The story so far

Nature is as old as time itself. Power is as old as humanity is. But both matter to how we live our lives today. That’s why I recently covered issues like ‘What it means to be human’, ‘What power is’, and ‘How power begins’. Next week, I hope to cover the last theme: hope. So here’s the story so far.

The Roman Empire: one part of our story (Creative Commons).

Humans have interests, given to us by nature. I argue we can apprehend these interests by our common moral intuition. These interests are:

  1. The interest for satisfaction of our preferences about how to spend our time;
  2. The interest for recognition of our equal dignity as human beings;
  3. The interest for community in which we participate and find meaning;
  4. The interest for freedom from arbitrary manipulation of our preferences.

But there’s only so much stuff in the world to satisfy our preferences about how to spend our time. In agricultural societies, some people need to work a lot more time than they would have in hunter-gatherer societies. Because agriculture increases population size, which restricts available resources. This means we have to work a lot to survive. Power is how some people make others do this work for them. Power comes in four forms:

  1. Coercion, or the power to shape behaviour by using force or threats, satisfying common interests;
  2. Domination, or the power to shape behaviour by using force or threats, neglecting common interests; 
  3. Influence, or the power to shape preferences through persuasion and rewards, satisfying common interests;
  4. Manipulation, or the power to shape preferences through persuasion and rewards, neglecting common interests.

Power satisfies our common interests when there is no better way of meeting these interests. If there is, it’s clear that power restricts our freedom arbitrarily. If there’s not, power is necessary to sustain common interests as much as is possible right now. Often, though, power seems to undermine common interests in favour of special interests. The line between interest-satisfying and interest-neglecting power is unclear. It depends a lot on your hopes about alternatives.

So, power begins with nature: natural interests, and natural scarcity. From these natural depths spring human technologies, or ‘forces’, which help us to adapt to scarcity. They can be used to allow humans to wield power. They come in three forms:

  1. Forces of production, or technologies which grant economic power;
  2. Forces of coercion, or technologies which grant political power;
  3. Forces of legitimation, or technologies which grant ideological power.

Three ‘modes’ flow from these three ‘forces’ of power. These modes are the relations of power that allow forces to develop under given historical conditions. They are:

  1. The mode of production, or relations of economic power which correspond to forces of production (egalitarianism, extractivism, capitalism, ?)
  2. The mode of coercion, or relations of political power which correspond to forces of coercion (bands, tributary states, nation states, ?)
  3. The mode of legitimation, or relations of ideological power which correspond to forces of legitimation (animism, theism, nationalism, ?)

Every society has a mode of production, a mode of coercion, and a mode of legitimation. The Roman Empire had an extractivist mode of production, based on slavery. It had a tributary mode of coercion, based on military might. And it had an imperial but also moderately inclusive mode of legitimation, entertaining polytheism early on, followed by monotheism towards its end. Today, we have a capitalist mode of production, a state-based mode of coercion, and a liberal-nationalist mode of legitimation. What comes next?

We can’t be sure. In times like this, conditions change so fast, both in nature and technology. We don’t know which forces and which modes will be ‘selected for’, especially given that societies which try to change their economic system are punished by powerful states and classes. We think we live in a competitive world, but there’s really only one economic system, one political system, and one legitimation system that’s dominant. There aren’t many alternatives to capitalist states based on nationalist legitimation mechanics. Until there are, who knows where we are heading?

But isn’t that the magic of the crisis of the twenty-first century? We don’t know, we can’t know, yet we want to know. Or, perhaps, to act. To hope that through action we can create a better world. It is this kind of hope I would like to consider with you next week. Because we don’t know what’s coming. But we know that what’s coming will need us to act.

So we act.

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