There are several ways to talk about a situation, and I want to talk about ways hierarchy is assumed in how we talk about situations.

Some people will look at a clear hierarchical situation, say, a union battle pitting managers against workers, and tell you what they would do if they were in a position to make a decision. Interestingly enough, they tell you who they would be in the situation as well.  “If I were in that situation,” someone might say, “I would pay the workers more obviously!” But another person might have said, “If I were in that position I would have encouraged other factory workers to strike!” Both people appear to want the benefit of the working class at least to some extent, but it is also clear the first person identifies with the managers, and the second person with the workers.

I don’t think it is a fallacy of communication to explain your views the way the first person did, as if you were a manager. But doing that is sort of like hierarchical faux pas. It assumes the only decisions worth talking about are the decisions of the bourgeoisie, just like unnecessary male modifiers assume that the only kinds of sentences worth speaking are ones involving male-bodied people. There is something wrong about assuming that kind of hierarchy or sexism in discourse.

I am not saying there is always something wrong with pretending to be hierarchs. There can be good reasons to assume for the sake of argument that you yourself are in a position of power. Or perhaps you actually are in a position of power, and so the identity is a real one. But for many people, indeed, the vast majority, they are not in a significant position of power. We are powerless to a great extent, except when we exert influence collectively. To make that hierarchy a part of discourse, then, is like stabbing yourself in the back as you talk, like a feminist who adopts the perspective of a patriarchal society, or like a slave who adopts the perspective of the colonizers. The protagonist is always the bourgeois character according to the bourgeoisie. But we have to look at the situation from the point of view of the other protagonist.

I recently read a famous essay by Cuban poet and essayist Roberto Fernandez Retamer, called Caliban, in which he argued that the discourse of the colonized has to reject and overturn the political and artistic conventions of the colonizers. He refers to the two slaves in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. One slave, Ariel, is typically portrayed as a mulatto who, unlike the rebellious Caliban, feels that negotiation and partnership is the best way to freedom from the colonizers. Ariel is generally viewed as the “good servant” whereas Caliban is viewed as conniving, crass, and sensual. While Ariel and Caliban are equally enslaved to the colonial sytem, Ariel is more likely to adopt the point of view of the colonizers, and Caliban is more likely to retain indigenist elements and rebel against colonialism. Retamar’s point is that Cubans and Latin Americans in general should be more like Caliban rather than Ariel, and reject bourgeois colonialist discourse.

Taking up the position of Ariel is what many working class people and their allies do today in the US. We are supposed to be “good servants”. This view discourages anyone from taking the proper psychological position to match their actual relationship to capital. How can I advance the claims of my class if my judgment is clouded by the concerns of the bourgeoisie? And how can I begin to discuss the next steps and the tactics on behalf of my class when my thoughts are so limited? Heed the advice from Roberto Retamar, and shift the paradigm to Caliban.