What is power? pt. 2: power and political hope

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This is a meditation on power and political hope, on the idea that the struggle for power seems to favor those who focus their lives upon the attainment of power (rather than, say, the enjoyment of life), and of what hope to place (and in what) in a world in which this is true.

(crossposted at Big Orange)

Many people I know (incl. a few diarists over on DailyKos.com) have given up political hope.

Oh, they probably have short-term personal hopes — as in, they hope to go on vacation soon, or they hope to receive something in the mail tomorrow.  But as for the long-term success of the human species?  Either it’s hard to say, or forget it — not there.

And then there’s the denial factor — the problem of unproductive thinking which plagues the progressive community.  That will stifle political hope for you.  It is doubtless commonly believed that abrupt climate change is unimportant, or it won’t happen in our lifetimes, or that a “cap-and-trade” system will do anything about it besides generate more business for the financial sector while the bureaucrats look for more excuses to print up “carbon credits” and while the oil keeps flowing from the wells and the mountaintops disappear.  Yeah, abrupt climate change will eventually cause massive famine and leave our civilization in ruins — but whaddaya gonna do, deny the coal lobbyists their due?  

By this same thinking, we have the common paradox of the neurotic. Malignant US government, malignant corporate business: don’t worry about them, they’ll just go away by themselves.  Hah.  Single-payer health system?  Maybe if we make a lot of phone calls this will somehow get around the fact that the politicians are not going to jettison their major contributors in the health “coverage” industry.  Of course we haven’t thought ahead, to the point where we can actually out-lobby the health “coverage” industry.  Those folks, the good captains of CIGNA and Blue Cross and Kaiser and so on, they make money off of us faster than we can make money for ourselves, and so they grow more powerful by the day.  (This will be even more true once “mandates” are in place, folks.)  Let’s go off and consume something, and forget about politics for the now, so that we don’t have to reflect upon how doomed we really are.

There’s probably also a “vague idealism” factor at work here too.  Our political hopes are tied up in vague idealisms like “freedom,” “justice,” “change we can believe in,” and so on, as these become the catch-phrases of politicians who exploit them (and us) to promote their own agendas.  Forget them all.  We are far better off asking our politicians for power.  Power, as Machiavelli noted so long ago, is the whole point of politics.

(In this light, much of what happens over on Big Orange appears to me as a sort of pleading before the Emperor — sending lots of letters saying “oh please Mr./Ms. Politician, ignore the vested interests which say otherwise and who pay your campaign expenses for you, and please pass my bill.”  Feh!)


Much of the failure of hope evident in our thoughts has to do with the realities of power in the world today.  One recalls the George Orwell slogan: “History is written by the winners.”  The powerful of our world appear to have spent their lives focused upon the attainment (or upon the holding) of power, and so humanity separates out into two classes: the powerful, and the powerless.  Competition for power holds the formation in place.  The powerful know that if they were to stop competing, they would slip into the class of the powerless, and so the competition drags onward.

So what is power?  Liberal political theory focuses upon state power, while granting roles to the knowledge-power of experts, the financial power of interest groups, and the democratic power of public opinion.  Most of these forces, as Murray Edelman points out, have been put into the service of public-relations spectacle, whereby the masses are often roused to support bad forms of politics.  Thus the victories of Reagan, the two Bushes, and the Contract With America.  Did we win any of those?

On the other hand, neo-Gramscian international political economy, a discipline within international relations, focuses upon power in the form of institutional control — though in this regard neo-Gramscian international political economy is a critique of capitalism.  “Power,” for the neo-Gramscians, is control over production, and this accrues to the owners of the means of production, the owning class.  As for the other forms of power cited by liberal political theory, neo-Gramscian international political economy looks at them through the concept of “hegemony,” in which cultural practices contribute to a society in which some people rule while others are merely ruled.  

(As a footnote, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was the Italian theorist after whom “neo-Gramscian international political economy” is named — Gramsci’s thought can in some senses be read as coming out of another failure of the Left — the failure of the Italian Left to stop Mussolini’s dictatorship in the 1920s.  So in that sense Gramsci might be useful to us — for his failures parallel ours.  Gramsci is also the intellectual progeny of Machiavelli, whom I cited above — if you’d like to explore the connection between the two, please check out Chapter 9 of Kees van der Pijl’s A Survey of Global Political Economy.  The important part of van der Pijl’s argument is that both Gramsci and Machiavelli recognized that power, in one form or another, is what we have to want if we are to have success at politics.  So are we clear on that?)


Enough of theory.  (Well, actually theory will come back into the discussion; but enough for now.)  Let’s cut to the chase here.  So why are these powerful people ignoring us, for what it seems indefinitely?  We have the truth, ya know.  What we don’t have, of course, is control over the process whereby we might attain power.  If we had that we wouldn’t have had to endure eight years of Bush.  Obama, by this measure, appears to have been tainted by the whole process: he controls the most powerful office in the land, yet he can’t seem to stop the force-feeding of detainees that was begun under Bush, nor a number of other despicable practices.  The progressives attempted for eight years to reestablish the “rule of law” over the Bush regime — Bush has come and gone and they still haven’t done it.  Why?  Law is not power.  Or, more properly, law really has no power over people outside of the belief that “if I don’t follow the law then I will be busted.”  Just because an action is unconstitutional doesn’t mean your President won’t do it.  (For the record, I would imagine that torture would be outlawed by the 8th amendment: torture is not torture if it isn’t covered by the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”)

Antonio Gramsci had a term, “the war of position,” to describe the culture war that it would be necessary to win before the Left could really take hold of government.  It should be clear at this point that mere victory for the Democratic Party over the Republican Party does not count as much of a victory for progressive ideas, and thus the war of position still needs to be won.  Just electing your favorite leaders might get rid of the bad ones (i.e. Obama for Bush), but it won’t make your victory meaningful; you still need to get government to do something for your ideas for change if we are going to get any sort of “change we can believe in.”  And even once you do that, you’ll still have what Gramsci called a “war of movement” on your hands — you’ll still have to take control over government.  (C’mon folks — is Max Baucus really our “friend”?)

My point is that taking power is not easy.  So let’s talk specifics.  What would it take?

Within a capitalist system, power is concentrated in pyramids of wealth and of access to wealth.  Wealth comes in a fluid form, money (and/or credit), designed for exchange, and a solid form, property.  The two forms interact to grant the rich lots of power.  The way you get a world of 794 billionaires and a bottom half of humanity living on less than $2.50/day is with a system in which the rich continually earn more while the majority of people are just surviving.  (And please note that this IS a struggle for power: nobody would need to be a billionaire if there were no struggle for power going on.)

So, assuming such a system, there are two ways in which we can try to attain some degree of power:

1) amass huge sums of wealth — we could then “buy access” to politicians, outspending the insurance company lobbyists, and get some decent health care legislation passed, we could outspend the coal industry and get some serious climate change legislation passed, and so on.

2) try to organize some sort of countervailing force to the moneyed powers, relying less upon money than they do, and more upon the force of public opinion, or upon other forms of power than money.

These are not mutually exclusive, and certainly hybrid strategies are possible.  Of course, we should also look at a third option, which is also not exclusive of the others:

3) Attempt to reduce to zero the ways in which we are accessories to the power of those whom we struggle against.

Now, as for DailyKos.com, most of the people here appear to be looking more for the form of power described in 2), and less of 1), although in election run-ups they might be involved in 1), in the form of donations to political candidates.  

So this points out a concern about 1) — we might amass wealth in terms of investing in candidates, yet not know what the candidates will do when in office — just as we might invest our own money in corporations which then do not do what we had hoped for in terms of corporate policy.  Politicians, by and large, must maintain the neoliberal state — corporations must pursue profit for stockholders.  Power, in short, has a direction.  We might be “empowered,” but we are “empowered” by each specific form of power to do certain things, and not others.  By the time we became “empowered” with a lot of wealth, we’d probably be “sold out” as well, and we’d be little more than representatives of the super-rich.

Power-attainment by method number 2) seems to have its faults as well — if we can organize public opinion such that practically everyone wants a “single payer” option in health care, this won’t change the political status quo in Washington DC, at least not all by itself.  Perhaps the advocates of “single payer,” as such, would best benefit from a reading of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals — to find some way of exploiting the insecurities of Max Baucus et al. to force them to give us the “public option” (or whatever the compromise is now called) that we want.  So far, I haven’t seen it happen.

But I would press readers here to consider other forms of power than the power of public opinion in terms of their search for empowerment.  Here I would press readers to look at the late Elizabeth Janeway’s book Powers of the Weak.  Primary among the powers of the weak, Janeway would have argued, is the power to disbelieve in the schematic of power imposed upon one by the powerful.  This power runs by several names: knowledge, “thinking outside the box,” creative expression, dissent, resistance, direct action.  Much of this power is the power Noam Chomsky wants you to have, as expressed in his political writings.  If you know that your government is unjust, you will be empowered to disbelieve its propaganda, whereas if you believe that your government is just, you will not be empowered to question its actions.  There is one obvious vehicle for this form of power — education.  Get educated.

Related to this alternative view of power, power as disbelief, is the power categorized above in 3) — the power to divorce.  This is the sort of power which the protesters in Iran attempt to exercise through their efforts at generating a general strike.  We also underestimate this form of power at our peril.  If we are being screwed because the Federal government has left future generations with a $11.4 trillion dollar national debt, and has compounded matters with $12.8 trillion in pledges to banks, while the rest of us are short of money, well maybe it’s time for us to start looking for ways of minimizing our commitment to the money system altogether.  We could look for barter relationships to sustain ourselves, or go back to subsistence farming in the countryside.  If there is no guarantee of job security in our society, maybe it is time we started creating a new society for ourselves in which there is a guarantee of job security.  If you really want political hope, you have to think big.

I rather doubt, however, that these forms of power will satisfy many of the readers here.  There will doubtless be one group of readers who wants power OVER government.  Such readers would like to see progress toward some sort or other of progressive utopia, in which everyone’s basic needs are satisfied through government intervention of one sort or another, if not by the government itself.  (Most of our Presidential candidates promised us some form or other of this utopia last year.)  Here I want to ask you this question, above all: how attainable is your progressive utopia within the existing political and economic system?

Historians of capitalism suggest that we are now in a phase of capitalist development called “neoliberalism,” in which, now more than ever, the rich get richer and the poor have babies.  Do you have the economic expertise to explain to us how we are to get the economic elites to jettison neoliberalism and adopt some other form of capitalist development, and do you have the power to make it so?  I’m pretty sure the answer to both of those questions is “no,” so maybe you should go back and look at the forms of power which you do in fact have, and see what sort of political hope is possible with them.  You would probably be better off advocating some form of post-capitalism, in which the power to re-create society rested with ordinary people.


  1. pfiore8:


    is an idea or concept i don’t like.

    it’s like we need permission or somebody has to give us this thing.

    i believe we all have power and the best anyone else can do is help us find a way to unleash it.

    but nobody is giving it to me. and that’s why we made this mistake in 2008, voting dems in . . . because we thought they would empower us and our causes. when they didn’t, it left us still tied to the idea of them as the source of our power, our ability to change things. but they aren’t our power source. funny, we are theirs. none of those billionaires, in fact, would have all that money without exploiting us as resources.

    anyway, putting it all in for dems it was a costly mistake. we can’t afford the corporatists to remain in control.


    We have power, pfiore8, but…

    power to do what?

    The only reason we would need more power than what we’ve got, then, is power to beat back the predators and parasites whose main interest is having us do their bidding.

    Quoth I:

    But also, critically, …

    … “power granted by someone else” is not power, its mere influence. Power is won. “Empowerment” refers more to the process of releasing the self-imposed constraints that prevent us from using all means at our disposal to gain power.


    the “em”

    means putting something in.

    for me, it’s the wrong word.

    unleashing power within works for me.

    Quoth I:

    That’s a lovely New Age kind of thought …

    … but the reality is that without the organization, we cannot create the basis for power. Either we empower each other or we remain powerless.


    how do we “em”power each other?

    when we help the  bad guys by making them seem so overwhelming.

    cass writes about loss of political hope. i’m not surprised. because we keep waiting for empowerment. of gay marriage, for example. or health care. or accountability. the environment.

    we keep waiting for that “em” and we thought we voted for those who would ’em’ us. yet …………………

    i wouldn’t count on somebody else to empower me. i got it. i’m looking to hook it up with those who have some kind of plan, some way to use it effectively, PEACEFULLY, and pull off some other kind of coup. against the machine, the man, the more and better democrat meme.

    To which there were two replies …

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