Sunday, May 2, 2010

Personal Power and Political Power

“Money is power” is a cliché. That wealth leads to power, and vice-versa, is so well-known that an important underlying question is often missed. One finds arguments about which of the two is the more important for the commercial elite in our society – again missing that underlying question.

The important underlying question that’s often missed is this: what KIND of power? Are we discussing political power or personal power?

Political power is the ability to influence governing institutions. It’s held (obviously) by elected officials. Barack Obama, at present, has a great deal of political power. He can issue orders and have them carried out by the agencies of the U.S. government, by the United States military forces, and by the Democratic Party which he heads. He can use the persuasive power of his office to influence votes in Congress. To a lesser degree, all elected members of Congress also hold political power, as do Cabinet members and other important unelected government officials and those holding office in state and local governments, or in foreign governments throughout the world. Political power is also wielded by those who don’t hold government offices but who, through campaign contributions and lobbying, or through the ability to persuade a following among the citizens, can influence the actions of the government. Most of the time, when people speak of “power” being held or valued by the commercial elite, this is what they mean: the ability to influence government actions by means of persuasion and bribery.

If that sort of power, political power, is what we’re talking about, then I’d have to say on the whole – with a few exception – that money is more important to the commercial elite and power is only a means to the end of amassing more money. But there’s another sort of power that lies, I believe, at the heart of all desires to become mega-rich in the first place. Sometimes, for some people, it lies at the heart of a desire for political power as well. Both money and political power can be means to the end of amassing personal power: the ability to make other people, as individuals, into servants of one’s own will. Political power, in extreme or archetypal form, is exemplified by the dictator. Personal power, in extreme or archetypal form, is exemplified not by the dictator but by the slave owner.

Personal power is embodied in the powerful by a sense of superiority, and in the powerless by a sense of inferiority. Personal power lets a powerful person look at someone over whom he has power and say to himself – and, through various gestures and subtle means of communication, to his inferior as well – “I am better than you,” and makes the inferior say in the same ways, “You are better than I.” Unlike political power, it’s a very primal sort of power, with roots going back to the origins of our species. It pumps the body full of adrenaline and testosterone, or churns the guts with loathing, fear, and self-hatred.

Personal power is a man’s ability to seduce another man’s wife right in front of him, and have her be afraid to say no and him be afraid to do anything about it. Personal power allows a person to demand that others bow and scrape and show their submission. Personal power allows cruelty to others without penalty, and enables retaliation for even the most minimal slights. Personal power is what the power-hungry desire on a visceral level, and freedom from anyone having personal power over us is what we mean in our hearts by the word “liberty.”

Personal power is a face-to-face thing. Unlike political power, it isn’t impersonal power over the masses, but one-on-one power over an individual. It’s the ability of one individual to make another grovel, serve, and obey.

Government officials seldom hold personal power over ordinary citizens – we seldom interact with government officials in any direct way. They have personal power only over their employees, interns, and so on, and those who come within the purview of their immediate jurisdiction under the law.

Employers, on the other hand, always have personal power over their employees. We have laws protecting the rights of workers for that very reason, to limit the consequences of personal power. Landlords have personal power over renters, and we have laws protecting tenants’ rights for that reason. All such laws were fought tooth and nail by employers and landlords when they were proposed, partly because obeying them is often an expense, but in large part because it removes some of the payoff of personal power.

Every time an employee successfully starts a small business, or becomes self-employed, he gains freedom. The commercial elite may still have a lot more money than he does, but he is no longer dependent on any of them. No employer holds personal power over him. Every time a person buys his own home, he gains freedom. No landlord holds personal power over him.

That’s the underlying, unspoken reason why the pressure is on to keep wages suppressed in America. It’s not the only reason, of course; it’s reflexive for business owners for whom wages are a cost to be kept down, and who seldom consider the larger picture. But as long as wages are kept low, the number of people who will be able to escape from wage work and become free is limited, and so is the number of people who will be able to afford their own homes. With more and more money funneled to the very rich at the top of the ladder, they have more money to play with and gamble with, but at least as important is that the majority of the people are kept on the treadmill, where they can be controlled. Where they can be told what to do, and made to serve.

Personal power needs to be recognized and understood. We need to stop thinking “government” reflexively when we use the word “power.” Sure, government power is important and potentially dangerous. We need to make sure it is restrained by the three safety controls we put on it: separation of powers, public accountability, and explicit limits of government action such as the Bill of Rights. When these become frayed, as they have in recent years, we need to restore them.

But on a visceral level, the government is not what most people think of when they imagine freedom. They think of their boss, or their landlord, and being able to tell them to shove it. They think of being in a situation where no one can tell them what to do. The real enemy of freedom in a democracy is not the government, but rich and powerful individuals able to exercise personal power. To judge whether a government is a tyranny, a good rule of thumb is to ask to what extent it serves the interest of rich and powerful individuals – helping them to exercise personal power over others. To say that government secures and protects people’s rights is another way of saying that it protects the weak from the strong. A tyranny instead aids and abets the strong in dominating the weak.

Of course, the rich and powerful often try to confuse the issue by saying that a government interfering with their freedom to tyrannize others is a tyranny, and to them, it is – as it has to be; if it weren’t, it would be a tyranny to the rest of us. In just that way the slave owners of the antebellum South complained of the tyranny of Washington. We need have no more sympathy for our capitalist masters today than we do in hindsight for the plantation masters of yesterday.

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