Political Philosophy: Sticks and how to use them

Death of Caesar

Sticks. In the Fresh AiR Podcast, S01 E01, I referred to religion as just “one of many sticks we use to beat each other upside the head”.  I also named a few other sticks, like race, wealth and class. On Twitter I had a discussion with one of the podcasts listeners about these sticks and whether or not we should endeavour to remove them completely. Because of this discussion, which was in the limited nature of the Twitter format, I wanted to examine the idea of “sticks” more in-depth. 

What are Sticks?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor stok slaan
a stick.

Sticks, in the broadest terms, are those social constructs, possessions and ideologies which we use to gain an advantage over others. They are our sources of power. I call these things sticks rather than sources of power, to convey the type of random nature that these things have. Like a stick on the floor of a forest, these sources of power are fairly easy to come by and there are very few standards for what makes it a stick. To stick with (pun intended) the subject of the podcast to illustrate what I mean, it is fairly easy to wield some sort of stick within the context of a religion. All you have to do is read the holy book and stress where your fellow religious people depart from scripture or show to not be as adherent. This stick is easy to obtain. 

But the difference here between a harmful stick and a harmless twig is just as small. If your fellow believer has a reason – whether it be the absolution from the rules of the Old Testament by the blood of Jesus, or simply not valuing the prescription – the stick might be as effective as slapping someone with a twig rather than hitting them with a good, sturdy stick. 

The inverse is true too. If you care a whole lot about being the best person you can be, than me telling you that you just littered and are therefore a bad person, might hit you a whole lot harder. 

However, sticks also have more devastating functions. Like sticks in nature can be fitted with a hammerhead to allow for devastating and lethal impact, so too can these metaphorical sticks be fitted with a hammerhead, that mostly consists of institutionalising the stick. In Islamic societies, for instance, the stick of Islam is institutionalised to the point where being hit with the stick of Islam can mean the death penalty or severe physical punishment. In these cases the seemingly arbitrary source of power becomes institutional power and thereby increases its impact but also needs to be defended. Which in turn is done not by legitimacy, but by wielding its power in the form of brute force. 

The nature of sticks and violence 

Sticks equal power. As such, holding a stick signifies authority of some kind. What we have to realise here, is that the use of power in the form of the violence that the power brings is often an expression of powerlessness. Actually hitting with the stick is a last resort, because as most of us will remember from our childhood, there’s a chance that using a stick to hit something/someone bears the chance that your stick breaks. 

Luckily for the wielders of sticks, though, a stick has a whole lot of different uses that don’t entail hitting with it. This is true for both actual sticks and metaphorical sticks. The first use I want to outline is that of leverage. Having a stick in itself is a form of power. Your employer, for instance, doesn’t have to show his stick for you to respect his power. It is implicit that they wield a certain amount of power over you. Many people who have sticks, find themselves in a position where others know they do, and will therefore not be likely to have to show or use them. 

When people who are subject to the stick holders get a bit rowdy or oppositional, the stick holders may sometimes just show the stick. Reminding someone that you can exercise power, and keeping them in line that way, is far better than actually exercising that power. This is because the use of power diminishes (the perception of) legitimacy. We will get back to the question of legitimacy later because it merits a titled paragraph of its own. Sufficed to say that the exercise of some power will be accepted by the subjects of a stick holder, whereas the frequent or disproportionate exercise of power will not be. 

Another go to move, which follows the last only because it is a more advanced move that only really gets made by people who have a lot of experience using power, is the bluff. Basically, the would-be stick holder alludes to having a stick, whether they do or don’t. This has the benefits of being more subtle and makes it seem like the subject accepts the use of power on their own accord, while there was an underlying pressure to do so. 

Then, there’s the simple hitting with the stick. There’s basically three degrees of this;

  1. Warning shot. Like the name suggests, it’s a single shot to make the subject feel the power the stick holder has over them. It serves as a warning to make the subject fall in line. 
  2. Beating into submission. The name does all the talking here too. The stick is used to make someone hurt so badly that they feel they have no choice but to fall in line. 
  3. Beating to death. Here, the use of power is so severe that the subject is eliminated from the equation. 

Of course, the names I used above, are hyperbole. So, I’ll explain them a bit better by using the employer/employee example given earlier. 

  1.  Warning shot. Imagine you work at a movie theater, at the tickets desk. For some reason, you refused a direct order from your manager. As a consequence, the manager gets you on cleanup duty. He’s now making you feel their power as a warning. 
  2. Beating into submission. Congratulations! You have been reinstated at the tickets desk. But oh oh! You opposed another order and instead did the opposite. Now, you are being beat into submission by being sentenced to cleanup duty for an entire month. 
  3. Upon hearing your sentence of cleanup duty for a month, you tell your manager to “stick it where the sun don’t shine”. What’s more, on your next workday you sit behind the tickets desk and refuse to budge. You are now being beaten to death; you’re eliminated from the equation because you’ve been fired. 

These cases illustrate very well, I think, what I have outlined above. The manager, before issuing the warning shot will have stressed to the worker that they are the employer, reminding them of the chain of command. When that doesn’t work, they initialise the warning shot and the story goes from there. The eventual and inevitable firing of the worker – the final exercise of power – and the two steps described beforehand, result from the powerlessness of the manager to resolve the situation peacefully. 

Automatic and Analogue sticks

Even though the use of sticks, as outlined above, is a sign of powerlessness, there are a lot of sticks that are continually used without them breaking. The hitting with these sticks, is taken for granted, because they hit hard enough to subdue its subjects, but are either too far away or are by some other means accepted. These are automatic sticks, the use of which is also referred to as “institutional violence”. For many people, this makes sense intuitively. But the scope of it often eludes them. When we talk about institutional violence, we talk about things like sweatshop conditions for (child)labour, modern slavery and the like (which are far more widely spread things than most people imagine). But we’re also talking about systemic but preventable flaws in -for example- economical systems, that lead to poor living circumstances for many people. Examples of this are plentiful, where racist, sexist etc. business practices disadvantage people, where certain parts of a country are systematically neglected (see: Flint, Michigan) etc. But also in the way we have treated and are treating the environment. 

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor slavery
Slavery, institutional violence

Analogue sticks, on the other hand, are sticks that give us incidental violence. Where institutional violence is a case of accepted, continuous violence, incidental violence is often an outburst, and as such is experienced as more intense violence by onlookers. It is therefore, in most cases, not accepted. Incidental violence can be anything from a fight between two people on the street, to a long-term war (in this, though, we do have to separate long-term occupation from actual war which is a very blurry line. The point is that long-term occupation of a given territory can easily grow to be accepted, long-term violence and thus become institutional). 

Because of the shocking nature of incidental violence, we are often more ready to condemn it. Think of riots that have taken place in France this year. Cars were burnt, shops looted etc. And we rightfully condemn these behaviors. But more often than not, incidental violence is something that we should endeavour to understand, rather than condemn. In the case of France, the protesters protest out of a sense of helplessness. They have seen their economy grow, the revenues of businesses rise, but the wages go down or staying the same, while products grow ever more expensive. They are using incidental violence in an attempt to erode the institutional violence to which they are subject. Now, this is not the article for a moral judgement on real-world events. That’s a thing for another day. But for the sake of the point I’m trying to make, I do want to give a convincing example of the ends justifying the means when it comes to harsh, lethal opposition to institutional violence. 

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor antifa g7 riots
The shocking images of incidental violence

Spoilers ahead for the Handmaids Tale, season 2. Next fat line marks the end of the spoilers.

In Season 2 of the handmaids tale, episode 6 (First Blood), we witness the unveiling of a new “Rachel and Leah centre”. During the formalities of the unveiling, we witness one of the handmaids, who have been subjected to sexual abuse, loss of freedom, servitude and a whole range of other things that come with the horrible regime in what used to be the US, get out a detonator, and run into the Rachel and Leah centre, towards the front rows where the highest ranking officials are seated. She then detonates the bomb she was wearing, killing a number of high ranking officials. This, as any viewer will recognize is at once an act of defiance, protest and the fighting back against powerful individuals. It is also eerily similar to many terrorist attacks throughout history. So we are left, feeling for the handmaids, in fact wanting them to fight back for the entire 16 episodes up til then. Yet wondering if we can condone such an act. And we can. This act of terror is a proportional response to an oppressive government that has no legitimacy except for its capability to use violence. 

End of spoilers

So we see that though we might be appalled by the use incidental violence, sometimes we ought, rightly, to be more appalled at the violence caused by the institutional violence caused by the persons against whom the incidental violence is aimed.

Legitimacy

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor legitimacy

Inevitably, all questions concerning power and power dynamics (sticks and their uses), come back to a more central question; that of legitimacy. Now, legitimacy is a fairly prickly subject in any case. So much so that it merits an entire article of its own, which I will be sure to write and publish in the near future. Concisely, and befitting for our treatment of legitimacy here, it means something along the lines of “the right (to be right) to rule”. I placed “to be right” in parentheses here, because when you get deeper into the matter at hand, “the right to be right” becomes somewhat important, because you’ll quickly get into the legitimacy of legitimacy. We won’t be taking a too deep look at the concept here, though, so we can disregard it for now. 

Anyone who wields or attempts to use a stick, has to pay attention to the legitimacy of them wielding or using the stick. Legitimacy isn’t just a prickly concept, it is a hard thing to understand and maintain. The wielder of power has to keep a constant eye on their legitimacy, in order to retain their power. Because, once their legitimacy is gone, their power starts to erode. To keep an eye on the legitimacy of power, there are a few subsets to legitimacy to take note of:

  1. Proportionality; As I mentioned above, it is important not to use power too often or too gravely. In the end, the amount of power an individual or a government has, is dependent on the perceptions the subjects of that power have of the wielder of that power. When too big a part of the subjects view the power-wielder as a tyrant in any way, protest and revolt aren’t far away.
  2. Reciprocity; Legitimacy depends on the willingness of subjects of power to subject themselves to that power. This means that they have to get something in return for subjecting. Whether it be something concrete such as payment, or something abstract such as safety or prosperity, a certain element of reciprocity, “skin in the game”, has to be there. When people have something to lose they won’t revolt as quickly, when they have something to gain, they will listen.
  3. Voluntaristic subjection; This is a kind of legitimacy that comes simply from subjects to power volunteering to be subject to power. 
  4. Force; Force, in this sense, means that there is some sort of “emergency measure” to take when people grow unresponsive to the use of power. Like many governments have the emergency measure of sending in the army when protests go too far. A way to get people to fall line using violence of some sort.
  5. (the appearance of) participation; the idea of participation in the wielding of power, gives people the impression that they are themselves the wielders of power. This renders the status quo more agreeable to them, making them more willing to subject to the same kind of rule. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the wielder of power has to actually let their subjects participate, though. Things like advisory committees, who deliver non-compulsory advice, can be enough.

Civil sticks vs institutional sticks

There is a difference, of course, between civil sticks and institutional sticks. By institutional sticks, I mean the exercise of power within institutionalised surroundings such as workplaces, governments, NGOs and the like. By civil sticks, I mean the exercise of power from one person to another.

In the exercise of power from one person to another (outside of an institutionalised environment), a lot depends on whether or not the subject is receptive to the use of that power. So, for instance, when my neighbor asserts that I am a bad christian and tries to berate me for that in an effort to make me conform to his expectations of a good neighbor, he will be beating me with a piece of straw rather than a good stick, since I am not religious. A lot of this kind of exercising of power originates from ideology/morality rather than any kind of authority or institutionalised power source. 

When it comes to the institutionalised application of power, we have some kind of a mix. Some conflicts may arise due to ideological or moral differences of opinion, others due to the responsibilities and allotted power/authority to the persons in question. A boss may tell me not to swear while working for either the good of the company image, or because they are themselves christian and take offense to this. However, in both cases, I will have to conform or be ready to meet the authority/power allotted to them. 

The stickless society

As we have seen here, then, society is drenched in the exercise of power, most of which is legitimated by a threat of violence of some sort. Violence, here, being defined as ‘the purposeful application of harm to an individual or individuals’. In this respect, denying someone his employment as a result of them not keeping to the rules of the place of employment, is seen as a sort of violence. Pacifists, anarchists and those who declare they are unwilling to bend to the threat of violence, then, are right to want to live in a society without sticks. The question I referenced at the introductory paragraph of this article then returns. “Shouldn’t we want to take away sticks, so that nobody will be able to hit another?”

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Anarchism
An oversimplified assertion of what anarchism is.

Though I understand the sentiment, and can find myself agreeing with it to an extent, the question is whether or not this is at all possible in the first place. We can imagine for ourselves a society that has no money, no identity politics, nothing of a traditional source for the exercising of power. But then, how would a society be structured? You wouldn’t have any kind of reliable employment, simply because an employer won’t be able to control their employees. There wouldn’t be any reason to work either, because there wouldn’t be any money to earn. A society like this is bound to fail. There are other ideas to take a look at, though. If the big problem is the violent nature of power, we have seen under the paragraph of “Legitimacy”, a number of ways to legitimise power from a voluntary perspective. Voluntary subjection and reciprocity come to mind. This way, we can imagine no other sources or relations of power/with a power dynamic to exist in a given society, except for the ones entered into voluntarily and without outside pressure. in this case, again, there are a number of ponderings we must have, such as how to motivate members of such society to contribute, whether or not there is a government and how to structure that. 

To avoid getting off topic, though, I will address what I believe my Twitter contact was really trying to say. The point he made was one about religion, so he quite possibly made the point to take away the (largely useless, as discussed above) civil sticks. Though he has a point, I believe this too to be somewhat pointless. Not only is it the case that the loss of religion will likely make other sticks stronger (if you can’t beat someone in being pious, why not beat them in being richer, instead? Or perhaps in being more liked, which is a stick not often used, yet readily available), but there is a fairly big chance that other sticks will be made. Such as, for instance, Mensa membership, quality of driving skills and the like. Some way to keep each other down, will always be available in a society. If not to help each other focus, then just for the fun of feeling better than others.

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About Artificial agent

Hi! I am a 25-year old worker in social care. I was raised catholic up to the eighth year of my life, when the disbelief and frustration of me and my brother, along with changes in the church, caused me and my family to leave the church. Ever since I was twelve, I have been interested in the god question and politics. In discussing these things, my interests have expanded significantly into the realms of science and philosophy. These handed me the tools to distinguish myself as a thinker, rather then the crazy man in the streets. And now, I am here. My aim will be to provide thought-provoking pieces that invite the reader to join me on a journey to investigate truth, morality and whatever might cross our path. In doing this, I hooe to convey and transfer my near limitless excitement and interest in the subject at hand and grow together into more understanding, loving and wise people.

2 Responses to Political Philosophy: Sticks and how to use them

  1. Josh Searching says:

    Nice article. I think you’re right-on about the civil and institutional sticks, and my point that civil stick need to be eliminated as much as possible, until we’re limited to a pillow fight. The reason being in a democracy we decide how big the institutional sticks are, who gets hit, and how hard they get to hit us, civil stick have no bounds.

    • Facebook Profile photoDavidian says:

      And I am sure that those pillows at times might have rocks put in them, but I agree.
      If we can reduce the number of sticks, or limit their impact to a mere prod, then I think we are moving in the right direction.