Sunday, March 25, 2018

Towards a lenticular understanding of extractive and distributional inequality

(This paper was presented at the Georgraphies of Inequality conference – University of Melbourne, March 2017)
I was administratively organizing, with my own university, a visiting position in Amsterdam a while ago. My chair of department wasn’t clear as to what I needed to do, and she suggested I go and see Human Resources. There an HR officer listened to me and said: ‘Since it’s a non-paying position all you need to do is have it approved by your superior’. I found the use of the word ‘superior’ genuinely off-putting. ‘My superior?’ I said with a hint of irony. ‘Your supervisor’ she said, not with any sense that she previously said something wrong and needed to correct herself, but more as if she is further clarifying her previous category.
My reaction to the word ‘superior’ was clearly not motivated by any egalitarian impulse. Reflecting on it later it was clear to me that it was the very opposite of an egalitarian reaction: it was an elitist reaction. Having acquired my Professor title some fifteen years ago and having accumulated all kinds of national and international recognition, I thought of myself as a possessor of a lot of intellectual capital, and I wasn’t going to easily be made to think of anybody in the university system as ‘my superior’. At the same time, my reaction was not based on thinking that whoever was thought of as my superior was in fact my inferior. It was more that the order of distribution that was being used to determine who was superior and inferior was not an academic one. It was the order of ‘administrative capital’. Thus, in my resistance to the classification produced by HR, I was not only struggling to maintain my superiority in the order of distribution of academic/intellectual capital. I was also struggling to ensure that the latter order of distribution prevails over the order of distribution of bureaucratic/administrative capital in determining who is ‘really’ superior and inferior in the university system. And that is the point I want to illustrate: the social world is made of a plurality of intersecting orders of inequality that relate to each other, compete among or feed into each other in a variety of ways. I guess what I am arguing is a variety of what is now called intersectionality though, as will be seen, I am pluralizing the types, orders and scales of inequality to include more than the usual matrix of class, race, gender and sexuality. These orders of inequality can criss-cross or encompass each other. They are not all of the same type and they do not exist on the same scale. Nor are they necessarily animated by similar political or even moral imperatives. Social scientists and Humanities scholars who have read their classics know from Dumont that one cannot universalize too much about the moral value of equality. But this value does not only change from culture to culture, it changes from one plane or order of distribution to another. Thinking that symbolic equality between the sexes is good, that men and women deserve to be respected equally does not mean you also accept generational symbolic equality. You can still think that extra respect for the elderly is a thing worthy of being defended on the ground of an inequality of experience and wisdom that needs to be accepted rather than struggled against.
Equally important to highlight is that the struggle for equality in one order is not always a struggle for inequality in others. To stay in the university system: when I was a student in the mid-seventies radical lecturers and tutors engaged in competitive informality. I remember the very first sociology tutor I had wearing jeans and thongs and putting her feet on the table. She said ‘my name is Ann’ as she pulled her packet of Drum and rolled her obligatory cigarette. Today the same people who were part of this egalitarian impulse or at least people with a similar ethos look with suspicion at students who easily slip into ‘Hey’ mode as if there is nothing to it. Quite radical feminist academics now feel that they want to ask such students to address them by their title, Dr. or Professor. They feel that the egalitarian impulse to abolish titles is in fact non-egalitarian when seen from a patriarchal perspective or from the perspective of the conflict between bureaucratic and academic capital referred to above: while students are being very ‘Hey’ with their teachers they would never go ‘Hey’ to a Dean or a Head of School. This illustrates another important dimension of the intersection between a plurality of orders of inequality referred to above: some struggle for equality in one order can be part of both promoting inequality in another order, and promoting the dominance of one order of inequality over another order.
It is with this in mind that I want to now move to an examination of the intersection of two very broad orders of inequality. What I will refer to as ‘distributional inequality’ and ‘extractive inequality’. These orders are very different kind of realities: they not only assume different kind of inequality but also different kind of experiences as well as different dimensions of what are complex multi-faceted social subjects. Some also see them as assuming a different kind of analytics: distributional inequality is seen as a ‘surface’ phenomenon that can be recorded through observation while extractive inequality is perceived as more structural and as such requiring an analytics of phenomena that are beneath the surface of the social.
One of the most fundamental differences between the two is that extractive inequality assumes a direct relation between subjects doing the extracting and subjects from whom things are being extracted, while distributional inequality assumes no necessary relation between the unequal parts. Extractive inequality is produced by the very relation between the two unequal parts. One part gets more at the expense of the other. It is a relation of suction through which the growth in being of one party happens via a process of dispossession of, or the appropriation of something from, and therefore a diminishing in being of, the other. With distributional inequality the relation is of an epistemological. It comes into being through it being noted a posteriori via a process of observation and comparison whether by analysts or by lay people, whether by outsiders or by the people concerned themselves. It is in the process of comparison that one comes to experience or notice inequality. Distributional inequality, whether material or symbolic or both, can be attributed to a variety of factors: differential of skills and abilities, differential of inheritance, differential of valorization by the state, differential of valorization by cultural tradition, etc. Nonetheless, there is no necessary experience of a relation between the two unequal parties. That is, an analyst can declare two groups having an unequal possession of x or y without the groups themselves noticing that they are unequal.
Distributional inequality involves people who are individualized through their relation to the state, mainly citizens. These citizens can be individuals or collectives but there is no actual relations between them (they exist in a form of what Jean-Paul Sartre referred to as seriality). Because of its essentially comparative nature, it partakes in the order of abstract value at the same time as it invokes abstract state-defined subjects.
Extractive inequality, on the other hand, involves the pulling out of concrete value (labour, land, resources) out of others. As such it partakes in the order of people with concrete particularities relating to each other as such. It is characteristic of the radical Marxist and sometimes feminist traditions to see extractive inequality as the structural cause of distributional inequality. Thus, distributional inequality is conceived as superficial and less fundamental. Likewise the politics dealing with distributional inequality is seen as reformist, while the politics dealing with extractive inequality is seen as requiring a revolutionary transformation. Some Marxists take this as far as saying that distributional inequality is pure ideology, or pure appearance. As such, it masks extractive inequality which is of the essence of the phenomenon. While I agree that the order of extraction and exploitation is more of the essence of capitalism, I am not particularly sympathetic to attempts to minimize the reality of the experience of distributional inequality. Nor do I feel that extractive inequality is so ‘deep’ and ‘structural’, if by this it is meant to convey that it is less experienced in practice. It is because the order of distribution and the order of extraction are both experiential realities that I like to think of them as intersecting realities rather than one being more real or ‘deep’ than the other, or one belonging to the level of the structures and essence and one the level of experiential appearances. What does it mean to speak of orders of inequality as intersecting realities? And in what way can this be analytically significant? In what follows I want to begin answering these questions by reflecting on the way the distributional and extractive orders of inequality come to co-exist within settler-colonialism.
In his depiction of the impact of French colonialism in Algeria Pierre Bourdieu examines the way capitalist modernity introduced by the French deprived the Algerian peasants of their socio-cultural reality. Bourdieu makes clear that this is not a case of the Algerian peasants becoming like French workers or the French underclass dominated within French capitalist society. Rather than being dominated within that reality they were dominated by that reality which undermines the world to which the peasants habitually operated. It robs them of their own reality. This differentiation between ‘being dominated within a reality’ and ‘being dominated by that reality’ offers us a paradigmatic colonial situation that articulates itself to the differentiation between the order of distributional inequality and the order of extractive inequality examined above. This is so because, from the moment of colonization, settler colonial society and the colonial state face the colonized in an on-going colonial relation of extraction. At the same time, settler-colonial society sooner or later ‘integrates’ the colonized subject as a citizen who more often than not becomes an underclass within the distributional order of society.
Despite many political, and sometimes academic, subjects reducing this to an either/or choice, the difficulty of engaging in, and analyzing, Indigenous politics in Australia, for instance, arises precisely because Indigenous society is enmeshed in both those realities, not in one or the other. On one hand, we still have a colonial situation and an extractive order of inequality where one people are subjugating and dispossessing another of land and resources with the state being party to this subjugation and dispossession, and an active participant in the colonizing assemblage. On the other hand, we have a post-colonial society of citizens governed by a post-colonial and managerial state that relates to all the inhabitants of Australia as citizens, its Indigenous people included. Indigenous people struggle for more services, more income, more recognition, and in the process see themselves as citizens struggling against distributional inequality. But they also struggle as colonized people to re-gain whatever it is possible to regain from what has been extracted from them, particularly in the form of demands for land return and for reparations. These two orders of inequality and the struggle against each are not always, or even often, clearly separated. On the contrary more often than not they intersect and can only be separated analytically. Furthermore, as we began by noting the two orders can be played against each other. Because of its far reaching structural consequences, the most common maneuvre has been by the colonial states and the colonial white subjects to suppress the existence of the struggles to redress the effects of extractive inequalities by reducing them to distributional inequalities.
What does it mean to say that these two orders of inequality are intersecting? Intersecting can itself conjure an image of a very tidy encounter in the manner of a road intersection. The intersection we need to imagine, however, is anything but. It is an entanglement. There are situations where the order of distributional inequality and the order of extractive inequality are mapped into different geographies. In Israel/Palestine for instance, the Palestinians outside Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza strip are almost exclusively subjected to an extractive inequality, while the Palestinians inside Israel have to negotiate both. The Palestinians inside Israel can struggle for colonial and for distributive justice. The Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can only struggle for colonial justice. Even in Australia we can say that the Indigenous people living on remote communities and those who live in the cities experience different exposures to distributional and extractive inequality. Still, in those cases, as in most, it is impossible to neatly separate the two orders of inequality. The indigenous subject is continually encountering metonymic fragments of one or the other reminding us of the co-existence of both. It is this kind of situation that I would like to refer to as lenticular. Wikepedia’s definition of lenticular is useful here:
Lenticular printing is a technology in which lenticular lenses (a technology that is also used for 3D displays) are used to produce printed images with … the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles.
Examples of lenticular printing include flip and animation effects such as winking eyes, and modern advertising graphics that change their message depending on the viewing angle.
Colloquial terms for lenticular prints include "flickers", "winkies", "wiggle pictures" and "tilt cards". Also the trademarks Vari-Vue and Magic Motion are often used for lenticular pictures, without regard to the actual manufacturer. In Britain and United States, they may also be known as "holograms".
There are a number of reasons why it is useful to speak of the intersection of orders of inequality as a lenticular space. Most importantly perhaps is that lenticular technology does not create a situation where we have one photo, and that same photo is perceived differently according to the angle or perspective from which it is seen. This kind of epistemological perspectivism is far from the kind of situation we need to theorise here. As should be clear from the above, what we are dealing with is not a multiplicity of ‘views’ of reality but a multiplicity of realities, what we called a multiplicity of orders of inequality. And this is precisely what lenticular technology allows us to think: what we have is the existence of two realities within the same space. Each of these realities come forth according to the perspective from which the surface is related to. This is ontological perspectivism: different assemblages of subjectivities, relationalities and forms of enmeshment in the world that are co-existing by being entangled with each other. The significance of the lenticular condition is that situations of ambivalence, vacillation and uncertainty which are subjective states of social subjects have to be theorized as properties of reality itself, an ontological condition.
Furthermore, as with the experience of looking at a lenticularly produced surface, the space inhabited by the colonized subject is unceasingly fluctuating between fragments of distributional and fragments of extractive inequality as well as undefined fragments that appear as an unstable combination that can become either one of the two forms at any point. It can even be some new form that is a fusion of both. The analytical task in the encounter with such lenticular realities becomes one of accounting for the varieties of experiences it entails: this can be an anarchic experience where fluctuations between one reality and another follow no necessary pattern or rhythm. But the political struggles that are part and parcel of this lenticular space, and the fact that some socio-political and economic forces have an interest in the salience of one reality over another, mean that there are sometimes logics and patterns behind the various durations, fluctuations, modes, degrees and intensities with which each reality and the move from one to another reality are experienced. This is primarily a sociological work of disentanglement.

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