Power and the Commoditisation of the Human Soul

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“Souls can’t be sold. They can only be lost and never found again.” Ray Bradbury

 The Rules and the Rulers of the Game

A group that obtains control over the majority of available scarce resources will find itself in a position of power over the remainder of the less well resourced population. One consequence of this, particularly at the macro scale, is that this group is able to be the definer of what the rules of the game are in terms of the ways in which scarce resources can and cannot be legitimately acquired. This group will be in a position to impose these rules upon the wider population although, often, these rules will not apply to them; they will also be in a position to enforce adherence to these rules and to impose punishments upon any rule breakers. It is important to note that the set of rules that this individual or group devises and imposes may be markedly different from those that they themselves were subject to at the point at which they acquired the scarce resources now under their control.

By way of example, capitalism is a mechanism of scarce resource control and distribution backed by a set of rules in the form of national and international law. Often those responsible for the establishing and maintaining of the capitalist system did not acquire their own resources within this mechanism but instead through the inheritance of wealth. Oddly, inheritance is a form of resource distribution that is typically enshrined in legislation by the same law makers responsible for introducing and enforcing the legal framework that supports the capitalist system; this makes more sense when it is understood that where the British nobility is concerned, assets, especially land, was originally seized through acts of force1 – a form of scarce resource acquisition which, again, provides protection to those already in possession of the lion’s share of the available scarce resources through legislating against any similar actions being taken by others. Thus, the capitalist system is a system weighted in favour of those already in possession of scarce resources, as it is through the leveraging of these resources that additional resources can be obtained, often through little or no effort being expended on the part of the owner of those resources. This is achieved, for example, through the charging of interest on borrowings, or where the relative value of assets increases as a result of the increase in the scarcity of such assets. Such an increase in scarcity can be achieved either by design or as a consequence of shifts in the wider economy.

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The Necessity of Inequality

Unfettered, the tendency over time is towards an ever increasing concentration of resources in the hands of the few and ever increasing inequality in the pattern of distribution of available scarce resources; indeed, it is a requirement for the sustenance of capitalism that inequality in the distribution of scarce resources is perpetuated, relying as it does upon infinite growth within the constraints of finite resource availability. It is a fundamental economic principle, then, that value within this construct is driven by scarcity.

The Drive to Commoditise

One effect of capitalism is that with an increase in the scarcity of certain resources, there is a consequent drive towards the commoditisation of anything that will enable the further accumulation of resources. Thus, in the same way as capitalism relies upon short-cycle obsolescence to fuel consumption and therefore growth, culture itself has now become a quickly recycled and disposable commodity. Cultural tenets of human experience, imbued with a depth of significance that in some cases has been acquired over a period of centuries, have now become commodities commandeered merely to serve the capitalist cause of the here-and-now. This can be observed in the widespread use of multicultural art, music, verse, dance, costume, language and craft in countless advertising campaigns during recent decades.

As emblems of understanding and as symbols through which people have communicated for centuries, cultural tokens will naturally take on a globalised form as communication networks themselves continue to globalise. Within the realm of such a culture, all objects become valid targets in the drive to commoditise – these are objects with a short shelf life, their worth only determined through the prism of economic value. Centuries of music tradition are supplanted by constantly updated download charts; newly developed technology becomes obsolete at a staggering rate; many of today’s headline news stories enter into and then fade out of the public consciousness within a matter of days; accounts of human suffering are commoditised into a twisted form of entertainment on rolling 24-hour news channels with the sensitisation of viewers ever-diminishing in the face of that which used to shock2.

The concept of value as seen through the capitalist lens is so pervasive that the merit or otherwise of such a perspective is often not questioned, nor is the prioritisation of the pursuit of resources deemed to be of value within the prevailing hegemony; consequently there is a great loss to society of the creativity, intelligence, education and time which are, instead, invested in the endeavour of the attainment of quantities of scarce resources beyond the levels that are required to meet true need. The resources of the human soul thus become scarce resources, the residual quantities of which often proving insufficient for the sustainable investment in family relationships, friendships, personal development, community and wider society.

The Strategic Redefinition of ‘Scarce Resources’

Scarce resources can be used as a form of leverage in the drive to define what scarce resources are within a particular context. This dynamic can be observed within any group where there is a single dominant individual setting the agenda as to what is deemed to be important or desirable. Typically, control over physical resources affords control over other, less tangible, resources such as communication networks, media, education, and the truth itself. In the context of global capitalism, those responsible for preserving the status quo are typically permitted to define what certain scarce resources are and, indeed, the relative value placed upon these; this principal extends to abstract concepts such as time, to the time resource under the control of the individual, and, by extension, to the value placed upon the individual and the human soul.

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Conclusion: Self-Commoditisation

It could be argued that ultimate success in this particular capitalist endeavour has been achieved where, not only do the principle beneficiaries of the capitalist system consider other human beings as a scarce resource to be exploited, but that those individuals themselves define and measure their own worth principally in economic terms – as a resource to be exploited by, and in the service of, the capitalist cause3.

 

1 The capitalist system is ultimately established upon the historic seizing of land and property by force by certain groups of individuals. Having completed this endeavour, those groups or individuals were then able to take full control over that society through the threat of the denial of resources to its remaining disempowered members. Of primary importance at this stage was the establishment of a set of new rules (laws), set up in order to protect the newly acquired resources and, by association, the positions of power of the resource holders. Such rules are upheld by organisations established with the purpose of protecting the interests of the ruling group through the enforcement of the rules (police, army), and through the imposition of punishment upon those transgressing them (judiciary, prison service). This is the manner through which most royal family dynasties and associated nobility (the supporters of the original leader of the resource-grabbing insurrection), originally came to power. In Western societies not established out of revolution, democracy as a form of rule is typically deemed by the ruling group to be acceptable because it is established, first and foremost, to afford protection to the resources of the current resource holders and to their positions of relative privilege. Even where there has been an original act of revolution, Western-style democracy is often introduced and can be observed to take on a similar form: protecting those who, amidst the chaos of revolution, took hold of more of the available scarce resources than any other individual or group. In the longer term, due to its inextricable role in the meeting of the most basic of human needs and wants, land is the most valuable and, therefore, the ultimate of all scarce resources; those who have seized or who have otherwise acquired the most valuable land will thus occupy the most powerful positions. For example, while a large proportion of land in the UK is held under public ownership, much of the remainder is owned by a relatively small number of very wealthy private individuals. Typically, Western democracies will only permit citizens to exercise influence over the allocation and distribution of scarce resources and the laws that pertain to these, to the extent that this influence does not impinge upon the core interests of the ruling group.

2 Within the paradigm of free capitalism, human suffering is an obstacle that gets in the way of the drive towards the attainment of greater quantities of scarce resources. In this sense then, the normalisation of and numbing to human suffering serves a useful economic purpose.

3 This idea is explored by Oliver James in his 2007 book Affluenza. In the second chapter he recounts an episode of an encounter he had with someone called Holly, describing her as someone who had ‘allowed herself to become a commodity that has been bought by a pay-TV company’. James provides this and other examples to illustrate what he identifies as a growing prevalence of a kind of self-commoditising approach to work and, in a broader sense, towards life itself – something he likens to a ‘global infection’.

James, Oliver (2007), Affluenza, Vermilion, p 82

The Fantasy and Reality of Personal Power

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In ‘The Road Less Travelled’ M Scott Peck references Erik Erikson concerning the various crises that are typically encountered during the course of a life of average length, outlining and, in the process, expanding upon the concept:

What makes crises of these transition periods in the life cycle – that is, problematic and painful – is that in successfully working our way through them we must give up cherished notions and old ways of doing and looking at things.

Many people are either unwilling or unable to suffer the pain of giving up the outgrown which needs to be forsaken. Consequently they cling, often forever, to their old patterns of thinking and behaving, thus failing to negotiate any crisis, to truly grow up, and to experience the joyful sense of rebirth that accompanies the successful transition into greater maturity.

Although an entire book could be written about each one, let me simply list, roughly in order of their occurrence, some of the major conditions, desires and attitudes that must be given up in the course of a wholly successful evolving lifetime:

–               The state of infancy, in which no external demands need to be responded to

–               The fantasy of omnipotence

–               The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one’s parent(s)

–               The dependency of childhood

–               Distorted images of one’s parents

–               The omnipotentiality of adolescence

–               The ‘freedom’ of uncommitment

–               The agility of youth

–               The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth

–               The fantasy of immortality

–               Authority over one’s children

–               Various forms of temporal power

–               The independence of physical (and surely mental – JR) health

–               And, ultimately, the self and life itself1

Arguably, every dysfunctional behaviour or interaction stems from an individual’s inability to have successfully negotiated one or more of these crises which, in turn, begs the question: are all situations within which there is an identifiable power struggle indicative of an immature clinging on to one or more of these obsolete notions?

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A key driver of most if not all of these fantasies is a belief that there is a scarcity of certain resources, and such a belief may or may not have foundation. However, even these crises are connected by a sense of omnipotence; the power dynamic present within each being based upon a belief that one can have another person, entity or object do what one would have them do regardless of whether or not there does in fact exist control over and possession of the scarce resources required in order to achieve this. The point of crisis is reached whenever the anticipated outcome in a given situation fails to occur; that is the individual or group does not in fact perform the action required of them, with insufficient scarce resources being held with which to use as leverage. At its core the crisis is the point at which reality directly confronts an individual’s understanding of a situation along with the true limitations of their power therein. At this point an individual can choose to respond in one of two ways:

  1. To accept the reality of the dynamic, ie. that there are in fact no scarce resources, that there are indeed resources but they are not sufficiently scarce, or that there are indeed scarce resources but possession or control over these is not held.
  1. To attempt to mould the world into that individual’s ill-fitting view of it; whether that is the tyrant trying to rule the world, or the domestic tyrant trying to rule what he considers his world, including everyone and everything in it.

For many, the second of these two options appears to be the easier as it avoids the short term pain of the giving up of obsolete patterns of thought and behaviour; however in the longer term it leads to greater and more protracted pain that results from the indirect consequences of failing to engage with and, therefore, to successfully negotiate the particular crisis in question.

A pattern of similar choice making then tends to develop in the face of further life crises with the result that the individual leaves themselves little option but to construct, layer by layer, a fantasy world of their own making. Such a fantasy world bears an ever diminishing resemblance to the real world, to their place within it, and to the true extent of resources over which they exercise control.

Furthermore, such a world becomes entirely disconnected from their responsibility to those with whom they share their life, namely a responsibility that they would seek to successfully negotiate the various crises of the transition periods within their own personal life cycle. Thus, and in order to maintain an internally consistent narrative, nothing can be allowed to remain in such a fantasy world that does not uphold the eschewal of that individual’s personal responsibilities, or that serves as a reminder of any previous failure to negotiate a crisis.

1. Peck, M. Scott (1978), The Road Less Travelled, Random House, p 74-75

Power and Imperialism

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“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one” George Bernard Shaw

One answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of life?’ is that meaning is found to the extent that one’s life contributes towards some greater purpose, that is, to the extent that it forms part of a larger narrative. This serves to explain the concern that many have with the leaving behind of a legacy, a vestige of the essence of their true self that will outlive them.

And yet this drive to leave something behind is neither impinged upon nor diminished by the reality that, for the vast majority, any memory of their identity and the things done during their life will have disappeared from the collective conscience within three generations at most. Nor is it acknowledged that there will be, in all likelihood, little or no interest in who they were or the life that they lived. Furthermore, there is no clearly understood manner in which this essence of one’s true self can be effectively summed up and communicated during one’s life, let alone in the form of a relic. The eternity that is placed in the heart of every man1 is deeply rooted and thus mortality, located as it is beyond any individual’s control and beyond the associated limitations placed upon their life, is a very great offense indeed; much time is lived out under the veil of this denial and, particularly during the early decades of life, many thoughts, decisions and plans rest upon an assumption that one’s physical and mental faculties will remain in good working order and sustain life indefinitely.

That an individual’s life will not endure in the thoughts and conversations of those who outlive them removes from it much of what is meaningful, particularly with regard to any contribution made to the greater whole. The offense of this is so hard to endure that for many the compulsion to leave a legacy for the faceless future unknowns is such that it consumes the manner in which their life is lived out, leading often to compromised priorities and impacting detrimentally upon relationships with family members, friends and colleagues. Such an inherent weakness within the human psyche, founded in the tension between the need for immortality and the reality of the mortal existence, can be fruitfully exploited by those in positions of power.

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The imperial ambitions of an elite few are made possible only through the persuading of the many that the risking of their lives for the expansionist national cause carries with it a meaning that transcends the terrestrial life, and in this sense serves to achieve for them a form of immortality. True immortality is achieved and defined with reference not to the mortal but to the immortal and, as a state of being, does not cease to exist merely at the point that the mortal itself ceases to exist. However, the brand of immortality offered within the context of imperialist expansionism is bounded insofar as it is, as a construct, attained solely with reference back to the mortal and is so defined to the extent that the deceased only remains immortal in the consciousness of mortal beings. In this sense, then, it is nothing more than a cruel trick. Phraseology such as ‘their names will live on’ and ‘lest we forget’ feature heavily in the rhetoric that is associated with ‘the ultimate sacrifice’. In a similar way national anthems, engravings, prayers, readings and state broadcast events are replete with such sentiments – to be shared by and for the benefit only of those who, for the moment, remain alive. Here, the immortality of the immortal is entirely bound up with the mortality of the mortal.

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Through such means the collective social conscience becomes saturated and public perception is thus engineered to align with the interests of those wielding power at the nation state level. Much could be written upon the extent to which this bears the hallmarks of a death cult at a macro scale (see here for a listing of the main characteristics of the death cult), nonetheless its formulation serves principally to perpetuate and to strengthen the established system of resource allocation and control, and to meet the needs of the incumbent set of power-holding imperialists.

And yet both parties each have their own reasons to perpetuate the charade; the alternative is to acknowledge that warfare is driven by the insatiable appetite for power of the few at no personal risk or cost to themselves, and that the death that the many die at their bidding possesses meaning only insofar as it achieves this end.

1 Ecclesiastes 3:11

Chosen Powerlessness

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Hopes placed in mortals die with them; all the promise of their power comes to nothing – Proverbs 11:7

While an individual simultaneously wields and is subject to the wielding of power, it is not the case that in every circumstance all individuals wholeheartedly strive to obtain ever increasing quantities of power. That is to say, there are significant matters of concern to society as a whole where individuals choose to adopt a passive, unempowered position. Even individuals or groups that ordinarily strive to obtain scarce resources with the purpose of wielding power in certain contexts will, in other contexts, adopt a passive position, seemingly content in their position of relative powerlessness. Such contextual differences and the phenomenon of selective engagement in contests of power are explored briefly below.

It is proposed here that the rationale underlying the choice between one particular power contest over another is informed by the individual or group’s perception of its capacity to obtain the scarce resources that are at stake. Such a perception is informed by an understanding of the likelihood that the individual or group will prevail in a given power contest, along with a genuine assessment of that individual or group’s own abilities, strengths and limitations in comparison with an opposing party.

An analysis of this type of situation is, however, easier to undertake and to rationalise at both the individual/micro level than at the societal/macro level. What occurs, for example, when large numbers of individuals choose to act in concert for the purposes of a shared, collective goal? Or, contrastingly, where it is understood that the collective pooling of action would indeed be effective in altering a given power dynamic and thus in obtaining control over certain scarce resources, and yet the choice to not act is the one that is made?

It is widely acknowledged that within each individual there operates an impulse from birth until death towards the creation of and withdrawal into what can be described as a series of artificial wombs1. At the societal level this leads to the establishment of standard government structures that serve to facilitate and to perpetuate the dependency relationship of childhood at the level of the collective. These structures are established and operated by a political elite set up in the role of parent/human god, the purpose of which is to eliminate all risk from life and to tend to society’s every infantile need. In this context such needs will inevitably focus upon scarce resources such as clothing, shelter, affirmation, and the handing over to this political ruling class of the means of access to these resources. The expectations placed upon the political ruling group, a group that is effectively hired through the taxation system, is to fulfil a mission that all parties understand but never publicly acknowledge as being an impossibility.

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Cooper (1991)2 states that society hires politicians to:

  • Obtain security without managing it
  • Obtain action without thinking about it
  • Inflict injury, death and theft upon others without the need to consider the consequences
  • Avoid responsibility for their own intentions
  • Obtain the benefits of science and of reality without the need to exert themselves in the discipline of learning or of facing either of these things.

At an individual level fear, laziness, and time constraints, combined with knowledge and financial resource limitations, compel the individuals within a society to abdicate certain key responsibilities and to pass these responsibilities over to a professional political class. Such arrangements have endured across generations and across much of the world.  Society’s act of handing over is, then, a conscious and freely chosen position of powerlessness and is primarily motivated by each individual’s need to keep their diary clear, and their hands and consciences clean. It is also motivated by the need to avoid any act that might threaten the self image as one of blamelessness and innocence. The need to be considered innocent in adulthood is merely an extension of an infantile state, and in this sense can be considered regressive in its nature. In the infantile state most individuals have been afforded protection by a parental figure acting out of love. During the period in their lives during which that individual was still considered immature, this parent made good for mistakes that they made and bore many of the adverse consequences of their bad behaviour. In the mature state then, a failure to take responsibility for those actions for which an individual can justifiably be held responsible, such as their own behaviour, is a form of childish, reality-denying self indulgence. Inasmuch as public trust in politicians remains very low, society at large also needs to acknowledge its own responsibility in being so eager to hand over control of and principal access to vast quantities and various types of scarce resources.

Thus, the abdication of power through the relinquishment of scarce resources is as dysfunctional as the tendency towards the attainment of scarce resources in order to wield power, especially where the reasons for such relinquishment are rooted in fear, laziness or cowardice. And yet, to acknowledge this reality would prove to be too distasteful and too unpleasant for the majority of individuals to contemplate, and therefore an acceptance of and justification for the abuse of the position that is held by those in government has to be found – a contrivance that is more palatable to the individual than taking a long and sober look into the mirror.

The self-reflection that such a response demands dares to ask whether appropriate responsibility is taken at the interpersonal / micro context; however, the even greater challenge is to broaden the scope of such enquiry to the macro level, and to the taking of personal responsibility within the context of society as a whole.

1 This Freudian concept states that such wombs can take on a multitude of forms such as physical wombs (bed, private home, workplace), emotional wombs (routines, the support of friends and family, sporting allegiances, insurance policies and pensions), and spiritual wombs (religious beliefs and observances).

2 Cooper, M.W. (1991), Behold a Pale Horse, Light Technology Publishing

The Limitations of Political Power

‘You see what power is – holding someone else’s fear in your hand and showing it to them!’ – Amy Tan

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In a blog post soon to follow I will explore the reasons why social bonds at a local level are so strong, namely because they are key to the securing of both psychological and material support for the individual despite, or perhaps because of, the loosening of traditional family bonds. The notion of the tribe is an extension of the smaller family group and so is bound up historically in satisfying the needs for material provision as well as of safety and security. The reader will note then, that many basic needs are sought to be satisfied within the wider tribe context, and that basic needs and tribalism are thus closely bound together.

The UK general election saw the Conservative party defy the results of all opinion polls taken in the run up to polling day on the 7th May and achieve not only the most number of seats in the house, but also a slim parliamentary majority. So from a power/resource perspective why did this unexpected outcome take place and how was it achieved?

It is understood that people are generally more motivated to avoid the loss of that which is already possessed than to take hold of that which is not yet within their grasp (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984)1. In this sense the average person is naturally risk averse and more inclined towards the fear of loss than towards the possibility of attainment. Despite the broad desire for an aspirational message within UK politics the reality is that, whether it is palatable or not, a finely crafted campaign based on fear that seeks to push enough of the right buttons at an individual level, will always triumph over a message of hope. This was summed up on the day of the result by House of Lords peer and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown who, in reference to the Conservative election campaign, lamented that ‘the politics of grievance and fear has won over hope’.

The Conservative party’s campaign was successful primarily because it managed to tap into the twin fears of loss – of economic recovery so far achieved – and the threat posed by an external tribe. The ancient rivalry between the English and the Scots had been stirred up, along with the threat posed by the potential influence of a large number of elected SNP MPs over a Labour-led government and the detrimental effect that this might have upon English interests.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron fields questions after delivering a speech on education at a Conservative Party event in a school in Enfield, north London, February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION)

The accuracy of the information being presented on both counts, either with regard to the strength of the economic recovery or of the likelihood of the threat posed to English interests, mattered less than the fear that existed in the minds of many English voters that the suggested outcomes might become a reality.

The Conservative party’s relationship with Scotland has been highly ambivalent. David Cameron’s heartfelt ‘we want you to stay’ plea to the Scottish people in the run up to last September’s independence referendum contrasted markedly with his hardened tone the day the result was confirmed and when it was confirmed that independence had been rejected. At this point the powers that it had been agreed would be devolved to Scotland were suddenly and unexpectedly conflated with the devolution issue as it applies across the whole of the UK – a valid but very separate debate that made the previous promises appear disingenuous and was a move that smacked of political opportunism. The negative rhetoric around Scotland and the legitimacy of its place at Westminster became a key feature of the Conservative party’s campaign in the run up to polling day and, while ultimately securing a number of additional English votes, also served to further alienate many Scottish voters, especially those who had out of caution voted against independence a few months earlier. The ‘we want you to stay’ speech began to sound increasingly inauthentic and yet, with a slim parliamentary majority now secured, Cameron’s tone, along with Boris Johnson’s, suddenly softened again and a declaration was made of the intention to govern the United Kingdom as ‘one nation’. The Scottish people were back in favour again. This picking up, discarding, and picking up again of groups of people (including whole nations as well as other political parties such as the Lib Dems) by the UK’s current political leaders is unlikely to be forgotten quickly. Within the context of decades of similar experiences in which Scotland has found itself at the wrong end of a political system that places governments in power and leaders in 10 Downing Street that it as a nation did not vote for, the long-term damage done by Cameron to his now wished for ‘one nation’ may be irreparable. The Tory leadership’s questioning of the legitimacy of a minority Labour administration influenced by SNP MPs under this same system, versus Cameron’s appeal to the Scottish people as an integral and vital part of the United Kingdom, only adds to the damage already done.

The Limitations of Political Intervention

In light of this, one question to consider is how much scarce resource is the political process truly able to exert control over and, therefore, to what extent is the political arena the true centre of power in western states that present themselves as democracies?

All too often expectations are placed upon governments to find solutions for society’s ills and to bring the nation in question closer to some form of utopia, however such an ideal might be defined. This expectation for politics to fulfil more than it can achieve is rooted in a mistaken belief that the political process is able to control access to resources that meet a vast array of needs and wants, from the basics that are required to maintain life, to the resources that can reverse the breakdown of society. But how did this come about, and to what extent are such expectations realistic?

The need for people to be led by a leader has also become the norm within contemporary politics, but why is such emphasis placed upon the outward appearance of competence? For many years the ability to be ‘statesmanlike’ has become a vital quality for any potential leader, but what need does this really meet for the members of the voting public? It should be noted that the national socialist agenda came to prominence in 1930s Germany during a period of economic and social turmoil, a situation that was exacerbated by leadership weaknesses in traditional national institutions such as the state church, and the expressed need within the populace for leadership and direction. The particular nature of that direction was less important than having a direction at all and a leader who could lead the people there.

Of note within this context is the move within western societies towards secularism and that this change has mirrored an increased emphasis upon the outward ‘leadership qualities’ of potential figures. Simultaneously, however, the gap between that which is promised whether overtly or by implication ie. through slogans and campaigns, and that which is in fact delivered through political means, has grown. There remains for many a deep seated desire to have all needs and wants fulfilled through the action, ability and power of one individual. It is often observed that the UK’s political arena has become increasingly presidential in nature, however, much more than this is its increased tendency towards the messianic and for the needs and wants being expressed to be increasingly spiritual in nature. The need to find answers to questions that extend far beyond the scarce resources that politicians have secured possession and control over does not, so it seems, prevent such questions being posed, and nor does it prevent politicians endeavouring to present solutions to such questions. The people expect, but the politicians are more than happy to play along. The increased expectations now placed upon the shoulders of contemporary political leaders to meet needs which cannot be effectively met through the political arena, are paralleled by the erosion of the stability of the family unit in many western societies; thus there is an increased need for a strong and dependable figure fitting a God-like role. Such an individual is required to possess both the ability and the desire to fulfil a broad range of each person’s needs and wants including material provision, security and shelter, extending to their need for nurture, the provision of guidance and wisdom, and ultimately the enablement of that individual to achieve self-actualisation.

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An example of the limitations of political intervention to address a crucial issue is that of the breakdown of local community as expressed in the rise of loneliness within the UK. The flip side of the same coin but at the macro scale is the ticking time bomb of capitalism. Thomas Piketty2 clearly outlines the fundamentally flawed nature of this model based as it is upon relentless and unsustainable growth within the confines of a finite planet possessing finite resources. On this issue no mainstream political party or politician bothers even to start a debate as to do so would either remove them from the sphere of the ‘acceptable debate’ agenda, thereby risking damage to their reputation, or because it is implicitly understood that the issue is one upon which it is far beyond the capacity of any politician or political movement to exert meaningful change. (It is possible too, of course, that a politician might avoid tackling the debate for the reason that they are personally invested in the current system and would wish to maintain the status quo to their own advantage). The question then is, if it is not our political rulers exercising control over the scarce resources in question, who does? And who is it that occupies the background spaces and pulls the strings that drive the capitalist agenda?

David Cameron and the Conservative party have promised much and threatened more during their quest for re-election. However, the extent of change that they will be capable of meaningfully effecting during the coming five years will be a direct result of policies that result in the steady passing of scarce resources into fewer and fewer (unelected) hands, and the economic forces that operate at a global rather than at a national scale.

1              Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1984). Choices, values and frames. American Psychologist, 39, 341-350

2              Piketty, T. (2014). Capitalism in the 21st Century. Harvard University Press

Legitimate and Illegitimate Dependence in Power Relationships and the ‘Resources Trade-Off’

‘What I do say is that no man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent’ – Abraham Lincoln

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Raven et al. (1998)1 outline the concept of legitimate dependence as a function of the relative power and powerlessness that simultaneously exists for the parties within a relationship.

This concept can be further explored from the perspective that power is enabled through the possession of and exercise of control over access to scarce resources (see earlier blog post Definitions of and Motivations for Power), where the less powerful party is willing to trade off direct access to certain resources in exchange for assurances that their needs and wants for key basic scarce resources such as food, water, shelter and social order will be consistently and reliably met by the more powerful party.

In this sense it is evident that such a mutually beneficial arrangement is founded upon the belief held by the less powerful party (whether an accurate reflection of reality or not) that they are themselves unable to secure certain key basic resources; their willingness to support a system that is to their own relative disadvantage is informed by the fundamental nature of the resources in question, the high stakes involved, and the serious consequences that would result should access to these scarce resources not be obtained. For these reasons the resources trade-off is deemed to be worthwhile.

In light of this, what benefit does the more powerful party gain from a legitimately dependent relationship? The answer to this question is that by releasing sufficient quantities of provisions to fulfil the basic needs and wants of the less powerful party they are, in return, rewarded with preferential access to other higher level resources. These higher level resources include enhanced social status, increased levels of material wealth, and ease of access to other scarce resources. This reward structure is agreed to on the condition that the provision of basic resources to the less powerful party continues. However, any failure in the degree of consistency of this provisioning will lead to the position of the more powerful party coming under threat.

This type of arrangement is widespread and forms the basis of much of what we consider civilised society. National and local government is tasked with utilising tax revenues to ensure that the population has adequate shelter, water, utilities, infrastructure, justice, civil order, defence, welfare, education and healthcare. This is the case not only because as a government it occupies a unique position to pool the vast resources required to successfully execute this provisioning at scale, but also because it is understood that those who possess ultimate responsibility for the successful fulfilment of these critical functions will be favourably rewarded relative to the less powerful parties in such an arrangement.

One related aspect to consider is where the ultimate power lies in a legitimately dependent relationship. Failure to deliver the needed and wanted basic resources leaves the more powerful party vulnerable to overthrow either through the democratic process, through civic action, or by some other means. However, for as long as expectations are fulfilled to the satisfaction of the less powerful individual or group, the arrangement will be deemed to be acceptable and considered as being broadly fair. Nonetheless, the less powerful party is left vulnerable to certain manipulations of the power relationship by the more powerful party as a consequence of its having voluntarily relinquished its claim on certain scarce resources. The question then is: beyond what point does the more powerful party’s claims on preferential access to certain scarce resources cross a line in the eyes of the less powerful? At what point does legitimate dependence lose its legitimacy and become illegitimate?

Furthermore, the perception held by the less powerful party of its own capacity to attain certain of the basic scarce resources outside of the more powerful party’s provision might not in fact be accurate. The result of this is that a choice is made to cede power by way of a resources trade off when it was unnecessary to do so. Of course too, it may suit the more powerful party to utilise certain of the additional scarce resources at its disposal to propagate the message that the less powerful party needs the resources that they have control of access over and additionally, that theirs is the only available source of these resources. Such tactics, where effective, serve to secure and enhance the more powerful party’s relatively advantageous position. This illustrates the cumulative effect that occurs where being in possession of, or controlling access to, certain scarce resources enables the seizing of more and other types of scarce resource and also exemplifies the relative nature of the power dynamic within a relationship between two or more parties.

A further aspect to consider is the point at which the arrangement of conditional provisioning in exchange for reward becomes a dysfunctional one. Not every legitimately dependent relationship takes place at a national or local government level. For example, a tacit arrangement of this type sometimes develops in a marriage context whereby one partner has many of their basic needs met by the other in exchange for their own general compliance with regard to the important issues and decisions being made in the household. There is a hand over to their spouse/partner of their legitimate power as an equal party in the relationship in exchange for their basic and not-so-basic needs and wants being met. However, in so doing, there is also a simultaneous abdication of their responsibilities as an Adult in the Transactional Theory sense of the word. Such an arrangement tends to be dysfunctional because at its root is the foregoing of power based upon a falsehood that the basic resources in question cannot be obtained by that individual outside of the relationship, whereas in reality they often can. As such, one party chooses a position of reduced power in relative terms and in so doing abdicates their responsibilities, taking up the role of Child to their partner’s Parent. This stands in contrast with a legitimately dependent relationship between two adults or two parties each acting out of an Adult role. In this situation one party might possess less power relative to the other, however their actions take place out of a genuine position of relative powerlessness, one that has not been freely chosen, and one from which the less powerful party still seeks to maximise its access to the needed or wanted scarce resources.

1 Raven B.H., Schwarzwald, J., & Koslowsky, M. (1998). Conceptualising and measuring a power/interaction model of interpersonal influence. Journal of Applied Social Review, 63, 331-350

The Power of Jeremy Clarkson

‘Fame is not fastidious about the lips which spread it. So long as there are mouths to reiterate the one name, it does not matter whose they are.’ Elias Canetti – Crowds and Power

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The Power of Jeremy Clarkson 

As the Jeremy Clarkson furore continues (you can read more about it here) we are told that a petition to have him reinstated to his role as presenter on Top Gear and therefore escape the serious sanction of dismissal had, by the time it was submitted, garnered one million signatures.

By any measure this is a huge response on the part of the general public. It is one thing to have the groundswell of public opinion behind a cause, it is another for the extent of that public opinion to be such that individuals are compelled to seek out a petition and put their names to it in support of that cause. Furthermore, from what we understand of the circumstances, Clarkson was not the victim of the incident in question but was the aggressor. We also know of a number of previous occasions where he has behaved inappropriately or has caused serious offence (see here, here and here). We know that this is not an isolated incident.

And yet, rather than appealing for justice to be done and for appropriate punishment to take place, the groundswell of a significant portion of public opinion is for the opposite outcome, that is for Jeremy Clarkson goes unpunished and that the normal principles of employment law (and presumably the BBC’s own internal code of conduct) are set aside. It would seem that on this occasion, the rights of the victim are to be ignored.

The question is why? Why are so many people eager to throw their support behind Jeremy Clarkson in such an emphatic way?

From a power perspective this question can be rephrased. What are the scarce resources in Jeremy Clarkson’s possession over which he controls access and which enable him to have others do what he would have them do? (This question assumes, of course, that during normal service Clarkson actively behaves in such a way so as to increase his popularity. He may deny this, however the evidence would suggest otherwise. A quiet life lived well out of the public eye would very quickly and effectively diminish a person’s profile if they were truly serious about achieving this). Or to put it another way: what is it that Jeremy Clarkson has that other people need or want, and need or want to the extent that his influence in their lives prompts such an emphatic and supportive response?

It is straightforward enough to consider the financial resources that he controls where his employers at the BBC are concerned. Reports suggest that the program nets the Corporation £67 million income per year and this explains their ongoing reluctance to dispense with his services where many others would not have survived for nearly as long. This control over scarce financial resources (financial resources are usually scarce in nature), provides Clarkson with the leverage with which he is able to wield power over his bosses. Signifiers of this power-holding position include an unwillingness to change his behaviour following previous misdemeanours, and a lack of contrition or shame following his suspension from such a high-profile public position. For example, during the past two weeks Clarkson has remained very much in the public eye and has been willing to court media attention during the period of his suspension, an indicator of his understanding of the nature of the power relationship that exists between himself and senior management at the BBC. He recognises that it is he who is the power-holder and that his employers are not. What is less obvious, however, is the nature of the scarce resources that Jeremy Clarkson possesses to which many members of the British public wish to gain access.

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What Clarkson has succeeded in achieving is the cultivation and projection of an image of himself as the everyman: dressed in jeans, a little advanced in years, unrefined in manner. However, this everyman is also an everyman that is able to regularly indulge in activities and behaviours which many ordinary men in the UK cannot afford such as racing expensive cars in exotic locations. He is also at liberty to indulge in many activities and behaviours that many avoid due to the fear of social sanction, such as acting impulsively, speaking their mind in certain situations, making racial slurs etc. In this role Jeremy Clarkson has become an outlet for many ordinary (and some not so ordinary) men living in the UK who can vicariously live a certain part of their lives through his various antics. The power he wields over them is the embodiment of the daydream that, however remote, it is possible for the average man to escape from his everyday life and indulge in a lifestyle of unhindered petrol-fuelled hedonism, one in which disapproving voices can be sidelined.

Clarkson’s power, then, is two-fold. Firstly, he controls access to the scarce resource of a fantasy, a particularly male fantasy with which many men in the UK (and many beyond) can identify in him and through him. Secondly, he himself is a scarce resource. There are few public figures in this country doing what he does and saying what he says. Because Jeremy Clarkson is a clever man who recognises this, he is able to use this public support to wield power not only over the BBC, but over any individual or group to which he might happen to take a disliking for.

There is much to be said about the importance of all of this in relation to the concept of identity for the contemporary British male. There is also much to be said about the psychology behind the particularly male tendency of attaching identity and status to the car (or cars) they own and, in a related way, the car as a symbol embodying individual freedom. However, that discussion will be for another time.

One last question to ask is who or what it is that wields its power over Jeremy Clarkson? After all, here is a man who appears determined to remain in the public eye and who regularly and deliberately courts controversy in order to achieve this. Here is a man who appears driven by someone or something; a man with a pressing need to be noticed, to be remembered, to be approved of. Canetti1 describes the impersonalised nature of celebrity in a passage entitled Fame: ‘A celebrity collects a chorus of voices. All he wants is to hear them repeat his name. As long as there are enough of them and they are versed in his name it does not matter whether these voices belong to the dead, to the living, or to the as yet unborn.’

Is there something from Jeremy Clarkson’s past that drives him, compelling him to find ‘a chorus of voices’ that will repeat his name? Or is his need for the scarce resource of celebrity driven by the ultimate power to which all are subject and which, from the future, looms over every moment of the present, that of his finite mortality?

1. Canetti, E (1960). Crowds and Power. p.461-2 London: Penguin

Definitions of and Motivations for Power

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“Power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand” Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

Definitions of and Motivations for Power

You could say that there are two types of people in this world: those who hold positions of power and those who do not. However, that would be incorrect. In our lives most of us are able to both exert power in certain contexts while being subject to the exertion of power upon us in others. Sometimes in a relationship between two individuals, the exertion of and subjection to the power dynamic will change depending upon the context.

While Pittman & D’Agostino1 and Fiske2 go some way towards defining power with reference to the capacity to exercise control over scarce resources, it is proposed here that a definition of power ought to have this concept at its core. A scarce resource can be defined as any resource that an individual or group identifies it is in need of and of which there is a limited supply. As such, scarce resources can take the form of food, water, shelter, fuel, money or consumer goods; and the definition can be extended to include resources such as societal structure, law and order, health care, defence, infrastructure etc. However, the definition can be extended yet further to include less tangible resources such as social inclusion, affirmation, validation, love. All of these resources are essential to an individual’s well being and at times survival. Furthermore, the non-ubiquitous nature of these resources renders them scarce and therefore of use to an individual or group seeking to utilise them as leverage in the securing of and subsequent wielding of power.

In light of the above it is suggested that the reasons behind the draw towards the trappings of power and the motivation behind the desire to occupy positions of power, can be summarised as follows:

  1. Power allows an individual to control the access of others to scarce resources.
  2. It allows an individual to gain primary access to these same scarce resources, i.e. for their own benefit.
  3. This control is the leverage by which they can have others do what they would have them do.

It is worth noting, of course, that an individual can find themselves occupying a position of power but that the attainment of such a position or the attainment of the position for its power-wielding potential, was not their initial intention.

Motivations for Power and Sexualised Regression

Paradoxically, that which drives an individual towards power, it is suggested, might also be a direct response and reaction against the desire to regress and return to an infant state. A position of ultimate power can be viewed as the polar opposite of the infant state of powerlessness, and the drive within an individual towards a position of power and thus a position of control can, in certain circumstances, be driven by the denial and repression of this part of the self, a part of the self that is perceived as weak and thus a part that is despised. Power holders are often associated with an intolerance for the perceived weaknesses in others (identified as a form of projection of themselves onto the other)3 and, in terms of sexual preference, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of those who indulge in fetishes that involve being dominated sexually are those whose day job involves occupying a position from which great power can be exercised. It is suggested that this regression, taking a sexualised form, acts as an outlet and as a means of exploring a repressed part of the psyche that longs to return to a form of infant state.

What might be the extent to which the drive towards and attainment of power evokes sexualised tendencies? Could regressive tendencies that were present all along effectively drive the desire for power attainment?

  1. Pittman, T.S. & D’Agostino, P.R. (1985). Motivation and attribution: The effects of control deprivation on subsequent information processing. In J.H. Harvey & G. Weary (Eds.), Attribution: Basic and applied issues (pp. 117-142). New York: Academic Press.
  2. Fiske, S (2004). Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. New York: Wiley
  3. Gilbert, P (1999), Overcoming Depression p. 185-6