The Powerful Oppressed Paradox

I seem to have run into a paradox that I can’t solve for the life of me. It goes something like this.
It is by all acknowledged that in the past, in the industrialized nations, workers were far more oppressed than they are now. They had no rights, they were paid starvation wages, they had to work 10s of hours a day. So far, I get it. But here comes the question: if their oppression was so extreme, how could they gather the force to change their conditions so drastically? Particularly when we compare it with the world of work today. We see less oppression, but at the same time, not much is going on in trying to stop it. This will mean that, yes, in the long run, things will get worse.

This paradox takes a very similar form in the case of women’s liberation. It is by all acknowledged that in the past, in the industrialized nations, women were far more oppressed than they are now. And yet… they managed to organize and get laws passed. We all know that the women’s movement was more powerful when things were worse.

I am by no means the first person to point this out. I’ve seen it in the following form:

How is it possible that in the past women could fight for their rights and today women cannot even keep the rights they already have?

The case of abortion comes to mind. In the past, abortion was legalized. Today, we cannot even keep it legal.

Does anyone know what the solution to this paradox is? Were people in the past more oppressed at the same time as they were more empowered? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

Answers on a postcard.

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17 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Jezebella said,

    The working class do not marry or love the ruling class, nor give birth to them. Ask a woman to “betray”, deny, fight back, or disempower her father, husband, and son? This is a whole other order of rebellion than the poor revolting against the rich.

  2. 2

    berryblade said,

    At the risk of sounding overly pedantic, I am going to have to seriously suggest… all humans must die.

    I just think that apathy is WAY more common these days that it ever has been. Isn’t there also more slavery in the world today than ever in history (Zeitgeist flick stat so I don’t know how accurate that is)?

    Maybe for a lot of people they figure this is as good as it’s going to get, so why kick up a fuss & end up with less, if that makes sense.

  3. 3

    polly said,

    But here comes the question: if their oppression was so extreme, how could they gather the force to change their conditions so drastically? Particularly when we compare it with the world of work today. We see less oppression, but at the same time, not much is going on in trying to stop it. This will mean that, yes, in the long run, things will get worse.

    It’s the cultural hegemony stupid!

    Really MT, you need to get more familiar with Gramsci – he explained all this (yeah I know he’s a man, sometimes they’re right).

    The oppressed group are encourage to identify with their oppressor by seeming concessions to their demands. Thus when workers living conditions improve they start to identify with the bourgeoisie, and voluntarily embrace oppression, because they think they have left the oppressed group.

    When people were virtual slaves they had nothing to lose by challenging the status quo. Now they do, or think they do.

  4. 4

    marytracy9 said,

    Damn, I keep trying to read Gramsci but end up not doing so for one reason or another. What do you recommend I shoulds start with? The stuff he wrote from prison, perhaps?

  5. 5

    marytracy9 said,

    It still doesn’t quite click, though. How come women in the past could make the legalization of abortion a reality and today we cannot even keep it legal? Furthermore, how come today women cannot even get abortion legal in countries where it’s never been so, like Ireland?

    Also, conditions for workers have gotten worse and worse in recent years in the UK. And yet today more people from working class backgrounds identify with the burgeoisie than before.

    I’m confused!

  6. 6

    Jezebella said,

    The criminalization of abortion is a 20th century phenomenon. Even the Catholic church had no objection to terminations prior to what they called “the quickening” (when the fetus starts moving around), until the 20th century. I think a combination of suffrage, reliable contraception, divorce reform, and the political/evangelical movement has turned abortion into the issue it is today. Once upon a time, a woman who had sex had to “suffer” the consequences of pregnancy and marriage; now all us uppity women have the option of fucking without having to marry and bear the spawn of our partners, and the patriarchy hates that. Anti-abortion activism is a backlash against the liberation of women from reproductive oppression.

    Women have been terminating pregnancy with herbs & various chemicals for thousands of years, but men didn’t really know or hear about it because we didn’t go to men for the solution to unwanted pregnancy. Once they found out, they didn’t like it, not one little bit. How dare we dispose of their holy sacred spunk??!

  7. 7

    polly said,

    Well obviously Gramsci was of his time, he didn’t anticipate the internet for one thing. But you don’t need to read him really, just get the whole cultural hegemony thing and then it’s really easy to look around and see it.

    The working classes are extremely fractured. Mass *education* that teaches you nothing is another form of embourgoiseification. (no idea if that spelling is correct, it looks wrong, who cares).

    You’ve got to bear in mind in the 19th and early 20th century everyone from a geographical community would be in about the same 3 workplaces. People were physically closer. The degree of alienation people experience makes it harder for them to form bonds of any kind. And the mass media are (still) in the hands of the ruling classes. Which is what Gramsci saw as key, the war of position.

    We reinterpret ourself through the media more than ever before at this point in human history.

  8. 8

    polly said,

    But also what berryblade said. The human race is finished, bring on the cockroaches.

  9. 9

    marytracy9 said,

    Oh, great, I’m not confused anymore! /sarcasm

    Let’s break it down a little. Are we more or less oppressed now than we were in the past?

  10. 10

    Jo said,

    Backlash?

    Once we-uns got all uppity (each wave, etc.) the oppressors realize they have to get more oppressive, sort of thing.

    I”m really not sure myself, but now I’m certainly thinking about it.

  11. 11

    berryblade said,

    “Are we more or less oppressed now than we were in the past?”

    Frequently I ponder on this too, in some respects it really does seem like we’ve made A LOT of progress, but in others like Jo suggested there is such a backlash. I wouldn’t say we’re more oppressed, but we’re certainly not as “free” as we would like. In other words – no fuckin’ idea.

  12. 12

    marytracy9 said,

    It’s good to know we are all confused! 😀

    This is the premise at work:
    “people used to be very oppressed; since the more oppressed you are, the less power you have, they had very little to no power; despite this, they changed their oppressive status quite a lot”. How did they pull it off?

    One or more of the arguments could be wrong.
    a) People in the past weren’t very oppressed; b) there is no correlation between how oppressed you are and how much power you have, so maybe they were very oppressed but they also had a lot of power; c) the changes in the past weren’t that great.

  13. 13

    polly said,

    People are materially better off, no question. They don’t have to work or live in the conditions of the industrial revolution. Or the relatively recent past. But they still have zero control over their own lives. They just think they do.

  14. 14

    berryblade said,

    “But they still have zero control over their own lives. They just think they do.”

    This is why I think you’re such an awesome writer Polly, you just summed it up so well.

  15. 15

    People have a different concept of human nature today. Right from the start, and all the way through school, they are taught to see themselves as consumers. This puts the focus on the opportunity to self-indulge, rather than will power. So it becomes harder and harder to do anything difficult — like organise.

  16. 16

    polly said,

    Yes Jennifer.

    It’s the century of the self!

    (Google it, and watch it)

  17. 17

    Fascinating discussion!!


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