Grasping Power, Through A Glass Darkly

I approvingly retweeted this post from the Political World blog yesterday because I thought it corrected a common misperception about who wields power in Ireland. But having read through it again, I must take issue with some of its implications.

The Irish Nomenclatura – Crosspollination in Irish Financial and Political Life « Political World

One of the striking things about the power apparatus in Ireland is the myriad of cross-pollinating relationships within it. I don’t see “the government” as simply a selection of TDs from a parliamentary majority who form the Cabinet. These people have little or no power. If they had real power, the likes of Mary Coughlan would never become Tanaiste. They represent around 10% of the real power in Ireland. The rest is made up of the influence of the banks and insurance companies, the CIF (who own, to a large extent, FF), the upper levels of civil administration, public bodies like the HSE, Fas and the like, IBEC, PR companies/lobbying groups, the panoply of quangos and the mouthpiece for the “consensus”, RTE.
Complicit in this cosy structure and the maintaining of it in situ are the trade union movement and the media, particularly the Independent News Group. The lines between public and “private” get blurred (particularly when “private” companies exist on public monies dubiously awarded)

Cross-pollinating relationships are rife across this structure. They reinforce themselves in public bodies and quangos, in departments and private lobby companies, in our now-insolvent banks and union movement. The potential for conflicts of interest are huge but this power circle know how not to rock the boat and know that even if they do get caught out, the way to go is to simply brazen it out and further lower standards in Ireland until we arrive at where we are today, with public standards in the sewer and corruption everywhere in Irish public life.

So it doesn’t really matter who is in the Dail because these people have no real power and are there basically to serve those who exercise the other 90% of the power in the country. Those who exercise that 90% of the power would not tolerate able, talented, public-spirited people in elected office because such people are difficult to control.

In short, TDs and Senators, with a couple of exceptions, are the hired help, there to serve those who exercise 90% of the power. Which is why the quality is so low. They are happy to take the vast paychecks and unvouched expenses that comes with the office they hold. But that is the very point. They are in office but NOT in power because they don’t exercise the power.

When I mention the word nomenklatura, this is what I mean.

I don’t have much of a developed vocabulary when it comes to talking about power. I’ve read some Marxist analyses of power, some C Wright Mills, some Foucault, some Bourdieu. Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes made an impression on me when I read it about a year ago, but the impression has faded since I haven’t picked it up since. All this reading activity has been quite casual and cursory, and I’ve never bothered to summarise it for myself. What’s more, I don’t have any books to hand at the minute to check if what I am going to say approximates sense.

When it comes to talking about power, it comes as second nature to think about it as something people or institutions have. As in the exclamation from the Snap song, or when Patti Smith says People Have The Power. And then we, or at least I, normally think about it in terms of power over, or power to. The former denotes a relationship of domination and subjugation and the latter denotes the capacity to do something. And power over necessarily includes power to: power to demand that your servant apply Brylcreem to your Pekinese, for instance.

But to the extent that I can demand that my servant tend to my dog, what does it mean to say that I have power in this sense? It may be that I have money (generally, the most important form of social power) and my servant does not. But this is only one element of what defines the relation between me and my servant. . If my servant refuses to tend to my dog, he is exercising power: the power to refuse. If he adopts a passive-aggressive attitude to my commands, and applies the Brylcreem in a throughother manner that will embarrass my peers and jeopardise my social standing, he is still exercising power: the power to resist. Now, it may be that my servant harbours no such thoughts, and considers it the highest honour that could befall him and all his dead ancestors for him to brylcreem my dog so that he can keep his family scurvy-free. In such a case, where can we locate power? Do I have this power over him in the sense of the power being somehow vested in me? I don’t think so. For him to consider it an honour to do what he does requires some sort of conscious activity on his part. Which brings me, somewhat earlier than I expected, to the idea of false consciousness.

The idea of false consciousness -which Lukes’s book re-evaluates and finds useful, if I recall correctly- often seems to be prefixed with ‘old Marxist’. Consider this slice of reactionary cliché from the Torygraph:

Old Lefties turn Right – Telegraph

I
never dared be radical when young,” wrote Robert Frost, “for fear it
would make me conservative when old.” He was right to worry. The World
Values Survey, a study of 136,000 people in 48 countries, has found that
the old Marxist idea of false consciousness is alive and well – but
that, deliciously, it is self-professed Lefties who do not realise quite
how Right-wing they are. These middle-aged socialists may have voted
Labour, and marched for CND, but their views on redistribution show that
they are keener on keeping the wealth than sharing it.

To our
readers, this should come as little surprise. We have long argued that
the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative. Or, as
the French politician François Guizot put it in the 19th century: “Not
to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is
proof of want of head.”

Or, consider this report from the Nixon Center:

Prospects for Peace in Northern Ireland

In Mr. Trimble’s opinion, the original IRA ideology was one in which it perceived itself as the representative for the whole of the Irish nation, and the Unionists were “victims of false consciousness” who had been “deceived and manipulated” by the British.

I have no idea if Trimble’s characterisation of the original IRA ideology is accurate. What I do know is that it was a commonplace to hear people to talk about
Protestant unionists as though they were really Irish but just didn’t
know it yet, perhaps in the same way that a heterosexual man thinks he
can convert lesbians through sufficient applications of his virility. But the use of ‘false consciousness’ in this context is applied to subjects who consciously perceive themselves as British – a ‘false’ perception, in contrast to the ‘true’ consciousness: that in truth, they are Irish. Maybe the IRA themselves used this opposition between ‘true’ and ‘false’ consciousness themselves; I don’t know.

Now, if this is all that false consciousness is: a failure to apprehend a corresponding ‘true’ reality because of manipulation from some other party, then it is not very interesting, not least because it presupposes that some other party is able to divine the objective truth of that situation. And why should that be so? Would Lacan’s ‘les non-dupes errent’ not be appropriate in such circumstances? And wouldn’t this entail a fair amount of patronising: that ‘we’ are the ones with truth on our side, and ‘they’ are the ones whose hearts and minds -in the manner of an occupier- must be won? Would that not involve replacing one form of manipulation –they are being manipulated by the British state, ruling class propaganda, the Islamic theocracy, the intelligentsia- with another: we must manipulate them so that they realise the truth of our position?

But -if I recall correctly, this is Lukes’s point- an idea of false consciousness need not entail a corresponding, already existing, ‘true’ consciousness. False consciousness, if it is a useful idea, may simply be understood as a consciousness in one’s own situation that is at odds with the objective truth of one’s situation, brought about by manipulation, censorship, forced habit, disinformation and so on. So, with regard to my servant, an instance of false consciousness would be that he considers himself as freely submitting to my commands to brylcreem my dog thus keeping his family free of scurvy because it’s an honour to serve such a heroic, handsome and distinguished gentleman who has taught him everything there is to know about honour, duty and heroism.

This then raises the question of what the objective truth of my servant’s situation is. Can I, as his master, answer this question? Probably not, and I am unlikely to ask myself the question in the first place. But if I were to be asked the question, I might say: “but look at him! Can’t you see how happy he is? Would you abolish the bond between us and allow his family to starve through scurvy? What sort of heartless bastard are you?! Don’t go bothering his little head with all these childish ideas! I have long argued that
the facts of life are, as Margaret Thatcher had it, conservative! Don’t you know that men of intemperate minds cannot be free?”

Can anyone else identify what the objective truth of my servant’s situation is? I think the only thing I can conclude here is that one can easily identify certain factors -manipulation, obligation, implicit threats of starvation- which deny my servant the possibility of arriving at consciousness of the objective truth of his situation. At the same time, it is hardly controversial to suggest that allowing me to exploit him for my own frivolous ends is the sort of thing every human being would be happy to do, given a free choice.

It is more complicated than that, of course, and I seem nowhere near the point I wished to arrive at when I started out. But let me relate this idea of false consciousness to how Slim Buddha writes about power at the top. ‘Real’ power, by his/her lights, is distributed according roughly to a 90-10 split between the power of private/semi-private entities on the one hand and what passes for the legislature on the other.

What is striking is the total absence from this picture of power distribution, that is, of power as a ‘thing’ that is ‘possessed’, is power as it relates to the agency of the general population. Even within the entities named, whatever actions these entities take or do not take, there are power struggles between dominant and dominated groups. The upper tier of banks, trade unions, public bodies, even IBEC firms, must contend with resistance from within in order to act as they do, and any course of action they adopt is necessarily the outcome of power struggles. Nor do these entities always act in perfect concert, as the writer notes.

To say that the trade union movement and IBEC are two elements of the same power configuration is pushing things. True, the trade union leadership may strike deals with IBEC and the government of the day which results in copper-fastening the gross iniquities of the existing system, but ordinary trade union members may exercise some degree of control over the actions of the leadership in order to protect their wages and working conditions. This is much more than can be said of most employees in IBEC firms.

Even if we confine ourselves to the idea of power as a thing to be had, not even a dictatorship has 100% of power. There is always resistance, refusal, dissent, whether organised or diffuse, whether continuous and long-term, or discontinuous and short-term. People can struggle in all sorts of decisive ways against all the entities named above as holding 100% of the power. To imagine that the power of these entities is all-determining is to cede them more power than they already wield.

While it is important to recognise that government is not the all-powerful and domineering entity that propaganda outlets like Independent News and Media present it to be, it still needs to be borne in mind that ordinary people can wrest a far greater degree of control over the institutions of government than over, say, the decisions of the board of directors of Intel.

To accept the picture that people can’t have no agency, that all is futile, is to guarantee continued domination. And if we refuse to accept this domination as legitimate, as we ought, we are then confronted with some questions: how is our conscious activity, of how we relate to the world, the product of illegitimate power operating over us? And, if we refuse to accept that someone should have such power over us, how can we dismantle this power? I don’t know the answer to these questions in my own case, so I am hardly well placed to answer this for anyone else. But I would submit that these are questions to be asked over and over, and that useful answers only come through dialogue and collective engagement, rather than as something each person has to figure out for herself. I will confidently wager, though, that a refusal to allow ourselves to be seduced or mystified by the presence of seemingly powerful entities is the initial act of stripping them of their power.

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14 Responses to “Grasping Power, Through A Glass Darkly”


  1. 1 Mark July 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    [The government] have little or no power.
    It strikes me that in many cases they have voluntarily given up power as a means of avoiding responsibility.

    • 2 Hugh Green July 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm

      When I read about politicians who wanted to be politicians from the age of 6, I do wonder what at their motivations. Personal glorification and realisation of parental aspirations, probably.

  2. 3 coc July 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Given your demonstrable erudition in such matters Mr Green, I am sure you are familiar with Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where he addresses the violence that oppression does to oppressor and oppressed alike, but I recommend it here nonetheless as a service to your readers.

    I don’t recall Freire referring specifically to ‘false consciousness’ but he certainly describes an imposed lack of perception of the reality of oppression by those so oppressed and the hopelessness and apathy that results, until reality is exposed via dialoge and education.

    Great post.

    • 4 coc July 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm

      That should read dialogue not dialoge (obviously).

      • 5 Hugh Green July 26, 2010 at 5:53 am

        Thanks for that coc, in fact I hadn’t read it, but I read it on your recommendation this weekend. Excellent read, and covers most thoroughly many of the things I’m grasping at here. Hope to find some time write a post about it.

  3. 6 Mark July 23, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    I might add that I’m sceptical of these conspiracy theories about the hidden elite pulling the strings and manipulating everything. I think it’s just a cop out by those who can’t accept that the mess we have is the almost inevitable result of the democratic system.

    The reason we have Mary Coughlan as tanaiste has more to do with the inertia of the political system and the apathy of the electorate than any hidden masterplan. If there really was a bunch of geniuses in a backroom controlling everything would we really have ended up with the mess we did? Hanlon’s razor applies. Of course there are any number of corner boy opportunists who made a killing but it’s wishful thinking to believe that anyone is actually in control of any of this.

    • 7 Hugh Green July 26, 2010 at 6:27 am

      Not sure to whose theories you are directing your scepticism? I don’t agree that the mess we are faced with is the result of (what passes for) a democratic system, but rather, what passes for a democratic system is a product of the mess.

      So when you talk about inertia, it takes a lot of effort and accumulated power to stop things from moving. Another interesting detail in the Power: A Radical View book I cited above -and once again, I don’t have it in front of me, so I could be recalling this wrong- is a study of two similar industrial towns in the US, one of which took considerably longer than the other (ten years or so) to clear up air pollution.

      And the decisive factor identified in the difference between the two was that one of the towns -the one that took much longer to implement clean air legislation- had one dominant steel company and strong political party organisation, whereas the other, which passed its legislation much earlier, had little party organisation and several steel companies.

      But what had happened in the former is that there had been inertia to get the legislation past because of the perception that the steel company was responsible for the town’s prosperity. So even though the steel company didn’t actively intervene, its reputation was sufficient both to stop the legislation from being raised in the first instance, and then, when it was raised, diluting the legislation in its interest.

      The point being that there is no requirement for a team of backroom geniuses in order for the interests of certain powerful entities to prevail.

      And to the extent that the political system is expected to resolve the problems generated by these entities, there are constraints, first, you have politicians who identify their interests, and the interests of the population, as identical to the interests of the ruling elite, or a particular section of the ruling elite (of these there is no shortage in Ireland).

      Second, even when you have politicians who do observe a conflict of interest between those of the population and those of ruling elites, the courses of action they advocate and adopt will be influenced by the reputation of powerful interest groups -as with the steel company example above- and of the potential detrimental effects of challenging those powerful interest groups.

      Then, with regard to apathy on the part of the electorate: the electorate only casts a vote once every couple of years and has no say beyond that. So its apathy -which can only really be described in terms of either a failure to vote or a failure to cast a vote for any party that would alter the status quo to any signficant degree- I would see more as a response to the knowledge that in so far as they expect the politician they vote for to serve them, it is with regard to protecting them from the mess, rather than the pursuit of policies that pose a challenge to powerful interest groups.

      • 8 Mark July 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

        Sorry for the confusion, I’m sceptical of the Political World theory you quote, probably in the same way that you are.

        I agree with your points about the politicians aligning the interests of the population with the interests of business but at the back of my mind I have a niggling feeling that the man-in-the-street is being let off a little too lightly in all this (he’s also being patronised wholesale but what’s new).

        Horrifying as it may seem I think the politicians we elect are a reflection of those that elect them. I’ve been travelling around the country a lot recently and the more I people I observe and engage the more I see this.

        As you point out Fianna Fail’s relationship with big business (if we consider party policy as opposed to the corrupt elements) is based on the trickle down economic theory i.e. what’s good business is good for the country which is good for the Fianna Fail). But it’s a view that most voters would probably have agreed with until the whole thing fell over.

        By the way, I agree completely that this is rubbish policy and that the real role of government should be to protect the citizens from the vultures of business. However I don’t think that brand was selling too well in the last election.

        What I mean by inertia is the inertia that allows Mary Coughlan to be elected based on informal nepotism but keeps Ed Walsh’s “movers and shakers” on the outside.

        (sorry for quick-fire response, I should be working)

  4. 9 C. Flower July 23, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    There’s been a vigorous debate at Politicalworld.org as to whether the Trade Unions as a whole, or just their leaderships, have been absorbed via Partnership into a ruling caste.

    I would agree with Slim Buddha’s term “complicit” – if applied to the leadership – but with your assertion that the unions as a whole are not complicit, and still have the potential to resist (if I am understanding you rightly).

    Ireland is a very small country. There is a self perpetuating, tight, clique of a few thousand that acts as gatekeeper to resources and power. Imo, this clique almost welcomes economic contraction, as it strips away unwelcome competition and restores it to a position of control of scarce resources.

    The Trade Unions ARE as organisations of the working class, within which the cuckoo-in-the-nest leadership roosts. They have potential as organisation to resist cuts and to economic develop alternatives. They can powerfully demostrate the importance of mass organisations. All down to leadership, and which side it’s on.

    • 10 Hugh Green July 26, 2010 at 6:37 am

      Complicity is the right word. But you’d have to distinguish between the complicity of the trade union leadership and the complicity of the ordinary member. The ordinary member isn’t there to maintain a position of relative power and privilege obtained through the fact that the government and employers’ groups declare him/her to be important, but to protect his or her own wages and conditions through collective action. To the extent that an ordinary member is complicit, it’s in the same way that a non-unionised worker is complicit: they are forced to act in certain ways that sustain and even strengthen existing power structures on account of the power imbalance between worker and employer.

  5. 11 Tomboktu July 24, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Can anyone else identify what the objective truth of my servant’s situation is?

    I wonder if there is an objective truth about your servant’s situation. Parts of it can be objective: they apply the cream to the dog, they receive a payment from you. But the significance of those actions and what they tell anybody about the relationship is interpreted by people — the participants and the observers, and that interpretation is shaped by values and expectations each of those hold, whether they are aware of them or not.

    • 12 Hugh Green July 26, 2010 at 6:58 am

      I see what you mean. Well, there are objective truths, as you point out. I guess an important point about an objective truth of a person’s own situation was brought home to me when reading the book coc cited above. Subjectivity and objectivity are dialectically related. You can’t have an object without a subject capable of relating to it. At the same time, subjectivity is an activity, not a disposition. Electrons no more existed as objects in Newton’s time than the Spice Girls did. In this sense the important objective truth of a person’s situation relates first and foremost to that person’s subjectivity. Hence Freire’s emphasis on the use of dialogue -as opposed to propaganda, manipulation and what he calls the ‘banking’ method of education- when it comes to educating, since what is at stake is the development of a critical consciousness, and not the creation of objects who bear slogans and act the way you want them to.

  6. 13 Hugh Green July 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Mark

    Sorry for taking a while to get back to you.

    I have a niggling feeling that the man-in-the-street is being let off a little too lightly in all this (he’s also being patronised wholesale but what’s new).

    Horrifying as it may seem I think the politicians we elect are a reflection of those that elect them. I’ve been travelling around the country a lot recently and the more I people I observe and engage the more I see this.

    I think I know what you mean. Any time I talk about politics with any of my neighbours it usually takes the form of them telling me precisely what’s wrong with the country and how they would fix it, and me looking at the ground. Two of them think Michael O’Leary should be running the country. Another would cut the health budget by €6bn. Another – who works for a multinational – thinks unions should be made illegal. And that’s just the ones who don’t say racist stuff.

    Where do people get these ideas from? From radio, television, newspapers, work conversations. They come out with all sorts of stock phrases and clichés. I don’t know what to say to them half the time. Any time I try to engage with them they think I’m a headbanger. The most common accusation is that I’m an idealist, that this is not the way the world works. When C Wright Mills wrote about crackpot realism, he wasn’t talking about this sort of thing, but the name could apply equally here.

    Now, in terms of the politicians reflecting the electorate: it must also be true that the electorate reflects the politicians. Professional politics is presented as the main activity determining how society. So when these people think about politics, they see politicians as the dominant group, and the way they think about politics is influenced by the actions of these politicians. So you have all the things that Fintan O’Toole goes on about: false intimacy, cynicism, gall, ‘cute hoorism’ and so on, on display in these politicians. So if that is what politics is presented as: basically people doing favours for friend and flouting rules, then voting habits are likely to reflect that, not reject it.

    However I don’t think that brand was selling too well in the last election.

    One dominant theme in the last election was the ghost of Christmas past: you don’t want to go back to the old days of mass emigration, unemployment, and so on (that worked well). So there was a subtle element of fear deployed among the electorate.

    And then, one of the decisive influences on political choices over the last 10-15 years was the exaltation of home ownership, not only as mere status, but as a way of using equity to make up for lower wage expectations. Where you have a ‘property-owning democracy’, to use Margaret Thatcher’s term, you gear people toward making electoral choices that protect their own personal assets, even if those choices destroy the fabric of society (this is pretty much the point, from the point of view of people who want ‘property-owning democracies’).

    It ain’t pretty, that’s for sure.

  7. 14 Mark July 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    No problem. I’m being very lazy and letting you do my thinking and writing for me. If I ever get time I’ll sit down and organise the rabble of thoughts in my head.

    The relationship between the Irish politician and the tribe is a complex one, and I think we’re just scratching the surface. I’m reluctant to think that the political system has failed the people. I think by and large they got what they asked for, they just need to learn to ask for something more worthwhile the next time. How to teach them is the trick.


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