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The Capitalist Cage: Rethinking Structural Domination in the Market

In this post, Nicholas Vrousalis discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on structural domination and collective agency.

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.

Let’s begin by clarifying some ideas about structures and relationships. Propositions, molecules, houses, and prisons have structures. A molecule or a proposition has a structure in the sense that there is a relation between its parts. Houses and prisons are also structures in that sense, but are notably different in that their structure is constituted by human practices, including the investment of physical objects with meaning: this room counts as a bedroom, that room counts as a cell. But, unlike the parts that constitute propositional, molecular, and house structure, the parts that constitute prison structure are necessarily power relations between persons, namely power relations between gaolers and prisoners, among others.

A power relation, in general, is a relation between a powerful and a vulnerable agent, such that the former can intentionally alter the behaviour of the latter by giving her incentives. Not all power relations are necessarily objectionable: consider successful parenting, tutoring, or coaching relations. When a power relation is objectionable, however, we say that it represents domination: a powerful agent (or group of agents) dominates a vulnerable agent (or group) just when her power is arbitrary, illegitimate, or unjust.

But this only means that the powerful possess an arbitrary, illegitimate, or unjust power, not that they are themselves blameworthy or unjust in that possession. These concerns can come apart when the relationship of domination has a structural element.

To make sense of this idea, suppose Adam and Eve live alone on an abandoned island. Eve inadvertently falls into a pit; Adam demands a high price from Eve in return for costless rescue. If Adam’s offer is accepted, Eve will forever do the housework, while Adam will spend eternity relaxing. Adam exploits, and thereby dominates Eve. But there is nothing specifically structural about this domination; it is merely interpersonal. Contrast a case where a third party, Regulator, pushes women, and only women, into pits. And suppose Regulator pushes Eve into the pit, allowing Adam to make his exploitative offer. Regulator’s addition imparts structure to Adam’s domination of Eve, such that Adam’s domination is no longer merely interpersonal. Indeed, Regulator makes Adam’s domination of Eve a kind of sexist domination.

I argue that this structure generalizes to all structural domination relations, such that, unlike merely interpersonal domination, all structural domination is triadic. More precisely, structural domination is necessarily regulated: it involves pit-like dyads regulated by third-party entities. The figure elaborates schematically on this thought:

So, to go back to the prison case, a given instance of unjust imprisonment betokens domination of the unjustly imprisoned. But it does not betoken structural domination, unless it is upheld by something surplus to the offending domination dyad (gaoler-prisoner). Renoir’s French prisoners of war, for example, are structurally dominated, not because they are unjustly imprisoned, but because they, like their German gaolers, are caught up in the necessarily unjust penal machinery of war. It does not follow, of course, that the gaolers are just as dominated as the prisoners: to affirm this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater (or, in this case, to let the gaolers off with the prisoners!). But the gaolers are—by dint of the existence of gaol-independent expectations, roles, and norms—active participants in the reproduction of that domination. They are, to that extent, practically constrained, although not in the way the prisoners are constrained.

Now suppose you think, as I do, that capitalism is a kind of prison—a self-reproducing, pit-like structural relationship between humans, which consists in monetized control over their labour. Then it follows, by the definition of structural domination, that capitalist domination is not just a class relation, a relation between capital and labour. Capitalist domination of course presupposes that relation, just as it presupposes markets and private property. But it also requires a third-party entity as its constitutive moment: the capital-labour dyad presupposes a regulator. A plausible candidate for that third-party role is the institution of the state.

If this is correct, then—pace generations of socialists from Lenin to G.A. Cohen—the structure of proletarian unfreedom cannot be studied by somehow assimilating the state under the capital-labour dyad, functionally or otherwise. The capitalist prison, in other words, involves more than a bilateral relation between workers and their capitalist bailiffs. How that relation is regulated—whether by an ‘inner citadel’, a ‘superstructure’, or an ‘outer ditch’—is indispensable to any understanding of capitalist structural domination.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.



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  1. As someone who’s been confused for a long time about appeals to “structures” in political philosophy, I find your post very helpful. May I ask something about “power”? You say that “a power relation, in general, is a relation between a powerful and a vulnerable agent.” In a (fully counterfactual!) society where there aren’t any power differentials between people – no children, no one to be tutored or coached or doctored etc. – would there still be any social structures that are partially defined by power? If yes, does it mean that it’s a mere empirical feature of power relations that they generally obtain between powerful and vulnerable agents?

  2. And a second, totally different question: does the entity R – the “Regulator” – have to be an agent distinct from P and Q? Think of Adam and Eve, alone on the island: assume there is a sexist norm in their heads, an internalised, and maybe even consciously endorsed, norm, which says that Adams ought to enjoy lots of leisure while Eves must do all the household choirs. Does your account say that in this case there is no domination of Eve by Adam? Or does it say that such domination exists, but “R” in this case is the sexist norm which runs the show?

  3. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks Nicholas, very interesting!

    May I just ask you to elaborate a little bit on what it means to “assimilate the state under the capital-labour dyad” as generations of socialists have done, and on the stakes of this debate? What do we gain theoretically by picturing a triangular relationship? (I feel that there is a gain, but I fail to grasp it). Thanks!

  4. Exploitation theory is largely concerned with the control and distribution of the surplus from positive-sum transactions. What makes such transactions particularly interesting is that they are typically mutually consensual and beneficial.

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