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The Forms of Power

Francisco Javier Ruiz-Tagle
Published: 06 December 2016 Tuesday, 12:39  AM

The Forms of Power

In a result predicted by nobody, Trump won. The polls were wrong, as has become commonplace over the last five years, and the “most powerful nation on Earth” will now be governed by a multimillionaire, populist xenophobe – and all with the support of the working class. Such is the topsy-turvy world we now live in! Now, Europe get ready!

With his calls to “make America great again”, he seems to want to turn back the clock, transforming the United States into some form of autarchy. The question is whether or not he’ll be allowed to do so as, after the previous administration, it’s no longer clear if the president has any real power. As you may recall, progressives across the globe were excited by Obama’s election, but were soon disappointed as the president changed tack and returned to the “business as usual” of American empire – with an embarrassing peace prize thrown in – all the while hemmed in by the powers that be.

For centuries, power was intimately connected with the State. From the very beginning, nation states found themselves increasingly in the hands of an emerging upper-class which controlled power through a system of representative democracy. Over time it became apparent that the system was hopelessly rigged as the representatives, once elected, tended to betray the voters. Given this dubious condition of “Bourgeois democracy”, the main challenge for rival political groups wishing to enact social change was to reach this “centre of power” by any means at their disposal – force being principal among them. A chaos of revolution and counterrevolution followed; a struggle among the distempered elite in which the voiceless were rocked to and fro and suffered the consequences of the tremors.

In the midst of this back and forth, the youth rebellion of the 60s opened new avenues outside the mainstream political system. Social movements appeared and remained active for over a decade, only later entering into a long period of stagnation from which they have begun to emerge in the last few years. Voices from other sectors of society, which self-identified as alternative forms of power, could also be heard: Black Power, Gay Power, Youth Power and feminism all made great strides, as can be seen today.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) discussed the problem of power and, more specifically, how to escape it. His studies of history showed that the level of conditioning exercised by the State on societies was profound, complicated, but also invisible, influencing citizens through a sort of vague physical memory (biopolitics). Following the example of Sartre – to whom he was his equal in fame, but ideologically opposed – and most left-wing intellectuals of his time, he wanted to go beyond academic discourse and so launched himself into politics. He hoped to prove his ideas by putting them into practice. He joined the Maoists[1] as part of this attempt; they were one of the most radical groups in favour of forming a parallel people’s power base, in effect replacing institutional channels.

Towards the end of this passionate time, intellectuals began to give up on extremist experiments as they realised that they led inexorably to new forms of fascism. The last hope for Foucault was the Iranian Revolution (1978) which managed to bring down the powerful Shah by creating a vacuum to power rather than fighting against it. He witnessed these events first-hand as a correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and wrote numerous articles fervently supporting the process which ended in the installation of a ruthless Shiite theocracy. This brutal ending put a permanent end to the philosopher’s libertarian dreams – at least as far as politics was concerned.

Global power

The failure of the left, along with the retreat of intellectuals and the later collapse of the Soviet Union, resulted in a situation never before seen in human history: the appearance of a sole, universal super power; one that spread its influence across the world by two means: geopolitics, controlled with the military-industrial complex, and the economy, controlled with the bank’s international financial capital. While the lords of war and money have so far managed to coexist due to their overlapping interests, it is difficult to predict whether or not they might cross swords in future. It’s likely that Trump’s threats to abandon globalisation and limit foreign interventions will keep them together. In fact, Obama has dedicated the last days of his presidency to a European tour aimed at calming NATO, assuring them that the president-elect will respect the United States’ military commitments.

What’s clear is that politics has changed, even if it might be difficult for those of us who were brought up in a 60s landscape to accept and understand. The goal of political action has always been access to power, not as an end in and of itself, but as a means of acting upon and changing the social reality. When Trotsky led the assault on the Winter Palace[2], the revolution was already well under way in Russia; but that building was a symbol of the highest levels of power and its capture was the culmination of the revolutionary process. But where is the power today?[3] Where are the Winter Palaces? It feels as though the decisions are made in a few anonymous offices whose locations are completely unknown to all but a few, and where the president is decoration for the media and looks after public relations.

Globalisation snatched power away from Nation States, with control of global capital shifting to the big banks. Countries now depend on “foreign investment”, and the management of these resources is concentrated in the hands of a few private financial institutions which of course impose one-sided terms on local economies: high return on investment, reduction of public spending and an absence of regulations. States found themselves without the media to enact social policies, and without the media real power simply does not exist. Democracy then becomes a farce – a mere formality where we pick administrators who, even if they weren’t already in the pocket of big capital, wouldn’t be able to administer anything.

Really, we already knew all of this or, at the very least, we had some kind of inkling. But we now possess enough quantitative information and empirical evidence to prove it. What we don’t know is how we might go about recovering the sovereignty which has been snatched from the peoples of the world, bearing in mind that the current “centres of power” are no longer political. Kafka’s The Castle is a frightening allegory which illustrates this phenomenon: in it, the protagonist tries unsuccessfully to gain access to a mysterious, inhuman and incomprehensible power. The stifling and vaguely oppressive atmosphere in which the story takes place is similar to what we’re experiencing today. Once more, the great artists are ahead of their time.

Real power

One of the biggest challenges facing contemporary humanism is finding a way of transfering all of the power to citizens and, in doing so, re-establishing a true democratic spirit. This process, however, isn’t one of simple forms and procedures, but of reinvigorating a culture of democracy that has been in decline over the last few decades. The spread of political disaffection among the citizenry can be understood as resulting from the vague feeling that their votes don’t count.

The Dictionary of New Humanism[4]4 suggests that “Humanists are convinced that the fate of democracy depends on the formation of the personality of citizens in the spirit of democracy, on their integral and harmonious development, on the creation of conditions favouring the fulfilment and improvement of their creative capacities, and success in raising the level of general and civic culture.”  That is to say that, more than just a change in legislation, a personal change is necessary – one that brings about a new way of experiencing democracy.

Real power lies with the people, but our institutions are designed to minimise this power in line with the centuries old principle: the people do not reason, they are moved by basic impulses and, as such, they require the guiding hand of a rational governing elite. The people, in turn, are tired and unwilling to defend their rights; they remember the past, and have no wish to risk seeing themselves led blindly towards a failed social experiment – as has happened before. This precarious balance is what sustains the status quo, but sometimes it’s lost and a Donald Trump appears. The problem is that, in recent times, this kind of lapse has become the norm and it’s only likely to get worse in the immediate future.

In the current political climate, strengthening democracy has become an historic imperative and not simply one choice among many. A weak political culture has resulted in ever lower political participation and extremely low voter turnouts, something that seriously perverts the democratic spirit. There is of course no magic fix that can bring us towards true democracy; it will surely be a long and difficult path – one almost unprecedented historically[5].  With that said, the main challenge won’t come from these procedural difficulties, but from the political class itself.

Is there any way past the elites? For the moment, there is only one: community self-organisation.  A fine paradox: the global two-headed mono-power against local multi-power. No doubt there is a lot to be learnt in this epic battle of one against many – but perhaps the most important, and most difficult, thing is to achieve effective coordination among this disparate mass such that it may act as one body, as an interconnected network[6]. The Spanish anarchist historian Miguel Amorós relates this new form of resistance to the defence of the urban realm, and describes the current state of the struggle as such: “Community is created in mobilization and resistance as well as in constructive and creative work. Thus, in urban spaces, there have appeared neighbourhood agorae, coordinated assemblies of workers, communitarian orchards, working-class canteens, alternative clinics, self-managed workshops and other more-or-less successful initiatives in response to concrete problems. (…)  These examples are dispersed, marginal, voluntarist and badly equipped, but have considerable importance because they show the way to follow when a veritable social movement crystallizes and surpasses the stage of barricades.”[7]

As Amorós said, it is a fledgling and spontaneous process which has yet to take the form of a fight against global power; it’s also unclear if it will ever gain momentum and offer an effective exit in the face of global capitalism’s imminent collapse. When Spain’s “Indignados” movement first burst into the streets, neighbourhoods immediately started making attempts at self-organisation. In the heat of elections, however, the movement ended up being absorbed into Podemos which channelled its energy towards traditional politics. Memory weighs heavily.

Prehistory will be left behind only when we move beyond the old hierarchical power structures and embrace the humanist maxim that “nothing above the human being, and no human being below any other.” But this won’t come about by chance or through the action of a few isolated volunteers; it will come about only when we are joined in a collective desire and begin moving in force towards it. This is a guiding vision, but we will continue to find ourselves trapped by the infinite repetition of these old forms of power until we adopt it.

 

Translated by Mark Wood on www.trommons.org

 

[1] One of the most well-known expressions of Maoism in Latin America is the Peruvian guerrilla organisationSendero Luminoso.

[2] The term “assault” might be a bit of an overstatement – as they were met with very little resistance from the defenders and fighting was minimal – but the word and the event have a great symbolic significance for Marxist-Leninism.

[3] The question comes from the title of a recently published article by Leonardo Boff (servicioskoinonia.org), which touches on a couple of studies carried out by Brazilian economist Ladislau Dowbor on the measureless power of international banks.

[4] The Dictionary of New Humanism, Silo. Ediciones León Alado, 2014.

[5] Humanist Guillermo Sullings’ book Encrucijada y futuro del ser humano (Crossroads and future of humanity), recently published by Virtual Ediciones, goes into more detail on this process.

[6] The book Planificando para construir organización comunitaria (Planning the construction of community organisations), written by Marta Harnecker and José Bartolomé and published in Chile by eldesconcierto.cl, is a complete manual on the subject.

[7] Cénit y ocaso (Rise and fall), Miguel Amorós. Ediciones Askasis, Santiago, 2016.