POWER AND POLITICS:
E. N. Anderson
Dept. of Anthropology
University of California, Riverside
“There are two wolves within you, a good one that causes you to help others and do well, and a bad one that causes you to be savage and hurtful. The one that wins out is the one you feed.” Native American saying
Az ‘enyim’ s a ‘tied’ mennyi lármát szüle,
Miolta a ‘miénk’ nevezet elüle.
(“All this talk of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’—
That old word ‘ours’ is out of style.”)
–Mihaly Csokonai Vitéz (1996:158; from the poem “Evening,” Hungarian orig. ca. 1800)
“He must be of a strange, and unusual Constitution, who can content himself, to live in constant Disgrace and Disrepute with his own particular Society. Solitude many Men have sought, and been reconciled to: But no Body, that has the least Thought, or Sense of a Man about him, can live in society, under the constant Dislike, and ill Opinion of his Familiars, and those he converses with. This is a Burthen too heavy for humane Sufferance” (Locke 1979 : An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 357. “Man” means “any human” here.)
“All politics is local,” and all is now global.
“Politics” has been defined as “who gets what, how, when.” This seems more like economics than like most people’s understanding of “politics.” In any case, politics is about cooperation and defense as well as about competition over resources. Aristotle defined politics as regulation of the public side of life, as opposed to ethics, which, for him, was the regulation of the personal side.
We may provisionally use “politics” to refer to the rules of society and the negotiation, competition, and practice that lead to institutionalization of particular rules.
Politics is variously defined as the result of competition for power or as the way society manages itself and organizes to deal with problems and opportunities. The latter predicts more accurately the actual working of political systems.
Either way, politics is about power; it is the specific social macroinstitution that manages power over people. A basic world problem is abuse of power, which is inevitable when there is a disproportionate amount of it concentrated in the hands of one person or group. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell what is a “disproportionate” amount, but,in general, the more unequal the access to power, the more problems of all kinds occur.
Once power is concentrated, the tendency for people to get into more and more vicious rat-fights, to win more power, is irresistable. Egalitarian society and civil behavior are cures, but can never be total. Bottom-up organization is necessary to balance the power at the top, but somebody has to keep order and set standards, also. We are back to the problem identified by Shen Buhai 2300 years ago: how to assign the right level of decision-making power to the right levels in an organizational hierarchy. Top-down meddling and power-tripping and bottom-up irresponsibility and violence are all dangerous. At present, in most of the world, top-down violence is more frightening, but the situations in Syria and elsewhere remind us that chaotic rebellion is not a very good remedy.
This, however, begs the question of what “power” is. The standard definition in social science is the ability to make someone else do what you want and they don’t.
“Power” in society as ability to make others do what you want. Some add that they themselves should not want to do it, in which case direct physical force, or the threat of it, must be invoked. However, far more often, power is exercised through manipulating wants. Charismatic and persuasive individuals, or simply outright liars and con artists, can convince people to “want” things they would not want if they were left to themselves and were being rational. The whole advertising and public relations industry depeneds on this.
Another authoritative work defines power as “the ability to control resources, own and others’” (Lammers and Stapel 2009:280). The latter is what most of us would call “control of life” or “control over resources.” Being able to shovel up dirt in my garden or get my dogs to chase sticks is not what I want to study. I will continue to use the word to mean the ability to make people do things.
However, that is still broad enough. It covers brute force, persuasion, charisma, manipulative spending of money, sex appeal, and all sorts of other things that give Person A an edge over Person B. Most important of all, it covers Weber’s “rational-bureaucratic power,” the legal and structural power to make people do what they do not want: flunk courses, pay taxes, abstain from pork, be satisfied with the same low wage as lazier workers on the same job. People in power, thus, can be (respectively) teachers, government servants, religious rulegivers, or employers in large bureaucratized firms. In all these cases, the victim could do something about it (study and learn, go to jail like Thoreau, eat “white meat” (pork—in Israel) and pretend it’s chicken, find another job), but this would entail costs, and structural power is real.
Max Weber developed the serious social theory of power. He defined power as individuals’ ability to “realize their own will…even over the resistance of others.” Power is the ability to make people do what they don’t want to do.
Power has also been divided into coercion (basically, my “brute force” extended a bit), social constraint, more broadly social-structural backup, and consent production (Raik et al 2008). These grade into each other; progressively less force and more social embedding and legitimacy are involved. Further theorizing about power added more radical dimensions, via such writers as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and their many followers.
Michel Foucault is particularly identified with an extension of the last of these. It is really yet another kind of power, long recognized but not well explored before Foucault’s day (see e.g. Foucault 1965, 1980). This is the power to define knowledge and set the terms of debate on it. Societies, especially their ruling elites, decide what is “knowledge,” what is “truth,” what is “important,” what is “salient,” what is “valuable,” what is “debatable” versus what is settled or outside debate. Foucault differentiates actual truth (hopefully reachable, via independent, critical research) from imposed or official “truths”—what we now call “truthiness” in the United States.
Foucault’s starter definition is more dour than Weber’s, as befits Foucault’s anarchist leanings: “power is essentially that which represses” (Foucault 1980:89-90). Foucault does, however, admit that power can also produce goods and help people achieve goals.
In politics, “power” means the ability to accomplish something—defend the country, take people’s land, raise more food, enforce the law, or save scarce resources. We are talking about society’s power over things and over institutions, as well as individuals’ power over each other. People want control over their lives, and over enough of the rest of their world to provide them with security. They use any means at their disposal to insure this. The result is “power,” in some general sense.
Mao Zidong said “power grows from the barrel of a gun,” but also that “one spark can start a prairie fire”—the spark in this case being a call to action, not a gunshot. I prefer to separate, analytically, a persuasive tongue from a semiautomatic rifle. Each can sometimes command the other, but they are not the same.
Brute force is the most obvious and undeniable sort of power. The only way you can really force people to do what they don’t want is to force them by brute strength. Traditional warfare worked this way. Soldiers raped, murdered, seized captives. Today, street gangs and prisons use this kind of power.
However, one cannot really make people do anything positive or constructive this way. Slaves can always run away, resist, or die. To make them work, slavers have to make the punishments so horrific that even the worst work is preferable; John Stedman (1988 [1806-1813]) gave the classic account of this.
Much more usual is the sort of coercion immortalized in the Latin American drug dealers’ phrase plata o plomo, “silver or lead.” Druglords corrupt officials by offering them a choice of a great deal of money (silver) or a lead slug in the head. This is a convincing argument, but a surprising number of officials resist, and risk their lives. Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes used the same technique on a massive scale: join us and fight and get lots of loot, or resist us and die. Slightly more subtle versions of the same argument are found in corporations that promote the cooperative and fire the uncooperative. The plata o plomo method, however, is expensive and risky. It depends on a loyal, cohesive institution—a drug gang, horde, or corporation that can accumulate not only force, but also wealth, and deploy these systematically.
Eventually, politicians usually have to find cheaper ways. Fortunately, human sociability allows them to succeed in this. If they can persuade or cajole their followers into acting, the unified group can accomplish a great deal. If leaders can take advantage of institutions or simply of habits, they can get followers to act even without much persuading or cajoling. Setting up such institutions is one main function of politics.
How comparable is the power of Genghis Khan and his army with the power of an advertisement for Napa Valley wine? How comparable is the power of a sumo wrestler with the power of a girl using perfume to attract a boyfriend? Obviously, any analysis of human behavior that treats “power” as a single, simple thing is going to be hopelessly wrong.
This deconstructs the Nietzschean concept of a “drive for power.” Of course people want control over their lives, and that sometimes means having influence over the lives of people close to them. But the girl’s drive to get the boy’s attention is extremely different from Genghis Khan’s drive to conquer the world. Nietzscheans write as if all desire to influence others were of the Genghis Khan sort. Some, including Nietzsche himself, idealize that. Others, notably Michel Foucault, abominate it. Foucault was a genuine philosphical anarchist, one of the last, and for him the world’s problem was the Nietzschean power drive. He took it for granted and lived only to find ways to block it.
In fact, most people do not want to be Genghis Khan. The vast majority of human power plays are more like the perfumed girl’s. We want to persuade people around us to notice us in a favorable way. We may, further, want them to do things for us, and we know that persuading them or giving them fair return is a far more effective way to accomplish this than is brute force. Even when we want to get rid of them, we are aware that killing them is at best difficult and dangerous and at worst downright illegal, so we find ways to avoid them, instead.
People most certainly want social place. The strongest human desire, in fact, is to have a secure place in a supportive community. Lack of this is scary, producing great anxiety. People inevitably compete for good places, and this can get serious and bitter if the good places are few and hard-to-reach. Genghis Khan’s ambition to be world emperor is the limiting case.
A confounding variable here, however, is that people simply enjoy competition for its own sake, whether in chess or in racing or in basketball. Usually they do not think anything serious about it. “It’s just a game,” and does not make for anger unless someone cheats or unless there is a lot of money and attention riding on the victory. Even then, sportsmanship generally takes over. When people get really and massively bitter over competition, as they do in politics, one can be sure that the real concern is social place—security over one’s place, or desire for one that is better and harder to reach. The search for social place thus leads people to deploy all their wiles, from army tactics in the search for world rule to persuasive verbiage and pictures in the wine advertisement.
This makes the Nietzsche-Foucault position even less tenable. Brute force is not the commonest or most effective form of power. One may condemn, with Foucault, the oppressive and cruel forms of power without condemning all attempts by one person to influence another. In fact, Foucault certainly used his full persuasive power to influence people. He would answer that he was opposing institutionalized power, not all interpersonal influence. He does not, however, resolve the problem of determining where the one starts and the other stops.
On the other hand, Foucault can also define power structurally, in a far more believable way: “Power is not a substance. Neither is it a mysterious property whose origin must be delved into. Power is only a certain type of relation between individuals…. The characteristic feature of power is that some men can more or less entirely determine other men’s conduct…. [but] there is no power without potential refusal or revolt” (Foucault 2006). The question is whether people have a drive to achieve such dictatorial force over others. Probably most parents want it over their young children, but otherwise most people simply do not want this (in the extreme form of entirely determining others’ conduct). Wanting it is clearly pathological in humans.
Power is most directly exerted by brute force, but in actual social life force is rarely used for the purpose. For one thing, the victim fights back. For another, leaders must usually rely on soldiers, police or the like to do the forcing, and soldiers are not always loyal; in fact, historically, changes of government are probably more often from military coups than from any other cause. One has to do something to insure their loyalty, and an endless regress of police forces does not do the job. Thus leaders rely on loyalty, created by various means. Leaders also rely on laws, but this too rrequires both enforcement mechanisms and some degree of credibility in the laws. Laws that are not respected are broken so often that no amount of enforcement works; this happened with the 55-mile speed limit, with litter laws in many areas, and with “blue laws” in most places that have them.
Leaders also deploy persuasion and charisma, and try to use blandishments to make their followers loyal. Most common of all, however, is power through manipulation of reciprocity and exchange. Leaders provide services and stabilize and protect markets. Their subjects or citizens are grateful for the services and depend on the markets. In everyday life, people work constantly to maintain webs of mutual favors. This sort of wide-flung reciprocity is the real cement of society—in fact, one could almost say it is society.
Finally, people seem programmed, biologically or by sheer habit, to respect social leaders and institutions. They follow laws and customs without thinking, just because those are the laws and customs. The usual rationalization is: What if everybody just did as they please? Some dreadful chaos would ensue. The easiest path is to follow the general rules. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. David Hume fell back on this mindless convenience as the only real reason to follow any customs or believe even the most obvious and straightforward things. Might as well call a dog a dog in England and a chien in France. And maybe somewhere else it wouldn’t even look like a dog; maybe seeing a “dog” is merely a convention.
In any case, people get amazingly attached to their rules and customs, perhaps especially to the most irrational and unprovable ones. This gives rulemakers and custom-setters amazing power. Whoever starts a teenage fad has millions of young people at her command. (A horrible effect of this is seen in the epidemic of suicides that frequently follow a star’s self-murder.) The mindless adulation of “celebrities” is similar. Movie stars have striking power over people’s minds, for no better reason than that everybody knows who they are.
Power of Conformity
Even more common—in fact the overwhelmingly most important way power is exercised in society—is use of social pressure to make people conform, go along, or bear. They may not actively want to do what they are doing, but they are convinced it’s “right” or that they have to go along with “everyone else.” The various ways of convincing them to do this have been explored in detail by Weber, Foucault, Bourdieu, Benedict Anderson, and many others. They range from religious teaching to school-playground peer pressure, and from taste in literature to group hate. People normally want to do what their reference group does, think as others in it think, feel as they feel, and like what they like. In a free and complex society, individuals can more or less choose what reference group to join, but throughout most of history, few had that choice. Even within my lifetime, religion has gone from something that one was born into and died in, and which governed one’s behavior, to something barely noticed by many and chosen by others from a smorgasbord of cults and teachings.
In short, power in society is largely exercised by society itself, and enforced by censure, criticism, rejection, and ostracism. People fear this above all else, as we know from the willingness of most people to die for a cause or to avoid shame.
The fear is not just of being rejected. More deadly and agonizing is the fear of being genuinely despicable—of being rejected and held in contempt for good reasons. Of course the “good reasons” are socially learned, to a large extent. People need to be accepted, but they need even more to be (or at least feel they are) acceptable.
All this makes “power” look more like social agency and social control. Individuals want to control themselves and their own lives, but they also want to or have to give up control to the group. Formal institutions have high “legitimacy,” meaning people decide they are there for good reason or at least are inescapable, and do as they are told. At the other extreme, popular and grassroots pressure makes most people like (or pretend to like) the offerings of popular culture. Also, humans evidently have an innate tendency to respect their elders, and it generalizes today to all authority figures.
Social power also makes people very susceptible to emotional blackmail: bullying, guilt-tripping, passive-aggressive manipulation, and all the other devices of those who use social power for their own ends.
This naturally bridges to the active use and manipulation of hatred to sell policies and politicians. Politicians everywhere whip up class, ethnic, racial, religious, and political rivalries and hatreds in order to win popular support for themselves and their policies. Then, reference groups become highly important. One follows one’s chosen reference group in hating its perceived enemies or rivals. An extreme form is found in the writings of Hobbes, Freud and many others: an across-the-board judgment that basic human nature is profoundly hateful, or at least torn by angry, hateful, or lustful emotions.
Another pathology is the use of being “with it” as proof of social good or social belonging. Those who are not up on the latest fad are not only out of the loop; they are evil, contrary, mean, repulsive, spoiled, inadequate, and every other name that can be thrown at them. This is as common among academics as among others; we all know the fate of social scientists who do not keep up on the latest French philosophe hyped by the New York Review of Books. Teenage peer groups are usually even more direct and savage, and thus affect people profoundly at the most vulnerable and decisive stage in their lives.
People are seriously afraid of power. They are terrified of superior force and of deadly force. They are, if anything, even more terrified of social rejection.
Therefore, the commonest and most effective way to exercise power is by social pressure. Threats of disrespect and ostracization and promises of respect and honor animate suicide bombers, even though their moment of honor is short-lived indeed. Soldiers on suicide missions, persons who kill themselves for honor or shame, and persons who devote their whole lives to a cause also work for motives stronger than deadly force. Routinely, people die rather than face humiliation.
Shunning and ostracism to discipline the unsocial is probably by far the most common method of asserting power, worldwide, and in many societies it is about the only way of enforcing the rules. Simple kin-level societies usually have no other recourse. Neither do informal groups and children’s play-packs in complex societies. Yet, since humans are so compulsively social, ostracism remains the most terrifying threat and the most effective way of disciplining people. In some societies it means death—an Inuit exiled from the group has no chance—but even when it means nothing but inconvenience, it is a terrifying threat. Conversely, of course, praise and acceptance are powerful motivators, and the power to praise is real power. Good words from much-higher-status people are important everywhere.
Power can be the ability to call up legitimate force; this is the classic definition of the state, or of its ruling class. It can also be the ability to call up illegitimate force; this is the imperium in imperio, the capomafiosi equivalent of the state. It can be simply a function of hierarchic position, in societies where hierarchies are so entrenched that people willingly act (violently if necessary) to maintain hierarchic privilege. Most societies are so organized. Power of this sort grades off into mere social status, and this can range from the truly high status of a divine king to the precarious status of a low-ranking male in a patriarchal society.
This makes it more difficult to separate the persuasive tongue from the rifle. The tongue may be the more dangerous, from the point of view of the victim.
The differentiation of force and persuasion is a false dichotomy, following from the even more false separation of body and mind (Lyons 2005 provides a wonderful discussion of this, crediting Timothy Mitchell for the original insight). A whole continuum from brute force to silver tongue exists, and the two are not infrequently combined in the same person, each reinforcing the other. In any case, a silver-tongued orator can exert an almost hypnotic power on people.
However, more important are the phenomena of the middle ground—the ground that the body-mind dichotomy erases. As Weber pointed out, if people see power is “legitimate,” they will do what is expected of them. They may have actually agreed to a Hobbesian social contract, but more likely they were raised in a society ruled by law, and accept it or see no good alternatives to it. If they accept it solely through coercion and fear, we are back with power through brute force, and all its limitations. Everyone will resist and foot-drag whenever they can (Scott 1985), and rebel the minute they get a chance. However, most people in most societies see their formal and informal legal codes as legitimate enough to be worth following most of the time.
Power as a Bad Want
Of the several kinds of goods one might want in the world, power is the worst to want. If you want food, drink, and sex, you are relatively easily satisfied. (Pathological cravings are another matter; they are, most often, not really about food or sex.) If you want money, you can get a lot without really diminishing others’ wealth, since the economy can always expand at least a little, in the short term. But if you want status or power, you must compete directly with others for them. These goods are limited. Thus “position goods” become markers: items that are intrinsically limited, like genuine Van Gogh paintings, or items that are at least somewhat limited in number, like Ferrari cars. They thus come to mark status, and get correspondingly bid up in price. More to the point, though, positions of power are very limited indeed, and often the only way to get them is to fight for them—violently or through Machiavellian dealings.
One can always invent new status markers, and expand the system to provide more powerful positions, thus partially neutralizing this particular set of problems, but in the end the competition is often seen as a fight for the top.
Thus need for power is deadly to society. Only one person can be ruler. Only a few can be in Congress. Only a few can be CEO’s of giant corporations, and with corporate mergers, that number is actually shrinking, in spite of the rise of more and more small firms. Competition is deadly, and there is no way to make win-win games out of it. Thus, a group losing power in a declining economy is particularly likely to hate other groups and to try to make them go down even faster.
Actual violent conflict is even worse. The conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel shows with horrible clarity how the worst win out by taking advantage of a situation. Israel’s initial idealism and the Palestinians’ hope, hard work, and initial peaceful resistance slowly gave way to today’s antagonistic and brutal behaviors.
Power is basically the social construction of managing the control need. Charisma, suavity, good communication ability, brokering, humor and other soft powers grade into real badgering, bullying, etc., and then into actual force. Persuasion, rewards (mostly monetary), force, and institutional power are basic, but social ostracization is probably by far the most usual way to exert it.
In a meritocratic society, the ones who wind up on the bottom are the meek or passive or disorganized ones; the midrange is the smart, hard-working ones; the top layer is the ruthless, merciless, cruel ones. One can see that in accounts of old-time military kingships, which were arguably more meritocratic than the modern US in spite of social ascriptions. (The kings and courtiers had to fight, or at least make life-and-death political calculations, and thus had more skin in the game than modern elites, who are often born to money and never had to work.)
Adam Smith saw (but his modern followers rarely do) that the real advantage of private property and free enterprise is that the costs are specified on the beneficiaries, forcing them to do something about said costs. That is the measure of any ownership system. Modern giant corporations, however, capture the benefits partly from subsidies and government preferences rather than earnings, and export the costs to the public as “externalities.” Thus, there is no incentive to improve or fix anything. They neither depend for benefits on doing well, nor do they have any incentive to minimize costs (extensive documentation of this can be found in Anderson 2010). “Competition” does not make people “do it better” unless the costs of production are specified on the producers. With costs “externalized” and production subsidized, as in the modern US, there is every incentive for producers to act as irresponsibly as possible. They are rewarded not for fixing their problems, but for lobbying for even more subsidies and even more relief from laws that control “externality” production.
Applications of Theories of Social Power
When the king makes the subject swear by divine kingship, or when the rich convince the poor that riches are divine gifts while poverty is divine punishment, the motivations are crudely obvious, and were pointed out long before Foucault. When America’s ruling elites, under George W. Bush, decide that industry’s freedom to pollute the environment is true freedom, but freedom to vote and speak one’s conscience are trivial and dispensable, the motives are again clear. Foucault showed that more subtle “power-knowledge” is commoner and probably more pernicious: sexual disciplines, beliefs about “crime” and techniques for managing it, even the very classification systems for plants and animals (Foucault 1970). Elites have not obviously sold these to the masses, and the masses do not see them as clearly maintaining privilege, but these knowledges often do act to discipline the subjects. The ordering and bureaucratic behavior and rhetoric of government creates not only civil order but also what Foucault called “governmentality”; it creates subjects by disciplining them at every stage of life. Every piece of official paper from the birth certificate to the death certificate is an exercise of power (cf. Scott 1998). People learn to be patriotic, giving their willing consent. Arun Agrawal has developed the concept of “environmentality” (Agrawal 2005) in parallel: people in modern states become “environmental subjects,” learning, debating, and following official policies toward the environment. Of course, “the environment” in this sense is itself a Foucaultian concept; the idea is a social and political construct. The environment of a plant in the mountains is not the same sort of concept as the policy-defined, law-defined, media-defined thing called “the environment.”
This puts us all in the scary position of wondering how much of our daily beliefs are con jobs propagated by evil elites. Extreme Foucaultians appear to believe that when we say the sky is blue and water is wet, we merely parrot evil lies propagated by evil conspirators. Granted that reality is far less sinister, we must still wonder whether less obvious “facts” are really true. Worse: we must wonder how many of the undeniable facts we know are subtly contexted and foregrounded (or backgrounded) to maintain power systems. The American media today consign global warming to back-page science sections, while giving the front page to the latest murder or sports win. This certainly confirms a certain priority ranking as the “proper” one, and it just happens to be a very useful priority ranking to the right-wing elites of the nation.
Actual working knowledge turns out to be a complex accommodation between such imposed “power-knowledge” and the actual needs for usual, factual, grounded knowledge among real-world people who have to do things.
Cultural knowledge develops through a long and almost always untraceable sequence of dialogues, negotiations, and subtle power plays. Is there a sinister reason behind our tendency to focus on movie stars instead of scrutinizing political leaders? Do politicians deliberately promote this to keep us from examining them? And how did our sexual morality change from the puritanical 1950s to the roaring 1990s? There was no one person or moment that decided it. Was it a sinister way of increasing elite power, or a liberation therefrom?
Cultural knowledges are always pluralist. Some accept, some reject. The king may try to behead anyone who questions divine monarchy, but, as Sancho Panza said, “under my cloak, a fig for the king.” Deviants from other, more diffuse knowledge systems are legion. Again, we return to the ultimate need of force or of powerful, immediate social sanctions to maintain power. But conformity and ostracization do, indeed, operate to make people accede in their own repression.
Money is power, and genuinely coercive if the receiver depends on the money. However, individual greed gives money far more “power” than it really has. Many people in this world could do with less money and suffer less abuse accordingly. Money-grubbers do not so much suffer from power as trap themselves.
Simple respect for position or for a competent or politically able person gives that person some power, but only by consent and on sufferance. Sociologists contrast deference with actual effective power. Collins notes: “The divergence between [deference] and [effective] power is particularly sharp in the case of…women administrative assistants who defer to (usually male) line authority but wield most of the invisible power…in a bureaucratic organization” (Collins 2001:286). I can vouch for that, since I worked down the hall from Randy Collins for many years, and know some of the people he is talking about. He goes on to quote Francis Bacon: “Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business. So as they have no freedom, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times” (Collins 2001:288, quoting Bacon’s writings from 1625).
Charisma—the socially negotiated ability of some people to get the public on their side—is a similar trap. Nietzsche confused power with heroism; worshiping the romantic hero, he idolized power too. Yet, few heroes are really powerful (a fact which is a subtheme of the Iliad), and, conversely, the vast majority of genuinely powerful people are merely ordinary weak men and women who happen to be high up in a hierarchy. A charismatic politician may get elected, but most of the world’s powerful people have worked their way up hierarchies by Machiavellian game-playing, not by charisma or any other personal ability. Many of them, indeed, are utterly contemptible worms by Nietzschean standards—gray Organization Men rather than Nietzschean Supermen.
It is not surprising that people differ enormously in their desire for power, and in the kind they want. The majority of us do not want more control than we need. However, we all know people who live only to push other people around. The psychological roots of this are usually fairly evident. These are the people who are compulsively active in politics, and often become the rulers and leaders. Since at least the days of the ancient Greeks, sages have made the point that this often ensures that society is run by its worst members. The ancient Greeks already knew, also, that democracy is the only cure for this, but is only a partial cure.
Good leaders are always rare, and require a good society to form them, approve them, allow their “charisma” to flourish, and eventually back them and fight for them. Most good leaders are rather limited in scope. Supermen, Nietzschean or otherwise, are a fantasy. Yet, societies somehow find saviors at the right time. The United States found Abraham Lincoln in 1860; Britain found or created Winston Churchill in the dark days of the 1930s and 1940s; a riven China was reunited by the amazing genius of the founders of the Sui and Tang Dynasties at the end of the 6th century AD.
In direct proportion to how hierarchic a society is, and how conservative and repressive the hierarchy is, violent and dishonest souls fight for power. They often become the majority of the elite. In societies that are truly top-down hierarchies, the violent and dishonest usually become completely dominant, since ruthless power-gaming is the only real way to success.
Most people remain surprisingly indifferent to the lure of upward mobility, or, if they want upward mobility, they want to get it by other means, from economic entrepreneurship to scholarly expertise. An extreme Nietzschean drive for power is a rare and derivative trait. Generally, it turns out to derive from simple bullying. The power-mad are those who are scared, weak, insecure, and prone to shore up their egos by bullying weaker people or animals. Aggression—always a response to a threat, not an autonomous inborn need—is marshalled in the service of maintaining dominance among the abject. Nietzsche got it exactly wrong: the power-seekers are not the supermen but the frailest.
From the ancient Greeks onward, almost every observer of politics has noted a tendency for most people to look up to leaders more because of style than because of substance. We adulate those who master rotund rhetoric, or have a grave, parental, in-charge demeanor (whether or not they can deliver). We look down on would-be leaders who lack such authoritative presentations of self. The brash, outspoken, and spontaneous do not get far in politics—unless they channel their outspokenness into group hate, in which case they succeed, but by base means. The meek and retiring do not lead.
In difficult times, people go more directly for leaders who seem strong, as opposed to those who can be perceived as weak or vacillating. The Bush-Kerry election of 2004 turned on the Republicans’ success at playing the contest that way. In even worse times, openly violent and destructive leaders are adulated: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin. Fear drives respect.
Another sort of power is an emotional hold over someone. A million novels remind us that the less loving member of a couple has real power over the more loving one. And consider shame yet again: if I can expose someone to public shame, I can blackmail said person. But by this time were are close to mere persuasive ability, which I personally cannot see as power. Persuasion, by definition, cannot make people do what they do not want to do. It can only make them want to do it—if the persuader is really good. Blandishments, compliments, and flattery are frequently effective, but not coercive.
Many grave authorities on politics give more place to high and noble ideals than do the above passages. Goals of religion, philosophy, or poetry may indeed motivate a few—perhaps more than are motivated by power-madness. But the sorry record of humanity proves that most politics is vicious and negative. We will probably never know the relative importances of all these motives, because of the phenomenon of multiple reasons for action.
So power is a complex thing. A power-hungry person will try to get several kinds: formal power to invoke force, informal power to call up still more force, wealth, charisma, emotional hold, blackmail, anything. One kind is never enough. Portfolio diversification is valuable in maintaining wealth, but absolutely necessary for maintaining power.
One reason is that these different kinds of power can do different things. Some people can resist any given type of power, and the types of resistance effective against brute force are obviously different from those effective against hierarchic control of knowledge, and these again differ from resistance to social pressure. The powerful must cope with all kinds of resistance. Also, powerless but ambitious individuals who see an elite monopolizing one form of power but not another will naturally gravitate to that other form. A group lacking status and use of force but not wealth may try to get wealth and use it strategically to get power. This is what the rise of capitalism was all about. It is also a strategy classically used by politically weak minorities who are in a position to become urban mercantile successes.
Resistance can be startlingly effective (cf. Scott 1985, 1990, 1998). If most people do not want to obey a law, no one can enforce it. The 55-mph speed limit in the United States was a dead letter. Game and hunting laws in Mexico are strict and would be wonderful if enforced, but I never met a Mexican who knew what they were. Few even knew they existed. Anti-drug and anti-corruption laws, all over the world, have limited effect. The most extreme cases of dead-letter laws are the old “blue laws”; in some places, it was (until very recently) illegal to whistle on Sunday, or hold hands with your spouse in public. No one even remembered these laws except when local historians brought them up for laughs. Scott, a good Marxist in his early work, saw power as held by an elite and resistance as the tool of the masses. Others see hierarchies and networks rather than dialectics. Once again, a particularly good discussion, with extensive ethnography, is provided by Barry Lyons (2005). He notes how power can lie at state, regional, community, and family levels, and be hierarchical at each. Working with Quechua indigenous people in Ecuador, he found that they often saw abusive “white” power as illegitimate and intrusive, but its forms and teachings—politeness, discipline, respect, authority—as necessary or desirable, to be reproduced in more legitimate surroundings, meaning especially the Quechua community itself. I have heard similar views among the Maya of Mexico.
Again, elites must use different forms of power and persuasion to get around this. Enough people must be convinced that the laws are worth following and will be enforced. Usually, a large majority must be so convinced, though a draconian regime can get along with support from local elites and dependents thereof.
In short, power is not easy to understand, nor to gain or hold. Bourdieu speaks of a “field of power,” which is “a field of forces structurally determined by the state of the relations of power among forms of power, or different forms of capital….The different forms of capital are specific forms of power that are active in one or another of the fields…” (Bourdieu 1998:264-165). This allows Bourdieu to mix social connections, ideological authority, rhetorical persuasiveness, money, guns, sophistication (“cultural capital”), and anything else he chooses. He claims he can provide us with rules for converting these currencies; not surprisingly, he doesn’t do any such thing.
However, Bourdieu can, and does, look at political arenas. The political nexus, rather than Marx’ “money nexus,” is the locus of social action. Politics is meant here in the broad sense: direct control of or management of people. It can be dictatorship by brute force, or people getting together and discussing until they come to a collective decision about managing something, and implementing that decision through some sort of social agency that can act or enforce.
Hobbes wrote of a social contract that establishes peace by instituting autocratic government and securing property. Hobbes was wrong about the mechanism, including the need for a king, but he was right about the need for an organized social system to guarantee peace. People may want to do some antisocial things, like snitching Baby Sister’s candy or fighting the neighbors or dumping trash in the river, but they want society more. They will give up a lot for it. In fact, as suicide bombers remind us, they will give up their lives for it.
Hobbes is also wrong for the opposite reason. Setting up a social system does not stop conflicts. In fact, a sociologist—or an anarchist—would say that, in fact, society creates such things; intolerance and factionalism are social facts, not products of individuals in a state of nature.
So a social contract must do much more than uplift a Hobbesian autocrat. It must deal not only with basic economics and politics, but with aesthetics, emotions, and indeed total personal involvement in the interactive networks that constitute society-on-the-ground. Even the rules of language are a part of the social contract. People contract with each other to talk in a certain way, such that mutual understanding is facilitated. Schizophrenics and autistic persons break those rules and are, to that extent, outside society.
It has become rather traditional, even among non-Marxists, to analyze society in Marx’ terms: an economic foundation, concerned with producing and distributing subsistence goods; a social order erected on top of this; and an ideological order that justifies the social order. Over the long term, and in some aspects of society, this seems to be often true. However, I am by no means sure that material production is so critical. Nor do I see that it entails the others. The ideological system of Islam is astonishingly uniform across societies whose technologies range from the simplest to the most complex. Moreover, Islam’s main variants (Sunni and Shi’a, the four legal schools of Sunni, and others) have been stable for centuries; few new currents have come with the rise of modern economies. Conversely, similar modern technological and legal ownership systems flourish widely today, in Islamic lands and Maya and Chinese villages as in New York. This happens even when ideological “modernization” (in the sense of emulation of American ways) is a cost, not a benefit. Social systems spread by imitation more than because of real systemic need. We need more objective studies of this issue.
Lack of a Will to Power
One-down anger is the most dangerous of all emotions, states or conditions of humanity, with equal or one-up anger next. One effect of this is the success of people who have nothing but meekness to offer the world.
This breaks up the imaginary “will to power.” People want power for evil reasons (to bully others), for good reasons (to defend themselves or help others), and for neutral reasons (just to feel good about themselves, or jut to satisfy the human need to feel in control of one’s personal life). All three types of reasons may be mixed in one individual. The extreme abundance of sociable failures, rich hermits and misers, and voluntarily simple-living persons shows that Nietzsche was quite wrong about people naturally wanting power. Most of those who could easily get it avoid it.
Henry Kissinger’s reputed remark that “power is the best aphrodisiac” is somewhat wrong—social approbation and success is what matters. Power helps, but a powerful thug gets women through their fear, not their desire. Conversely, nothing is commoner than the charming but powerless ne’er-do-well who gets women to support him. Social success sometimes leads to power, but far from always. With women, and in many other social situations, wealth is almost worthless by itself; ask any ugly, socially inept miser.
Thus it is not easy to contact human good on any deep level. Saints and sages can do it, and most of us can manage it with a spouse or children or closest friends. Otherwise, we are reduced to reading poetry, listening to great music, and looking at fine art. Those voices from the past who could express their deepest emotions may at times be our only contacts with the deep inner good that, in the end, animates us all.
Trying to fix anything by channeling evil into “better” channels does not help. Marx tried to get people to hate upward in the social scale, rather than downward; the result was Stalin. Sports fans have claimed sports provides an outlet for competition; the result has been the strife of Blues and Greens in Byzantium, modern soccer hooliganism, the “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras, and countless other such problems, with no reduction in other kinds of conflict. Indeed, sports is a fascinating case: few things are more harmlessly fun than sandlot baseball, informal track-and-field, or the like, yet few things are more gratuitously repulsive than the world of professional sports, with its rampant drug abuse, soccer hooliganism, and hatreds whipped up over trivial games. One wonders what happened to sportsmanship. It seems not even a concept today.
The result of all this is a society in which many people are very rough customers. The more violent and unruly the society, the more of such people there are, the range being—approximately—from small Quaker towns to the tribal border zones of Pakistan. Even Quaker towns have their problems. No society can be as good as its best members, though some can be as bad as their worst. The wise person will thus stay somewhat outside society—at least far enough to keep clear eyes and a clear head.
Society is inevitably dominated or preempted by the need to avoid or deal with threat. Thus resistance is basic, and social rejection and hate inevitable. “Preemptive capitulation” in the form of self-imposed barriers of conformity, passivity, excessive “niceness” (the doormat syndrome), and the like becomes common. These lead to failure to act, thus often to irresponsibility, thus often to deserved negative judgment. In that case, the sufferer has shot herself in the foot by being too nice, and is doubly angry because of a feeling of betrayal. This may lead to the worst social hatreds, because people in this position feel (quite reasonably) that they are wronged, and act accordingly. Alternatively, individuals may rebel or resist, and shoot themselves in the foot again by being too prickly and defensive. Either way, the game goes on. Few can cope rationally, by taking social troubles in stride and moving on.
Politics and Interaction
Politics is about defining groups, and making some salient at the expense of others. It is about organizing morality, and practicing it via laws and administration of justice (or injustice, as the case may be). It is about organizing society for defense against external and internal enemies. It is about organizing the economy, the communications network, and even the arts. In short, it is about keeping society running smoothly enough to accomplish necessary social tasks.
Since getting people to agree on a course of action is, notoriously, “like herding cats,” this is not an easy job. Shirking, irresponsibility, foot-dragging, and outright betrayal are inevitable, and politicians have to keep these at a bearable level.
Anyone jockeying for power, or trying to use power, has to pay at least lip service to these social goals. I have known sociopathic politicians who were quite open about being in it for money or power, but they knew they had to deliver the goods, at least to those who had bribed them. “An honest politician is one that stays bought,” and corrupt politicians learn quickly.
This has led to the vulgar materialist belief that politics is simply economic greed. However, economics does not explain politics. Politicians invoke too many things that are clearly irrational in economic terms: ill-considered wars (Tuchman 1984), genocide, megalomaniac projects like big dams and new capital cities. Political choice and public choice theorists assume that personal political power is the end for which politicians work. These theories have an even less impressive prediction record than the economic theories.
Marx saw politics as produced by class struggle, itself the product of tensions between those who controlled the means of production and those who worked for said controllers. Ultimately, economics—specifically, the means of producing basic subsistence goods, and above all the control of those means—determined the power system. Capitalists, and capitalist-world theorists, may not go with “class struggle,” but they agree that material goods, producing them, and jockeying for control of them are determinative—the real wellsprings of politics.
This leads the thoughtful social scientist to another observation on rationality. To Mancur Olson’s cynicism about the possibility of avoiding the destruction of collective institutions by free riders (Olson 1965), we can oppose an even more incontrovertible principle: if, in a world of Olsonian individuals, two “irrational” people band together, they can take over the world in short order. They can simply conquer all the “rational” individuals, one by one. In practice, of course, “rational” individuals would flock to join the two. Even when many of those “rational” individuals fell away to free-ride, a nucleus of less “rational” retainers would surely remain. They could force others to join them, even on highly prejudicial terms, since it would be so obvious that individual holdouts could not prevail against a united force. This, roughly, was Hobbes’ argument about the origin of kingship, and it is not unknown in the real world. Something very much like this occurred when Genghis Khan united the warring Mongol tribes into a world-conquering strike force (Ratchnevsky 1991). Olsonian rationality broke the empire down again eventually, but the Mongols managed to rule most of the known world for a number of generations.
Solidarity, then, always wins over rational individualism. Only a highly committed, ideologically dedicated force can overcome another committed and united force. If Olson’s definition of “rationality” is used, society will always be ruled by the “irrational.”
We can rely on such irrationality maintaining itself, because parents (even rational ones) usually train their children to be “irrationally” helpful, supportive, and altruistic, at least toward said parents! Indeed, to function in society, parents have to train children to provide at least the appearance of helpful altruism toward the community at large.
In the modern world, where Olsonian rationality has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, environmentalists and any other dedicated individuals have one reason to hope: they can prevail if even a few of them can act as a united force.
Most politicians have powerful ideological commitments and group biases, and are frequently more apt to work against their ideological and ethnic enemies than to work for any personal goal. The “public choice” theories, in contrast, assume politicians work solely for their own personal power. This body of theory specifically equates the political behavior of Gandhi and Stalin, Lincoln and Hitler, reducing all to mere power jockeying. Obviously, such a theory may have its uses, but does not really apply to real-world considerations. We must specify somewhat more about the actual means and ends of human action.
Politics and Solidarity
Political dealing, not money, makes the world go round; how many misers made history? In the political arena, the persuasive tongue can beat the rifle. Pace the proverb, God is not on the side of the heaviest artillery. Victory goes to the side with more solidarity. The United States learned this in Vietnam and again in Iraq. Often, one can assume roughly equal loyalty commitments by rival armies, and then artillery is decisive; but history is full of cases of absurdly lopsided wins by tiny but solidary minorities. The Greek victories at Marathon and Salamis are famous, but the most extreme cases may be the frequent victories by small nomad forces over huge Chinese armies in old central Asia.
Politics is often about divisiveness, but when it actually creates solidarity, some real things get accomplished. Ideally, politics should be the art of holding a society together by balancing and accommodating different interests and bringing bearers of those interests to the negotiating table. A good politician or administrator can persuade these various stakeholders to work together for the common good, bringing all their different skills, abilities, and interests to the task. More often, keeping them from each others’ throats is a full-time job.
As we would expect, peaceable mutual accommodation is more likely in hopeful times, while increasing trouble or threat leads to increasing fear and conflict. Culture and social solidarity obviously affect this. Hopeful politics assumes the best in people. There is a range here from the extremely idealist to the coldly cynical. Kropotkin’s anarchism is extreme in one direction; Pyotr Kropotkin assumed that people would be good if only oppression and force were eliminated from their worlds. This did not work. At the other extreme is the folk-Hobbesian view of people as simply out for what they can get, and the Nietzschean view of people as violent competitors restrained only by superior force. If these views were correct, social life could not exist. People are good and bad, and one has to treat them accordingly.
Time and energy are limited, and the bads need immediate attention or at least top priority. Caution and care come first. Thus, the Founding Fathers of the United States were right in leaving people largely free to pursue their “happiness,” and directing government toward assuring enough security to let them do it. This, in turn, requires the “checks and balances” the Founding Fathers planned—and, today, quite a few new checks and balances, to deal with such things as multinational corporations and organizations. Bertolt Brecht’s “first feeding, then morality” (erst das Fressen, dann die Moral) can be modified: First protection, then feeding, then the rest.
This being the case, politics is normally focused heavily on such military and defensive functions. Until recently, the real task of rulers was war—protecting their subjects and conquering enemies. Today, that is still the major thrust of politics. War and armaments are by far the biggest budgetary item for governments worldwide, consuming several orders of magnitude more wealth than feeding the hungry or protecting the environment. Conflict is the biggest issue for governments. This may have some biological grounding; perhaps above-the-family social action in early human evolution was largely about organizing for war.
Failing a war, politics tends toward conflict with structural opponents—groups defined as radically different groups within one’s own social universe. A drawback of civilization is that it allows people to segregate along moral, political, ethnic, and other lines. Simpler societies have more control and balance; a village contains its saints, who provide balance, and its violent two or three, who can be restrained or sent off to war. In the modern United States, the violent people of a whole city or state can gather in gangs in one small area. The saints tend to separate off, retreating into churches or academies or “nice neighborhoods.” Such societies have lost the flywheel. They can spin out of control very rapidly if war or natural catastrophe gives the violent gangs a chance to take over.
Closely related is the bloody-minded attitude found in much of politicking. Many people vote from a nasty, in-your-face antagonism to everyone—big government, big business, neighbors, property owners. Fights over rights to bear arms, restrictions on personal damages, restrictions on private property, even the most basic and reasonable public health laws, become terribly bitter, with many voters openly voting to hurt others even if they hurt themselves as much or more—as in the case of anti-public-health and anti-environmental campaigns. Fights over educational policy often pit those who favor actual education over those who favor discipline, dragooning, and indoctrination as the only goal of schooling.
And yet, amazingly, government does succeed in doing some good. Even the early states of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia at least protected their people (sometimes) and delivered some water. Today we have public health campaigns, art museums, street repairs.
The major problems come when a society is truly on a downward cycle. As people lose hope, and lose trust in government, they are less willing to pay taxes, cooperate with groups they fear, or even vote. The decline of civic participation and civic feelings in the United States (Putnam 2000), like other ills, tracks the rise of giant, out-of-control, faceless corporations. Governments become corrupt and lazy.
Given all the above, grave authorities have tried to limit or abolish power since early times. Most early societies tried to restrain it by tight rules; Islam’s Shari’a rules are the most extensive and specific case, but China’s less extreme “legalistic” philosophies (there were several) developed effective strategies. Confucians tried to restrain it by moral training of the leaders. The Taoists, like anarchists from Bakunin to Foucault, tried to abolish power and politics outright. Over time, many anarchist utopian communities have been founded, but all, unsurprisingly, fell apart. The Founding Fathers of the United States relied on voting and on balance of powers. Adam Smith tried to spread power as widely as possible, through economic and moral individualism. We now try all these measures, and still do not manage the job.
Many, including the Founding Fathers of the United States (especially Thomas Paine), have held that hierarchies make for bad people. The ancient Greeks already contrasted democracy with tyranny (and saw them evolving into each other), and most of the relevant theory was already being spelled out by Herodotus and Thucydides. Lord Acton’s Law—“all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely”—is one of the most quoted lines on earth, and most people strengthen it by leaving out the “tends to.” Theoretically, the more top-down, rigid, and power-concentrating a hierarchy is, the more bullying people are at the top, the more craven and treacherous at the bottom. But, also, bullies in power may not be corrupted by the power; they may have been bullies already. In many situations, bullies and competitively amoral people are attracted to power games. So power might not so much corrupt people as attract the already corrupted. Either way, the prudent society will minimize power hierarchies and power disproportions of all kinds.
Conversely, received wisdom teaches that equality produces responsibility and civic virtues. Once again, the Founding Fathers thought so, and European aristocrats like de Tocqueville rather grudgingly agreed. This has worked for the United States, but the jury is still out on its worldwide applications. After all, the Huns, Mongol hordes, and other old-time warrior nomads were a fairly egalitarian lot, at least compared to their enemies. Open opportunity for peaceful advancement may be (or may have been) more important than equality.
People are constantly reacting against control. Yet they know they need it: if not a Hobbesian absolute monarchy, at least a Lockean state. Since no society can survive without some leaders and followers, and since no contemporary society can survive without complex multilayered structures of command, the best we can hope for is constant push for egalitarianism and open opportunity combined with channels of accountability and recourse for the weaker.
Politics and Public Morality
People are variously good or bad, but all require some kind of social morality. Common experience suggests that it does not win over a society unless it is accepted by 80-90% of the body politic. This leaves about 10-20% as “criminals,” or at least “immoral.” Usually, these are the violent, unpredictable persons, or the ones who simply cannot keep faith and be trusted. In some societies, however, they are the saints—victims of the 80% becoming racist, fascist, or religiously bigoted. We all know that majority rule does not guarantee the good.
Public campaigns may change morality very strikingly. When I was young, a good 80% of Americans were litterbugs, and most American adults smoked in public. Littering dropped dramatically, and later so did public smoking, because of constant public campaigns and some enforcement of laws. With less enforcement of litter laws but more concern about smoking, littering has climbed again but smoking continues to retreat.
Less serious issues than basic social morality may thrive on a bare majority. As soon as nonsmokers made up more than 50% of the adult population of the United States, laws began to change, rapidly reversing from always favoring smokers to banning smoking in any enclosed space. This occurred in spite of the intensive lobbying by the tobacco industry, which was extremely successful for years in blocking legislation or elimination of tobacco subsidies, especially at the federal level.
The need for politics to get at least 50% support for anything, and at least 80% for anything major, stands in dramatic contrast to the situation in ordinary consumership and in arts and sciences, where a very few people can at least preserve their own tastes or findings, and can, at best, eventually convince everyone. Politics requires 50% or more for an idea to survive at all. In a totalitarian climate, of course, it requires much more.
Some moral campaigns never catch fire. “Drugs, sex and rock’n’roll” have been the targets of intensive campaigns in the United States and elsewhere, but seem to persist. Sexual mores have changed dramatically, but in the opposite direction from that advocated by the campaigns. More and more repressive criminalization of drugs has served to fill the jails, but makes no visible dent in drug abuse rates (as shown by the lack of difference between repressive and tolerant nations). Rock’n’roll… Well, only Singapore seems to have succeeded in enforcing strict controls on all three.
Only very rarely can a major moral point begin as a tiny minority view, stay that way for years, and eventually take over. The most spectacular example in history is the sudden shift away from slavery in the early 19th century. The idea that slavery was bad—absolutely morally wrong to the point of requiring abolition—seems not to have existed anywhere in the world until the Quakers and a few other religious figures so concluded in the 18th century. They began to convince many others after the revolutions of the 1770s and 1780s. By the 1820s England had abolished slavery, and the rest of the world followed over the next 60 years. Slavery survives today in many areas, but at least it is illegal and condemned everywhere, however lax enforcement is in many countries. Similar campaigns against war, genocide, environmental destruction, corruption, and other evils have not advanced significantly over the decades; indeed, the ancients did as well with these problems as we do.
A quite different thing is the effect of power on morals. Lord Acton’s Law holds that “all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Maybe, but more certain is that power—especially the bureaucratic sort—makes people more rule-based and less outcome-based in their thinking (Lammers and Stapel 2009). We all know people who were reasonable, flexible and accommodating until they got some authority within an organization, and then turned more and more to following the letter of the law. This makes sense, may even be necessary, but it has a huge effect on public morality.
Politics and Norms
A factor in change and stability is the solidarity of conservatives. Definitions of “conservative” normally include, in fact center on, the conservatives’ loyalty to their group, its hierarchy, and its mystical central ideas. Conservatives stand shoulder to shoulder in defense of religious dogma, national symbols, political ideals, and other abstractions. They normally define themselves through defense of these against all comers, and they thus define themselves further by militance and often by armed violence. There is a range from moderate, sensible, loyal folk to the reactionary fanatics who become suicide bombers in the defense of a faith they often do not understand.
Liberals, by contrast, are usually defined in terms of individualism. They are critics, individualists, rebels, or people motivated by rational self-interest. (Libertarians have recently sorted with conservatives, but should really be liberals, being the heirs of the 19th-century “liberal” political economists; the reasons they are not “liberal” today are historical and contingent.)
Conservatism often takes a negative view of humanity. It is, classically, a position for those who think people are innately selfish, greedy, violent, or foolish, and have to be restrained by law. Pervasive fear comes from, and leads to, this idea of people as basically bad. However, many conservatives—especially religious ones—strongly disagree. Religious conservatives with the courage of their convictions see humans as divinely created and protected, made in the image of God, and thus innately good, or at least having good potential. Conversely, liberalism is supposedly more optimistic about people and about caring, but a surprising number of liberals are cynical, assuming rational self-interest of the narrowest form.
Caring goes with an assumption that people are basically good, or at least worth caring for. Thus optimistic liberals and religious conservatives are more apt to care than the pessimists on both sides. On the other hand, pessimists are often frustrated idealists, and these sometimes have very high standards for caring.
This simple opposition of “people are good” and “people are bad” predicts some of political theory. Those who believe people are bad, from Hobbes to Stalin to Han Feizi, agree that the only sensible form of government is tyranny: the baddest dude rules the rest through terror. They may differ on how this is achieved and maintained—from Hobbes’ contract by the ruled, and thus (at least implicitly) consent of the governed, to Stalin’s outright terror. But they agree on the basics.
Those who think people are not so bad run a range. At one extreme is Pyotr Kropotkin’s dream that people are so good that they need no government at all. This is, in some ways, simply a restatement of Jesus’ mission; Jesus hoped that people could so live in love that they would form a communal society where each would help all for sweet love’s sake. (Ironically, the Christian churches and their kept rulers have been among the most viciously amoral bloodshedders in human history—just like the militant atheists such as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pol; dogmatic religion is the same whether belief in God or denial of God is the axiom.) Anarchist regimes, when they have briefly succeeded, have been no better than the rest. The undeniable success of small-scale societies without formal government is a function of their face-to-face social reality, not of the innate overall goodness Kropotkin dreamed.
Another vision of the good came from humanistic psychology in the mid-20th century. We were to be saved by ending sexual repression, being open with one another, and “sharing and caring.” The resounding failure of even the mildest forms of this vision have been extremely sobering. It had essentially no success, though it was part of the grounding of political thought in the United States and several European countries in the tragicomic 1960s.
Visions of people as less altruistic but as at least concerned with their own self-interest may be considered on the “good” side, since they hold that people are at least rational and sensible. Except for the narrowly economistic ones, these views have a better track record than the extremist views. So far, the nearest to a successful political view—in the sense of a popular, widely-shared set of understandings, not a coherent political philosophy—is the broadly Enlightenent-based consensus of the “free world” in the 20th century. This is based on freedom (notably of speech and of conscience), mutual support, representative democracy, and parliamentary or presidential systems of government. Several variants of this have worked very well, and changes from the basic Enlightenment model have led to rapid and dramatic social decline. The farther from the model the states fell, the more they declined. Notable examples of this process include Nazi Germany, the USSR, and the post-2000 United States.
The basic Enlightenment model takes humans as equal—if not totally equal, at least equal enough in their natural capacities to deserve equality before the law. This obviously has to be qualified for children and the mentally incompetent, and has been qualified much more in usual practice.
Enlightenment philosophers saw humans as naturally wanting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (earlier, Lockean versions of that trio had “the pursuit of property”). In short, people are dominated not only by a need for self-preservation but also by love of liberty and rational desire for happiness, material wealth, or “utility.” The importance and basicness of liberty as a human psychological need is widely asserted in post-Enlightenment discourse, from Paine and Jefferson through Kant and Mill to modern civil libertarians. “Liberty” meant to them not “license to do anything you want” but “freedom to do what you want as long as it doesn’t interfere excessively with others doing what they want.” It is a political construction of the human need to control one’s life.
Freedom is supposedly desired not just as an instrumental matter (freedom solely in the sense of freedom to go after what one wants) but as a basic desired good in itself. This remains a highly contentious assumption. Genuine libertarians are few. The ease and casualness with which westerners give up freedom is sobering. Most of Europe cheerfully ditched freedom for the promises of fascism in the early 20th century or communism in the later, and the United States has seen majorities opposed to the most basic and minimal civil liberties in the McCarthy and G. W. Bush eras. Many other nations too have, at one time or another, given up all civil rights for even the shakiest and most dubious promise of “security,” or in exchange for state repression or extermination of unpopular minorities. However, the need for freedom soon resurfaces. European societies that experimented with abnegating it did not do well. More recently, Asian and African societies that turn totalitarian have done even worse. Their economies and societies declined and crashed (or, in some cases, such as China, are clearly about to do so). Freedom seems to work as an instrumental good, even when devalued as an ultimate good.
Political Philosophy: Hierarchies; Leaders
However, humans seem to have a fondness for social hierarchies. This perception animates bureaucracies and Hobbesian tyrannies, but the political philosophy that has done most with this is a much more hopeful one: Confucianism. (Confucianism was originally a political philosophy, not a religion or general world-view.) Confucianism builds from the natural hierarchic order of the family, in which older protect and rear younger members, and younger naturally defer to older.
Confucianism structures this in a way unacceptable to most modern westerners: superiors can be condign, subordinates have few rights, and women are emphatically below men. However, Confucianism lays out strict guidelines for the morality of the system: no tyranny, no brutality, no bullying; mutual aid and respect throughout. These rules are often broken, but at least people know the rules are there. Rulebreakers get considerable negative sanction.
Confucianism explicitly assumes that humans want harmonious social relations more than anything else—certainly more than material possessions. Rational pursuit of material interests is recognized in Confucianism as a human trait, but is regarded as a low one—ranging from a necessary but lower urge to a downright unqualified evil, depending on which Confucian philosopher one is reading. Social harmony—interpersonal goodness, mutual support, warmth, trust, and caring—is not only considered far higher in value, but also far deeper in psychological grounding. The highest ideal is ren, “humanity” or “humaneness.” Originally this was simply the word for a human being, liberated to stand for the basic human moral qualities. It was later qualified, in writing, but adding the character for “two.” It is the way two humans should act toward each other.
Confucian societies advocate liberty to varying degrees. Mencius, the greatest Confucian philosopher, championed some freedoms that might shock a western Enlightenment figure. For instance, he insisted on the right of the people to rebel against and throw out an unjust ruler. From Confucius through Mencius and onward, Confucians have advocated de facto freedom of religion, though sometimes insisting that the people pay at least lip service to imperial cults. China had its religious repressions—largely under not-very-Confucian rulers—but they never approached the insane religious wars of the west.
Also, Confucianism insists strongly on the duty of superiors to care for and listen to subordinates. Still, Confucian societies are not free in the western Enlightenment sense. They tend to be one-party states (if not outright imperial regimes) and they typically censor the press and other media.
Like the Enlightenment-based western societies, the Confucian-based eastern ones do very well indeed in the modern world. Compared to modern societies of Europe and North America, women and subordinates in Confucian realms are relatively less well off, but not always much worse off; certainly not as badly off as women in many “Christian” parts of the west.
Other political philosophies have taken the hierarchy-basic, society-basic view. The dominant political forms of Islam in the early middle ages were of this sort. The great legal schools of Sunni are particularly striking in this regard. They are now largely in abeyance, having been replaced either by European-influenced systems or by viciously repressive pseudo-Islamic systems miscalled “fundamentalist” by westerners, but they worked very well for centuries.
So running with the human tendency toward hierarchy and control, but trying to structure it for good rather than for ill, seems to be a workable strategy. Indeed, it has generally been brought back into Enlightenment-derived regimes, most of which have de facto hierarchies that are often difficult to square with ideals of equality. The United States today exemplifies a problem: de facto hierarchy and lack of equality before the law (or anywhere else) combined with a rhetoric of equality that allows the rich and powerful to dodge any sense of responsibility or accountability. If a multibillionaire who owns a stateful of legislators is really just an ordinary guy doing his job in a free society, he owes nothing to his neighbors or to the system. Even if he inherited every cent of his wealth and every link of his power, he may say that other people would be where he is if they weren’t lazy; their subordinate status is their own fault, and no concern of his. This would not be a believable—let alone a morally tolerable—position in a Confucian or traditional-Islamic society.
People who emerge as “natural leaders” are an interesting subset of humanity. They can be good or evil; Lincoln and Hitler were about equally successful. Saints and demons seem equally well represented in church leadership over the ages. What unites them is a set of personal characteristics: apparent self-confidence (not always genuine), good networking and social skills, empathy, “instinctive” ability to organize, and some form of personal charm or charisma. The good ones are generally warm, even-tempered, and generous. The bad tend to be experts at uniting people against a common enemy, especially a weaker scapegoat. Some are con men, who perfect an exaggerated show of warmth, confidence, positive regard, and suavity; the success of this tactic speaks well for human goodness, but not so well for human ability to detect phoniness. Humans are famously good at “cheater detection,” but a dedicated con man can fool many or most.
Politics and Change
Cultures change. The French and English did their best for centuries to exterminate each other, but now have been at peace since Napoleon’s fall. The incredibly savage Norsemen became the peaceful, welfare-statist Scandinavians. The violent Native American groups of the Upper Amazon were mercifully talked down by missionaries, though sporadic violence persists.
Chinese, Near Eastern, and many other dynasties rose and fell with almost clock-like regularity. A strong conqueror would institute a regime that would grow gradually more corrupt and bureaucratized, and tax more and more highly an increasingly dense and impoverished populace. Finally the people would rebel, and the cycle would start again (Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005; Ibn Khaldun 1957). People in power would pile their blocks of domination higher and higher till the tower fell of its own weight, and everything lay scattered and equal again.
A critical tilt-point in past societies has been the point at which massive sectors of the population had all their social concerns vested in local systems rather than in the empire or nation. Barbarians may have brought down the Roman Empire (Heather 2006), but it was torn already by rivalries, and had broken into two from internal strains long before the barbarians could really prevail. The Chinese dynasties almost all collapsed because bandits and warlords got more and more out of control; this in turn was because the national government simply did not seem to be delivering adequate peace, security, and economic management. America’s own brush with collapse in 1861-65 had similar roots: the country could not survive “half slave, half free,” and the slave half considered its local system worth rebelling for. At present, for about half the United States, fundamentalist religion and giant-corporation greed have more appeal than national unity or even national survival. The survival of the country is not assured.
Bosses’ salaries in the 1940s and 1950s were about 10 times those of their workers. Today we no longer have “bosses,” but “CEO’s,” and their salaries in the US average about 400 times their workers’ salaries. In the infamous oil industry, the average CEO makes over 500 times as much as the average worker.
Concentration of wealth and power tends to lead to worse conflicts. For many reasons, such concentration tends to get worse over time in any society, leading eventually to collapse of the system (Ibn Khaldun 1957; see Anderson and Chase-Dunn 2005). The direct cause of collapse may be rebellion or invasion, but such attacks succeed only when the system under attack is weak; in large, hierarchic states, such weakness comes from internal stress caused by widening gaps between powerful and powerless. Even a simple rise in population forces more social control and fine-tuning, leading to more and more problems with power. Such regimes corrupt every aspect of society, even language. The language of freedom, for example, changes (Lakoff 2006): in the United States, “freedom” once meant individual opportunity to act on one’s conscience and in one’s self-interest. Now–at least in political rhetoric—it frequently means the freedom of the strong to do what they want to the weak.
Constant jockeying over power and control, even more than economic and military issues, makes societies change with incredible speed. The rise of Germany and Italy in the 19th century, the creation and collapse of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in the 20th, and the enormous moral and lifestyle changes in the United States and elsewhere in the late 20th are recent examples of a pattern that has gone on since time began. Longer and slower changes (Braudel’s longue durée) take their own course, rather independent of such sudden rises and collapses.
Politics and Society
Attempts to fix the political mess by fixing individuals are hopelessly doomed. They are unrealistic; people are social animals. Also, the “emergent” nature of social life means that aggregating individual wills cannot produce a social system. People are too variable. “Saving the world one person at a time” is not only too slow (with seven billion people and counting), it neglects the need to integrate all those personal fixes into a single viable social system. Each individual differs so much that if she “follows her bliss” or even “acts so that her every action could be universal law,” the world would be total chaos. Do I really want it to be a universal law that everybody spends the day thinking and writing about political theory? Or would I rather do it myself, while other people raise food, make wine, keep the power grid going, and develop new software?
Arts also fail. As the inimitable Terry Gross commented on NPR when she learned that Stalin loved classical music and had quite good taste in it, “so much for the ennobling power of the arts.” Individual spirituality and mysticism fail; they may, and often do, profoundly transform individuals for the better, but they cannot create a political system or even inform one. People’s spiritualities are too different.
Individual transformation is neceessary in politics, and certainly in environmental politics, but it cannot be the whole story. There has to be an institutional framework that can mobilize people, coordinate them, and get their individual transformations synchronized enough to have some social effect. Human conformity is such that once there is a moral center to emulate, most will emulate it; but without some institutionalization of that center, no coordination can be expected.
What matters in politics, as Aristotle saw 2400 years ago, is creating a system.. Above face-to-face level, this can only be an organized polity (a state or at least a chiefdom) or a religion. While religion has a far better record at creating and teaching good morality, organized religion—recall, here, that I include militantly atheistic religions like Stalinism and Maoism—has a notoriously appalling record at governing.
A key requirement here is setting up institutions that create a game in which people compete at being good. Aristotle’s Athens was drifting away from that ideal—the old order in which the citizens (alas, only about 1/10 of the people) had to serve, and had to stand for election, in a city that valued performance. Shabby performers won often enough to give us the word “demagogue.” Still, Athenian democracy not only brought reasonably competent people to the fore, but also—more importantly—forced even the mediocre to do better. By contrast, what Aristotle called a tyranny has all the rewards in the other direction; a tyrant does better the more bloody, cruel, merciless, and intimidating he is.
So competition needs to be structured such that evil people are forced to be reasonably good. This may be called the “Nixon paradox,” from the success of the virtually sociopathic Richard Nixon at winding down the Vietnam war, recognizing China, and signing most of the major environmental-protection legislation of the last 70 years. (It was on his watch that the Clean Air Bill, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act became law.) No one has succeeded to find the perfect formula for this, but most now agree with Aristotle that democracy is a necessary precondition. Accountability and transparency are also necessary.
America’s Founding Fathers were acutely aware of this, and devoted much attention to figuring out how to tweak institutions accordingly. They succeeded reasonably well; the current drift toward sadistic dictatorship in the United States has come about only through continued open defiance of the Constitution.
Marx made more explicit another teaching the Founding Fathers knew: developing such institutions is best done through working together in a revolution. Revolutions are, however, dangerously bloody today, when any serious fighting escalates into horrific bombing and potentially even nuclear war. Moreover, in environmental politics, revolutions are neither conceivable (people simply don’t care enough) nor desirable, since violence on any large scale is the worst environmental destroyer of them all. We will have to work to transform or propagate existing institutions. This involves working together long enough and hard enough to develop a core of people who have been able to synchronize their ideas and practices.
Some specific political ideas have worked particularly well, and without revolutions, at that. Among these are civil and human rights; all measures for maintaining equality of opportunity; public education; and democratic management of renewable resources. Public aesthetics have worked surprisingly well; we forget how important art museums, parks, and similar amenities are to society. Labor unions have successfully won protection for workers in most advanced societies.
Creaky and inefficient, but at least functional, are most mail services, road networks, ports, and the medical care systems of virtually every government except that of the United States (and even the US has a functioning system for military veterans).
Conversely, in a world where competition is amoral and destructive, good people are forced to do evil. One can easily think of all too many examples without looking hard. At best, good people simply escape the game. Classically, they go off to the mountains to become monks and hermits and mystics. Today, they merely retire into a private lifestyle.
Bureaucrats in Power
Bureaucrats and middle-managers live in a world where almost all their job is dealing with personal conflicts and social problems rather than substantive issues. They are usually more involved with soothing tempers and resolving staff fights than with saving the environment or reducing pollution. Often, they do nothing but “manage” these micro-social ills. This creates a mind-set in which nothing but trivial slights, disrespect, whining, and pettiness matter. It is indeed a heroic or saintly person that can stand this for long without either leaving the job or joining in the pettiness.
Every society has to cope with the distribution of tasks and risks in the group (Durkheim 1933; Elster 1993). Every society has to hold itself together. Powers-that-be inevitably take advantage of these issues. The ordinary people in any group feel a need to conform, if only to ensure social acceptance. Anyone in control of the media can manipulate beliefs and attitudes accordingly. There always comes a point, however, at which people refuse to take the line any more. It would be wonderful if we social scientists could predict that point. Unfortunately, it remains the most profoundly mysterious of all social facts.
Key here is realizing that there are two kinds of hierarchies, or at least two ends of a continuum. Some hierarchies are designed to do a job that requires centralized decision-making. Such hierarchies exist in well-run companies and even armies. Other hierarchies exist only to keep some people on top and others down. The autocratic Old Regimes of Europe and Asia were typical. In these hierarchies, power serves no one’s interest except the elites’, and the elites therefore must use brutality and treachery to keep the system going. (The government does provide security, but only against other equally evil rival governments.) Companies constantly harm themselves by mixing the two; all textbooks and how-to books agree that a well-run company will nurture employees and see the whole firm as a mutually-supportive partnership, but a vast number of companies and organizations suffer or fail because the bosses think otherwise. Typically, they feel that they could not maintain power without terrorizing the workers. This is sometimes correct, but only when the bosses in question have little else to offer.
The patriarchal family is a similar case, and no doubt the original one, the model for the others. (How many languages use “elder”—signior, seigneur, and so on—to mean “lord”?) In a well-run family, adults have power and children have less, but the family maximizes everyone’s benefits. In too many families (especially, perhaps, today, in spite of local successes of women’s movements), patriarchal authority feeds on itself, and women and children suffer. Puritanical religion grows from this, and more generally an ideology in which sin and immorality must be controlled by brutal repression of the weak. “Structural violence”—devastation of peoples’ lives simply by the operation of a hierarchic system, with its laws and bureaucracies—is an ultimate result.
Also, hierarchies with definite, stable lines of power act differently from rat-fights in which people try to claw their way to the top. The former may become almost beneficial, with reliable patron-client relationships based on mutual expectations. The latter are always destructive. Obviously, they minimize feelings of control of life. No one on the bottom of a rat-fight hierarchy can feel safe or secure. Inevitably, the vast majority of people in such a social system are on the bottom, or near it. Slavery, too, is hierarchy gone mad; it corrupts owners as well as slaves, as de Tocqueville pointed out long ago (Elster 1993; de Tocqueville was probably depending, indirectly, on such accounts as Stedman 1988 [orig. 18th C], which makes the point from personal observation).
The heads of “bad” hierarchies are not free from insecurity; quite the reverse. “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown,” as Shakespeare knew, and the current leadership of the United States is even less well rested than Shakespeare’s kings.
One might expect the “good” hierarchies to flourish in upbeat times, the “bad” periods of decline. This may be true; no one seems to have studied it. If this is indeed the case, a downbound time becomes self-feeding. As things get worse, people lose hope, get scared, and fall more and more into power hierarchies.
More clear is the relationship of “bad” hierarchies to regions of chronic violence, especially zones that have long been on the borders of great civilizations. Much of the Middle East falls into this category. Obviously, chronic violence over centuries is going to produce a need for permanent organization for defense. Able-bodied males simply have to run life with a strong hand. Also, paranoia becomes a fact of life.
Obviously, the more confusing the goals of the organization are, the easier it is for this to happen. First, without clear and simple goals, evaluation is more difficult. Second, the more different things the organization does, the more need there is for administrators who simply coordinate and people-work—i.e., who simply “administer.” This is one of the causes of the nightmarish managerial revolution that has crippled (and sometimes nearly destroyed) many areas of enterprise in recent decades.
Since ancient Greece, almost every commentator on politics has recognized that top-down systems of this sort crush enterprise and progress. They do it partly by open repression, but more by keeping labor docile. This makes exploitation pay better than development. (“Exploitation” here means coercively redistributing a fixed or declining social product from workers to bosses; “development” means increasing social product per capita. Exploitation is a negative-sum game, development positive-sum.) Egalitarian systems, by contrast, tend to maximize individual feelings of self-efficacy, and to allow workers to unite to better their condition. This makes labor more expensive, forcing the bosses to use higher technology—substituting expensive progress for even more expensive workers. The high technology, in turn, creates a demand for innovation, and displaced workers find jobs developing even higher tech. Theoretically, this can go on indefinitely. It does necessarily not lead to a resource crunch, since higher technology can be made more efficient than lower.
In a well-run voluntary organization, the system goals are clear enough, and good enough, that people can be evaluated by how much they foster those, rather than by what “good administrators” they are. Recourse and peer review are substantial and immediate, and measurable standards exist. Every administration textbook says this, as well as describing the necessity of full transparency for it, but the problems of implementing it are such that few organizations even approximate the ideal.
This exercise in political theory is adequate to send two messages.
First, basic assumptions about human nature are the foundations of political theory. A political system is only as good as its human science.
Second, assumptions that work are those that give pride of place to human social needs, especially desire for social harmony and social order, but also for freedom and opportunity. Systems based on assumptions that people are generically good or bad fail dismally.
One may suggest that the serious need in politics today is to look much more seriously at basic human nature.
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