Charm, wealth, and hierarchy – the problem of power
Power is the ability to act, or to influence and even control events and people. Being powerless is being unable to act, influence or control. On a purely personal level, power is a very good thing indeed.
Power can come from a range of sources, mainly from one’s own personal persuasiveness or charm or physical prowess, or from one’s wealth, or from the position one holds. The first gives sway over people (by persuasion or threat), the others give access to resources – people, assets, and equipment.
Power is also a gift given to you by the others. They don’t have to be persuaded by you, or to give you access to resources but, once they have, it is not easy to take them back from you without your consent. In other words, power is more easily given than taken.
There are two big problems with power. The first is that it corrupts. Lord Acton’s famous expression of this problem was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Few people who achieve significant levels of power manage to stay largely uncorrupted by it – among world leaders of the 20th century perhaps Mahatma Ghandi, perhaps Nelson Mandela, but probably not many more. The more normal path is to start with high ideals and to gradually travel the path to corruption, as for example Robert Mugabe. Yesterday’s freedom fighter is today’s statesman, who will become tomorrow’s dictator.
There are people we might call “benevolent dictators” – for example Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Yes, I know they were heads of “democracies” – but in form only. These managed to balance the temptations of power with a strong concept of the public good. They both did things which were personally or politically corrupt but, by and large, they acted for the benefit of the people of their country.
Corruption is a strong word, but at heart it means acting in ways that stray from a sound ethical base. Politicians are often forced to compromise because they need to satisfy a suitably broad constituency. The act of compromise itself is not usually corrupt. But if politicians take bribes of one sort or another, or are unduly swayed to act against their principles by fear of specific lobbies (as a random example, let’s name the American gun lobby), then they have been corrupted.
It seems that the power to act, influence and control creates temptations which influence even the strongest of people to act in ways which are both incompatible with their own ethical standards and also damaging to the common good.
Power goes to people’s heads, and they begin to confuse the fact that they have ability to act with the belief that they have the right to act. In other words, they begin to believe in their own rightness, and become at least impatient with, and at most completely dismissive of, people who question their proposals or suggest alternative actions. They become arrogant in their power. Chapter 24 looks at arrogance in general, as a feature of powerful people over the last few centuries who have led us to near irreparable damage to our foothold on the planet.
Too little power can corrupt too. It can lead to desperation, to anti-social acts, to crime, and to terrorism. When hope is gone, there may be nothing left to do but to succumb or to lash out.
The good news is that the poor are far less corrupt and more generous than the wealthy[i]. If you’ve ever gone house to house collecting in both poor and rich areas, you’ll know this. The poor give, the rich withhold. The poor are generous in their words and deeds – perhaps they have more fellow feeling with “causes” than the wealthy – the wealthy sneer and ignore.
We need to reduce power at the top and increase it at the bottom – we need to reduce power-spans[ii].
The second problem with power is that it is open to misuse by those who are themselves corrupt. By definition, power from whatever source can be used to shape events in your preferred fashion – that is what power does. And, if your “fashion” is at odds with the public good, then you will misuse your power – for example as a criminal, or through political action to unreasonably favour those you prefer at the expense of others, or through corporate action to seek profits at the expense of others and the environment.
Power can be used or misused in many ways, but all are along a broad continuum from hard to soft, or from “coercion to consent”[iii]. Violence and the threat of violence are the hard use of power; bribery, propaganda and persuasion are the soft use of power. I will return to bribery and propaganda in the next chapter.
The tendency to corruption by power seems to be deeply built into the human psyche. Either that, or it has been deeply enculturated by its own propaganda – it seems inevitable that those with power will misuse it, so we bow to its inevitability.
As our numbers have grown, and our societies and organisations have become larger, the problem of size or distance has exacerbated the basic problems of power. It’s easiest to think of this as “degrees of social separation”. In a village, there is only one degree of social separation – everybody can normally interact with anyone else. In a society of millions or tens or hundreds of millions of people, there are many more degrees of separation.
And in the corporation (or any large organisation for that matter), the numerous levels of hierarchy make this much worse. Social separation is encouraged by the hierarchical nature of the organisation. Communication is either garbled or has to be grossly oversimplified, and power moves upward and away from human reality. Ursula LeGuin puts this pungently, in her protagonist Shevek’s response to military organisation:
“Atro had once explained to him how this was managed, how the sergeants could give the privates orders, how the lieutenants could give the privates and the sergeants orders, how the captains…and so on and so on up to the generals…he now understood why the army was organized as it was….No rational form of organisation would serve the purpose. He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so.”[iv]
Substitute “corporation” for “army”, and “profit-seeking from” for “killing” and you get a pretty interesting take on corporations and power.
Once taken, power is not easily given back. Few give it up voluntarily and, if they will not give it up, the only effective way to take it from them is by applying countervailing power, to block their actions, or to undermine or destroy their power bases. Revolutions, whether peaceful or violent, are the most extreme expression of countervailing power – usually, the power of the masses against that of the existing elites.
In more peaceful times, many things are tried to prevent, or reduce, or correct the misuse of power at an institutional level. Democracy is humanity’s best attempt so far to control the use of political power, by mass influence over who gets the power (representative democracy) or over what is done with it (direct or participatory democracy).
One of the key things democracy does is limit politicians’ time in power, as it is clear that the more time power is held, the more likely it is to corrupt. So, governments are elected for various periods, US Presidents can only serve for two terms, and so on. One of the best signs of the deep corruption of power is attempts to amend constitutional limits on time in office.
Another key tool used to control the use of power is setting up institutions that separate the elements of power, and act as checks and balances. Someone has to have the power to act (executive power, for example the US President), but this may require approval in other fora (for example, the House of Representatives and the Senate), and may also be subject to subsequent testing of its validity or fitness (for example, by the Supreme Court or other quasi-independent monitoring bodies). The United States Constitution deliberately set up a group of countervailing forces at federal level.
A further tool, usually combined with the checks and balances, is setting limits on discretion or action. The US Constitution defines certain limits to government action, and also sets up boundaries between state and federal government powers. A major task of the Supreme Court is to interpret disputes about the limits and boundaries of government power in light of the Constitution.
All these institutional controls seem to have some effectiveness in controlling the use of political power within democracies, ie over the voters. But they are much less effective in managing relationships between countries. Governments are licensed by their citizens to use violence against other countries with far more ease than against their own citizens. And the US seems to have an addiction to violence against other countries, perhaps driven by its powerful military, perhaps by its arms industry, perhaps by other causes such as its internal addiction to weaponry. I will return to this in chapter 25, on “otherness”.
In talking about institutional controls over power, I’ve talked till now about politics, as that is the most visible application of these controls at the organisational level. It’s also the most effective – well, at least, far more effective than controls over corporations.
A major reason humanity is in its current mess is that corporate power has been poorly restrained over the last few centuries, and left more or less unchecked over the last 30 years, as discussed in Chapter 18. Regulation of corporate behaviour has been reduced, and the powers of the corporation increased. For example, New Zealand has recently signed a “Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement” which will give transnational corporations more power to sue governments for “restraint of trade”, among other things. This is a typical example of the additional powers obtained by corporations in recent history.
Corporations have been given this license because the neoclassical propaganda that “the invisible hand of the market will provide” has been incredibly successful in the halls of political power. The role of morality and ethics has been replaced by an invisible God Of The Markets who will apparently ensure that competition will successfully maximise benefits to consumers over time. By freeing up organisations whose purpose is to make profit, not to benefit the consumer.
The reality has been untrammelled power for corporations. Yes, some of them fail quickly, and all fail in the long term, but not before externalising costs, exploiting consumers, and extracting private profits.
Let’s turn to the question of how the misuse of personal power – the power of persuasion or threat – is mitigated. Obviously our criminal justice systems are designed to prevent or punish misuse of personal power, but they are largely “bottom of the cliff” solutions – at best, they use the threat of violence to prevent violence.
Perhaps we could apply the Diana Moon Glampers solution[v] to the problem – handicapping the strong by hobbling and handcuffing them, and the persuasive by making them continuously inhale helium (imagine a Barack Obama speech on helium).
More reasonably, the solution to the misuse of personal power is in culture and education. An ethical culture teaching and promoting ethical behaviour; a non-violent culture teaching and promoting non-violence – these are how we address personal power.
A word about weapons
This is the point where I have to bite the bullet and talk about weaponry. “A non-violent culture”? What a milk-sop idea! Don’t we need to be strong, and to ensure that others respect us (for which read “fear us”)? And, if we haven’t got strong enough allies, don’t we need parity, or preferably superiority, in our military capability?
Well, maybe, the way the world stands at the moment. Power from being able to kill at a distance has been a significant issue since the invention of the bow and arrow. Before then, humans were both limited in the range of their threat with weapons, and directly confronted with the results of their violence. But the invention of the long range weapon changed all that.
After the arrow came the bullet, the cannon-ball, the bomb, the toxic chemical, the guided missile, the nuclear warhead, and now the self-guiding drone or missile. By 50 years or so ago we had created the capacity to wipe ourselves out as a species. For twenty to thirty years, during the Cold War, this was a dominant issue in international politics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it has faded somewhat as an issue, but the capacity to wipe ourselves out remains. Even without having to appeal to Mother Nature to do it for us.
And now, war has been turned into a video-game for the affluent – we are able to watch long-range weapons (from “our side”) create havoc (on “their side”) through highly sophisticated cameras showing the track of the weaponry and the explosions.
We’re not so comfortable when we’re shown individual violence. Remember the images of the South Vietnamese officer executing the civilian, and of the naked child running from napalm? These helped turn the citizenry’s view of the war against the United States. Today, the cruelty of the ISIS torture and executions revolts us. Our cruelty at a personal level seems mostly confined to embarrassment and humiliation (viz. our fascination with “reality” shows) – it is less comfortable with torture and killing[vi].
Except in the good old USA, where a significant sector of the population genuinely appears to believe that the world has to be kept at bay by the threat of a gun. The State of Tennessee recently legislated for an official state firearm (the 50-calibre Barrett sniper rifle, for the record), making it the seventh State to create such an outlandish symbol[vii].
The “need for a well-regulated militia” has actually been turned into “self-defence”, a code for pretending that we’re each Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, facing down the bad guys, preferably with superior weaponry (the Barrett sniper rifle is definitely of the superior variety). And we (ie Clint and John) don’t seem to grasp that this is what causes events like the recent Charleston massacre, and many many killings before and after it.
The real reason for this section, however, is the question of the morality of long-range weaponry. The mainstream media focus on the use of the weaponry. Only the committed few focus on the production of it. If there were no long-range weapons, there would be no mass killings. By individuals or by the military. This is an ethical and moral issue for the world.
The United States and Russia are by far the largest arms manufacturers in the world, but many affluent countries also get a dishonourable mention[viii]. About $1.2 trillion is spent on the military annually in the United States alone, and $2.4 trillion worldwide[ix]. $400 billion is spent on arms production by the biggest 100 arms manufacturers[x]. And there are apparently between 600 and 900 million small arms in circulation. That’s one for every ten of us on the planet. So, we don’t need nuclear weapons any more to eliminate ourselves – we could do it with AK47’s and other small arms.
Weapons are the ultimate resource of coercive power. And a world dedicated to minimising violence would need to get very serious about deweaponisation.
It is worth noting here that only one country in the world, Costa Rica, has unilaterally disarmed itself (in 1948). Costa Rica was also instrumental in the new Arms Trade Treaty which came into force in December 2014, and aims to regulate the arms trade more effectively. 78 countries (including 5 of the top 10 arms producers) have ratified it, a further 54 (including the United States) have signed but not ratified it, and this leaves about 60 countries (including Russia) which have not signed it[xi].
Back to power as a general phenomenon
Weapons are the extreme expression of coercive power. So they deserved a side-bar.
But the general problems of power remain. As long as we have specialisation, as long as we need to organise ourselves in complex social and economic structures to live our lives, power will have to be granted to people to manage those organisations. As long as people have large stores of personal wealth, they will have access to resources that give them power over others.
And as long as people have power, they will misuse it, either because they are themselves corrupt, or because they have been corrupted by it.
So our future civilisation needs to deal more openly and more effectively with the problems of power. Deweaponisation is just one essential step, ensuring that the ultimate coercive instruments are not freely available. The design and maintenance of broader institutional arrangements to balance or constrain the use of power will need great care, and will need to go well beyond the instruments we have now.
I want to turn now to one of the key ways power maintains itself. Antonio Gramsci used the term “coercion and consent” to describe how capitalism maintains itself. In cruder terms, the stick and the carrot.
I want to focus mainly on the “consent” side. This is because, until now, I’ve been talking about “them” and their systems as being the underlying cause – the greedy ones, the powerful ones, and capitalism. It’s time to talk a bit about “us” – the ones who let them do it.
Let’s look at how we’ve let ourselves be lured into consenting to our current situation.
[i] See for example http://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/05/power-really-does-corrupt-heres-scientific-proof/
[ii] I use the term “power-span” to indicate the distancing in power as communities get larger. “Power distance” is a slightly different concept, relating to the acceptance of power-span.
[iii] This is Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, which I will return to in the next chapter
[iv] “The Dispossessed”, Ursula LeGuin, Panther Science Fiction, 1975, page 253
[v] The Handicapper-General in “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut, 1961
[vi] Although, in fairness, public executions have drawn fascinated crowds throughout history.
[ix] Institute for Economics and Peace, “The Economic Cost of Violence Containment”, 2014