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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seizing Power

Toronto, Leslie Community. Neighbors between Queen and Eastern Streets in this largely blue collar and working poor area felt powerless to do anything but breathe the sooty fumes from the smokestacks of nearby Canada Metal Company. That is until they organized themselves at a meeting with Carleton Smith, president and general manager. At this meeting, Mr. Smith said that there was nothing that could be done to retrofit the air polluting flues, but under pressure of the crowd, said he would look into it. The crowd then took to the streets, leafleting the workers of the plant and presenting their demands to stockholders, to the local member of parliament, to the local City Councillor, and to the general public. Mr. Carleton quickly called for another meeting at which he announced a timetable for the retrofitting of the smokestack to prevent particulates from entering the air. The Organization immediately embraced Mr. Carleton and Canada Metal as a good neighbor. At the founding convention of the Greater Riverdale Organization (GRO), Canada Metal agreed to appoint a vice-president to its board and became one of the key supporters of the community organizing effort being sponsored by local churches and neighborhood associations throughout the Riverdale area of Toronto.

With power comes respect. And the strongest motive for human being and behavior is respect.

Yes, we want to be liked; but we are willing to be disliked to be respected. The child will risk being seen as a nuisance to gain the attention of respect. An organizational leader will gain respect before trying to be liked. Yes, we want to be loved but only a love built on respect is true love. Yes, we want to live and survive; but survival without respect is slavery and, for many, worse than death.

Power is not given and received. It is recognized and exercised. While authority is often given from someone or someones in power, authority is not power unless it is recognized and exercised. This makes power different from potency (potentia) from which the word is often translated--e.g. power is the capacity to act or even, better, the capacity to act in concert which implies a "power base" on which to act.

The capacity to act is given to all of us by God, Nature, or evolution and is closely linked with the capacity to imagine, to use images to understand the world, its past and its posibilities.  It is the foundation for the dignity of all persons. But it only becomes power when it is seized upon. Authority is received, power is assumed.  Think of the elected official or even the monarch or despot and their appointees, the autocrats and the bureaucrats. Their power only comes when it is recognized by themselves and by others and when they use it.

Power can be seized by force as did Alexander the Great, Ghengis Kahn, Napoleon, Andrew Jackson, Oliver Cromwell, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and innumerable others throughout human history. But to be power, there must be a base of popular support, an army, a fearful or compliant populace, a consensus of lords with armies and fearful, compliant populaces,  Power seized by force must usually be defended by force. And since force is the application of violence, the state in which laws are enforced becomes a "monopoly of the means of violence," rather than an expression of the consent of the governed. Thus power by force and the authority that comes from it is dependent on violence.

This is of course the neo-conservative and neo-liberal, sometimes called realist, point of view which argues that the dominant powers--they who control the means of violence--must build the boundaries, enforce the rules, thus providing the space for human growth and prosperity. And there is much to be said for this argument. Even Marx thought that a dictatorship of the proletariat needed to precede the demise of government in a classless society. But violence as a means usually winds up in a violent end.

Yet, there is another kind of power. It is the power that comes from inside-out rather than top down. Some call it "power-with" to separate it from "power-over." Some call it power-from-consent to separate it from power-from-force. This is a power against violence, a power that comes from within persons both individually and collectively, not a power that is forced upon them. It is a power that, like martial arts, uses violence against itself, as did the freedom movements led by Ghandi, King, Havel, Arbenz, the student leaders in Cairo and Libya until many of these movements were turned to violence as happened in the French and Soviet revolutions.  Necessity in these cases overcame freedom.

In America, these two kinds of power are often confused. Populists of left and right are opposed to "big government" and want to reduce its power and define freedom as liberty--or freedom from government. Yet they often paradoxically support neo-conservatives or neo-liberals in supporting the use of government to control markets and other nations. Or another way of putting it: "freedom-from" overcomes "freedom-to."

True democratic republicans will focus not on the size of government, but on its effectiveness in supporting publics, spaces of freedom where people can gather, speak, and act to take care of themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, and their cities. Also they will not confuse free markets with private corporately controlled markets using the military power of the state.

Just as the Riverdale neighbors did in creating their own power base to gain the respect of corporations, governments, and themselves.