Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Image of the City, Part V: Introduction to Power

Servant of God has greater chance of sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.

—T. S. Eliot, Murder In the Cathedral

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Every man and woman has rights as an individual, yet every man and woman comes into existence through other individuals (their parents, grandparents, and so on), and is born into a society, that is, a web of preƫxisting relationships. We are creatures with a context, a context that we cannot choose and can only partly influence; and, so much of that context being other people, it includes a substantial number of duties and obligations that, whether we like it or not, we were born into, as the child of a monarch is born into royalty.

Ikon of the Trinity, made at Clear Creek Abbey, OK

This is what we call society. But that word has to be fleshed out, because it has many different aspects: the family is a society, religions are societies, political parties, schools, ethnic groups, artistic movements, trades, municipalities are societies. Society is a vast web of intertwined worlds, and everybody belongs to many of them at once. A number of forces govern every society, and the one I want to examine—one that forms a major element in all Leftist political theory—is the structures of power.

I suspect that this, more than any other thing, certainly more than any ostensible Issue in politics, underlies the difference between the Right and Center on the one hand, and the Left on the other, in this country. The Right and the Center (which latter embraces much of the Democratic Party and most if not all relatively liberal Republicans) move very easily in the framework of rights, which considers every person as an individual; and there is a great deal to be said for that. Each one, the prophet Ezekiel said, shall die for his own sins. But what they tend to, and in some ways have to, leave out, is the context of the individual: the why behind the what of their needs, goals, and actions. And if the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that relationship is part of the essential fabric of existence, means anything, it means that context cannot be ignored. Context is, in fact, part of the text. Style is not overlaid upon substance, style is a part of substance. And it is the Left, not the Right or the Center, that grapples with this the most readily.

This is not to say that the Left is generally correct about … well, anything, technically (though I do in fact agree with the American Left about a good deal). It is only to say that they are addressing a question that most political discourse in this country has, whether ignorantly or cynically, mostly ignored since 1783.

This question of power structures is the motor behind a lot of contemporary progressivist movements and causes: Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, most queer rights groups, First Nations [1] advocacy, and so on. Now, I don’t claim to understand power structures very well—most of what I’ve learned about power has had less intersectionality and more safe words—but what I do grasp can be summed up thus:


1. Social power tends to be wielded by groups who share some kind of common social identity: wealth, ethnicity, religion, sex, and language are all popular social identity definers (e.g. the property requirements of the Roman Senate or the use of French by the English nobility in the MediƦval period).
2. Social power consists in the ability of a group to secure its interests and privileges. Most if not all groups tend to try to increase their privileges.
3. Although egalitarian power structures are possible, in which partnership is valued over dominance, both human selfishness and concerns about scarcity (real or imagined) tend to promote dominance hierarchies, in which power is distributed unequally among social groups.
4. Dominant social groups tend to appeal to theoretical justifications of their disproportionate share of power; these justifications frequently involve maligning other social groups in some way, making it their own fault (intrinsically or historically) that they are excluded from power.

Also known as the 'Should've Thought of That Before You Became Poor' Rule.

A few important addenda are worth noting: for instance, that social power is not intrinsically bad. Being able to secure your interests is a good thing; that’s why people want it. But of course we know very well from both history and daily life that people trying to get things they want don’t necessarily behave very well. It’s that tendency, not the fact of power, that’s bad.

Additionally, with regard to the fourth point about theoretical pretexts for inequalities of power, certain facts must be kept very firmly in mind. Firstly, the abstract truth of the pretext has little or nothing to do with its use by the powerful: typically they are not much interested in abstract truth (only scholars, artists, and sometimes judges normally have a taste for that), but are quite interested in effective tools for maintaining their social power. A justification might be entirely false, entirely unprovable, mixed and mangled, or even completely true: the socially powerful are still going to treat it as a tool, with all of the consequences that generally produces. These justifications are puppet monarchs, installed by foreign interests: the actual strength of the puppet’s claim to the throne is irrelevant; it could be a perfectly good claim, but the foreign interests will conduct themselves much the same way anyhow. I expect that any theoretical justification for inequality will tend to do more and more damage in the self-interested hands of the powerful, as the admixture of truth in the justification goes up. But any of them can do such a lot of damage anyway that this may not matter even if I’m right.

Another facet of the problem is that the origin of these justifications can be deceitfully centered on the disadvantaged. The totalitarian government of Stalin was rooted in Marxism, which was specifically formulated to liberate the oppressed. Christianity, which was a faith of slaves and women in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, became first the backbone of that civilization, and then its weapon and the weapon of its European descendants. The white identity politics of our own day revolve largely around the idea that whites are in some way endangered—culturally, economically, or racially. We might have expected that these puppet claims would always be crafted by the socially powerful post facto, as justifications for a state of affairs that was crowbarred in by explicit force; but, although that certainly happens, it is not nearly so universal as we might have assumed. The powerful and privileged will take any theory that comes to hand, even one snatched from a beggar.

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[1]First Nations is (I understand) the generally preferred term for what used to be called Native Americans. In European colonial history, native has often been a derogatory word; and of course American Indian was always nonsense ethnologically speaking, based on a mistake Columbus clung to throughout his life despite evidence to the contrary.

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