Disassembling Oppositional Culture: cooperation & monkeywrenching the system


What I’m trying to unravel is the mortal sin at the heart of Western culture. Call me crazy, but I think there is something wrong, not with our environment or our economy but with our culture. Crime, poverty and inequality, civic dissociation and withdrawal, environmental calamities: all of these, to varying degrees, are symptoms of a larger problem. That larger problem is what I’m trying to get at. Something tells me I’m not going to reach any definitive answers. Something also tells me I’m not going to come up with something that nobody’s ever thought of before. But it’s kind of what you might call a pressing question, and I really can’t avoid thinking about it, so here’s one idea I’ve come up with: opposition.

Whenever a culture emerges that has opposition as its central motive and driving force, it turns into something you might call an oppositional culture. That’s what I’m going to call it. With this oppositional culture, encounters with other cultures can only result in one of two possible outcomes: assimilation or destruction. And when such a culture emerges, it functions as a doomsday device, devouring other cultures until it self-destructs from internal divisiveness. This self-destruction happens because opposition, when taken to a personal level, leads to divisiveness among people. Divide and conquer. Divide and destroy.

(Opposition, I should point out, is nothing at all like balance. With balance there are two subjects. Two things to be balanced. With opposition there is a subject (sometimes) and an object to be overcome, defeated, conquered, assimilated. Opposition is linear and direct, while balance is holistic. Opposition is playing to win the game, balance is playing to find equilibrium.)

An oppositional stance dictates that in an encounter between two bodies (e.g., cultures, people, animals, plants), one will win out and one will lose. The one will establish dominance over the other. The one will be proven right, the other wrong. The one will gain and the other will lose. The winner and loser are both struggling to gain benefits, energy, prestige, honor, identity, life, and livelihood—or maybe they’re just trying not to lose them. This is by no means the actual scenario, but it is the scenario as perceived by the oppositional culture. And, to follow the woefully inadequate metaphor of a game, in many cases the oppositional culture ends up playing against a so-called opponent that isn’t even trying to play the game, much less win. Guess who usually wins?

Of course, opposition is not the only thread running through our culture; there are other threads that keep us from self-destructing. If opposition were the only guiding principle, we would have died long before now. The point is, however, that it’s a major thread even if we try to ignore it. We like to think that we help other people, that we’re selfless at times, that we’re “good at heart,” that we’re philanthropic. But to gain anything in our society—to get anywhere—you have to win, and someone else has to lose. That’s how our culture structures itself. It’s no longer just perception. Our culture forces you to compete against other people from whose losses you benefit. If you do not compete, you are stripped of your power, you’re given nothing, you gain nothing, you’re turned into the enemy.

This is key.

This culture does not allow us to get to a point that we can help others without us first benefiting from: the fact that the abhorrent worker benefits (e.g., safety, pay) in industry, in manufacturing around the world are what allows our food/clothes/electronics/[generic-consumer-products] to be so cheap.

Without us first benefiting from: the misfortune of somebody else not to get all the amenities basic to human rights (whatever those are).

Without us first benefiting from: the fact that we don’t pay for the externalities [read: ecocide, slavery, murder, rape, general oppression, etc.] of our delightful innovative consumer products.

Without us first benefiting from: our gender, race, ethnicity, parents, neighborhood, schooling, and so forth.

Without us first benefiting from: land that was stolen from Indians who were murdered by our grand ole forefathers, never to be returned.

Without us first benefiting from: all the people who lose so we might win.

There are other, non-oppositional benefits we accrue throughout our daily lives as well. Like friendships. Like the satisfaction of accomplishing something as a group. Like the idea of belonging to a community, a family, a group of like-minded individuals. But these benefits do not accrue in a vacuum; they accrue in an oppositional culture, so that any benefits we might receive through these non-oppositional activities and relationships are still based, fundamentally, on other people losing. So that we can win.

And what we win as part of our beloved, oppositional culture are primarily material benefits.

And those material benefits—profits—are theft.

Right now, material gain of any kind is theft. It’s theft from the earth, which must split its losses with all the other inhabitants of all races, species, kingdoms. It’s theft from all the people who are forced into a lifestyle of poverty to provide food, clothing, and entertainment to everyone who can’t quite understand this whole poverty thing. It’s theft from all these people who never understood poverty until it was explained to them that they needed more money to escape poverty and to become “happy.” People who were happy in the first place until they were dragged from their “worthless” lives and inserted into a worthy quest. A so-called worthy quest without any possibility of escape or success. All these people who are forcibly dragged into a hopeless cycle built on some imaginary goal of escape.

Stealing Nature

Because of this oppositional culture, our “relationships” with the natural world are based on opposition. If we want to take something from nature, we take it—unless, of course, there’s a law that forbids it. Even though the likelihood is that the law forbids it because it’s someone else’s property. (Old question, but: How do you own land?) Even though the likelihood is that the current owner of that “property,” at some point, just wanted something from nature and took it (the land), the difference between him and you being that he was able to create enough of a fortune to change the laws. Laws that protect him.

I’m not saying it’s fundamentally wrong to take things from nature, from the world around us.

Well, okay, so that is what I’m saying. What I’m not saying is that it’s wrong to use things from the world around us. We’d be in somewhat of a predicament if we only had our bodies, nothing else, and were not allowed to use anything from nature. But there’s a massive difference between take and use.

If you ask a friend if you may borrow their bike (and they say “yes”), you’re borrowing their bike, you’re using it. If you take the bike without asking and never return it, or return it as a mass of mangled metal, rubber, and plastic, well, we’d call that theft. Borrow the bike and never return it, and that’s theft.

If you walk down a sidewalk and think how much you appreciate the walk, the view, the exercise and so forth, that’s fine. Lots of people do that. You’re using the sidewalk. Good for you. Other people can use the sidewalk. Good for them. Maybe they can’t use it while you’re on it, but they’ll get their chance.

Oppositional thinking tells us this sidewalk cannot be ours and someone else’s—and that it’s absurd to suppose that it might. And so, to follow oppositional thinking in this example is to uproot the sidewalk, to destroy it and reassemble it in your private empire. To tear up a public sidewalk (or even a private one) and commandeer it—that’s theft.

If you ask a friend if you can stay in their house for a night, maybe because you don’t have another place to stay at the time, fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you break into your friend’s house, slit their throat, barricade the windows and doors, and courageously defend your house as the SWAT team descends on you…

Well, you’re a criminal. That’s what we like to think.

And if, instead of killing your friend, you break into their house, force them (at gunpoint) to take care of all your needs, and eventually convince them that the house is actually yours, and that you belong there, and that there’s nothing illegitimate about asking them politely to pour you a glass of water while a gun’s pointed at them, well…

Then you’re the founder of our culture. And you’re brilliant. And you’re a criminal. Just like all the rest of us. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Robbing People

Similarly (identically, really), because of our culture, our “relationships” with other people are generally oppositional. Lots of times these relationships are really elliptical and hard-to-follow, but that doesn’t change the reality of the matter. The reality of the matter is that, just as much as taking something from nature is theft, taking from someone is theft. It doesn’t matter what you’re taking from them: life, status, or work. All of this is theft.

To take life from someone is pretty straightforward. We sometimes call it murder, but—more often than not—the victim needs to be a member of our own culture, and even then they can’t be one of the questionable, marginalized sub-groups that hasn’t quite bought into all of culture’s demands. And if the person dies because of a military dictatorship, say, in another country, and if the military dictatorship is maintained in part to support an industry, and say that industry provides gold, and say that gold is bought by another corporation, and say that corporation puts the gold on a tiny circuit-board, and say you buy the computer in which the circuit-board is placed—then, well, you didn’t murder anyone. Which, despite all the lies of our culture, is nonetheless partly true: most of the people whose lives we take aren’t considered by our laws. For consistency, let’s just call it theft.

To take status from someone is to make them less than you because they’re a different gender, they’re a different race, they’re a different “class,” or they’re just a different type of person in general. Taking status does not have to be active to be theft. You can be a perfectly decent person, and I’m guessing that you probably are; most people are. But that doesn’t change the fact of the matter that people are being pushed down, and as long as you continue to benefit from this process, however indirectly, you’re stealing from them. Again, this is theft.

To take work from someone is also theft. And I doubt that very many people today would argue the benefits of slavery (or at least they wouldn’t have the audacity to say we should have slaves here, now, today). Slavery is not the only thing I’m talking about, though. Well, okay, so you’d probably admit that sweat-shops are bad, too. Or at least you’d admit that conditions could be improved. Sweat-shops and slavery, we say, are bad. Evil. Grotesque. They’re a horrendous exploitation of underprivileged people. People who, in some cases, have no one to speak out for them. And both of these things, slavery and sweatshops (both prevalent in our world today), are outrageous acts of theft. But the reality of our world is much more sinister than even these crimes can illuminate. In fact theft happens every time benefits accrue in vastly disproportionate amounts to the actual work done (read: any time there’s a profit). Fortunately, benefits in our society are based on something abstract and make-believe (money), so it’s easy to imagine that these ostensibly disproportionate benefits are not, in fact, disproportionate at all. In other words, the abstraction, the distance, the confusion, the terminology all allow us to convince ourselves it’s not theft. But: taking work is theft.

Taking these things—life, status, and work—is nothing less than theft, and in many cases it’s a lot more. Oppositional culture encourages, emphasizes, and drives these acts of theft. According to oppositional logic, life is a struggle in which people are required to die, to lose status, and to work. But actually I left something out, because the phrases should actually read: to die for others, to lose status for others, and to work for others. In an oppositional culture, you cannot die with others, lose status with others, or (most of all) work with others, because we’re all really individuals to be pitted against one another. These same cultures view all relationships as transactions in which someone wins and someone loses, the winner being more equal than the loser. And that’s okay (say these cultures) because it was fair, everyone played by the rules.

What I offer, instead, is that relationships that establish anything other than total equality are theft.

We don’t live in a perfect world, so for the moment there’s no use debating the subtleties of this; whether, for example, there can be leaders, or supervisors. Whether, for example, being a leader is, logically, being a thief. And there are other issues, too, like the fact that equality is not entirely comparable with sameness. But in the world we live in today, this doesn’t really matter because there are far too many other kinds of unequal relationships that need to be addressed.

I’m talking about hate, deception, lies.

I’m talking about prejudice, bigotry, biases.

I’m talking about hierarchy, I’m talking about violence, I’m talking about egomaniacal self-centered elitist consumerist profiteering sociopathic assholes. I’m talking about personal hate, I’m talking about institutionalized hate.

I’m talking about all this.

And all this is theft.

Clash of Cultures, Clash of Individuals

More than this, though, opposition divides.

If I had to pick one word to describe cultures that do not hold opposition as their central thread, I’d have to say it was “cooperation.” Cultures of cooperation see others as potential allies. Cultures of cooperation see others as people with whom—surprise—they might cooperate, thereby benefiting everyone. It makes no sense for an individual in this culture of cooperation to seek benefits that are limited to them personally.

Cultures of opposition don’t work that way. We tend to see others as opponents. As enemies. As villains. As adversaries, rivals, competitors. As people competing for the same resources (remember, only one party can benefit). As people fighting over the same benefit. It doesn’t matter whether or not the other people view themselves that way, because that’s how we view them. Instead of nurturing hopes, we nurture fears. All of this, oppositional.

Even if you didn’t know any history, even if you were completely ignorant of everything that’s happened in Western culture, I bet you could answer the following question:

What happens when an oppositional culture and a cooperative culture meet?

No, the correct answer is not sit down and talk about what a great friendship this is going to be.

No, the correct answer is not laugh and be merry and have a good time and wish each other good luck.

No, the correct answer is not go their separate ways and forget about the other.

Give up yet? The correct answer, and I’m sure you never would have guessed this, is that the oppositional culture destroys the cooperative culture! Imagine that! Yet it might not happen exactly like you think; it doesn’t need to result in the death of everyone who belonged to the cooperative culture. It doesn’t need to end like the countless incidents written and unwritten of a cooperative culture being killed slaughtered devoured tortured extirpated by the oppositional culture. These cooperative cultures are given a choice, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit: become oppositional or disappear. Join our oppositional culture or die. See us as your friends and others as your enemies (no, you may not have other friends) or we’ll kill you.

But this complex of the other-as-enemy is not limited to those outside the culture. It also works inside the culture. Everyone around you is someone who might want to kill you so that they might live. Everyone around you is someone who might steal your status so that they might gain prestige themselves—especially people whose status is less than yours. Everyone around you is someone who might take advantage of your work, either an employer or an employee who might steal your job out from under you. Everyone is someone who might work for less than you, who might do a better job. Everyone is an adversary. If our culture weren’t oppositional, we could live in a place where all these things were static and we worked on a collective goal of survival. Instead, we work at undermining one another. Instead, we create competition where there is none. Instead, we employ violence to protect the abstract. Instead, we invent enemies, villains, opponents, antagonists. My guess is that the stronger the drive of opposition in a culture, the more violent that culture becomes. Call it a hunch.

Responding to Oppositional Culture

So how do you oppose an oppositional culture? How do you survive if you’re of a cooperative mindset? How do you avoid complete and utter destruction?

The first answer that comes to mind, and not an answer that I particularly enjoy saying, is that you don’t. After all, I just said that when opposition and cooperation come together, opposition wins out. You can’t oppose opposition better than it can.

And in fact I’m not sure what measures a cooperative culture can take to prevent its consumption by an oppositional culture, by The Oppositional Culture we all know.

As insiders, we have a special advantage. And the more you resemble the model citizen of opposition, the greater that advantage. The advantage we have is that we are recognized as valid and honorable competitors. Because we’re part of the culture, it will allow us, according to its set of rules, to compete for available benefits. Culture does not need to offer us the choice of join or die because it’s assumed we’ve already selected join. Because we’re honorable competitors, we’re allowed to compete for benefits as long as we follow the rules (including rules of privilege). People outside of the culture are not given this benefit. The reason for this is that the goal of oppositional culture, as a whole, is to accumulate benefits. And everything outside of this culture hinders this goal. Hence, everything outside of the culture must be assimilated into the culture or destroyed, because anything outside of the culture is wasting benefits.

So as insiders, what do we do?

The only possibility is to “oppose” opposition through cooperation. To refuse to see enemies. To refuse to see culture’s game as a competition. But if you refuse to play culture’s game, how do you win benefits? How do you stay alive? Maybe you have to play the game of opposition, but you can cheat. Maybe you can try to undermine the rules: by helping out your official opponents. By, if you’re on the winning team, taking your benefits and giving them to the losers. By showing solidarity with the other team and—refusing to think of them as enemies.

One of the biggest sins inside oppositional culture is sharing. By sharing (says our culture) you denigrate the prestige of won benefit. What good’s your second-place, $10,000 prize if the first-prize winner ($25,000) has just handed his money to some homeless mendicant who’s too stupid to even have the possibility of winning this money?

Another thing oppositional culture views as a sin is volunteering for the public good, contributing large amounts of time, effort, energy, thought to the public good without recompense. I add the part about volunteering, because our culture hasn’t quite figured out what to think about people who work full-time, for example, for non-profit organizations. Based on oppositional logic, it seems that this kind of work should not be highly regarded, but there’s some kind of defense in the form of a salary. People explain their salaries by saying, “but I have to survive—I can’t work for nothing!” This brilliant oppositional logic endears them to the culture, and therefore they’re protected. I don’t know, just an idea.

Commit these sins. Commit them often.

Question oppositional logic. Engender cooperative language in your daily conversations. Try to avoid using the oppositional logic: do not make the other into an enemy, no matter what they’re doing. Creating enemies only reinforces the logic of the system. We have to show an alternate way. We can’t beat the opposition using their own rules.

I don’t know if cooperation can win out, but it’s the only chance we have.