Political Power and Freedom and Necessity
By Dennis Loo (11/22/13)
Contrary to common belief, political power does not arise from consent by the governed. The existing political system does not persist simply because people continue to believe in that system and falls apart if and when they lose that belief.1 Peoples' belief in the system's legitimacy does make up part of why things are as they are, but only one part.
Political power comes from two inter-related bases: coercion and persuasion. Both of these factors must exist for political power to be exercised. Political power requires that those who politically govern have the ability to compel compliance from those who cannot be persuaded and who refuse to go along, otherwise you do not have political power. The use of force is not just an attribute of political authorities who are tyrannical. It is an attribute of any and all governments. It grows out of the very nature of governance and more broadly out of the nature of societies that are divided by class.
Why is that?
Because there is a lot of confusion about these points it helps to discuss this in the most general sense to begin with. Obtaining unanimity is impossible in groups any larger than a relatively small number of people. Even in groups as small as two this issue arises. When, for example, your friend wants to do something different from you a decision has to be made about what to do. When disagreements among friends arise, if they want to remain friends, they decide to either compromise between their two opinions or adopt one person’s idea of what to do over the other’s idea.
When the stakes involved are far larger than whether two friends are going to go to the beach or to the movies then the need for some mechanism to ensure collective adherence is apparent. You cannot have a collectivity unless some means is available to ensure adherence if some part of the group cannot be persuaded to do so willingly. That means coercion. Coercion, in other words, is part and parcel of being in a group.
Coercion can vary from relatively mild forms of pressure such as gossip and joking – “Come on dude, get with the program!” – to severe pressure – “Break this law and you go to jail! – to draconian measures – “You are hereby sentenced to die by means of lethal injection.” To enforce the collection of taxes governments must punish those who violate those rules or they will not be able to collect taxes at all. You cannot persuade everyone to pay taxes simply through written and oral injunctions to do so. You have to back it up with force because you will otherwise not get full compliance. Those who have ever participated in a strike action will understand this as well: if a majority votes to strike then all members of the union must abide by that decision, even if they disagree. And the members on strike have to put pressure on the reluctant ones because if they don’t and those recalcitrant ones refuse to honor the strike and are allowed to cross the picket lines, then the strike is lost.
Those who argue that political systems remain in power solely because of the allegiance of the populace and who further argue as a corollary to that that coercion by the government is not a key part of their remaining in power fail to understand this basic principle. Any political actions designed to bring about revolutionary or radical changes to the existing political system that fail to grasp this principle are doomed to fail and will lead people into political battles that the people are guaranteed to lose, usually involving the massive loss of lives of those who are marching under that banner.
The irony here is that those who lead people this way are generally the most vocally opposed to violence of any kind. Yet their leading people down their naïve path of political struggle actually guarantees that people will be hurt and killed because the people they lead are going up against a system that will not and does not shrink from using violence to remain in power.
Authorities’ use of violence isn’t something they only trot out when they are in desperate straits and when large bodies of people are in the street protesting their policies and rule. Authorities’ use of violence is a second-by-second and minute-by-minute affair: they use state coercion constantly and regularly, in times of peace and in times of war. They have to in order to maintain social order and in order to stay in power. Their police, jails, prisons, military, and other institutions perform this function constantly in order to maintain the dominance of their system, that system’s logic, and the authority of those who run this system. While milder forms of coercion are suitable for co-operative collectivities of people, severe forms of coercion are indispensable in collectivities of people separated by classes where what benefits one class harms the other class. This isn’t merely a matter of preferences but a matter of actual, concrete resources that spell the difference between life and death.
The government violently cleared the Occupy encampments in this country, for example, in actions that were coordinated on the federal level by the Obama Administration because the powers that be could not long tolerate and would not have long remained in power had Occupy been allowed to continue to spread and popularize its basic message of opposition to capitalism. Occupy’s aims were supported by a majority of Americans across the country. This was evidenced by numerous polls. This is why the state had to use violence to disperse the movement and make it disappear from the news and people’s everyday observation. Occupy itself would not have led a revolution but had Occupy been allowed to continue it would have spawned a larger and more determined movement of which Occupy would have been part that would have led to this system’s end.
There is a deeper philosophical reason for the unbreakable relationship between persuasion and coercion that it’s worthwhile getting into depth about. The overall most important point in what follows is the fact that freedom and necessity are the opposite poles of not only social and economic life but of life itself. The following comes from Chapter One of my book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society.
In his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, [Frederick] Hayek [the godfather of neoliberalism] further articulated his view of liberty:
The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want. Whether he is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own.
By equating liberty with lack of coercion over the individual, by making a principle of individual desires and elevating individual desires over those of the group, Hayek advances a plausible but deeply flawed argument. I’m going to analyze his position at some length here, as this passage represents the philosophical heart of neoliberalism.
Here is Hayek’s pitch: if an individual’s view differs from the views of others, then that individual is right to pursue his or her own plans. It doesn’t matter, evidently, what is actually in that individual’s best interests, because he or she could be wrong about what is best, including for him or herself, and it doesn’t matter what is best for the larger community of which this individual is a part. What matters is that the individual’s view differs from what someone else wants him or her to do.
Hayek in effect dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as objectivity or necessity. There is only what the individual wants and that must prevail. Hayek’s hypothetically free individual declares his or her freedom, as if to say, “I care not what is right, nor what is true. I care only that it is what I want. And that shall suffice.” If objective reality does in fact exist, and if science, medicine, navigation, exploration, and technology all rely upon objective reality’s existence to work (a fact evident to anyone using a car or airplane, for instance), then the ongoing effort to determine at any given time in society what the best ideas are—the ones that more truly represent objective reality—is not merely an idle intellectual exercise but one with powerful material consequences. Which ideas predominate and set the terms matters to the whole of the society. Science, for example, operates through a collective process of peer review. A claim made by one scientist has to be demonstrably true for the scientific community or that claim is rejected as untenable. If what matters more than anything, on the other hand, is that individuals should have the right to pursue their ideas and plans based on their “own” ideas, then the question of what is true and its impact on the whole of society becomes moot. Implementing Hayek’s stand as a principle for the whole society would produce tremendous damage; indeed we find it doing precisely that, as this book discusses, by leading to the demolition of society.
According to Hayek, other people create necessities. However, other people do not create most necessities in life. We face necessities because, to put this succinctly, we do not now—and never have—lived in the Garden of Eden. Food, water, shelter and reproduction are some of the necessities that are met by and through social groups. Try, for example, reproducing without someone else of the opposite sex. Gravity is another example of a necessity that exists regardless of anyone’s desires. If I declare that I refuse to recognize gravity, does this mean that I can now fly? Suppose I declare that my plans do not include my ever having to work for anything and that I do not recognize work as a necessity. I may have a right to do so, at least according to Monsieur Hayek, and doing so shows how much “liberty” I have, but should I?
Hayek pits individuals against groups, but individuals and groups are actually interrelated and interpenetrating expressions of the same dynamic process. We might even say that individuals and groups have an organic relationship to each other. Individuals, to begin with, can only exist because of groups. Not only is this true in the literal sense of an individual’s birth via a group of two, a female and a male, it is also true throughout the life processes of all individuals. We acquire language, our brains develop, we learn social knowledge and skills, and we survive through our interdependence with others. We become human through this socialization process and we become individuals. Becoming human isn’t something that happens by our simply being alive. We do not become humans solely or principally because of our DNA. We become human through our interaction with other humans.
Individuals are like the leaves of a tree that extend out from twigs (the family), that spring out from branches (populations) that in turn spread out from the trunk (society). The tree, for its part, cannot live without leaves. It is true that some trees shed their leaves for a season and live on their stored resources and connection to the ground. But they would not have those stored resources if they didn’t sprout leaves for the rest of the year in order to collect the sun’s rays and carry out photosynthesis. Leaves are a tree’s way of providing for itself. Leaves, in turn, cannot survive without being attached to trees. A detached leaf, going about its own merry way, freed of its connection to and the dictates of the tree, falls and dies.
Individuals also serve as a way for the group to express itself and achieve its ends. Groups act through the mechanism of individual leaders who focus the group in action. Leading individuals are the group’s cutting edge. Depraved individuals, on the other end, express the darker side of the group. There are, of course, different groups within any society, with their own respective representatives. We might compare a group’s leader to an arrowhead that can penetrate an object when propelled through the air attached to an arrow and its fletching. Without the connection to the arrow shaft, the arrowhead itself could not perform properly. You could not even send an arrowhead minus the arrow shaft through the air with any real force; the arrowhead would tumble about and fall quickly to the ground.
Moreover, what confers rightness automatically on an individual’s desires and plans over that of a group? Does a brigade in battle do better if everyone in that brigade decides for himself or herself what is best? Does a football player do better if he decides for himself what he’s going to do on the field in any given play? Could “win one for the Gipper,” a slogan Ronald Reagan liked to invoke, have been uttered by one individual against a whole opposing team? Sometimes a particular individual’s ideas are better than those of the group, but this isn’t automatically the case as Hayek appears to presume. The neoliberal notion that becoming a rich individual should be one’s life goal reflects a value that has been propagated within capitalist societies, that is, via a group. So brave and entirely autonomous individuals who refuse to be told what to do by anyone else so that they can pursue designs that only they have thought of, are actually adhering steadfastly to values and beliefs that were first thought of by others.
If you are interested in the best ideas and plans prevailing in any given situation, then you are a) committed to group action, and b) committed to the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Why is this so? To begin with, if you do not care whether the best ideas and plans prevail and only care about what you as an individual do, then you aren’t interested in what the group does. Secondly, if you want the best ideas and plans to win out, then you also believe that an objective reality exists by which one can measure whether something is right, or approximately right, or at least on the right path. If you do not believe in these things, then all opinions and plans are equal because there is no independent criterion by which to measure whether one idea or plan is better than another.
Coercion and freedom from coercion are coexisting opposites: no freedoms exist without some level of compulsion attached to them. Hayek’s stance makes as much sense as this: “I would like to jump into the air so as to be free of gravity without the nuisance of having to deal with the restraint of the ground.” You cannot jump into the air, however, without having the resistance of the ground to push against. Jumping into the air has no meaning and isn’t possible without the constraint of gravity. Necessity and freedom, in other words, make up antipodes of the same inescapable process. It is a process that will never cease. Necessities impose themselves on us regardless of whether we want to recognize them and regardless of who alerts us to their existence. The depiction of necessity as something that people arbitrarily impose on others does not conform to actuality.
Necessity and freedom are inseparable from each other just as sound and silence are opposite and necessary elements of the same process. Sound without silence is impossible, and vice versa. Light only has meaning in relation to darkness, and vice versa. Try to imagine what sound would be like if there were no silences in between the sounds. You cannot, because such a condition would be impossible. The letters you are reading on this page only exist and only make sense because of the white spaces in between the letters. If there were no white spaces then the page would be entirely black and impossible to read. Up has no meaning unless there is correspondingly a down. In has no meaning unless there is a corresponding out. The individual and the group are inseparable from each other since they are different aspects and expressions of the same dynamic or dialectic.
Coercion will never disappear in the sense that power over others will never entirely disappear as long as there are social groups. Social groups exist because there are a multitude of mutual expectations and obligations within the groups. Moreover, even if there were only one human being left on earth, there would still be compulsions that one person would have to abide by, even though there were no longer other people around to impose anything upon him or her.
Coercion in the sense of a government can and will someday disappear, but only after social classes are gone and there is no longer any division of labor and resources resulting in some being excluded from what others have in abundance. But even after government passes away, everyone will still be subject to the will of others. It is impossible, for one thing, to have unanimity, and where there is disagreement, some people’s opinions and preferences must perforce be subordinated to the opinion that holds the day, if people are to remain in groups at all.
Compare this to Hayek:
[Freedom] meant always the possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not act in specific ways.
Freedom, in other words, cannot exist separate and apart from necessity. Those who counsel us to act as if we can be free without recognizing and dealing with necessity do great harm, whether that counsel is coming from the political right via people like Hayek and the neoliberals or from the political left via people who say that revolutionary change can come about by exclusively non-coercive means and that we can win the police as a group over to our side. You cannot do what they advise any more than you can have sound without silence or light without darkness.
1 The notion that the political system stands or falls based on public support or lack thereof comes from assumptions within Democratic Theory. To state this simply: Democratic Theory holds that political institutions reflect the will of the people. Hence, those institutions' actions represent accurately the people's sentiments. What those institutions are doing, therefore, must meet with the approval of the public because if it didn't, then it would not be mirroring the public. Ergo, according to this logic, the way to change the political system is to change the beliefs and values of the public. What this line of reasoning overlooks - besides being guilty of circular reasoning and singularly lacking in convincing empirical evidence or even a recognition of the need for evidence rather than argument based on premises alone - is that political systems are not a mirror of the public's sentiments but instead a reflection of the interests overall of the dominant class. Empirical evidence abounds to support this latter assertion. In order to maintain its legitimacy, political institutions in this era where governments are supposed to reflect the popular will do their best to maintain the pretence that they are doing what the people want. Elections are part of this facade. Consider, for example, Obama's elections' platform as the agent of "change." He has merely changed some of the rhetoric but not the actual practices of his predecessor. Indeed, Obama has gone even further down the wrong road than Bush did. He has been able to do this by disarming people with his image and his words that are carefully crafted to conceal to those who are not paying close enough attention that he is doing the very opposite of what he claims he is doing.