Tuesday, May 31, 2011

“Spring Time” Notes on Power

The negative view of power seems to be: people who seek it wish selfishly to benefit themselves. The positive view: people who seek wish unselfishly to benefit others. Generalizations of this sort arise in sophisticated times when power has been institutionalized. But since such simplifications are misleading, sometimes we need to get back to basics. When people suddenly erupt, it’s not some sort of democratic impulse that moves them. Something much more basic is involved.

If we look for the genesis of power, we’ll find it in disorder. This may be “natural disorder” arising from natural events or disorder arising from “conflict.” I’m struck by the fact that the earliest Biblical rulers are Judges, that in what we call primitive societies those exercising power are the Elders. The situation of one ruling over many arises when such rule is efficient and necessary—efficient in responding as one to general chaos. The other arises when parties are in conflict and, to resolve it without bloodshed, it is necessary to look to some third party—not because that party seeks to rule but because it has the character of authority: it is older, wiser, more experienced, more skilled—and this by general consensus of the many.

It is rarely labeled that, but use of excessive power by one person or a group is itself a kind of disorder. Such generally is the case in the situations that have produced the so-called Arab Spring. The very notion that underlies our own constitution is the recognition that the exercise of power is supposed to be occasional—when disorders or conflicts arise. Therefore, in principle, power should be limited and hedged around.

The organizing, enabling role of the oldest—among siblings, for example, among children generally—holds within it the fundamental rules. The oldest will stop useless conflicts; the cleverest will devise the games everybody wants to play. We call the problem of excessive exercise of power in this context the bully. And if the childish society is a healthy and natural one, the bully will be brought under control. When the oldest intervenes, he or she isn’t acting narcissistically. He or she is doing what needs doing. If the scale of things is right, everything works out quite smoothly—although there may be a lot of shouting.

Now it strikes me that in this context top down rule is the natural form. Those more complete generally organize the less complete, those more skilled the less, and so on. Such individuals will be spontaneously seen to have more natural right to do this. Thus elders, judges, and military leaders (who’ve gained authority elsewhere, as it were) are natural—provided, always, that the scale is right. Those governed should be able to see their “betters,” to use a hoary phrase. If they can, they will find the outcomes natural and fitting. In contrast to this, democracy as practiced today is clearly a degeneration.

It is, first of all, based on a false generalization—equality. We may be equal before the law and in the eyes of God; we all have immortal souls. In all other regards, however, we’re observably unequal in gifts, capacities, energies, etc. If the scale were right we would, of course, quite naturally grant the rule to our natural leaders. I’ve seen this amply demonstrated at the local level, where it still works—you might say despite, not because of, the democratic forms. Those challenged by local problems and voluntarily taking them on—as a first-born spontaneously takes charge of younger children when the need arises—become visible because they’re already serving. And it is then quite natural to elect them to office. And, of course, they are our neighbors. But beyond the local level, the scale is wrong. It is too great. Therefore people seek power for murky reasons, rather than, always reluctantly, accepting invitations. And in the very process of seeking it, they disqualify themselves.

Now in the Arab Spring, which is a spontaneous reaction to disorder, excessive power selfishly wielded, the urge is not to achieve democracy, which is, at modern scales, a decadent sort of thing. The Arabs are seeking proper rule. In that context elders, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood and other naturally-occurring groupings of leaders, represent a threat in the eyes of our western media.

But the irony here is that modern democracy, above all, gives power to the media. It is only the media that gives visibility to would-be leaders and is therefore the unelected but permanent source of all power—in the exercise of which it maintains its status and its income and reserves the right to show, under the constitutional right of free speech, whatever programming it pleases, even when it is obviously destructive of social order.

Theoretically, thinkably, we could of course, reform our methods of governance—but practically it is not likely to happen, not until Disorder and Conflict, with leading caps this time, eventually degrade our society sufficiently until a natural devolution takes place. In the meantime, the only rational action is to vote for those who are almost certain to fail—people like Ralph Nader and Ron Paul, for instance—who represent the natural way, sound like our elders, and are clearly running because they see the problem and not the glory or the gain.

* * *

Having written the above, I read it to Brigitte. She reached out and picked up a full-page ad. It said:

Last Wednesday, over
50 million
people watched the
finale of American Idol.
The season’s #1 show
on the #1 network.

Brigitte then said: “With news like this around, what are you doing writing blogs about power?”

To which I answered: “What do antibodies do while waiting to fight a disease? Why, they sit and wait—and, in the meanwhile, they write blog posts about disease.”


  1. I do not think of you as an anti-body biding its time; more like the Head Lama of the film "Lost Horizon"...biding time and establishing a refuge of ideas upon which to re-build the world.

    Forgot his name, though. Forgot the main character's name, too. I can remember Sam Jaffee and Ronald Coleman, however.

  2. Kind of you, Montag. Have been compared to many things before. Why, just this morning, before ordering me to the barbershop, Brigitte spoke of The Wild Man of Borneo. But Head Lama in Lost Horizon? Now that's a pleasing First!