5. Political Power


There is no doubt that political power exists; we all feel it all the time and it shapes our lives. As people, we generate it. It is a human artefact, yet human beings are very reluctant to acknowledge that it is a man-made thing. So the direct question ‘What is political power’ is seldom asked, probably because the answer is likely to be uncomfortably vague. But it is possible to be clear.

Political power is created by any collective purpose. It arises from action channelled towards the achievement of a particular objective. As a formulation, this is simple, unambitious but accurate. ‘Collective purpose’, however, does not in itself distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate political power. For the moment we must leave aside the question of small groups and violence: criminal gangs, and terrorist groups will be discussed elsewhere, as will élites within societies. The crucial issue is the breadth of the purposes involved – what benefits are delivered to whom.

Leaving aside criminality and terrorism, there are ways of distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate political power. The most idealistic way is to look at the nobility of the purposes involved, and their inclusiveness. Another, more pragmatic way, is to say that large groups are more likely to be accepted as legitimate than small groups, though this distinction itself reflects political power, which has a habit of chasing its own tail in these matters. Judgements of legitimacy, therefore, run the risk of becoming either contentious or simply banal. But there are ways of tracing certain ideas through the political maze to arrive at workable definitions of what is and is not legitimate power.

In the modern world, the more heavily one draws upon God the less likely one is to be exercising legitimate power, whereas in the ancient world the opposite was true. But in the modern world, is it really the case that if you can carry enough people with you, you can lay claim to legitimate political power? This crucial question draws us further back towards uncomfortable areas. One answer is that political power is legitimate when other major players – such as states – say that it is, or a grouping becomes proportionately large enough that no one can dispossess it, at the same time as its members continue to obey their own rules. If political obedience is voluntary, then this must be true, because if self-determination and self-government mean anything, they must mean that the active cooperation of the governed constitutes legitimate government. But how small must a group be before this is not a valid argument? And what about minorities?

Large groups have a certain kind of brute force about them, but small groups are much more problematic, especially if they somehow manage to exert disproportionate influence. There were very small groups at the core of many important global events, including the Russian revolution and the rise of the Nazi party, and modern terrorist cells are generally tiny. The successes of these groups testify to the awesome power of unity of purpose.

But bulk always counts in the long run. Highly motivated believers like Bolsheviks, Nazis and terrorists have not enjoyed long periods of success compared to larger, more stable, more moderate groups, such as mainstream political parties within nation states. The creeds most effective at wielding power would therefore seem to be ones with general rather than narrow appeal, and those using less violent methods. But is it moderation that is really the most active element in attracting followers? Should we not expect that the most powerful creeds would be those that delivered the most direct personal benefits – those, bluntly put, with a high degree of appeal to our selfishness?

Political careers yield a range of personal benefits that undoubtedly attract some people into public life, but this is not actually the case with political beliefs in general, which often feature a high degree of collective benefit that may not be felt personally to any great extent.

Meanwhile, the most powerfully selfish political creed, individualism, has obvious problems in organising itself collectively; massing together to benefit anyone else would not be the collective behaviour of rampant individualists. Collective creeds such as nationalism derive much of their power from their declared willingness to struggle for the well-being of others, and this is the common trait that marks out the world’s most potent political belief systems. Viewing individual human beings as purely rational actors is an inadequate way to understand collective action. It assumes that individuals ask: “What’s in it for me?” and can only come up with individual answers, expressed as rational goals and ambitions. But wider history shows us that what is ‘in it’ for individuals is, in substantial part, a view of the collective good. What varies is the collective body under consideration, which might be the family, the village, the clan, or higher abstractions including class, nation and race. When it comes to collective action, the emotional and moral kickback is at least as important as the purely rational calculation of ledger-book welfare.

Calculations of emotional interest, or at least perceptions of it, can be as important in constituting groups as economic interest. This has definitely played a part in the formation of ‘nations’, and explains the old cliché about preferring to die as a lion than to live as a lamb. If this were not true, then any kind of political opposition would essentially be for sale, and could always be bought off. History demonstrates that, while sometimes possible, this is not generally true.

Religions that promise salvation – or threaten damnation – are open to the same influences. Well-meaning Protestant missionaries travelled all over the world in the nineteenth century to bring salvation to people who were often quite content with the arrangements they already had, especially in India and China. The Spanish Inquisition, it should be remembered, was attempting at all times to save its victims from the eternal damnation that awaited them. Even the modern jihadi mentality has an element of this within it. Although Islam allows individuals a free choice whether to be good or bad, devout Muslims can persuade themselves that an essential part of being good is the obligation to strive to convert non-believers and to correct the faithful who have gone astray. Neglecting to use every ounce of energy to do these things may be to fall short in the eyes of Allah, and may be a failing – an act of disobedience – which must be answered for at the appropriate time. This last view may not bring much self-satisfaction, but it is decidedly an issue that revolves around the fate of other people and not just oneself.

Taking action to defend (or save) others is morally very rewarding in a way that acting from personal selfishness never is. Both socialism and its variants, and nationalism are very much posited on the idea that an individual works towards a collectively beneficial end. This is why the more militant versions of these creeds share a certain quality of moral high-mindedness that is absent in individualism, or even conservatism (if baldly stated as resistance to change), and especially liberalism, which is permissive and therefore cannot have a militant form, because there is a limit to how far permissiveness can proceed without dissolving everything, including the state that makes liberal principles possible and watches impartially over them.

An understanding of collective emotional political behaviour is completely missing from one of the previous, generally discarded, models of history – the so-called Great Man Theory. This was a quintessentially nineteenth century view, and in the era after Napoleon it was easier to see single great men as drivers of history rather than tracing and understanding all the immense changes afoot all over Europe at so many different levels. Even of the ‘great men’ that the theory relied upon, there was only ever a meagre supply.

More often it is not great men that move history along, but small groups with very clear abstract views, called in the modern world an ideology. Great men were supposed to step forth and drive, personify and oversee great changes. But how many ever actually did? Alexander, Caesar and Genghis Khan? Any such selection reflects a somewhat military (and very short-term) view of history. And a list such as Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein contains an implicit denial that the discoveries made by these scientists could have been made by anyone else, which is absurd. All their insights have been readily absorbed by ‘lesser’ minds, which would seem to suggest that the ideas were ready to be discovered at an appropriate time and state of technical capability and knowledge. Experience of simultaneous or independent discovery – which has happened in multiple instances, including the case of Newton, Leibniz and the calculus – would tend to reinforce that suggestion. Another list of greats might be Luther, Rousseau and Marx, none of whom led armies or ever held political office.

Great men exercise political power but they cannot possibly create it. Far more often it is small groups motivated by new and essentially abstract views of the world that have produced effective and permanent change – something that Caesar, Alexander and Genghis Khan all failed to do. To see political power only in the hands of leaders is to miss the point about what it is and where it comes from.

The most temporary, least creditable form of political power is the riot. Political power proper is only really observable when it is the result of collective action over an extended period of time. Such observations are collected together into what is usually thought of as history, but in the modern world this understanding is somewhat disguised by the fact that history now comes to us on at least three levels. The first is what we call news, updated on an hourly cycle. Then there is analysis, set out over a longer frame and designed to make sense of individual snippets of news. Then there is history proper, which is supposed to give greater understanding of these previous two processes.

All of these levels have their limitations, of which the most obvious is bias. Another is ignorance – ignorance of the wider factual framework, ignorance of the intentions of the main actors within the story, and ignorance of the much longer outcomes of current processes. These limitations do not prevent us from analysing political power, but they can become part of its exercise. This truth is expressed in the familiar idea that history is written by the winners. This is not quite true, but history is usually written by people with an interest in particular uses of political power, and their efforts often obscure the very processes they are attempting to chronicle.

Like the structure of matter, or the exact nature of God, political power evades close examination. We currently have the Large Hadron Collider to look at the inner secrets of matter, and many different human attempts have been made to express what God is. No one has ever attempted to look at political power in such detail. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that it is very difficult to extract political power sufficiently cleanly from its surroundings, including the biases of writers. The second is that most writers on politics are more interested in recommending what should be done with political power than questioning why it exists or where it comes from.

Karl Marx, who was a thinker of a high order, never questioned the main thing he was talking about. He analysed capital, classes and value, he used concepts such as the dialectic and alienation, but he avoided addressing the question at the heart of his revolutionary prescriptions – what exactly was driving the whole thing? His answer was nearer to economics than to politics. If a thinker of such analytical thoroughness, and such enormous posthumous influence, missed the central question of all our lives, who else was to take it on?

Before the French Revolution, power was assumed to come from God, and was therefore legitimate when wielded by those to whom it was granted by traditional means. That God had power was clear enough to thinkers before that, and they did not question why He had it, or what it was in terms other than a reflection of His divine will. In a convenient, and perhaps respectful act of reduction, He was power. This was also true in Islamic countries and China.

From 1789, when mankind was first officially declared to have universal ‘rights’, political power became a different and far more powerful beast. Political power has always been a secular phenomenon, but it had been assumed to have divine roots. After 1789 it lost this anchoring and became something else. Firstly, it was conceived as the collective will of the nation. This was the simplest step the French could make. The American colonists had made a somewhat similar leap in 1776, but took its implications less far. Americans took their right to govern themselves to be a part of the English political heritage which they felt they were being denied, and which they took for themselves on the basis of the ‘natural’ right to self-government that was allowed even under the old divine power theories.

The French, however, had no such background and were not carving out what amounted to a small corner of parliamentary self-government. The French were kicking against an absolutist regime that had founded itself squarely on God’s will. The transition to ‘the will of the nation’, which Rousseau had imagined for them, was not so difficult. ‘France’ as a nation was an idea that French people could easily understand. Geography and language are not very abstract ideas, and in this case their negative aspects – not France, not French – were easily conceived.

This was the genesis of modern political power, and the original process it relied on was soon to be recognised as nationalism. Nationalism was the first widespread secular faith, and it had direct, observable results in the real world. What exactly nationalism is is still not accurately defined, nor yet a matter of general theoretical agreement, even after a good deal more than two centuries.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this development, because it changed two things permanently. It altered the way humans conceived of their own societies, and it fundamentally enhanced the nature of political power itself. It became the standard form of collective purpose on the planet, the most widely recognised, and the most adaptable.

Nationalism introduced a new organising principle to human affairs. Crucially though, it was no less a mysterious process than the theistic political ideas that it replaced, and it soon became as prone to abuse and extremism as some of the religious ideas that had preceded it – if not more. It brought a new kind of unity to human affairs, but one that carried with it ideas of exclusion and difference that could be just as pronounced or permanent as religious ideas. Religion, as a voluntary undertaking, allows for conversion. Nationalism and the concept of nations, does not, in anything like the same way. Religion allows for, and even encourages, notions of domination and superiority. Nationalism took on all these elements, but added impassable barriers to their outer limits. Nationalism was bigger and nastier than religion in many of its aspects, but it allowed no escape routes from within its grasp, no hope of redemption or accommodation for individuals, and it took none of God’s ‘human’ characteristics into its conception of power.

The one element of nationalism that struck very deep with people everywhere, whether they conceived of themselves as historic ‘nations’ or not, was the privilege of self-government, an idea wrapped up in the later phrase ‘self-determination’. This really changed the whole political world in ways that are still very much with us.

Self-determination raises a long list of questions, including who should decide which groups can legitimately determine their own political fate, and how exactly the idea of self-determination can coexist with the parts of the old order that remain. All the while the older idea of divine approval and religious authority sometimes run in parallel with nationalism and sometimes against it. God, the nation and the state are all now in play as political ideas. We need to sort out how they intersect if we are to find ways of reducing, not increasing social conflict, within and between the nations in which we all now live.

We can discuss political power with a sense of curiosity and wonder, but the one thing we must always remember is how dangerous it is. This lesson was completely lost on the giant ideological -isms that sprang up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, none of which felt that excessive power was any kind of drawback. The moral certainty that accompanied the birth of the large scale -isms blinded their followers to the perils of drawing absolute power into being. The certainty of rightness, and the validity and beneficial effects of whatever creed it was, ensured that a surfeit of power was still not enough, and could never be enough. Under absolutism of the old style there were traditional constraints on the exercise of power, and a great many physical and technical limitations that were insuperable within the knowledge and capabilities of the times. Rulers channelling divine power were naturally still subject to God’s laws, and these were widely known and understood. Modern dictators, who call their power up from ‘the people’, know no such restraints.

An upper limit to powerfulness does not appear in the classic ideologies spawned by modernity, because within these worldviews there is no recognition of any upper limit to rightness. Possession of assured truth, particularly moral certitude, removes limitations of the exercise of human power, by removing the possibility of error. Instead the certainty that power as a commodity draws more power to itself in order to preserve itself was overlooked. The fallibility of the doctrine could not be admitted, but at some point the fallibility of human beings when supercharged with moral righteousness, and when exempted from opposition and excused all scrutiny, should have been acknowledged. Medieval power systems had various ways of guarding against this tendency; rulers were always constrained by forms of law and custom, or by a traditional assembly of the wise or revered. There were always prominent individuals within such societies who did not owe their wealth and status directly to the ruler. No such constraints met the ideological modernists, and they duly conformed to a pattern of extensive moral collapse and ethical death.

But there are traditions that are suspicious of power, and honourable mention must be made here of the unfashionable English Whigs, who exercised one of the first modern versions of state power, and were dully chastened by it. Something of this tradition filtered down to ideas that helped characterise the way that power was delegated and exercised within the British Empire. One of the most important Whig principles was a suspicion of concentrated, personal power, and they took steps to mitigate its worst effects. But the Whigs, it must be remembered, were not nationalists or democrats.

With ample hindsight, Lord Acton summed up the Whig view in 1874 when he made his famous remark that ‘power corrupts’ (he was talking of the Papacy). This insight needs to be updated. A new version of a similar thought, and a permanent aid to the safe conduct of politics, might be that it is better to accept that power corrupts than to argue that it is merely in the wrong hands.


 Posted by at 4:06 am