In The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time, Elise Boulding writes,
“In fact, one of the notable historical features of oppression is that the downtrodden comply in their oppression. The discovery by the oppressed that they have power is the discovery that they can gain a kind of dominance through the withdrawal of compliance. This is the power of the women’s liberation movement, and of all liberation movements” (p. 48).
With these words, Boulding proposes a mechanism for social change—a way to explain how it is that people currently living in circumstances of oppression might come to shift the balance of power in their favor. This is a mechanism for social change that is proposed with a dominance system in mind. Unlike egalitarian systems—meaning systems in which people are considered to relate to each other as equals—dominance systems permit some to have preferential access to legislation, law enforcement, and other tools of control.
Democracy is conceived of as an egalitarian system, as is a marketplace. Advocates for both generally have in mind a system wherein no one vote or dollar gets privilege over any other. People may differ in both cases in their endowments, and the realized practices of these systems may differ substantially from the theory in ways that are important to understand. Nevertheless, well-functioning examples of both markets and democracies do succeed in offering a place where individuals who may be quite different in other respects can often meet on equal footing. (For a thorough treatment of these questions, see Virgil Henry Storr and Ginny Seung Choi’s excellent recent book, Do Markets Corrupt our Morals?)
Systems that are designed to privilege the members of a particular caste, creed, race, or gender are not egalitarian systems, but systems of dominance. And indeed, Boulding’s claim that “the downtrodden comply” within many dominance systems seems to not only be true, but also to explain realities that often seem puzzling to external observers. For example, why might a woman give permission for her or her daughter to undergo the painful, dangerous, and potentially life-altering procedure known as female genital mutilation? Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy explores the complexity and pain surrounding such choices. Although their method and approach is quite different, Chris Coyne and Rachel Coyne similarly bring a similarly important set of reasons why women take actions consistent with the maintenance of this puzzling institution in their article, “The Identity Economics of Female Genital Mutilation.”
The observation that a person can go along with something at a moment in time for reasons that might not have anything to do with them being enthusiastic about the choice is not just good sense, but also good economics. People never choose from among all imaginable possibilities. Instead, we choose the best from among the alternatives we think we’ll actually be able to get.
One important implication of the observation that the downtrodden often comply is that just because someone is going along for now doesn’t mean they won’t make a different decision if circumstances change even slightly. Arenas where some of the participants have had paths barred to them are areas where we should be particularly on the lookout for this effect to have dramatic consequences. One way to think about the #metoo movement is that there are a lot of people who previously saw compliance as the best option available to them. In the post-Cosby, post-Weinstein world, the set of feasible alternatives has changed, and compliance is being withdrawn. The actions of the women who come forward can be labeled strategic in a cynical way, or it can be labeled strategic in the way Boulding describes—a previously compliant person, discovering previously unrecognized powers to reject coercion.
Overall, the vision Boulding offers in this brief treatment is in my view an inspiring one that calls attention to the possibilities for change even under an inegalitarian status quo. It is a vision that resonates with noncompliant political strategies, like civil disobedience or the development of civil society alternatives to adjunct for failing political processes, and may represent an important path towards freedom for individuals living under systems of dominance and oppression.
Jayme Lemke (Ph.D., Economics, George Mason University) is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
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