On agency and structure – or why some and not others?

A week or two ago I ended up in a conversation with a few friends of mine. After a couple of beers all around, the topics at hand – discussion of the performance over the last year of a few mutual projects, plans for the coming year – drifted into more esoteric territory. I’ve spent the last few years studying religion in Latin America, and the anthropology of religion more generally, and as we began to talk about the nature of free will, whether it exists or whether it’s an illusion of chemistry in our minds, we headed into territory that I enjoy discussing. This led to a discussion on how it is that some people seem to ‘make it’ – economically, socially, politically – and others fail to thrive. Positions came out in interesting ways, and tended broadly toward poles that I would describe as “strong agency” and “strong structure.” That is to say that though no aggressive positions were laid out, and no one seemed to particularly take up the gauntlet for any one position to the exclusion of the others, the rhetorical movements suggested a keen awareness of the tension between the historical agency of a given individual – his or her capacity to make a way in the world – and the structured nature of our capacities and possibilities in socio-cultural, political-economic, intellectual, and even biological terms. I put my two cents in, given my anti-statist and anti-capitalist leanings, but the old structure-vs-agency debate doesn’t lend itself to concrete positions: too oriented toward structure and we become determinists, too much emphasis on agency and we slide into neoliberalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If I didn’t take a hard-and-fast stance on a position during the conversation, I nevertheless chatted with relative ease over the rhetorical points I’m used to making in discussions like that, stemming from my own tendencies to post-Left anarchist political theory. But the conversation has replayed itself in my head on and off, and I’ve realized that my politics tend to obscure a more ready response to any given discussion, as I encounter it. I tend to have my ‘beliefs’ lined up and ready for distribution – I do my best no longer to explicitly defend or attack any position, but with my own ‘-isms’ already arranged, I tend to frame what I hear and what I understand in those terms, and respond accordingly.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’ve begun to realize that, if I’m to take a commitment to compassion and understanding seriously, especially in terms of being simply honest and present to the world as it arises, that my political stances are, like all other beliefs, provisional and contingent constructions – thoughts, as it were, hardened or sedimented into a habitual pattern. Recognizing this – over and over again – I’ve decided to take another look at how I might go about trying to engage with the questions that were raised.

My knee-jerk response to phrases like ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps’ is to line up sociological analysis or historical critique that discredit the underlying myopia of privilege that this kind of rhetoric tends to entail. I’m not walking that back – I do have a very real discomfort, to the point of outrage, with any sense in which the victim is blamed for their own misery, especially when that misery tends to be caused or exacerbated by political-economic systems that work to sustain and support those who are using said rhetoric. However, I know the people that I was talking to very well, and these are not people who would see a family hungry on the street and let them stay that way. These people give back to their friends, their neighborhoods, their churches, and their community. The question was not raised to point a finger in blame, but rather honestly investigating why some people from seemingly identical circumstances are able to “make it”, when others are not. It was the way in which I responded to that question previously that I want to address more fully. Or, rather, I want to propose a different way. This is an exercise, for me, in attempting to apply Buddhist principles of compassion and understanding to my own engagement with political discourse, and even with political expectation. Applying it in my life means applying it in all of my life.

What happens when I apply compassion to a question of those who, for one reason or another, do not ‘make it’ in economic, political, or social terms? First, though, what is it I’m trying to say when I say ‘make it’? I am not in any way implying some kind of naturalized or objective standard of ‘success’ in any one life. I could not pretend to venture an all-inclusive standard by which this could be judged, even for just middle-class urban and suburban people in the US, or even just in my home town. Rather, I’ll address it in terms that were evident in our conversation that evening. Many of us at that meeting came from poor backgrounds, whether that meant relying on government lunch programs at school or handouts from the church, or even having had to fight our way to and from the bus stop some days. So, in that context, ‘making it’ referred to those of us, and those we knew, who had gotten out of that kind of life, who had gone on to be, effectively, middle class. I am not celebrating that as ‘making it’ as any kind of endorsement in some kind of bourgeois way. Rather, I’m recognizing that for many lower to lower-middle class Americans, the desire to have stability – a nice house, a car or two, the ability to buy things for their kids, the desire, in short, to become middle class – is a very real, meaningful goal. Making that transition is often the work of a lifetime. I’m not, in this brief essay, engaging with the ethics of a consumer culture, or the ideology of acquisition and accumulation that underlie it. I’m only recognizing the legitimacy, within these cultural constraints, of those goals, and the moral-ethical force they have in ordering many lives.

In those terms, how do we understand someone who has not ‘made it’? I believe, here, compassion has us look at structure. What are the forces arrayed against them? What are the realities – economic, political, historical, cultural – that have constituted their subjectivities, their worldviews, their outlooks, and thereby the tools they have at hand with which to effect agentive change in their lives, and simultaneously the obstacles that work toward making those tools ineffective? Systemic racism, class-ism, sexism and the like barely scratch the surface of that kind of analysis. We need insights along the lines of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and Butler, at the minimum, to begin any such discussion. This is where compassion, I believe, leads. Rather than try to find some quality of character or some essence of the person – or even some pivotal event – that is lacking in those who have not reached this – admittedly arbitrary – marker of class-mobility, it serves far better to look at these individual people, and understand them in their specificity. Here we look at what a potentially antagonistic ‘structure’ does – in its disciplining, and even its constituting – to situate lives in such a way as to make certain kinds of mobility or certain historically or economically-agentive acts more and less feasible, or even possible. I believe that compassion, in this sense, is understanding, as it opens on recognizing people just as they are, without judgement or expectation. Of course, what we do with that information – how we then act politically when we recognize the structural forces at play – is a far more potentially revolutionary question.

But, so the argument would go, there are those who ‘make it’. There are always, within any given population, some who do fit the image having ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,’ and made it out of a situation that trapped so many others. I have, of course, any number of leftist critiques of this kind of logic. That no ‘one’ makes it, but is rather propelled by the efforts of a whole community, that without networks of support of whatever kind, it would be impossible to ‘make it’, for the social world is quite literally constituted by other persons, individuals, and so any effect of agency in a social sense always involves the presence of, and friction with, other people. There is no raw ‘stuff’ out of which to ‘make’ oneself, and whatever accidents of biology, birth, and history that produce individuals capable of acts that distinguish them from others must recognize that they have not only been given their field of action by a whole social world, but that they have been constituted by it in virtually every meaningful sense. However – and here I am moving away from my leftist comfort zone – hard work does mean something. We cannot celebrate the historical agency of the oppressed around the world without recognizing it at home. I have seen friends – and I have been among them, as one of them – work nights and weekends for years to build and grow an idea into a functioning business. It was always within the context of a community of friends, but the work and the effort and the uncertainty and the resolve absolutely mean something.

And it is here that I would apply a sense of ‘understanding’. That is to say that rather than jump, as I am wont to do, to a critical analysis along the lines of the one laid out in the previous paragraph, to stop for a moment, and address the situation as it arises. There is a sense in which the historical agency of someone has been effective, to ‘make it’, as it were. I’m not denying any of what I said before, and I am not attempting to dehistoricize the individuals – this group of friends and I were, that evening though not all evenings, white, male, and educated. We had between us an extraordinary set of advantages. And yet I’ve worked with them for years, and there has been a very real display of ‘agency’ in the sense of hard work, continued efforts through failure, and the like. What I believe ‘understanding’ then can help to highlight is the set of advantages, strategic moves, choices, supports, possibilities, and even chance encounters that gave rise to the eventual effect of ‘making it’ in these terms. Rather than looking, again, for a set of characteristics, or some reified essence or attribute, that ’caused’ a person to succeed (in their own sense of the word), the application of ‘understanding’ or even ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist-ethical terms makes it possible engage with what made such an outcome possible. And again, here, understanding becomes compassion, when looked at this way, as it does not undercut a celebration of individual efforts or delegitimize a person’s own historical agency. We are compassionate through that understanding.

In this way, we sidestep the entire conception of blame or praise. We can recognize the limitations of structure, and work through compassion to alleviate the suffering that this can at times cause. We can acknowledge and even celebrate individual historical agency without essentializing the – always contingent in both its manifestation and definition – ‘success’ of a person’s efforts. I am a consistent advocate of the notion that agency is made from structure, and structure is produced by agency, in a constant dialectical process. Human lives and bodies are the manifest site of historical forces, where these forces find their expression and resistance simultaneously. I do not recognize structure and agency to be distinct from one another, at one level of analysis. But at the same moment, they do act as rhetorical poles from which many – even casual, like the conversation of my friends and I – investigations begin, or to which they are often drawn to end. What I want to suggest, and it is of course not radical but perhaps merely a Buddhist-flavored ethical stamp on what has been the practice of social scientists and others for decades, is that compassion and understanding be the guiding motivations behind the application of these two rhetorical poles in analysis. Grounding the application of structure and agency in compassion and understanding leaves impotent the political impulse to blame the victim, or to praise the exception, but rather aids in opening up our beliefs – and our hearts – to insights that work toward liberation from suffering, whether understood as economic, political, bodily, or spiritual suffering.