What’s Hercules got to do with Social Justice?
(reposted and adapted from Criticl, originally 15.1.15)
Whether it is the disproportionate numbers of black youths that are stopped and searched in the UK or the disproportionate number of black men being killed by the police in the US or the shameful silence on the surprising number of black female fatalities at the hands of US law enforcement, one of the biggest challenges in resisting social inequality is actually defining what it is that we are resisting. If we are faced with the symptoms of inequality which can result in the uneven application of the law that can leave young black men and women fatally vulnerable, we have to examine what it is that we are trying to resist. When we peer into the looking glass, we are greeted by dim and barely recognisable shadows that pretend to simulate our reflection. Here, I mean Power and the way it tries to convince us that we the people have legitimised it and it reflects/represents us. Power that wields invisible control and privileges those who can best serve its cause. This is a real challenge for activists of all causes but for those who labour to challenge the injustices caused by race and gender, the challenge becomes truly Herculean.
As described by Peisander, the hero’s twelve labours included the battle with the Lernaean Hydra whose many heads regenerated each time they were cut off. This fable resonates with me in many ways not least in the way it reflects the fight for social justice; as soon as you win one battle for justice another battle for the same justice springs up around the corner albeit appearing in a different guise (head). When Power remains invisible it can adopt any head of the Hydra it chooses. It can do this by forcing us to use the very tools or weapons it controls as our only means of conducting our fight and defence. Its stealth means that we are often unaware of the borrowed power we claim as our own in the fight for agency.
This bind becomes double when not only are we unaware of the fact that the tools we fight with are not our own but we didn’t even notice when or how they were swapped. In the real world away from Greek myth, this translates to the power of our civic institutions to dictate the rules of civic engagement in ways to make us feel in control. Duping us into a false sense of agency has been called many things by the likes of Friedrich Engels and Pierre Bourdieu (false consciousness and misrecognition, respectively) but I identify perhaps more with the Antonio Gramsci’s term, ‘hegemony’ . Hegemony is more persuasive for me because we are indeed persuaded into accepting the status quo of inequality (which by some measures relating to the top 0.1% is rising).
We are lulled into a consumerist trance where for personal gain or for the promise of personal gain we are manipulated into ignoring the glaring unfairness of the system in favour of our individual progress. The German sociologist, Georg Simmel went further and said that we actually become blase about our isolation that is derived from our individualisation.
In our present age, what is the main mechanism for facilitating this hegemony? The market, of course. As written comprehensively elsewhere, the market is only able to do this by pretending to be neutral. However, for me the market does not pretend to be neutral but pretends to be beneficial in its Darwinian fairness that favours the strong over the weak. This has become such an accepted ideology in Western society that the market underpins all of our thinking and institutional cultures in profound ways. If we consider this for a moment, in order for the market to work there must be competition. Implicit in the concept of competition is that people must lose in order for others to win. If winning is the equivalent of the Lacanian ‘jouissance’ (the drive of drives driven by its ever-present fore-knowledge of its death), then winning implicitly accepts loss (and has to generate it for its existence).
This is great if you are a winner in the market but what if you’re on the losing side. If you find yourself on the losing side of the education, housing, employment, criminal justice, health markets then in this very lonely world of neo liberal isolation, you will find that there is no ‘invisible hand’ to help you out of your demise. In fact it will feel distinctly as if there is an invisible hand holding you down.
For those of us charged with battling with the Lernaean Hydra, fighting against an invisible hand that privileges those it wants to for its ‘jouissance’, it is extremely difficult. In order to fight inequality we often have to convince those who benefit from the invisible hand to recognise their privilege and to use it to benefit others. This is often extremely challenging to do because as beneficiaries and sometimes benefactors of the system they are loathe to give up their privileges, so become fierce guardians or gatekeepers of the system not unlike Cerberus (back to Hercules). So we’re having to battle passed Cerberus who is busy telling us that Hades and the underworld don’t exist before even reaching the gates to challenge Hades himself. I’m sure by now you are getting the mythological proportions of this struggle for social justice.
On the brighter side, Hercules did in fact complete his twelve labours. He defeated the Lernaean Hydra with the help of his nephew by cortorising the stumps of each decapitated head in so doing preventing regrowth. For us, we need to build as many alliances as we can to similarly cortorise the heads of injustice we fight against. That’s why, for example, we also need to remember and be vocal about violence (state or otherwise) enacted against women and trans women (and men and our LGBTQ communities more widely) when we protest for the lives of our young black men as part of #BlackLivesMatters amongst other campaigns.
Hercules defeated Cerberus by cleverly negotiating its removal from the underworld so that he could fight it on even terms. For me, this labour is particularly poignant because Hercules had to defeat Cerberus with his bare hands for any victory to count. For us, convincing our gatekeepers to see things from outside of their privileged vantage point is key so that we can win them over with our jointly held humanity. This is where we need to keep intersectional oppression upmost in our minds because for many of us, our humanity is constantly being attacked simultaneously by different ‘heads’! However, our biggest (non)weapon is our humanity. We need to make sure that our humanity remains intact and shines through our labours if we are to achieve real success. Will the system ever change? If we cortorise enough heads, gain enough allies and remind its gatekeepers of their shared humanity, it just might. It might just!
 I am deliberately evoking Jean Baudrillard’s third simulation from his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation where he describes a simulation that is deceitful but masquerades as the original with its own self-generated provenance.
 I write at length about this in Urban Dialectics, The Market and Youth Engagement: The Black Face of Eurocentrism? I describe how popular culture, via the image of the ‘Black Body’ is used to disarm us before re-arming us with weapons fashioned by the system that are conveniently made impotent to render any challenge harmless (to the system).
 Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (R. Nice, Trans., pp. 231-258). New York: Greenwood Press.
 Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. (Q. Hoare, G. N. Smith, Eds., Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Trans.) New York: International Publishers.
 Gramsci believed that the ruling classes (the ‘elite’) are not able to assert control and maintain the status quo between themselves and the masses through violent means for long periods. So they need to negotiate their position in relation to the masses with the masses. Gramsci asserted that the process by which the ruling classes convince the masses that they are best ruled by the elite, included convincing them that their lives would be enhanced by being ruled. The overall term for this process of ‘indoctrination’ or negotiation is called hegemony. Here is an example of a hegemonic process: stable democratic governance by the elite is used to justify fiscal controls designed to balance the books and restore national and personal prosperity, a promise to the masses, giving way to such fiscal and social controls such as Austerity and Privatisation whose social outcomes would be imagined to encourage community cohesion (meaning safety) against radicalisation, which would reinforce stable democratic governance, completing the circle of control (of the masses).
 Simmel, G. (1971). Georg Simmel: On Individuality and Social Forms. (D. Levine, Ed.) Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 Lacan, J. (1992). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The ethics of Psychoanalysis. (J.-A. Miller, Ed., & D. Porter, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton.
 A mythical hound that guards Hades, who like the Lernaean Hydra is also (mostly) depicted as having many heads, usually three. For me, this implies that the gatekeepers or their powers come in many different guises and need to be approached differently as each head is ‘vanquished’.