Structures of Domination

Some introductory remarks on the 2021/22 Research Topic of the HSC Center Berlin by Christian Schmidt (Senior Academic Advisor at the Center)


Domination has many faces. So many that it becomes dubious what connects all these instances in which humans dominate, oppress, exploit, subjugate, disrespect, humiliate, discriminate against (and the list could go on and on) other human beings. The concrete engagement with the various forms of domination has helped society to recognize them and to strengthen the struggles against them. However, these concrete engagements provided no answer to the connection and relation of all the various forms. Today, attempts to bracket all the experiences of domination, oppression, etc. are rather abstract and lifeless. They are in particular unable to grasp the contrary forces that hinder the struggles against different forms of domination to unite in one great stream that washes away domination as such.

In such a situation, social theory might help. The pretension of social theory is to provide a picture of how the different structures, systems, fields, or spheres of society relate to each other. Social theories try to explain how economy, politics, life-world, ideologies, the system of law, domestic life, and public opinion have effects on one another and integrate into one totality called society.

The 20th century has seen a whole variety of social theories of Marxist, Habermasean, and Luhmannian provenance (to name only the most prominent approaches). Yet, at some point in the 80ies or 90ies of the last century—while neo-liberalism was on the rise—society seems to have become too complex and its coherence too obscure for the realization of social theory’s pretension. Therefore, we have seen about three decades before the question resurfaced: How to integrate the spheres of social practice and the experiences of domination, which they produce?

The silence of social theory, however, does not entail that there was and is no social practice common to different struggles against discrimination. The focal point of many struggles today is the demand for rights and anti-discriminatory laws. The judicial practice seems hence to provide a vocabulary that covers all conflicts in modern society. However, it might also be the other way around: The juridification of politics implies that political conflicts have to be translated in judicial terms first. Such a translation comes at the price of taming conflicts and normalizing social and political demands.

Nevertheless, the juridification of politics produces the effect that a model of society becomes common sense in which the realization of freedom and equality is not contrary to economic domination and exploitation. Indeed, in an abstract, purely theoretical world, things might be rather simple: Capitalism would be a mode of production that relies on the separation of the working majority from the means to produce goods and services and on nothing else. In such a model world, domination would solely be the result of an economic pressure; and exploitation would be the result of labor contracts that were freely negotiated except for the already mentioned economic pressure. Under such conditions, exploitation and domination would have a form compatible with bourgeois ideals of freedom and equality. Formally free and equal subjects would negotiate contracts that instantiate the temporary domination of one contracting party over the other. All older forms of social domination would melt into air.

In the real world, things are messier by far. Instead of the purely economic exploitation alone, capitalism evolved and transformed at least two further social divides:

  • The gender line assigned to women the reproductive work that is socially necessary but is not directly paid for. This made many women dependent on the income of a male wage laborer. It devalued their work economically and socially. And it nourished an ideology of female inferiority.
  • The color line introduced a kind of workforce that is not only exploitable but ready for enslavement and largely disposable. The global color line designated whole continents as source for raw materials at almost no cost and cheap labor for their extraction. The domestic color lines designated populations that are deemed suitable for hard, dangerous, and underpaid work. As in the case of the gender line, the color line too is sustained and sustains an ideology. In this case, it is the ideology of racial inferiority and white supremacy.

Historically, there is no doubt that sexism and racism were not just residual forms of domination during the rise of capitalism. Whatever form the subjugation of women had in pre-capitalist societies, capitalism as redrawn the gender line and given it new significance. Whatever xenophobic prejudices might have existed before, the colonial exploitation has divided the world and all societies according to the color line. This entails that racism and sexism need to be conceptualized with respect to their relation to the capitalist economy. We might appreciate the debate on racialized capitalism but we have to accept that racism and sexism are so to speak “capitalized,” i.e. they are genuine products of capitalism.

There is also no doubt that today sexism and racism have not ceased to exist even though their critique is widespread and it is all but clear in how far capitalism is still dependent on these varieties of social domination. In order to answer the question how persistent racism, sexism, and other “capitalized” forms of domination will be, it is necessary to understand the social structures that (re‑)produce or inhibit them. Does the Habermasean life-world provide means to fight discriminatory practices and tendencies to extend the forms of economic and political dominance? Or, are forms of domination deeply rooted in cultural traditions? Or, is it just the economy, stupid? Are human rights the ultimate instrument against non-economic domination? Is there such a thing as a social totality? Or, do we live in a multitude of social systems each of which following its own particular logics?

People who struggle against particular forms of social domination might not have an explicit understanding of society as a whole and its workings. Yet, their political practices incorporate such an understanding implicitly. The juridification of politics is just the most prominent example for that today. Therefore, we have to answer the above questions and conceptualize the structures of domination for the sake of effective struggles against social domination. Only if we understand the interlocking of structures of domination and the several levels and arenas of social reproduction, we can judge the prospects of anti-ideological, political, judicial, and cultural fights. Only from such a theoretically informed perspective, it becomes fruitful to discuss convergences and divergences of movements against single structures of social domination.

We need, hence, to understand how structures of “capitalized” domination can persist through times of economic crisis and prosperity, and even survived the times of socialism in the Eastern bloc. We need to understand the role of culture; and how it relates to the realm of economics and material needs. In other words, we need a social theory that places the heterogeneous elements of social reality within one comprehensive framework, that allows conceptualizing how ideologies relate to other aspects of social reality such as practices, and that provides us with an idea how heterogeneous elements can sustain and nourish each other in a way that crystalizes in social domination.

Our thinking on social theory, however, has not just the aim to inform. It is itself informed by the struggles to overcome domination. The reach for a new understanding of society has to take into account the failures of theories to depict the world by models that excluded too many experiences of domination or reduced them to mere epiphenomena of one underlying conflict or structure. We want to resist such temptations but still ask how structures of domination connect in social reality.