October 13, 2022

“We will deliver, and deliver, and deliver!” proclaimed Liz Truss, sounding like a crazed obstetrician. While our new leader is taking her first gulps at the poisoned chalice of power, the outlook for those whom power likes to harass doesn’t look too rosy.

A few weeks ago, a police officer tried to arrest a man carrying a blank placard who might have written something offensive to the King on it. Perhaps this heralds a whole new category of crime, namely those which you haven’t committed and don’t even intend to, but always might. People going for a quiet run in the park might suddenly dash into a bank and rob it. We’re going to need a lot more prisons.


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Most liberals and leftists look on power with suspicion. But this is because when they hear the word they instinctively think of dominant power, and look for some kind of resistance to it. But resistance is itself a form of power; not all power is oppressive. There are productive forms of it as well as despotic ones. It all depends on who has it for what purposes in which circumstances. Only those with enough power already can afford to be sniffy about it, just as there are millionaires who fix their thoughts on spiritual matters and despise the rest of us for our crass materialism.

The only thing worse than having too much power is having too little. Democracy isn’t the opposite of power but a particular form of it. You need power to free yourself from slavery or Vladimir Putin. The same is true of authority, not all of which is to be derided.

The Met police, for instance, are in trouble partly because becoming a police officer is an attractive prospect to a lot of natural-born bullies and rednecks, who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to kick other people around or make obscenely sexist remarks in the knowledge that their mates would be alarmed if they didn’t. Trying to root out police bigotry thus has its limits, like trying to root out aspiring entertainers who enjoy being applauded.

But there is also the authority of a Nelson Mandela, which is a question not of rank but of wisdom and experience. Knowledge without wisdom is impoverished. So is knowledge without knowing how to apply it. There is such a thing as tacit knowledge, meaning something you know but can’t formulate. Try teaching someone how to whistle “Hey Jude”.

Noam Chomsky once made an interesting comment on the flyblown old cliché “speaking truth to power”. He pointed out that power (of the dominant kind) knows the truth already. Only the excessively charitable see it as a clumsy but well-intentioned giant, blundering witlessly around the place and trampling on people like a rogue elephant without even noticing. On this theory, power is born of ignorance. If only it were aware of the havoc it wreaks, it would change its ways. If only the tobacco companies had known long ago about the lethal effects of smoking, they would have shifted over into producing cheese-and-onion crisps. If the logging companies are deaf to the danger of destroying the rainforests, let’s just tell them again, and then again. While we’re at it, let’s draw the attention of the gambling industry to the suicides whose blood they have on their hands.

Power, however, is far from witless. On the contrary, it makes use of highly specialised forms of knowledge all the time. Knowledge is itself a mode of power, rather as universities have become service stations for the capitalist economy. Power knows what’s going on in the most literal of senses, given its global networks of surveillance. It is perfectly conscious of its own darker machinations, but either doesn’t care or believes that they are unavoidable. What sustains it is not ignorance but self-interest. It isn’t schooling it needs, but restraining. This is also true at the individual level. There are people to whom one should no more give power than one would give a bowie knife to a toddler. The problem is that one usually finds out who they are when it’s too late.

It isn’t power, then, that needs the truth, which means that intellectuals will have to find some other high-minded justification for their salaries. It’s those whose lives power makes miserable. To be free, you need what is traditionally known as emancipatory knowledge — a grasp of your situation as a whole, one which involves not just a new view of the world but a new self-understanding. And this transformed self-understanding is itself an active force for change. If a process of political liberation is to be judged successful, those who emerge at the end of it aren’t quite the people they were when they started out.

David Hume, perhaps the greatest of British philosophers, writes rather surprisingly that power always lies with the governed. He’s not speaking of democracy, which hardly existed at the time, but of the fact that sovereignty ultimately rests on popular agreement. You can imprison some of the people all of the time, but you can’t imprison all of the people all of the time. Any form of rule which doesn’t engage the partial consent of the masses is unlikely to endure.

Without that consent, as Sigmund Freud remarks, it would be impossible to understand how so many civilisations have survived for so long despite the justifiable hostility of the common people. There must be enough people who are complicit in their own subjection — enough people on benefits, for example, who are rather taken with that nice Mr Kwarteng and think he is doing a great job. It’s true that consent needn’t mean affection: most governments have been tolerated rather than admired. Power is what we have to put up with. But people, being properly self-interested, will only submit to it as long as there is something in it for them.

What that is, of course, may be pathetically meagre. It may mean having the secret police search your flat only once a month rather than twice a week. Those who are subject to power are usually reluctant to revolt against it — not necessarily because they have any particular relish for it, but because of the dangers involved in confronting its violence, the lack of any obvious alternative, and the fact that they have too much to do without chaining themselves to each other for days on end. On the other hand, the moment citizens realise that there simply isn’t enough in it for them anymore, they will rebel as surely as night follows day. It is rational to do so, and human beings are somewhat rational creatures. When any alternative becomes better than what you have, the days of your rulers are numbered. This may be partly because there is no longer much in it for them either.

The great theorist of political consent is Edmund Burke. In his treatise on aesthetics, Burke tries to square the fact that the law must be feared with the need for it to be loved. If the former evokes the image of the father, the latter has a more maternal flavour. The authority of the father, Burke argues, “hinders us from having that entire love for him that we have for our mothers, where the parental authority is almost melted down into the mother’s fondness and indulgence”. The problem is that only love will bind us to the law, but this love is likely to weaken its force and inspire in us a benign contempt. Desperate to resolve this contradiction, Burke offers us the figure of the grandfather — male, to be sure, but tempered by old age with a certain gentleness of spirit. It is unlikely that this will provide much guidance for Liz Truss.

Freud, by contrast, sees no final solution to this dilemma. In his language, the law becomes the superego or source of punitive discipline; and since it is installed inside us all, its power is all the more draconian. To transgress it feels like violating ourselves. The law works as well as it does because we reap an obscene delight from being oppressed by it; and this is because being punished relieves us of our guilt. Yet we then feel guilty about our delight, which leads us to want more punishment. We revere the law, then, but our reverence is ambivalent: we never entirely submit to its coercion, and rejoice in seeing it brought low. No Tory government is going to work that one out.

The most authentic form of power, so we learn from King Lear, is one which maintains a pact with weakness and failure. The most elusive aspect of power is the exercise of it for its own sake. There is something excessive about this faculty, which tends to outstrip its practical goals and revel in itself. It wasn’t a burning desire to spread social sweetness and light which kept Boris Johnson hanging on to office like a burr to the seat of one’s pants. In this respect, power is as irrational as love.

Such power is not likely to disappear anytime soon, and this is good news for those who need to fight injustice. But we will know that genuine change has happened when the word no longer means quite what it means at present — when not only the power-situation, but the very concept of power, has been transformed almost out of recognition.