The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Politics Series: Power

(Previous: Economy)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

We have seen that who gets how much of what is a political decision, that the economy and economics is downstream from politics.

Power is the ability to make people do what you want, or not do what you don’t want. Ideology determines what the good life is and power determines who lives it. All political power ultimately derives from control of people’s consciousness.

Violence seems like the exception, but it isn’t, because you must convince some group to be violent on your behalf; those are the people whose consciousness you control. No individual is truly powerful without control of other people’s consciousness, because all individual power is based on “don’t kill me while I’m asleep or knife me when my back is turned.”

Even groups that are controlled by violence usually have some level of consciousness control. It’s very hard to stop people from committing suicide rather than complying. Short of that, in the case of some Native American groups, treatment was so horrible they stopped breeding, and died out. Fear can force a lot of compliance, but even terror has its limits.

That said, using fear and violence is inefficient. It requires too much effort and supervision, and destroys initiative. Slaves, whether they recognized as such or not, do not work enthusiastically. Degrees of power over consciousness can be divided into tiers.

First Tier: People who feel they want to, ought to, or should do what those with power want. These can be quite downtrodden. In many patriarchal societies, where women had and have few rights, and have been subject to violence by their husbands and menfolk, many women believe this is right and good, that they should be controlled by men. There are good peasants, content with their places; workers who think the bosses know best, and; soldiers who volunteer and die in their millions for wars that benefit them not at all.

Herman Goering, the Nazi minister, was interviewed by Gustave Gilbert after World War II, and the exchange is worth quoting in full.

Gilbert asked Goering how it was possible to build and sustain public support for a war effort, especially in Germany, which had barely recovered from the still-recent disaster of World War I.

Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood.

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

There is one difference,” [Gilbert] said. “In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

Oh, that is all well and good,” replied Goering, “but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

This is control of consciousness, convincing people to do what you want, even though it is clearly against their self interest, and to do it willingly and enthusiastically.

Second Tier: Informal negative social consequences. Things like disapproval, shaming, scorn, minor violence, and discrimination when seeking housing and employment. This is where there is no official sanction, but some people believe so strongly in what those with power want that they make those who resist miserable.

In World War I Britain, for example, white feathers symbolizing cowardice were given to men out of uniform and women, in particular, scorned able-bodied men who were not in the military. Almost 900,000 British men died in the war, charging machine guns or from disease and other hazards, and many came back maimed. It’s hard to make a case that anything ordinary soldiers gained from the war (in any nation) was worth that.

Third Tier: Formal sanctions to make people do what those with power want. Most commonly, this includes the civil justice system, schools, and corporate discipline systems. If you don’t do what teach wants, there are consequences. If you displease your boss, likewise. If you don’t pay bills on time, you get a bad credit record and can’t rent good homes, etc. A criminal record means you will probably never have a good job again.

These consequences work on people who don’t want to what those who are in power want, but do them out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

Fourth: Violent Sanction. For those whom all the other methods of control fail, there is violence. Police, courts, and prisons. In the past, and in some countries still, beatings from teachers. Parental violent discipline also falls into this category; parents have power, and some hit children who don’t obey.

Now, power isn’t always bad. Perhaps those in power genuinely want what is good for you, and you agree and do it, and that’s wonderful. Take your medicine, see the doctor regularly, don’t drink and drive or do meth. Perhaps a little mild social disapproval makes you not bully people, or steal, or drink too much, and that’s likely a good thing, though it’s still coercive.

But ultimately, power is about someone else deciding what you do, and when it works smoothly and well, controlling your consciousness so that you want what they want, whether it’s good for you or not.

Let’s bring this back to legitimacy, to the start of our chain. We conceive of some uses of power as legitimate, and others not. If police arrest a rapist or murderer violently, we think that’s good (unless we’re right-wing religious types who think husbands can’t rape wives). If we think drugs are bad, we will think it’s okay for government to restrict access to them and hurt those who insist on using them anyway. If we think that property rights are the most important thing, we will be okay with police rousting homeless people who are reducing property values. If we believe in vaccination, we will feel coercing people who don’t want to be vaccinated is acceptable, and in fact, even good.

Coercion causes legitimacy damage to decline when a group doesn’t agree that the coercion is legitimate. If the group is relatively powerless, that may not matter much (US blacks and drug laws that discriminated against them, or Native Americans and various genocidal policies), but if they do have power or if some of those with power identify with them (and thus feel with them), this can cause great legitimacy damage.

In the Russian revolution, when the palace was surrounded and then invaded, the armed guards did not fight back; an important chunk of the enforcer class no longer felt it had the legitimacy to resist. With those taking the palace were many members of the Russian navy; for them legitimacy had switched entirely.

When the USSR and the Warsaw pact fell, the Communist leaders declined to use the Red Army to keep it together. The Red Army was certainly large enough to stop any breakup, but Communist Party legitimacy was too low to allow its use.

Coercion works when elites and enforcers are willing to use it, and not when either of the pair won’t. Coercion is thus downstream from legitimacy, and coercion by force is usually a sign that more efficient forms of power are failing to reach certain groups in society.

The exception is that coercion by force is often used on outsider groups as a way of increasing legitimacy in core groups. If a group is not considered “one of us,” or if core identity groups don’t identify with an out-group such as blacks, or slaves, or natives, or poor people, or Irish, or whatever, then enforcement against them does not reduce legitimacy. Instead, it increases legitimacy with those who aren’t in the out-group.

What is seen is the ruling ideology being enforced. That provides good feelings because of identification with the ideology, without negative feelings because the groups it is being enforced against is not identified with.

As long as whoever enforcement is used against can be made into “not one of us,” enforcement is a positive for creating legitimacy and identification with the ruling ideology. Entire groups are possible, but when someone is accused of a crime, the process is meant to strip them of as much of their in-group identity as possible, to make their punishment feel good. (Again, remember, if we identify with someone, them being hurt, hurts us.)

There’s a corollary to this: Because coercion is done for ideological reasons (because people are not obeying the “rules”), if the “rules” are not seen as legitimately part of a group’s ideology, it renders any coercion illegitimate. For many Americans, locking people up for drug use is illegitimate. For others, any protest by someone they disagree with obviously requires those people be locked up. Stopping blacks from voting was and is considered legitimate by many, but for others it is a wrong, and so on. You can come up with hundreds of examples, historical and contemporary.

However, when coercion, especially violence, fails, it is powerfully de-legitimizing. Coercion in service of an ideology / an identity is an extreme form of ritual, and if the ritual fails, then legitimacy is harmed. In extreme cases, like the Russian defeat in World War I, it can lead to revolution.

Coercion, then, both relies on legitimacy to even be possible, and its exercise increases or decreases both the legitimacy of the people who do it and the ideology with which they identify. If a group or ideology’s legitimacy collapses, so does the ability to coerce. All power does not come out of the barrel of a gun, as per Mao, bur rather from the ability to convince someone to use that gun.

Powerfully legitimate ideologies often barely need to use force at all to sustain themselves, except against any out-groups — members self-regulate and deal with almost all deviation through social pressure at most.

An out-group can be a powerful source of legitimacy to the ruling ideology, though, by allowing the ideology to be seen to be enforced without any backlash in the form of feeling bad about those who are hurt during enforcement.

The most important user of power and legitimacy is the government, and it is to them we will turn next.

Next: Government



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  1. Occasional Poster

    Under neoliberal capitalism the ostracizing of people who receive unemployment, disability, or any other social welfare benefit, is another way the system keeps the proles in line. This mechanism falls between the formal and informal sanctions on Ian’s list.

    According to the prevailing ideology the social welfare system is there to help people gain employment, provide assistance to prevent them from sliding into permanent poverty and to provide healthcare benefits to those who aren’t in the workforce due to illness or injury. But in reality, as anyone who has worked in this system or has had to rely on it knows, the people who are forced to rely on the safety net are effectively stigmatized and banished to the margins of society.

    Applicants and recipients must jump through humiliating hoops to apply for and to continue receiving benefits that are typically meager and unfit for purpose. It is very, very difficult, and often impossible, for them to get “back on their feet” again. This is not a bug, it’s a feature.

    The threadbare safety net and the often permanent loss of dignity and social status that comes with having to rely on it serves as a warning to those who work in the gig economy and in the low-paid workforce generally: better keep your crappy, demeaning job with your arsehole boss or you will end up like these losers, in an even worse position.

    Tying decent healthcare coverage to employment is another “feature.” Even in Canada with its much hyped (and vastly overrated) single-payer system the supplementary insurance provided by employers makes a huge difference to a person’s health and well-being. The basic “free” healthcare does not provide, for example, dental, vision, hearing or mental health coverage. Good luck finding a job or social acceptance with a mouthful of rotting teeth.

    Capitalism can’t function without a pool of desperate people who will subject themselves to any number of indignities and humiliations in order to avoid losing the little social status they have.

    So, officially, the social safety net is there help people maintain their dignity and an adequate standard of living and is an important part of a civilized society. In practice, it is deliberately hobbled and punishes them for being poor or sick and serves as a warning and a deterrent to those who are living a paycheck to paycheck existence at the whim of abusive and manipulative employers.

    Under capitalism being poor is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Not only will their lives be shit, they will personally be blamed and held responsible for the poverty that is built into the system at a foundational level.

    It truly is diabolical.

  2. someofparts

    I was going to point out that the future for this nation, and the planet, is so bad that even in this small community at least two of the women who post here have consciously chosen not to have children.

  3. Mary Bennett

    someofparts, Nuns make a conscious decision not to have children. Don’t forget that consecrated women are found among Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and, at one time, Taoists, not just RC. Do you have something against consecrated women? Not everyone is temperamentally suited for marriage and childrearing, and if they are not, best they not try.

  4. anon y'mouse

    i chose not to have children for many, many reasons which i iwon’t bore anyone here with.

    but one of the main reasons i will bore someone with is this: in my family already there were 3 generations before me of women who were totally enslaved to husbands, partners, and employers that were able to treat them like feces with impunity because they had kids that needed to be taken care of, and couldn’t do that adequately without those abusive husbands, partners, and bosses.

    it was either go along with those abusers, or see the children starve and/or be homeless, or give them up to an orphanage.

    and since i believe that it produces the worst kind of outcome to be raised within such a household where abuse and enslavement are happening due to my direct experience of it, i said “no thank you” to such a form of entrapment.

    it’s not good for the women, and certainly not good for the children but it is what countless women & children have endured throughout history. just not for me, thanks!

    oh, and by the way—my womb is mine, and i don’t have to fill it for anyone. not for future workers, for population maintenance, to provide cannon fodder, nor to continue anyone’s lineage. that choice belongs to me and it is not a diminishment of my life in any sense (except for the genetic imperative of all life forms to breed) nor does it make my life unworthy to have been lived. some of the most talented and creative people in history (sadly, i’m not one) did not pass on their genes but they did pass on their works, and for that we should be thankful instead of holding them as lesser beings for failing to reproduce.

  5. Astrid

    Mary Bennett,

    As one of the two women that someofparts is likely speaking about (Joan is probably the other one, she’s also married with to someone with a good job), I decided against kids despite having the money, the original inclination (grew up thinking I would have kids soon after marriage), the husband, and a supportive extended family. Nothing consecrated about the decision, just an ethical choice against forcing a non-consenting soul into this dying world.

    I grieve inside whenever I hear about friends, family, or coworkers expecting. I hope I’m wrong about the future and these kids can live full and happy lives. But I’m not going to force life on another sentient being based on the odds I’m seeing.

  6. Astrid

    Also, how does anyone read someofparts’s comment and thinks she’s against religious women?

  7. Astrid

    Thanks Ian. This is a very useful and clarifying post. Great comment by occasional poster as well. Effective governance/oppression is about effective suppression of alternatives. The more you can get people to internalize TINA, the easier your job will be.

    Chinese idiom 殺雞儆猴 also comes to mind.

  8. Mary Bennett

    Astrid, I didn’t accuse. I asked. I think the inference is pretty clear. There are many reasons why some choose a state of voluntary celibacy and others, including happily married couples, choose not to have children. Our country is hardly underpopulated.

    One of the reasons the “Conservative Side” is a minority of less than a third of our electorate is their inveterate habit of minding other people’s affairs.

  9. someofparts

    Mary, I was responding to this observation from Ian’s post –

    “in the case of some native American groups, treatment was so horrible they stopped breeding, and died out”

    I was observing that there are women right now who are deciding not to have children because they see a dim future for our species.

    To me, a nun who chooses not to have children because she consecrates herself to Christ is almost the opposite of what I was talking about.

    In one case, a woman chooses not to have children because she does not have any faith that the future will be a good one in her community. In the case of the nun, she not only believes in the future, she has so much faith in it that she devotes herself to following the will of Christ full time.

  10. someofparts

    Actually Astrid, you and Joan make three because I’m the other one I was thinking of when I wrote that.

  11. Ché Pasa

    I think our authoritarian future is sealed. We are so close now, it’s hard to imagine how the civic republicanism of the Founders can be preserved even in name.

    The Grand Experiment has failed, and has been so often the case, those opposed to that Experiment will use the political and governmental tools it provides to destroy it.

    Remember Octavian? First Emperor of Rome? His motto was that he was saving the Republic. Remember?

    That’s what we’ll see our authoritarian overlords in and out of government claim they are doing — on our behalf, of course — as they consolidate all the remaining elements of rule under their sole command.

    The question is, how will they use their power? Will there be opposition? What will happen to it? Will the power factions that now contend with one another reconcile?

    And how will the cascade of crises we’re already in be managed — if they will?

    (Observe what’s happening in Britain for clues…)

  12. someofparts

    anon y’mouse – amen

  13. bruce wilder

    returning to the psychological ways of power . . .

    humiliation can be quite effective in creating internalized shame — better for some social control purposes than the fear axis, the humiliation-shame axis does seem to induce a high degree of self-enforced compliance as well as socially important hypocrisy.

    the 1950s and 1960s “social liberation” movements made a point of cultivating “pride” as an antidote to the shame felt by many after generations of humiliations
    so, black pride and gay pride and the ritual celebration of the “first woman to . . . “

  14. bruce wilder

    on control of consciousness

    I have a mild interest in the events and ideologies of 17th century Britain, the Britain of the Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution.

    It is always interesting to see how even today — or especially today — Britons can be adamant about personalities and events of more than 300 years ago. Cromwell, who I find an admirable character in many respects, is scorned by many who seem to know little more than the headline, Drogheda and Wexford (sieges in Ireland that ended in atrocities). Many will condemn Cromwell as a religious “fanatic”, though his actual religious and political beliefs leaned toward toleration.

    I don’t propose to litigate Cromwell’s place in history, but I do wonder at how long the shadows of ideological conflict stretch through history. 17th century Britain was openly piratical in its foreign and colonial policy, but it gave rise to both radical political philosophies promoting ideals of political equality as well as a continuing monarchism. In the abstract, I think monarchy ridiculous and aristocracy revolting, but I admit I am also fascinated by the appeal of a long, not entirely inglorious history and the strange political accomplishments of a fount of honor (the formal opposite of shame and humiliation I referenced in an earlier comment).

  15. Joan

    @someofparts & Astrid, yes, count me as three for choosing not to have children. Anonymouse brings up some good points, and thankfully I’m not in that situation!

    The last few generations under the Roman Empire saw a decline in birth rate. Even with less high tech versions of birth control, women and their husbands still saw the writing on the wall and approached reproduction more conservatively.

    A couple of friends have asked to count me, so they could say “I had kids, but my friend Joan didn’t have any.” I told them they couldn’t, since my husband’s sibling wants children.

    At the park a dog came up to me and begged to play fetch. His owners were busy with little kids. It struck me as a metaphor, but not one in which I was left on the sidelines in any way. My sense of self worth is not defined by the society around me.

    In our case, not having children has afforded me the kind of time so rarely found for self reflection. If there is an immortal soul and any kind of evolution or growth to be gained by living, then I have certainly pursued it. I am still in my thirties, but I have managed to grow emotionally, mentally, and (dare I say it) spiritually in the last few years. Any time is a good time for such growth, but at the end of a civilization, this seems especially appropriate.

  16. Trinity

    “humiliation can be quite effective in creating internalized shame”

    Some say this is how Narcissists are “made”. As the “lesser evil” of the Dark Triad (only in terms of their characteristic behaviors, not the effects of those behaviors) it is believed that N’s are the way they are to hide their shame. We observe this behavior as grandiosity, lying, or outright denial of reality, etc. And also in their strong need to crush or destroy anyone who challenges their fake reality that supposedly they must maintain “to hide their shame”.

    This is only surmised by observing their behavior, since we don’t really know their internal thinking processes. My own experience is that they enjoy torturing their targets before destroying them, where the targets are anyone who speaks up and speaks out. That is, they enjoy hurting and manipulating people. They don’t seem to feel the natural shame that arises within us when we do something “stupid” or hurtful to others.

    Having been raised (and nearly destroyed) by a narcissistic mother, it wasn’t difficult for me to equate my situation to what’s been happening in the outside world (it took me awhile, though). Or to put it better, all of what Ian is saying about power and it’s misuse scales from dysfunctional people to families to dysfunctional governments, international organizations, nations, etc. And are therefore related.

    It’s the concentration of power that is part of the problem, and we’ve observed over the last decades powerful people using their power to further expand their power. Some Native American tribes dealt with this problem by never having anyone in charge for any continual length of time (power needs to be continually redistributed). As we know from history, those in power for long periods of time will eventually alter things so that they can remain in power “forever” through their children. And here we are.

    Eventually my mother “aged out” (lost power over her now adult children), but she was smoothly replaced by her chosen ones, the ones she “groomed” by using a different kind of torture that shaped their thoughts and behaviors in a different way. Luckily for me, siblings don’t has as much power over me as a parent does, but for “the chosen’s” children its been my personal horror to watch this cycle unfold again and again.

    One of the main things my narcissist mother did was encourage competition among her children. This creates a hierarchy making it easier to control everyone. So things like “well, I’m better than them because I chose to have children” are exactly the way to create people to look up to, and simultaneously people to look down upon. Shaming people for having children (or not having children!) just keeps the cycle going. A million “pro-life” people who want to control (have power over) other people’s bodies are about to descend on Washington DC. They are doing the exact same thing from a different side. Shaming anyone for any reason solves absolutely nothing, but is very effective in creating in others what Bruce aptly put as “internalized shame”.

  17. bruce wilder

    What’s my interest in 17th century Britain?

    Gaining a perspective on the emergence of modernity. The 17th century finally extinguishes feudal institutions and inaugurates modern institutions of political economy: constitutional monarchy, of course, but also the bureaucratic business corporation, stock markets, central banks, the scientific revolution, a global economy, religious diversity and toleration.

    The prolonged struggle between the Stuarts and Parliament over taxes and foreign policy and religion was also a tug-of-war over a rationalizing modernization of government, its purposes and methods. Blasphemy and witchcraft ceased to be concerns as the dynastic ambitions and religious preferences of a royal family diminished relative to the economic greed of elite classes. The space for humane concerns expanded in collective human consciousness. The struggle of oligarchic electoral politics turned out of doors as the emerging middle classes were mobilized into the ideological tribes known as Whigs and Tories, a development that would serve as a critical relief valve permitting further modernizing political reforms 150+ years later.

  18. Feral Finster


    Contemplate The Iron Law of Oligarchy and The Iron Law of Institutions.

    What we are seeing int he West now is simply a reversion to the mean. That said, the oligarchy’s increasing reliance upon over force is a sure sign of weakness and not strength.

  19. bruce wilder

    I have been reflecting recently on the “revelation” recently that various experts were talking among themselves about the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis in terms that were a sharp contrast to their emphatic public denials that such a thing was even possible let alone probable.

    What this “news” triggered for me was not a conspiracy theory but a latent insight about the ways of power — something I have known and commented about in various contexts. Power speaks to the general public in code in order to manipulate and control the behavior and beliefs of the general public.

    This code comes in various dialects. It would be easy but misleading to confuse this manipulative code with what is commonly called “ideology” — there is clearly a relationship, though. I am not sure how I would analyze the relation of ideology to the manipulative rhetoric and mythos that make up the code(s) elites use to “persuade” and instruct the public. One contrast to the way Ian uses “ideology” is that no one has a genuine faith investment in the code, per se, even if the code-in-use makes use of the cliches of an ideology widely held (either confirming or using emergent cynicism or skepticism regarding that shared ideology).

    The loss of legitimacy which Ian and several commenters have drawn attention to in American politics comes down to the code losing its potency at least in certain contexts. The public feels that they no longer understand or trust “what is really being said” when they hear elites speak, the code loses its capacity to transmit semantic content as well as to manipulate intentionally or predictably and usefully (to elites) mass behavior.

    In ways I cannot quite articulate, I think this loss of legitimacy leading to code deafness is implicated in a general spread of transactional corruption, but I leave that aside.

    I have noticed that Republican/conservative rhetoric turns now more and more on a steady critique and scorn for the code dialects of Democrats and pseudo-liberal elites. I just now saw Florida Governor DeSantis connect Dem rejection of voterID with Dem enthusiasm for vaccine passporting — like all Republican pseudo-populist rhetoric, it was shaped to justify resentment toward Dem use of authority. I think the Republicans have a winning formula in the near-term for the demolition of the rump Democratic Party’s electoral popularity, in large part because the Dems have evolved their own code dialects and supporting ideologies into such ripe targets.

    No where do I see on the horizon a reality-based ideology that might address economic corruption/inequality or impending climate change and ecology collapse and resource exhaustion.

    With the Blob starving Afghanistan and Yemen, and trying to start wars over Ukraine, Taiwan and Iran, and overthrow Venezuelan socialists and . . . I do not see any political formation concerned about the blowback from the now imminent collapse of American Empire, even though the U.S. has little genuine national interest in stirring chaos in any of the places I just mentioned — this seems the work of arms salesmen and expatriots from these places leveraging U.S. military and financial power corruptly.

    Can U.S. politics be inert under the noise? And is this, as Feral Finster hints, a result of institutional senescence, that is elites losing all care for the social purposes of the institutions they control? If so, maybe it does show up in the emptiness of manipulative codes used by elites to manipulate those they have no interest in serving, and ultimately in the loss of potency for those codes.

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