In his 1938 film The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir depicts the relationship between French prisoners of war and their German gaolers during World War I. Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece invites the question how fundamentally decent humans, on both sides of the conflict, can end up enslaving each other. Renoir’s answer is that war is a class phenomenon, such that all participants, including the ruling classes, get caught up in its vile machinery. It follows that Renoir does not want to lay the blame for the machinations of war on any particular individual or class. War is the upshot of a structural relationship, in which no individual or collective ascription of blame or wrongdoing suffices to account for the sum total of wrongdoing.
How are we to make sense of this idea? In a recent article, I provide an account of what it means to be ‘caught up’ in a pattern of domination, such that the wrongs involved do not disaggregate without remainder into the wrongdoing of agents, the groups they belong to, and the relations between them. And I show that the very concerns that motivate Renoir’s depiction of domination may apply to many other unjust structural relations, including those of sexism, white supremacy, and capitalism.