no to you…

  • baal

    You’re making my generic sense of unease flare up. I have yet to read the links but will do so. I suspect that my unease is shared by a segment of your intended audience that can be exemplified here: I don’t fully agree with bluharmony on each of the examples but I’m using the post as a proof of concept that selecting and promulgating a ‘humanist theory of power ideology’ will alienate part of the range of the people you seek to organize. It may be that you don’t want them (A+ explicitly didn’t) or that you can’t get everyone so go for the largest group you can reasonably assemble and all.
    While I agree that “Power concedes nothing without a demand”, that’s not always a bad thing nor does the demand necessitate threats of violence (huckabee should be shot for his political use of the recent massacre), negative emotion inducing rhetoric (shaming) or dehumanizing language (examples on the link to bluharmony’s post). I know that you personally pretty much always avoid such language but buy in on that point is extremely limited. Since that type of language is endemic to the folks who are fond of leftist power ideology (single individual privilege checking anyone?), any humanist ideological theory of power would need to guard against it.

    It’s probably a personal problem but the paragraph that starts “Dumain thinks ” confuses me. The paragraph starts with the complaint that ideology isn’t dealt with directly enough and the paragraph ends with “tendency to overlook structural problems such as oppression”. That last quoted bit shows up most often as ideology. I mean that I see folks start arguments with oppressive structure exist (I generally agree) and then they say that this local bad thing or case is an example of being oppressed QED the people in charge are morally blamewothy (bad humans nearly the same as not humans and a step away is not human). It’s a frustrating misapplication of the general population statistic to the individual. That’s not rational nor reasonable. Individual cases are individual and highly impacted by context. Population level explanation is just that population level only. This misuse of ideology is worse since it pretty much seems to always include moral condemnation of the local person in power. So, ideology of power as applied on the left strikes me as a fountain of irrationality. Your paragraph seems to suggest that leftist power ideology combats irrationality; I don’t see that.
    Leftist power arguments create in-group unity and help to overcome social barriers (I’m a member of the group so I feel like my personal risks and fears are offset enough to demand power) to making a demand of power. Self confidence for another reason (being right, personal economic security) are other routes to making the demand of power.

    I argue (and am now well outside of a comment on a blog so I’ll truncate to here) that the humanist, best for flourishing, way forward is build coalitions (yes!) but that the empowerment comes from calling for a better world (ex: everyone has job protection and can only be fired for cause or demonstrable econ reasons) and by endowing chairs (for lack of a better phrase) to be the point people to carry forward specific actionable items. This mirrors (to a large extent) how ALEC. Grover Norquist and the Kochs carry out change. They also have the strong in group noise makers (tea party fronts) but again, those are a softer force mostly on the PR side (important but not the action). The action is in the endless pushing at all levels of the political structure (right down to who is the Soil and Water Commissioner or dog catcher).

    • James Croft

      You raise an interesting and challenging point. It’s important to stress that what I’m advocating for, to begin with, is an understanding of how power functions, as a matter of fact, in and through society. The first step is to see power as clearly as possible, to reveal the hidden assumptions and systems which channel our thinking. I’m not yet arguing for any normative conception of how we might work to change the power structures which we uncover.

      I don’t think such a project should alienate any true Humanist, because we should all be committed to truth-seeking and clear-sight. It is impossible to act freely and effectively if one cannot see the power structures which they are subject to. If there is an objection merely to discussing and investigating power then that strikes me as incompatible with Humanist values.

      If, however, the objection is to a particular response to power dynamics, then w can hash it out. We can argue and debate and criticize and disagree. I see no reason why that discussion need descend into dehumanization or tribalism, and indeed I would hope it would not do so: that would defeat the nature of the enterprise.

      Where we might have a real problem is with people who 1) don’t really understand power and privilege but think that they do or 2) are acting in bad faith to try to prevent revelation of damaging power structures. I am not too familiar with bluharmony’s work, but some of the examples seem to me to display an understanding of power which is rather problematic. For instance:

      “Rape Culture — A culture that glorifies rape. The one we live in. The same one that makes (actual) rape a criminal act.”

      That comment seems to suggest that there is some contradiction between a society legally prohibiting an action and that same society also promoting – even glorifying – the same action through culture. A moment’s thought would reveal the weakness of such a view: many actions which are illegal are promoted through culture. Murder is perhaps the most legally prohibited act of all, and yet it is also one of the most culturally celebrated – countless TV shows, video games, films, novels etc. glorify the act of killing another person.

      So it seems to me that in the post you link there may be lurking some serious confusion about power and oppression. And that needs to be discussed and investigated before we can progress.

  • Simon

    IMO the main reason that questions of power aren’t analyzed methodically within Humanist, Skeptic, and Atheist communities is that the movement is primarily middle-class and for the most part probably perceives power dynamics as just the way things are.

    The most vocal fight is that for church-state separation and it is generally perceived as a legal battle to protect existing civil liberties.

    This is not to say nonbelievers aren’t politically active however. Many of us simply choose other outlets such as party politics.

    • Walker Bristol

      Wait, what exactly about being “middle-class” necessitates that they “perceive power dynamics as just the way things are”? And what does that even mean? That they’re comfortable with power incongruities?

  • Simon

    Something else just occurred to me: feminism qualifies as a type of theory of power, no? In my case I am extremely sympathetic and so are many others, but the level of really nasty opposition to Humanist rhetoric that incorporates it cannot but be noticed.