It is present in every aspect of society – from conversations, to concerts, to production, to war – social force is inescapable. Some call it “peer pressure”, which is correct, but I have chosen to use a unique term. “Peer pressure” is often understood pejoratively and in limited contexts, i.e. people recognize that at a party where many people are drinking, the non-drinking minority will be compelled to drink – they feel pressured to drink by their peers. Fundamentally, the “peers” do not necessarily have to try and convince the minority to drink – the act of a large group of people engaging in a collectively shared activity is enough to compel outsiders to try and become a part of this feeling of collective unity. While many people would classify the desire to drink or do drugs in social contexts as the result of “peer pressure”, they may not realize that all social interactions involve “peer pressure” – social force – at some level.
The manner of social force depends on the context, i.e. hierarchical or non-hierarchical. These contexts are often intermingled with each other, depending on the number of people. My high school band class is probably the best example of this. Hierarchically, we have the band teacher – he is institutionally granted the power to force us to do things (i.e. practice our goddamn scales). Amongst the students there is no hierarchy (within the band room, at least) since all of the students are subject to the teacher’s will. The students thus collectively share their situation: they are all forced to play their instruments whether they want to or not. We see that the institution has granted power to the teacher and this power is exercised upon the students. But there is anarchic social force amongst the students as well.
Individually, each student either wants to play their instrument (band geeks), don’t care, or do not want to play. By splitting the students into groups corresponding to their desire, we see three social categories: those who support the whims of the institution, the indifferent, and the resistance. Each of these groups influence each other within the band room. The band geeks will attempt to act as model students in order to win the support of the teacher and will thus perceive themselves as superior to the rest of the students (but in reality their internalized superiority is only relevant amongst the rest of the band geeks who actually care about this sort of thing). The antithesis of the band geeks, the disruptive resistance (or, as my band teacher would say, the “assholes”) will do anything they can to try to stop the playing of instruments: they’ll talk during class, throw shit across the room, blast loud disgusting notes to ruin the song, etc. They are often momentarily successful as the band teacher will stop the class and proceed to yell at the disruptive individual, which the rest of the assholes find hilarious.
The band geeks despise the assholes for disrupting the music, and the assholes despise the band geeks for reinforcing the power of the teacher. Most of the time, the band geeks win the struggle of power because they are on the side of the powerful institution; the class thus abides by the teacher and plays their instruments. However, the resistance sometimes succeeds in pissing the teacher off so much that s/he storms out, effectively halting the playing of instruments for that day. The band geeks and assholes are constantly at war with each other trying to change the course of history (i.e. the band class events of the day), while the indifferent people will merely go with the flow – they neither win nor lose because they are spectators.
On a macro scale, we can relate this to the US political-economic situation. The financial elite proclaim that their success and extreme wealth is the result of their hard work and that their hard work is the result of their intelligence, making them naturally superior to anyone less wealthy. This ideological commitment is taken to its conclusion by the venture capitalist Tom Perkins: “What I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes.” In another context this opinion might be trivial however, in the US, the financial elite have complete influence on policy decisions. This fact has proven by Gilens and Page (among others) in their analysis of 1,779 policy outcomes over the past 20 years. Gilens and Page conclude that, “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
While the politicians are institutionally granted power through “democracy”, the people do not have any real influence on policy decisions and most are indifferent or disillusioned from the political process, as can be seen by the astonishingly low election turnout rates in 2014 where only 36.4% of eligible voters actually voted. These bystanders are swayed like leaves in the winds of change. While intentional change is primarily determined by those in power, clouds of resistance are beginning to take shape, seeking to take back control of the wind. In 1999 the largest resistance movement against the power structure was in Seattle – 50,000 to 100,000 people protested (in the pouring rain) against the World Trade Organization and its economic and political domination of the globe. This movement effectively stopped the WTO from adopting any resolutions during that time, providing a glimpse of the collective power of the people.
Unfortunately, the tens of thousands of people could (understandably) not commit to constant active resistance, meaning that the movement was only a flesh wound on the financial elite’s domineering arm. Since then, we have had smaller resistance movements, such as Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the (indirectly related) struggle against institutionalized racial and economic segregation (perpetuated through state-sponsored police violence) in Ferguson and Baltimore.
These movements are inspiring, but have been short-lived because there has been no consistent struggle against the power structure; this makes sense, people have jobs to work and kids to feed, they have obligations to fulfill and cannot spend a lot of time committed to changing the world. The contradiction here is that these busy, working people are fundamentally necessary for engaging in revolutionary struggle since they are involved in production and the financial elite can only profit (and thus have their power be sustained) when these people are working.
The unity of micro and macro social force can be made apparent through analysis of the subjective situation of a worker at say, Wal-Mart. S/he’s mentality is that of support, indifference, or resistance. I would be quite surprised to hear of low-level Wal-Mart employees who actually support their company in which the owning family “controls a fortune equal to the wealth of the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined”, but the ideological clutches of “they worked hard so they earned it” may extend even to the oppressed workers at Wal-Mart.
Whereas there will always be workers justifiably focused just on surviving in the aggressive labor market (and thus indifferent to their condition), class-consciousness is growing amongst the workers, as exemplified by the recent Wal-Mart Black Friday strikes and the $15 an hour movement throughout the US. Individually, however, the resisting worker is institutionally forced to succumb to the whims of the Wal-Mart executives while simultaneously trying to engage in resistance, i.e. working slowly, swearing at the management, trying to join/create a union, etc. Unfortunately, as an individual worker in Wal-Mart, this resister will have very little power and if s/he displays too much resistance, s/he will simply be fired – an extreme consequence if the job’s income is the only thing sustaining this person’s ability to survive. The political power granted to the already economically powerful elite gives them the ability to change and manipulate laws so as to legalize progressively more unjust labor laws favoring the employer over the employee or at least halt any laws that would be made to do the opposite (this is particularly a problem in third-world countries, which are highly impacted by contemporary global “free-trade” agreements).
We can thus see the synthesis of the micro and macro levels of social force and the inherent contradictions of our time. The people most oppressed by the power structure are those who are most capable of eliminating the power of their oppressors by ceasing to work and thus halting profits; yet, because these people are the most oppressed and economically disadvantaged, they are unable to resist and change their collective situation without losing the minute, life-sustaining scraps handed down from the table of their masters’ extreme wealth.
In a world where one has to learn an instrument for the sake of bettering oneself, it would be hard to justify a revolutionary change of band class into study hall. But the struggle against the financial elite – a group of people with unyielding political ties, people who profit from war, destruction of the environment, economic exploitation of 90% of the world, people who were given billion dollar checks for creating the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression – this struggle is justified. The question of our time is how to struggle against the financial elite and ultimately remove them from power – the movements discussed above are inspiring, but have not resulted in fundamental change.
By Kian Kenyon-Dean