A theory of power

It has often been noted that power is expressed most purely through the sphere of politics — which, in turn, is defined through the lens of power. The term ‘power politics’ can therefore seem to be a tautology. What is powerful is political; what is political is powerful. But if these terms collapse into each other internally, the further question arises: what are their external conditions? What is the foundation of power and politics, and what superstructure follows the bridge of power?

Power is a bridge.

An early theorist of power was Niccolò Machiavelli, for whom power ends in violence, or the threat of the use thereof. Fear of damage to one’s body is what drives the subjects of Hobbes’ Leviathan to acquiesce to sovereign authority. But for Machiavelli, fear of loss of reputation can be equally severe. Reputation, however, rides on ruthlessness, not kindness. This Machiavellian claim has a Hobbesian explanation: if politics supervenes on the body and its survival, then the fear of bodily harm will always be the key feature of political struggle.

Shockingly, the historically normal way to become a successful (if not a fully moral) leader, for Hobbes and Machiavelli, is to inspire the fear of death in one’s opponents, as in the renowned Godfather movies about the Italian-American mafia. The sovereign state has assumed this leadership role in the modern world by employing a ‘bio-politics’ of ‘bio-power’: the power to ‘take life and let live’, or the sovereign’s objective power over the life and death of their subjects. Once citizens armed themselves with the means to defend their city; now subjects voluntarily grant all legitimate use of violence to the state, the modern leader of the free and unfree peoples of planet Earth.

But Machiavelli has another legacy, besides the Hobbesian one which concerns the management of the use of violence. This legacy concerns a critic of Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, for whom political power is founded upon material economic power. The land distribution strongly conditions the allocation of roles in a state. As the feudal system came to a close, the capitalist market economy allowed dynamic changes in prices to rapidly alter the distribution of power in a state. Now the modern class system is founded on the distinction not of land, but of capital, or mobile property with easily translatability into ‘liquid’ money.

Intellectual historian J. G. A. Pocock once argued The Machiavellian Moment has two dimensions: political, and economic. The system of armies and monies converges on the resources of the modern state and capitalism, the two pillars of the modern world. The state is Hobbes’ Leviathan, a hierarchy of political power. The market is more like Hobbes’ Behemoth, an anarchy of competing economic interests, jostling for dominance in the dynamic price system. The state is the relation of continuity; the market, the force of change.

Technological development affects the balance of power between the two institutions, and between the classes which jostle for power within and among these institutions: a working class which sells its labour in return for money to spend on basic necessities and small luxuries, a capitalist class which buys this labour and spends the revenues either on improved technology or on large luxuries, and a professional-managerial class which manages the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state and the specialised ‘intellectual’ institutions of civil society. To echo Thucydides’ comment on the Athenians and the Melians, the rich do what they can and the poor suffer what they must, while those in the middle wonder which side to take, or even whether there are any sides at all.

Power, then, is founded on material resources, but it is expressed through institutional rules. It is justified by stories we tell ourselves about the legitimacy of the possession and use such of power. But when the distribution of power changes, both the configuration of power and the narration of power change. When a new power rises from the dynamic market economy to challenge the stable modern state, the shadow of anarchy looms over a decaying civilisation. Too long have we languished under the tyranny of these two totalitarian institutions. Too long have we watched the world burn under pressure from institutions that we built for us, not us for them, but which no longer reliably service the most basic human needs.

Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions narrates the rise of ‘subterranean trends’ towards ‘brutality and complexity in the global economy’. A decaying civilisation starts to become the very barbarism it is built to defend against. In this new Rome, a new power is rising. We can choose either to give into the chaos or shore up the existing order to safeguard the fragile peace that exists. We must above all ensure that power remains balanced and even-keeled. For power is like water; the more you ignore it, the more it builds up and threatens to overflow its banks. To become aware of the situation is the first step to managing, yet alone overcoming, it. Let us see what was unseen, and recall what was forgotten — lest we all fall prey to the ‘diabolical forces’ which, as Max Weber said a century ago, are entwined with all relations of political power. But it is not just politics that is at stake.

For Hobbes, the state exists to defend us all from the forces towards disorder from within and without. For Aristotle, the state is but an extension of the family and the hierarchies of the natural world. And for Darwin, human politics is but another projection of the attempt to control an uncontrollable universe. For philosopher Immanuel Kant, this human tendency to go beyond itself is both understandable and impossible to realise. We cannot avoid it and we cannot complete it. To try to strike a balance is, for James Harrington, the essence of the political. Perhaps this ‘ballance’ is what sustains the bridge of power, too. If the bridge collapses, we are caught up with the streams of time, and washed out to sea. Then, who knows what will be, or what we will see. Either way, the future is

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