"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Jul 4, 2010

The Constitution of the Stable Form of Power

Below, about a dozen folks have kindly added comment to and criticism of my most recent entries. Humbly, you have my gratitude. 

Instead of attempting to answer each in my now usual linear and verbose fashion, where I take a small idea and waste a thousand words making it smaller, I thought instead to answer the lot of them collectively, using those comments and critiques as a sound board for the expansion of the premise I have attempted to develop.

First, a recapitulation:

Societies change, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly - but, inexorably. How human persons live together remains relatively fluid, beyond a certain threshold. Some sort of family unit - a mammalian trait, I imagine - defines the interior of that threshold. Beyond the family, which social group itself shows remarkable flexibility, and especially since the development of agriculture, human societies demonstrate an enormous range of potential forms, hybrids and rising and declining types.

Time seems an unforgiving milieu, and the human memory itself variable in the face of the pressures of time. We forget. We rethink memories. We recast old beliefs about our memories - personal and shared, encased in the individual brain, and stored exosomatically - according to new successes, innovations, failures and traumas.

We do not share a common perspective. The same event, seen from different vantages and different epochs, provides a variety of meanings, dependent upon the observers, and the way those observers understand their material conditions.

Human social groupings show every indication of constant flux.

The human power structure does not. The form of power remains almost exclusively stable. Since the parts of the form of power - persons - do not remain stable over time, and in fact live exceedingly brief existences, the form of power does not derive from an external imposition on human behavior, or from some innate tendency to organize thusly. It arises from the material conditions of human and extra-human interaction. And more importantly, it replicates.

People make the form of power, and they continuously remake it according to a surprisingly enduring structure, regardless of place or time.

Persons shape others to assume power. And we cannot really understand power without understanding, at a fundamental level, that it invariably means power over.

The form of power constitutes a way of living which allows a very small number of persons, proportionally, to rule over the larger bodies of their constituent and governed populations. Those governed populations groups present a tremendous range of potential forms, and yet the stable form of power does not tend to vary.

Let us, then, restate this form of power: a small order of ranks, with several adjutants answerable to a primary authority, assisted by a body of councilors and a lesser organ which interacts with the ruled parts symbolically, with enforcement done by members drawn from the population group itself and trained to identify further with power.

And let's remember that persons replicate this form towards a very specific and durable end, namely to force others to labor, converting raw materials into luxury, weapons and controllable territory.

Power has a function. I humbly submit that we cannot understand this stable form of power unless we understand its very material function.

Therefore, when Andromeda writes,

"Until the current (and historical) form or structure of what we call 'power' falls away---or is destroyed from the bottom up by the oppressed---nothing will ever change. As you said, 'You don't get the job unless you want to do the job.'

The very idea of 'power" requires that one or some individuals be elevated over the 'masses.'

I think the only thing that can save us from this endless cycle of 'power' is a shift in paradigms to rule 'power' obsolete in favor or something called 'willful servitude.' "

I can both agree and disagree. I again humbly submit that the constitution of the masses, as masses, misses the point. The shape of the ruled population does not matter, in relation to the form of power. And in societies without the very specific national form of the the masses, a late and modern invention, opposition to power would fail because it would follow from a tactical misunderstanding of the strategic environment. And although I agree, without reservation, that those who live beneath power must first reconceive power in the negative, primarily as a mode of existence which they must reject, in order to oppose it - I imagine that any attempt to instruct those raised to obey power in "willful servitude" will end up reinforcing the replication of power.

Power retains this stable form through replication, towards a clear end.

When fwoan writes that "spreading power dilutes it," and soon on amends the statement to ask, "But this, I think, only includes forms of power commonly seen today whether electoral or dictatorial. What about forms of Demarchy where those who are given power are not given it by campaigning, capturing, or inheritance?"

I must reply by restating the premise that power does not have a solubility in human populations, because the form of power does not require a specific constitution to the governed population. In order to have power, one must do power - and we must remember, towards a very clear end.

We cannot separate the form of power from its material purpose, or from the material conditions over which it repeatedly replicates. If some ruling group of persons wants to get others to labor, and ensure that those who labor derive little or the lesser part of the benefit of that labor, the ruling faction will assume a very specific and stable form of power, since that structure works, has almost always worked, and will continue to work so long as the goal remains the same.

Therefore, when drip writes,

"...In the previous post you ended with [y]ou don't get the job unless you want to do the job. That is true if the job or behavior is inside the realm controlled by power. It is not true outside that realm. There are some real life examples of this. Some of the radical religions that survived the Reformation, operate solely by collective activity relying on dispersed authority. AA, the most successful social therapy of the 20th century operates without leaders or outside assistance. The civil rights movement in India and for a short time here had leaders who lasted only as long as they articulated the needs of the movement...."

I would suggest, with great humility, that the point of our disagreement lies in the use of the word "power." Which brings me almost immediately to accounts of Native American social structure (specifically, Shawnee), as well - where a chief's influence did not exist beyond the willingness of those persons who agreed with him, to continue to agree.

If we discuss the agreement to cooperate, using the terms of power, we have every right to forgive ourselves the confusion. Raised to obey, and to understand the ordering of the world as a natural system of ranks and hierarchies, we ought have no surprise that we often confuse the terms we use, when discussing those ways of living which do not require the stable form of power, because they do not require or preserve its purpose.

In that light, perhaps it might follow that we better understand the stable form of power precisely when comparing it with those human social shapes which do not depend upon the extraction of labor, resources and information from a governed population and territory, by a proportionally smaller class or faction which derives its benefit and enjoyment from the submission of the extracting population.

We ought perhaps describe positions of respect and expertise, in those alternative arrangements, without using the terms of power and authority.

With continuing respect to you each and all,

~ Jack


Spartacus O'Neal said...

Since you raise the Native American alternative, it is perhaps worth noting that the form of traditional governance common to indigenous societies commands equal respect for material and sacred dimensions. With community health and continuity as top priorities, this wholistic strategy serves to determine who will be allocated use of the community's collective power of self-determination.

Given the evolving dynamics of this communal process, it is socially logical to institute protective mechanisms that retain memory and guard against attack. Those who protect, as well as those who lead, are thus in positions and relationships to exercise the power loaned to them by the community to prevent it being lessened or destroyed by enemies.

In this sense, power is viewed as natural, pervasive, and zero sum.

Jack Crow said...

Do they actually exercise power, in so much as they have armed staffers whom they employ to force others to submit?

I guess what I have attempted to outline suggests that power, rightly understood, of necessity involves the aforementioned dynamic.

Otherwise, perhaps we do better to use terms such as prestige, influence, et cetera?

When we use the terms of power, we imply that the arrangement we discuss involves force.

Spartacus O'Neal said...

The power to influence behavior naturally includes the use of persuasion linked to the desire to belong and the corollary fear of being ostracized, banished, or physically harmed. In this sense, force is a necessary tool of community survival, a power we cede at our peril. How to proceed under conditions of assymmetrical power in all its ramifications is the question we must answer.

drip said...

I made my comment not in disagreement but in an attempt to argue that diffused power, power which is willingly and consensually given, is both constrained by the consent and functions based on that consent. The native american example, while apropos, seems to give some folks the idea that primitivism is the intended solution. That is not my point, which is that non-coerced, (consent is such a difficult word) support can create and maintain the power which now is solely coerced. One example that seems to get through on occasion is the internet, itself.

What is important, it seems to me, is to create and use ideas and a vocabulary which makes such new (or renewed) social arrangements seem possible so that when the time comes, people can have a way to view their shockingly new world that does not require them to rely on another for their power, let alone require them to permanently surrender what is rightfully theirs.

Jack Crow said...

I hope you understand that I wasn't disputing your point, just using it as a springboard to continue the development of my position.

Andromeda said...


Again, great post. I enjoy how thought-provoking your blog is.

I agree that the constitution of the masses as "masses" misses the point. In all honesty I just resorted to that term out of laziness. By "masses" I meant, as you put it: "the larger bodies of their constituent and governed populations"---or "those who submit/adhere"---but as you said, the shape of the ruled population does not matter in relation to the form of power.

Where the shape does matter, though, is in the possible re-conception of power "in the negative." Each individual, based on their biological make-up and their life experiences, has a differing view of the world, and it is this individuality that could be used as a strength to form a new type of community, sans "power": each person has something they can teach another person, and something they can learn from another person.

This is assuming, of course, that human beings of differing opinions could set aside their differences for a moment in pursuit of a better society.

"Willful servitude" is, unfortunately, somewhat of a Catch-22---you have to genuinely be self-motivated within your own person to serve your community and your fellow man, and no one else can give you that motivation: you have to find it within yourself.

And so I must agree that any attempt to instruct those raised to obey power in such a means---and the instruction itself somewhat defeats the purpose, as it must be done by example, and not by word of mouth---would end up reinforcing the replication of power.

I recently came upon a reason to research "The Society of Friends" (also called the "Quakers") and I was quite fascinated with their power structure---or rather, lack thereof. Their members encompass an incredibly wide variety of people, whom they tolerate and accept because they believe that literally all people (including those of other religions, agnostics, and atheists) deserve equal treatment as "all are created equal in the eyes of God."

Interestingly enough, they took a lot of heat for this in the late 1600s and some were imprisoned or put to death because they refused to practice "hat honour"---the Quakers refused to remove their hats or bow to anyone regardless of title or rank. They also refused to use titles (Lord, Dr., etc.) and simply called everyone by their first and last name, in the belief that "there was no hierarchy based on birth, wealth, or political power" in the eyes of God.

I'm not trying to hijack this and turn it into a discussion about religion at all. I just wanted to point out a group with a lack of power structure in a field (religion) that is over-saturated with power structure everywhere else. To this day many Quakers gather together with other Friends weekly in groups with no leaders (no clergy) and no fixed program. Perhaps society could take a page from their book in an attempt to avoid the ever-present, tired, hopelessly corrupt power recycling.

drip said...

It is not just the Friends, but also the Hudderites, Amish, Mennonites, Shakers and many of the unaffiliated forms of what we loosely refer to as baptists. Religion is most assuredly not my thing -- not even a tiny bit of my thing, but taken on their terms, these groups thrive. Now their power is, in some cases divine, but the authority arises from the group. Their permanently flat structures insure that power stays where it belongs and not in the hands of a person or a small group consisting of less than all.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Examining the Quakers et alia by examining their religiosity (deism) is something of a mistake, I think.

Unless you're assuming that their deism is the source of their humanism, which it appears NOT to be.

Quick reference back to "all men equal under God" -- the pivotal point there, for our purposes, is the "equal" part, and not the "under God" part.

That's what I think.

Andromeda said...

drip, thanks for the info. I'm not as well versed on some of the other forms of Christianity as you are---although I do spend a lot of time researching different world religions as it's an area of interest of mine. I know about the Amish but am not familiar with the Hudderites, Mennonites, Shakers, or unaffiliated baptists.

Again, I wasn't trying to bring religion into this at all but was pointing out the Quakers because they don't recognize one individual as having more power than any other individual. "Permanently flat structure" is a good way of describing it, thanks.

Andromeda said...

I'm not assuming their deism to be the source of their humanism---it may or may not be the source, but the point is moot as I think humanism without deism is not only possible, but is alive and well.

I agree with you, Charles; the relevant point for our purposes is the "equal" part, and that was what I intended to be the focus here. I finished the quote with "under God" simply because it is the Quaker belief system, but the "under God" is not relevant to this discussion, nor did I intend to suggest as much.

My head has been kind of cloudy for the past few days; I probably should have refrained from posting at all since the point I was trying to make was apparently completely unclear.

Jack Crow said...

Great comments.

Have to get my youngest ready for summer camp, and stuff. Not ignoring these replies, just have flesh and blood things to finish up.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Andromeda -- I wasn't so much picking on your or trying to read your mind/intent, as I was trying to clarify how I understand Quakers from my few Quaker friends and how they see the world. My Quaker friends are about as deist as I am, which is to say, not much at all, and only in a very vague & holistic way. None of that manifest destiny, pre-determined Calvinism, etc among them. Just a whole lot of communal outlook and share-cooperate-assist as general themes.

For that, I doubt we can thank any Quaker worshiping of any Sky God. I think we have to look more at what Quakers actually are and do.

It's always more honest and practical to judge people by their deeds. Humans are intelligent enough to know that saying one thing while doing another often gulls a large part of the fellow human population, who --especially for public figures like governmental leaders-- pay closer attention to what's said than to what's done. They can be told that what's done was somehow consistent with what's said, and they'll believe it, ignoring their skeptical faculties in favor of being part of The Herd, led by The Leader, who is believed somehow to be infallible.

Andromeda said...

Charles, no worries. I wasn't being defensive, but being honest when I said my head has been cloudy and I've not been able to make a clear point as of late---and so you've helped me to clarify my post into what I'd originally intended it to be: Quakers are one example of a group with a "permanently flat power structure" that believes in complete equality and truth, and strives to practice those beliefs on a daily basis.

It was not my intention to pin the Quakers humanism on deism. However, I personally have a vague and holistic view of a Creator (for lack of a better term) and I find that this only serves to reinforce my humanism.

This is not to say that agnostic/atheist humanism is inferior to any other type of humanism: I was pondering this last night and I believe that humanism is humanism, regardless of perceived source. If someone who believes in a Creator acknowledges that someone who does not believe in a Creator can have an equally solid humanist streak and moral compass---and vice versa---I don't see where those two people differ in a practical sense as long as each respects the other's free will.

Enough "religious" talk, though---it really wasn't ever my intent and, as history has proven, it needs to stay out of any system designed to foster mass cooperation lest problems arise. I primarily wanted to point out what you did: it is of critical importance to judge people by their deeds, and not their words. I'm not sure why humans seem to be in an endless cycle of believing words over deeds. This trend---which seems to be as old as "power"---needs to be addressed before humans can reform their society into a "powerless" structure.

If we don't start holding people accountable for their deeds versus their words I don't see any of this shaping up anytime soon.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I went to a Jesuit college. We were required to take 2 semesters of religion, so I took Introduction to the Bible (as taught by an acknowledged agnostic!) and World Religions (as taught by a diocesan priest, not a Jesuit). One thing the World Religions class taught me pretty well was the idea that all the major human religions we studied (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, if I remember right) were rooted in giving people codes and suggestions for how to live as a whole human race. The Golden Rule is pretty well part of each, though said differently in each. Beyond that, typical tribalisms begin dividing the major religions.

A lesson learned indirectly from that realization was this one: it's not the Sky God that matters, not really. It's the code for behavior among fellow humans that matters. The Sky God is introduced merely as an enforcer of these various Divine Edicts.

The more primitive (read: tending toward self-destruction by resolving differences with violence and other lizard-brain stuff... nothing to do with technology, I mean) a culture, the more likely it will want some supreme being as The Great Enforcer from On High.

Thus when a society begins collapsing, people collapse existentially onto their unanswered questions and other life-oriented confusions, and pick a tribe, and dig in their heels.

See: Israel, re Palestine.

See: Xtian Fundies in America, re the rest of the "heathen" Americans.

I suppose it will continue getting worse, until the Sky God provides evidence of Divine Intervention. Apparently Hurricane Katrina, the "bailouts," 9/11/2001, and the Deepwater Horizon mess aren't evidence enough yet.

Andromeda said...

"Xtian Fundies"---never heard that, nice term, I like it.

Indeed, all the major core human religions (and I have independently studied most, if not all, of them) are rooted in the same idea---universal love (either human or divine) and responsibility for your own actions.

How differing cultures can live in peace and "as a whole human race" is the core set of ideas that is at the heart of every belief system, and yet it is the same point that is willfully ignored, again and again, leading to "warfare in the name of the divine"---an oxymoron if I've ever seen one.

I agree: it's not the Sky God that matters to man as much as the code for behavior among fellow humans. In order to have a "flat power structure" and for everyone to share this planet we need to understand that we are all of equal worth, we have to respect and learn from each other's differences, and act together as responsible stewards of the animals and the earth.

Sky God isn't going to pick up any of this mess; as I said in a blog post I made a little while ago: If mankind does not try to help itself, there is no help for mankind. We have, as a race---the human race, all across the world---forgotten to value each other as human beings. We are all equal---all people have equal worth, regardless of race, religion, or circumstances. There is only one answer: unity.

Honestly to me it seems much easier to try to respectfully talk to someone with whom you disagree, than to kill them.

Then again, there's money and imagined "glory" in killing, and not so much in diplomacy, for whatever reason.

Jack Crow said...


I had Mennonite friends, growing up. They were a rather patriarchal unit. What Dad said, went. Without exception. And they worked their farm like dogs.

I get that Anabaptists in general were a rather antinomian and proto-anarchic lot, but in practice the followers of Menno tended to duplicate the same hierarchy as can be found everywhere, except that they rejected it in all manifestations except the family.

Six of one, half dozen of the other, way I see it.

It's not that I reject the idea that we can take some inspiration from ranters and other religious levelers, but that it would serve us well to examine the persistence of hierarchy, even in their familial norms.

Take the Tea Party and American fundies in general, as Charles and Andromeda have so neatly discussed above. For all their anti-power rhetoric, what they're really about is anti-overarching power. They don't want a big daddy fucking with all their little competing medium and small sized daddies.

And what not.



Andromeda said...

I was pondering your idea of power replication last night. I agree: repeated replication (over material conditions) is a core aspect of power---which makes it almost seem alive.

Power is an infectious agent: a virus that replicates in the living cells of organisms---in this case, the cells in the human brain.

Let's further examine the metaphor. A virus:

-evolves by natural selection

-cannot naturally reproduce outside a host cell

-reproduces by creating multiple copies of itself through self-assembly

I'd say power has evolved through natural selection over the past 5,000 years into ever more complex and power-hungry forms.

Power cannot "naturally reproduce" and so it reproduces by creating multiple copies of itself in the minds of both the "powerful" and in the minds of those who submit/adhere.

Jack Crow said...

We're on the same page today, Andromeda.