"...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

May 22, 2010

Conceptual Maps and the Organization of Power

Some time ago, in an attempt to explain how I understood power, I tried to turn the common idea of authority on its head. I don't know if I succeeded, and I maintain an enduring awareness of my own many limitations, but the image itself has at least stayed useful for me: whereas we have long accustomed ourselves to see power as enacted from a height above us, I thought it better to treat with human power as a sink, a gravity well, as a hole in the everyday ground of our lives.

Perhaps our view of reality has always had this element of royal power. I suspect so, especially since the word "real" often means "réal," or royal. Reality, as that which the royals command, from their curule chairs, their horses, their thrones, the chariots, their parapets, castle walls, high towers, sky scrapers and hill top estates.

Gods on mountaintops, God's word descending, prophets come from on high, and spirit falling like rain or manna from heaven.

Very useful, this, to those who want their subjects to believe that the elect occupy human heights. To have them as they rule believe that power comes down, that it descends.

But what if we instead understand power as the result of accumulation, of gathered slaves and labor, of collected stuff and servants, of associations which bind, which tie, which becoming dense become heavier.

As mass, with its own rotation. As gravity wells, and fields of attraction. Imagining ourselves walking the landscape of our lives, we encounter power not as that which descends from some height, to rule and command us, but as a hole in the ground, as a sink which pulls on our lives and labor, which needs that labor and our lives as additional mass, as fuel for its rotation.

People achieve power, seen this way, not by soaring, by climbing, by ascending to new heights of loftiness. Power, understood as a sink hole, develops from the capture of others, from the stripping away of their labor, their effort, from the accumulation of people and the fruits of their hands.

A metaphorical treatment, I understand, and one with its own limitations. Perhaps, though, the next time you have the misfortune of interacting with a boss, see him not as a man governing from a height, but as a captive creature, buried and descending, constantly feeding on the labor of others, to hold his gravity well together, to keep it from dispersing and sending all he controls spinning out of his hands.

We don't strictly need these conceptual maps. A person can make it from sleep to sleep without these overlays in memory. But we do use them. Our brains seem well fitted to the task. We find uses for them, and a goodly portion of culture follows from the instruction in conceptual mapping. Not for nothing do we learn the boss man's history in the schools his state organizes, history as the domain of the exceptional, who just happen to look like those who rule us. We learn science as the story of great and wondrous men, and rarely learn of the toils of those who kept them fed or dug up the raw materials which they turned into playthings. Not for nothing does the priest teach all the big beliefs to the very young, shaping not only how they process data, but what information they learn to ignore.

We learn how to see the world, and we learn how to see so little of it.

Take "the political." Conceptually, "the political" conceals more than it reveals. A political schematic of human interaction demonstrates more by what it does not map, than by the end state phenomena it manages to show. A political view of the world begins with a refusal to see most of its constituent parts, naming the organizational relationship, and effects, but obscuring by omission most of the effort, labor and persons who constitute the basis of political power and influence. A political view of the world treats with those who act as players, on a stage which has no visible support, which has no backdrop and no immediate relationship to world around it. We do not see, in the acting of the play, those who built the stage, and those who maintain it. We do not see the food, the water, the raw resources or the finished materials necessary to keeping the players in costume and the workers on the job and awake, unless only as props for the play.

The political shows us only the final organizations, and not the raw material and persons used up, captured and captivated by the acting of the play.

As a conceptual map, "the political" serves well the interests of those with the power to put on the performance, because it obscures the physical, material origins of their power.

It conceals the origins of the organization, treating power as a thing in itself, an end result without a visible maker. A fait accompli, with no accomplices.

Let's sidestep for a moment, and look at this from another angle. Let's assume a neighborhood, in a small northern city, at such and such latitude, during a certain period of time. The political map of that neighborhood needs few markers, depending on the sparseness of description to reinforce the point of those making it. Street names, labeled according to the deeds of great men. Named after tribes annihilated. Named after trees torn down to make way for streets which bear their names. This business here, that police station there. Signs, marking power, and influence. Cathedrals and gas stations, planned shopping malls and city hall.

The political maps organizations. It maps the loci of their power, but not how they accomplish it.

Another description of the same neighborhood, in the same city: between the confluence of the River Quog and the River Mac, rising to a small plateau, which descends sharply to a flattened valley between the two rivers. Pine trees and azaleas, red maple and invasive ivy, a small forested plot to the northwest, along a ridge topped by a massive granite escarpment, shadowing on one side a public housing site, peopled mostly by Eastern European and African immigrants, children playing soccer in the field adjacent, spirited, laughing; on the other side, a neighborhood of modest single family homes which blends gradually for a half mile into a small grid of tree lined streets, composed mostly of apartment buildings, coming to an abrupt end along another ridge, a steep wooded bluff, home to chipmunks and a vast murder of crows, which falls rapidly to a bike path and public park, following the River Quog all the way to its merger with the Mac, bordering the lower flattened valley of more apartments and small homes which rises on the other side to another ridge, topped by a church and a Catholic hospital, and then swiftly down again, to the highway and the Mac itself. A wedge between the flow of two rivers, inhabited mostly by workers, the old French quarter of the city, now home to Latinos, the growing West Indian community, a number of Bosnians in their extended families and the last of the Mic Mac in the area - a diverse neighborhood in an otherwise white northern city - working class, too compact, too old to fit the big box stores and the chain outlet parasites, buildings in close proximity, cooking smells and yelps of children. Year round, runners and walkers, children with dogs, the streets populated, unlike elsewhere in they city, where middle class occupants drive from box to box, inside boxes on wheels, boxing their lives in grids of cubicles and subscription entertainments.

Not a complete picture, either - but different, less isolated from the facts of daily existence.

A map that does not serve the interests merely of organizations.


We arrive now at the organization itself. As the Invisible Committee* writes, "Organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves." An organization separates. It accumulates. Some portion of the labor of the organized maintains the organization, keeps those who run it, well, running it. In order to preserve the social shape of the organization - whatever organization - those in the hierarchy roll out their own conceptual maps, schemata of responsibility, and power - of blame and recognition. They describe their power over the organization as a function of it, as necessary to give it shape, to keep its goals in sight, its mission intact.

So that the mission of those so organized towards some end becomes political, includes always the retention in memory, in loyalty, in the relation with others: the preservation of the organization.

Let us treat with an example. Let's walk along another road, in a different city. Walking thus, discussing our days, or the dreams of children, we come across a burned out shelter, riddled with refuse, a city plot of broken glass and concrete edges.

We can cooperate to clean it up, or we can make an organization. If we agree to work together, discovering skills and strengths, gaps in knowledge and the host of our preferences, we can set upon our task as soon as we have the means to do so, as soon as we make them. We can address the problem, or the opportunity, in its immediacy - sharing and disputing, working out our problems and disagreements, shaping a consensus, a goal, an end and the means by which we arrive at it.

Or we can devote some portion of our effort first to the manufacture - in our minds, in our relations with each other, and in the resources we dedicate - of an organization to fix the ruined plot. If we do it this way, we must always devote some portion of our labor, and our resources, to preserving and maintaining the shape and the knowledge of the organization. Until it becomes, soon enough, the logic of its own existence.

Like an archaic kingdom, or political tribe, or a cult, or a city-state, or a church, or a fiefdom, or an empire, or an army, or a state, or a political party, or a corporation, or a charity - well, you get the picture.

Until it becomes a social, political and economic gravity sink in its own right, coming to dominate the environment, or its niche therein, in the pursuit of its own preservation, shaping labor and resources to the benefit of those who invariably end up ruling it...

* - The Coming Insurrection, Semiotext(e), 2009


JRB said...

Maybe if we combine the traditional pyramid with your inversion, we get a Star of David measuring different sides of the same phenomenon?

It seems like the former describes prerogatives of power, and the latter servitude to it: the boss bears a greater burden in this respect.

However, not being able to eat is a different kind of burden, even if it lends itself to a certain "lightness of being!"

Very provocative and original post as usual. Thanks.

Jack Crow said...

Thank you very much.

I like this:

"It seems like the former describes prerogatives of power, and the latter servitude to it: the boss bears a greater burden in this respect."

Preserves the standard view of power, which has its many uses.

Jay Taber said...

Like tribes, institutions, and markets, a network is a form of organization. A network can be either formal or informal; its participants likewise. The advantage of formalizing voluntary working relationships, to whatever degree works for the network, is in the continuity of archived memory and the stability of leadership development.

Mentoring is essential to these, and is next to impossible in an ad hoc arrangement.

Jack Crow said...


I'm attempting to suggest that any organization which seeks to preserve itself beyond its immediate, temporal function must establish a set of controls on its shape, which means people in control, which means hierarchy, which means power, which means abuse of power.

I'm not suggesting people shouldn't organize; only that in creating organizations, the thing to be addressed is invariably lost to protecting the org.



Jay Taber said...

While I don't necessarily agree with your logic, I can see where the moral theatrics industry in the US might lend itself to your conclusion.

Organizational dynamics, as you state, consume energy perhaps better spent elsewhere, but organizations are also the only way to achieve anything lasting and substantial. If you're working on multi-generational stuff -- like transforming American governance to something resembling a democracy -- that's going to entail a lot of organizing and responsibilities. If an organization and its members are dedicated to something worthwhile, then protecting both is important.

Design of process and protocols can help avoid problems, but attitude makes the difference. Be careful about who you choose to work with, and expect ups and downs. We're only human.

Jack Crow said...

I think we may have to agree to disagree on this one. More later, but I just wanted to note that I'm still thinking about what you wrote.

Jay Taber said...

Fair enough, dude. When I first made a foray into the arena of social conflict, I attended soirees with like-minded locals where we grilled and chilled around the campfire discussing the politics of our community. Some were into research, others into speaking at public hearings or writing letters to the editor. Over time, some of us ran for local office, some started non-profits to watchdog local government.

None of us were party hacks or careerist do-gooders, but through attending government functions and debriefing at our regular socials, we were able to shake things up considerably. A couple of us started alternative newspapers as well.

Eventually we went our separate ways across North America, but we stayed in touch, and two of us archived some of the lessons we learned on the website http://www.publicgood.org/ After I began blogging, we started getting requests for consultations all over the country. Since we do this as a volunteer activity, we're limited in what we can do, but we've had some success.

We've also met some remarkable people with the ability to make a difference in the world, but many have fallen by the wayside through isolation or attrition. What I'm suggesting is that local chapters of an association focused on our governance aspirations, that met regularly for food and fun, might be worthwhile.