Small is ugly: the uncomfortable anti-authoritarian micro-politics of egalitarian foragers

This text explores the problem of  emergence of authoritarianism within groups on the radical left. It is based on the reflections of participants from the Occupy ICE activist camp that was established outside the immigration centre in Portland, USA. Comparing the self-critical reflections of members of the camp with anthropological literature on actually-existing egalitarian societies unearths some lessons for social movements regarding how internal dynamics of domination can be resisted. It brings to the surface questions of the importance of things like structures vs. individuals, compassion vs. self-preservation, and the innateness vs. malleability of human nature; all recurring sources of tension for many on the left.

Community Care

The Occupy ICE camp in Portland was on the brink of collapse long before it was formally cleared out this summer. This precariousness was precipitated largely by the local police; not the official state police, but a group of activists, masquerading as anarchists and radicals, who appointed themselves as the ICE commune’s security team within days of its establishment. Multiple participants from the commune have now spoken out (anonymously), describing how this authoritarian, self-appointed internal security team came to dictate the actions of the camp, by deciding unilaterally that only ‘passive resistance’ constituted legitimate political action, and embarrassing, shaming, attacking and expelling from the camp those that didn’t keep in line. To suppress initial criticisms, the security team rebranded themselves the ‘Care Team’. Their self-styled uniform consisted of pink bandannas.

The emergence of authoritarianism from the radical left is not uncommon. Many examples can be found, ranging from embarrassing to lethal; from Justine Tunney, the occupy founder who subsequently hijacked the movement’s official media channels, and later started a petition calling for the google-CEO to be made American president; to Benito Mussolini, who migrated from an engaged member of the Italian radical left to fascist dictator. It’s common enough for the idea of manarchism to exist.

What is most concerning, however, is not that such people exist within the left. It’s that others in such movements often seem to have no idea how to deal with them or, worse still, remain wilfully ignorant to the contradictions they bring.

In Portland, both these trends played out. Participants report that the Care Team was formed of individuals well known to be authoritarian personalities who had a history of attempting to control and police previous demonstrations. Others report how easily many people, particularly those new to social movements, simply accepted these authoritarian dynamics. Often, they feared they would be perceived as racist if they spoke out against these self-appointed leaders, who claimed to be speaking for all people of colour.

Hiding behind structures

The relatively unmitigated coexistence of egalitarian ideals and authoritarian personalities within the radical left is not entirely surprising.

First, although intuition may suggest the opposite, environments with an anti-authoritarian ethos can be rather appealing for individuals prone to dominate. Second, there is a tendency within the left to ‘structuralise’ problems; to assume that domination and oppression can always be explained in terms of capitalism, patriarchy or racism, or some other force that transcends the individual. This is perhaps, in part, an ideological protest against the rampant individualization found on the right.

The definition of hierarchy described in The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – a key figure in the early development of eco-anarchism – offers an explicit example. Bookchin’s understanding of hierarchy, and the oppression and domination inherent to it, arose from his dissatisfaction with the Marxist tendency to reduce all forms of social oppression to class conflicts and material inequality. His more expansive cultural and psychological concept of hierarchy is highly valuable for understanding the multiplicity of forms that domination may take within human societies – for example, women by men, the young by their elders, or body by mind – and how social inequalities long-predate the existence of formal property relations. Crucially though, he defines domination (in humans and other species) explicitly as something that must transcend the individual, stating that:

S]pecific acts of coercion by individual animals can hardly be called domination’ [and hence hierarchy] ‘must comprise a clearly social structure of coercive and privileged ranks that exist apart from the idiosyncratic individuals that seem to be dominant within a given community. (pp.93-94, The Ecology of Freedom)

This tendency to structuralise domination can leave groups on the left wide open to the oppressive threats that emerge from within. They can be left blind to the micro-scale sources of domination that strongly may shape their group-dynamics and interpersonal relations. The vulnerability is exacerbated when coupled with the belief, often found on the left, that human nature is blank or inherently innocent; a denial of the findings of contemporary life sciences that mirrors the denial of the physical science of anthropogenic climate change found within the right.

Authoritarian personalities may seize these opportunities to hide their dominant tendencies behind an outward allegiance to the discourses of the radical left. By adopting anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist and democratic language, authoritarians can avoid having their own motives come under scrutiny.

And this seems to be precisely what occurred at the ICE camp in Portland. Members of the small and exclusive Care Team would confront those they determined were undertaking inappropriate, politically illegitimate actions with the claim that they were merely enforcing the commune’s consensus to protect people of colour. As one participant summarises, the Care Team enforced “a hidden rigid hierarchy disguised in careful leftist language to isolate critics”.

Actually-existing egalitarian societies

Over a decade ago, the anthropologist Jerome Lewis witnessed authoritarian dynamics emerging in another egalitarian political project; this one an ocean away from the ICE commune in Northern Congo. Unlike the ICE camp – in which the Care Team managed to quickly expel from the group people that threatened their power – within the chain of events Jerome observed the threat of authoritarianism was eliminated before it had any chance to thrive. Benasongo, the man considered the source of this threat, was collectively forced out of the camp by the Mbendjele women.

As it happens, Benasongo hadn’t even made a serious attempt to boss anyone around. He simply couldn’t stop boasting about his hunting abilities – which were exceptionally good, meaning he brought a disproportionate amount of food to the camp. His relentless attempts to build status and prestige from his success were considered enough of a threat to the group’s egalitarian structure to justify his expulsion from the community. If he’d made an aggressive move to control the group the consequences may have been far worse: he may have been executed by his own kinsmen; a strategy employed by egalitarian groups across at least three continents.

Execution lies at the extreme end of what the evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’, a consistent strategy that he argues underpins the diverse practices of actually-existing politically egalitarian societies across the globe. It involves a series of increasingly severe sanctions employed collectively by groups against individuals perceived as a potential threat to equality and autonomy. Such individuals are first ridiculed; if they attempt to order others around, they are responded to with embarrassing collective disobedience; if they persist, they may suffer ostracism; and if they become aggressive, then execution becomes increasingly likely. As Benasongo experienced, the early stages of these sanctions are directed at people with self-aggrandizing tendencies to prevent them gaining prestige that they may then use to legitimise taking political power or accumulating resources. Crucially, then, sanctions are strongly pre-emptive, guided by an assumption that it’s safer to take down someone overly arrogant than leave them a chance to build status and form a position of power. They are, in a sense, underpinned by the idea that those with inflated egos are guilty until proven innocent. Any attempts of primitive manarchists to exert social control would be collectively crushed.

Benasongo thus broke a rule almost universal for hunters in egalitarian societies. They must be highly modest about their success – especially those who are particularly skilled. Those that fail to abide by this rule are quickly ridiculed by the rest of the group, and if they don’t respond then this punishment may escalate.

In fact, even the God’s don’t escape this collective ridicule. The Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert are one of the only hunter gatherer groups with a monotheistic religion. But rather than being raised upon an altar, the thanks their God receives for creating the world and everything in it is a stream of ridicule composed of stories in which he is tricked, seduced and deceived into making a fool of himself by the Ju/’hoansi women. Achievements, however grand, are deemed more or less irrelevant in the pursuit of equality, and arrogance appears incompatible with it.

The differences between these egalitarian societies – who are often, but not always, hunter-gatherers – and groups on the contemporary radical left are clearly vast (and they‘re also somewhat obvious). The similarities may be few, but they’re of fundamental importance. And they’re not just due to our choice to describe this group as a political project, which Anthropologists argue is entirely appropriate. It’s because, just like the radical left, such groups are consciously and assertively striving for social, political and material equality.

‘Consciousness’ here is crucial. Equality in such societies is not a mere accident of their scale or environmental circumstances, rather it’s maintained by continuous political practices. In other words, hunter-gatherers are not egalitarian simply because they’re foragers. At least in some cases, they’re foragers precisely because they’re egalitarians. They were thus conscious political projects long before their contact with modern states.

This is precisely why Boehm’s ideas may prove so valuable for understanding the emergence of hierarchy and domination on the radical left. Contrasting his concept of domination with Bookchin’s – observing both their similarities and critical departure – makes this clear.

Both Boehm and Bookchin emphasise the limits of Marxist and materialist tendencies for understanding hierarchy and domination in human societies. But while Bookchin defines hierarchy as any form of domination except that emanating from the acts of particular individuals, Boehm suggests that precisely these individual sources of domination are most dangerous for the actually-existing egalitarian societies he has studied, stating that:

Marxian and other familiar versions of group conflict theory are not very consistent with the conflict [between equality and authority in egalitarian societies] because, essentially, egalitarian conflict is between an exceptionally assertive individual and the rest of a small local community rather than between “social classes” or even between large political factions.

These ideas, and the practices of actually-existing egalitarian societies from which they emerge, embody an important, yet rather simple lesson: Oppressive hierarchies cannot always be explained by structures related to race, gender, class or some other group identity, and these non-structural forms of domination take an immense amount of collective energy to suppress. Further, the threat cannot simply be socialised away: Even in some distant utopian society in which people are born and raised within an ideology of equality, manipulative authoritarian individuals will repeatedly and inevitably emerge. And (to repeat the decades-old warnings of feminist anthropologists) more often than not such people will be men. Thus, for egalitarian micro-politics, a blank-slate theory of human nature is a dangerous delusion.

The final liberal frontier

The concept of a reverse dominance hierarchy could be considered a somewhat pretentious academic idea, given the tactics are rather familiar to political activism. Ridicule in the form of political satire, disobedience through direct action, and even assassination by militant anarchists, have been used frequently in political struggles of the past centuries. But the novelty of Boehm’s ideas is not so much the strategies themselves, but their target and timing: their inward orientation towards individuals within existing egalitarian groups, and pre-emptive nature.

The reflections of participants of the Portland ICE camp show an awareness of this importance of turning attention inwards towards the dynamics of one’s group. Shortly before the commune was officially cleared out, some forewarned that ‘if nothing changes, our commune will collapse before the [state] police even attempt to raid it’. Yet their very tentative steps towards addressing these issues already show deep contradictions with the practices of actually-existing egalitarian societies. Strangely, at the centre of these contradictions is gossip.

The reverse dominance hierarchy described by Boehm is, essentially, a structure of collective group punishment. And it sits upon a more foundational set of egalitarian social norms, where gossip and shame regulate the behaviour of group members who are, almost unanimously, consumed by concerns over their reputation. News of one’s stinginess, jealous rages, or attempts to order people around may quickly spread around a camp and beyond. And when a declining reputation fails to control an authoritarian’s impulses, gossip may help groups collectively decide when and how punishment will be used.

Yet, nowadays, gossiping is somewhat of a taboo, having become associated with bored housewives and commodified via celebrity scandals. It’s often considered at least as distasteful and uncomfortable in groups on the radical left as it is elsewhere. There’s a shared perception that we shouldn’t intrude on peoples’ private and intimate lives; that we should remain non-judgemental of their personal relations. Such informal rules appear to be considered particularly important when questions of people’s intimate relationships arise, even though this is where the most malicious forms of domination can occur. In some ways, this represents a final private liberal sphere for radical groups, existing amidst an otherwise communal space.

Gossip has thus lost its egalitarian power, a power that authoritarians themselves fully grasp. This is obvious from the fact that the first tactic of any abusive partner is to cut off their victim from sharing details of their relationship with anyone; a response to their fear of the potentially liberating power of collective judgement. This is nothing more than the strict censorship unanimously employed by dictators, reflected down to the level of personal relations.

Again, the reflections from the ICE commune offer an insight into these dilemmas. Within minutes of entering the commune, some participants learnt that a person in the Care Team had received serious accusations of sexual assault. The words of the participants make clear their frustrations that these allegations were swept aside, yet they also show a hesitation to slide towards collective judgementː

Of course, it’s not our job to snoop around and try to determine whether or not this specific person is “guilty,” […] But we do want to know whether there is a process by which accusations are heard, people’s experiences are validated, and action is taken to hold people accountable…

Reflections of other participants from the ICE camp, regarding a similar incident, show a similar perspective:

Our goal is not to spread paranoia or gossip among radicals […] but to provide information on what has hurt us in the past and how to avoid replicating these dynamics in the future.

But for actually-existing egalitarian societies, the process is gossip. We can contrast these reflections from ICE with the experience of the anthropologist Dasa Bombjakova, who, during her time with the Mbendjele, found that women would frequently start conversations with the ice-breaker: ‘Hi, my husband is rubbish, how’s yours?’

Some uncomfortable conclusions

This article was, in some ways, guided by the question: how can we avoid egalitarian movements reproducing authoritarian internal contradictions, as experienced at the ICE commune and in countless other unreported movements? A possible, tentatively offered answer appears to be: take all those tactics activists are adept at directing outwards at corporate power, corrupt politicians, and oppressive social institutions – the ridicule, disobedience, and public shaming – and turn them inwards whenever necessary (which will be far more often than most people realise). Don’t let people hide or excuse the contradictory politics of their interpersonal relations with an apparent noble adherence to some higher-level ideal of equality and justice. Be prepared for discomfort.

Of course there is always a balance to strike. For one, there is an obvious tension between groups exercising compassion and protecting themselves from malicious individuals. Second, while it would be absurd to suggest that regulating the internal dynamics of activist groups should overshadow the need to challenge large-scale structural forms of oppression, it would be equally absurd to argue that any movement that disregards the former can sustainably challenge the latter without recreating the very structures it opposes. The balance here may be far more towards introspection than many groups realise, and the mere presence of formal processes for decision making may not be enough; deeper changes in social norms may well be needed.

Like, for example, gossip losing its negative associations. Clearly, we‘re not proposing a network of cooperative printing presses begin distributing glossy magazines full of holiday snaps of local anarchists, breaking news on recently broken-up couples, and speculations of the most talented lovers. But it’s hardly controversial to point out that peoples’ personal and intimate lives are highly political. And, for this reason, it’s a mistake to consider them off-limits to collective knowledge. This intimate space is where the most oppressive social dynamics can often be found, and on this scale Marxism, identity politics and other higher-level theories often have nothing to say. These dynamics can break out and destroy everything if they are not foreseen and collectively resisted. But as always, practice is far harder (and far less comfortable) than theory.

~Joel Millward-Hopkins and Ersilia Verlinghieri