Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Narratives of civil conflict

Posted at Swords Crossed

Much of our political discourse refers to narratives of civil conflict, either using them to frame issues (e.g. Lou Dobbs' War on the Middle Class) or accusing others of promoting these narratives of conflict (e.g. class war, racism) rather than narratives of unity. Below is a haphazard analysis of narratives of civil conflict. I'd love to hear your thoughts, as well as any recommended readings on the topic.

People have disputes for a number reasons; often disputes are tied to specific situations or events, but they can also be viewed as part of a general conflict between two parties. In the later case, the participants in the dispute view the problem as arising from some intrinsic quality of the other participant. These are the situations that I will be discussing as conflicts: their resolution requires a fundamental change in the relationship between the participants, rather than just reaching an agreement about some specific issue that is viewed as being external to the participants.

Civil conflicts exist between groups in a society, and revolve around access to power within that society. Power is often embodied in control of the dominant public institutions of that society (e.g. states, schools, churches, media, businesses, etc). In some societies, such as explicitly multi-ethnic states, the different groups may be relatively equal in power, even as each strives to gain more power. However, in the USA, narratives of conflict seem to be framed in terms of dominant and subordinate groups, so I'll be focusing on conflicts with that structure. The people who control public institutions I'll call "the elite", whereas the rest of society will be "the commoners".

In a stratified society like this, there is a narrative of unity, which is how the elite/commoners are supposed to cooperate harmoniously. Primarily, the narrative of unity requires that the elite acts in the interests of the entire society. The narrative of unity can also require that the elite allow some institutions (e.g. the family) to remain under the jurisdiction of the commoners, that the elite share the culture of the commoners, that the elite have respect for the commoners, and that membership in the elite is based on personal merit. A narrative of conflict describes how the narrative of unity fails.

The simplest narrative of civil conflict proposes that conflict arises directly from the nature of the dominant institutions in society and the separation of the society into the elite and the commoners. This class conflict narrative suggests that the elite form a coherent group, where control of major institutions is mixed or exchangeable, and status is inherited--resulting in a distinct social and cultural group that runs society with the primary interest of assuring its own status. This narrative isn't particularly common in America, and political opponents are often attacked by suggesting that they are promoting this narrative.

A more traditional narrative in America is that of ethnic conflict. The most extreme case involves the legacy of racism in America. For much of American history, the dominant institutions defined a "black" race that was explicitly excluded from power and exploited. many members of the resulting ethnic group distrust the dominant institutions in America and has been the source of "black resentment" and "black separatist" movements. From this perspective, affirmative action programs seem to be an attempt to create a narrative of unity between African-Americans (blacks) and the dominant (white) institutions of America, not an attempt to provide individualistic opportunities.

I was inspired to write this as part of an effort to understand another narrative of conflict, which seems to on the rise in recent years. It seems to be embodied in terms like "angry white men", and preached by talk radio hosts and the Fox News network. It is particularly complicated because it blurs the distinction between the elite and commoners, yet still plays on those concepts. It often attacks the elite on the basis that they hate the institutions that they control. Even as the narrators revel in their outsider/commoner status, they celebrate the power of their institutions and culture. There seem to be several aspects to this narrative.

One part seems to be nationalistic, with the idea that the national elite has abandoned its national base in favor of building an internationalist/post-nationalist community. When the nation in question is powerful and prosperous (like white America), this gets confusing because almost all members are relatively privileged, yet many members see themselves being passed over by individuals from groups that had previously been subordinate (as with Affirmative Action).

Aside from this "betrayal of nationality" narrative, this conservative movement also builds on a narrative of "creeping socialism"--or the expansion of public (elite) institutions into private realms, such as child-rearing, that have traditionally been the jurisdiction of the commoners.

This conservative narrative of conflict also seems to include complaints about the shifting balance of power among public institutions, for example, the expanding influence of schools and decreasing influence of churches.

Finally, I've noticed that conservative pundits like to attack professionals (e.g the media and academics) as "the elite" even as they celebrate the political and economic elite. I find this particularly strange since the professional elite is much more meritocratic than the political/economic elite. Furthermore, the professional elite have very little power over the lives of commoners, yet the political/economic elite can turn their lives upside down on a whim.

So, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue, particularly any thoughts on how conservatives can favor expansion of police powers and the freedom of corporations even as they rant about "the elite".