Sunday, 19 August 2012

There is a saying attributed to Lord Acton, that power corrupts and so, absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is also a phrase, perhaps less well known, which goes: "Power does not corrupt people, people corrupt power." Both ideas contain truth, but only the latter actually is true.

Power is a word whose penumbra extends both far and wide in our discourse and culture, but at its heart it simply refers to 'control'.  The reason that people fear the corrupting influence of power is simply that people are imperfect, and if you are to be suddenly elevated from the rank and file, and given power over legislature, or soldiers, or life and death itself, then you had better not be petty, or vengeful, or insecure. The allure of asserting your will, of showing your worth through displays of power, or of substantiating your own worldview is great indeed.

But power is also essential. It uplifts and elevates us, it frees us from stress and anxiety, and it can allow us to change the world around us for the better. And a great part of that control is self-control. Control over our lives. Many of our problems lie in the expectations, obstacles and problems in our lives which we feel powerless to change, and many of these find their source in us, in our personalities and personal histories. As we are able to assert ourselves constructively within our own lives, and to surrender our need to control the uncontrollable we become happier in return.

This is even more important as societies and communities. There has always been a tension within society between two theoretical extremes: The cold war M.A.D. , prisoner's dilemma sense of a world in which we lock our doors, shun strangers and apply as little effort for as much return as we can is one extreme, and in that extreme we know others can exploit us, so we behave strategically to improve our situation, and expect others to do the same. This idea feels quite grounded in reality to many of us, even if it is not a true description of the world we live in.

The other pole is that of an ideal world. In this world we surrender our power over each other, and trust. This trust is reciprocal, and for the most part we are able to live happier, healthier lives safe in the knowledge that we are not actually being exploited, and that on the whole other people don't seek to exploit us. When, inevitably someone does so, we move on and continue to trust, disregarding them as an exception. In effect, they are locked, but we remain open.

The tension between these two exists because both versions of society operate alongside each other and we have a clear sense of each, but neither dominates completely in almost any situation. We expect to be able to 'trust' friends or loved ones, when if we were rational, we would trust them only to behave according to their nature, and would calculate on the basis of our best assumptions. And we are wounded when this trust fails. We do need to trust. And we try to trust when we can.

Of course, even small communities contain struggles, as within any group, large or small, there exist differing personalities, some of whom are more assertive than others, and many of whom vary in their view of how things should be. We judge each other, we disagree with each other, and we sometimes resent each other. In the workplace or the marketplace we know the nature of our relationships are founded not on trust or duty or culture, but on money and productivity. When we see another employee do less work for equal pay, we are tempted to reduce our own productivity, just as we are when we feel we are unpaid or poorly treated. Often it is desperation that keeps us working, and not a desire to do the task at hand.

Even so acts of kindness and duty are everywhere, even in such environments, and in situations where a person works a job they really believe in, duty is far greater. Many a teacher gives their free time to help children, and many a doctor, lawyer or even politician may be found doing the same because it gives them a sense of purpose, and that too is control. They can give back, they can make it a slightly better world, they can control who they are and what that means. Not everyone is always so lucky.

Outside the workplace the citizen volunteers, he or she votes and engages in debates among friends about politics. Disenchantment with politics is not usually about bad politicians, though that is a part of it, but about the lack of power in politics. Politics has become couched in the language of that control which springs from insecurity, as politicians measure their every word against its inevitable reaction. As a result parties are seldom very different, as they strive to remain close to the top of the imagined normal distribution of opinion. Extremes will alienate most, but moderate views and incremental changes will alienate few, even if they lack inspiration.

Of course incremental changes do not necessarily work, and combined with shifting policy within and between different governments, they leave us with even less of a coherent understanding of what exactly government achieves, of what change it achieves. Or whether a policy is good or bad. It leaves us with tribal, kuhnian worldviews, arguing past each other without empiricism as umpire, or experience as guide. Ideology cannot survive in such a world, and the power of politics has diminished into that democratic inner conflict.

In communities we learn that disputes are inevitable, even among close friends and family. You can solve them through understandings and custom, where you each understand how far you can go, and don't push things too far, or you can solve it through agreed rules and external arbitration. The former relates back to those two extremes, it is a self-organising system where the lack of rules cause behaviour to be ordered according to assumptions and the patterns of history. If you distrust your neighbour you will take measures to avoid leaving yourself open to exploitation, if you trust them you will not need to.

The latter is procedural justice. In the common law system of England we understand the basic premise to be that a judge / judge and jury decide the outcome of cases, be they between two individuals, or the case against an individual on behalf of society in general, and that they agree to be bound by rules which are the same in all cases. In this way the law of evidence, stare decisis and so on, have grown up. These rules have two effects: First it is clear 'how' a dispute is to be settled, and parties can therefore judge what the result will be without having to seek arbitration, and secondly it is consistent, and as such it can be seen to be fair and impartial.

Procedural justice relies on many, many rules governing how decisions are made, who can make them and how they can be challenged. In a democracy such as the UK, the source of law is the 'democratic' legislature, whose elected representatives of the people as a whole come together to write the laws of the land. Democracy does not just write the rules of arbitration however, it is itself a system of bloodless arbitration. Democracy settles the dispute of which group gets to write the rules, and it does so according to who has the most votes, rather than the largest army, or the most money.

As a result democracy has produced stability, allowing different parties to abide by the system in the knowledge that they will rely on their adversaries similarly abiding in the future. When this reciprocity breaks down, as with the fillibuster in the US senate in recent years, it can produce a catastrophic failure of government.

However even at this level, custom and agreement exist as well as procedure. The British system features an unwritten constitution, and this gives special prominence to its 'constitutional conventions', gentleman's agreements regarding how powers will be exercised. It may help to draw a clear picture of how this works:

The courts decide the law in effect through judgments, as there is no written constitution the need for clarity requires them to construe the law as narrowly as possible. By convention parliament is supreme, and what it sets as law is interpretted literally by the courts as being the law, but in practice other conventions dictate that where absurdity or contradiction arise, the courts can broaden this reading.

The courts also by convention attempt to avoid politics, and seek to leave dramatic changes in the law to Parliament's decree. In turn, politicians by convention avoid discussing or passing judgment on the decisions of the court. The powers of parliament rest with a voting majority, and the Queen, who possesses the legal powers to govern will, nonetheless, by convention select an MP from the commons who holds 'the confidence of the house', which today means 'is the leader of the party with enough seats to form a government'.

By convention parliament must meet often enough to agree budgets, and by convention the Prime Minister, as he is today called, selects ministers for his cabinet, and they exercise the powers of the reigning monarch. By convention disagreements are restricted to the cabinet, and the cabinet members agree to present a united front, or else resign.

In this sense, politics is a community divided between the rules of procedure which dictate what they can and must do, and which ensure that we can trust in their actions, and the conventions and political realities which they attempt to faithfully carry out in the knowledge that if they fail to, that loss of faith will damage them the next time they are out of power. Moreover, if they cannot control themselves, the law will have to be changed. If the Queen had started to actually hand-pick judges, politicians would have had to act to withdraw that legal power, and either formalise the existing convention in law, or remove her entirely and change the constitution.

The penalties for breaking faith and violating custom are real, in communities as in politics. They breed distrust, alienation and revenge, but they also change the rules of the game and create new realities. Even so, it might be tempting to imagine that procedural rules seem more trustworthy and resilient than mere custom, but we must remember that custom emerges through agreement and there is no fallback position if agreement is lost. If you are playing monopoly and the person you're playing with abandons the rules, your only real option is to simply stop playing the game.

The problem with laws is that they crowd out customs. They remove trust from relationships because the reason they exist is in some part because trust has failed as a mechanism for redressing the problems. They are necessary-- the rule of law is undeniably a vital component of any successful and modern state-- but they are limiting.

Nor is it only the law which has this effect. The marketisation of invisible labour has the same essential effect. Historically multi-generational households were normal, with children taken care of by wives and parents, and the knowledge and support necessary for child-rearing passed down directly, even as the children supported their elders. In modern times work is the norm, and money is exchanged to pay for daycare, nurseries and care homes. This is not a condemnation, after all, a part of this is women's liberation, but it shows how systems can crowd out other behaviours.

We may find it is helpful to maintain structures based on trust and reciprocity, and to create new structures for the governance of our communities, which rely on far greater volunteerism. In this sense the 'big society' rhetoric of David Cameron, while rather empty, is at least in the right area. The difficulty with it is that it would inevitably mean fewer hours of paid work, and a greater demand for support from the state either directly or through legislation.

We need more power in our lives, not so we can abuse it-- we will find the equilibrium to allow us both dynamism and stability-- but so we can understand more intimately the difficulties of it. The costs, the sacrifices, the trade-offs and priorities. And national politicians in turn need to be empowered to make real arguments on the basis of sincere beliefs, and to lay out transformative visions of how we can better order our society.

It is only through finding our place within the power struggles of society that we can with renewed confidence and therefore optimism, make our slow progress towards a better world. And slow progress will be enough, simply because it will be progress we can believe in.

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