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Monday 8 April 2019

The Avoidance of Power

The psychoanalyst Karen Horney thought that people fall into three main types in their interactions with others. There are those who generally move towards other people, seeking attachments; those who move against others in more or less aggressive ways; and those who move away from people, seeking satisfactions outside of human relationships. Trinities should always make us a bit suspicious, but Horney’s old tripartition strikes me as exhaustive and still useful.

Most discussions of the realities of power, whether historical or analytical, focus on power conceived as enabling (“empowerment” is the shorthand) or as disabling (“oppression” the shorthand). They focus on movements towards power and movements against. The possibility of moving away from power itself, if not simply neglected, is denied outright: How can you escape from the force-fields of power? Haven’t you read Foucault?

But just like mobile phone reception, the force-fields of power - of whatever kind - never operate uniformly and with equal intensity over all possible spaces. Totalitarianisms try for universal coverage but in reality, as opposed to fiction, there is always somewhere, something, which escapes them. The possibilities of moving away from power may be very limited but they always exist.  Even in North Korea, there are unknown people who have carved out some private space away from the megaphones. It helps not to be prone to fear because fear is what gives totalitarianisms the nearest one can ever get to universal control.

In World War Two, Jews who were fearless enough to go underground in German-controlled Europe had a much better chance of surviving the war than those who did as they were told and turned up at the assembly points. Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem put the chances of those who hid at fifty-fifty, those who obeyed at less than one in ten.

Almost by definition, moving away from power must be attempted on an individual basis. The moment you begin to combine with others then, in however small a way, you are setting up a counter-power. So in a totalitarian system, something like the publication and dissemination of material by samizdat methods constitutes itself as a challenge even if it does not intend it.

In contrast, consider instead the person who could have contributed usefully to some cultural/political samizdat network but instead chooses to bury themself in the study of local fungi, lichens, and mosses. When the story is fleshed out a bit more, we have a way of talking about such people; we say that they are examples of inner emigration, people who try to find some escape from power in maximising their irrelevance to others. That twins with what is simply called emigration. Emigration means that you cross a border which takes you out of one force-field and into another where you may simply hope to be left alone. But you may instead wish to be more free to take up hitherto frustrated movements towards or against power. Marx and Lenin became emigrés to increase their potential power, not divest themselves of it.

The more general paradigm or stereotype for the person who wishes to be left alone is the recluse, a person who is almost by definition an eccentric trying to move away from the centre of something. In fact, it’s very hard for us to think of force-fields in general or those of power in particular as other than things which have a centre. We are always very interested in where the centre of power lies in a country, a political party, a publishing industry, a marriage. Franz Kafka demonstrated that such a centre may not exist, and that it is futile to think that if only you could find it then you could take a bulldozer to The System.

But some fields of power do have a centre, geographical and even personal. When in 1989, President Ceausescu of Romania and his wife Elena were taken out and shot, that put an end to an entire regime.

When there is a power centre, it is sometimes possible to avoid it simply by moving some physical distance away from the centre and even without crossing a border. In Imperial Russia, political dissidents were more often exiled than imprisoned or executed. The country was big enough for them to be forgotten about, out of sight and out of mind. In that context, it was also possible to take yourself voluntarily to some remote place on some pretext or other and to live in an obscurity which did not attract anyone’s malicious attention.  

Like Australia, Russia had an Outback. On its own, going the extra geographical mile away from the centre took you into a force-field where Imperial power was weaker. If there was a local representative of distant authority, you might be able to do a local deal to make life more pleasant for both parties. If you ended up playing chess with the one local policeman, so much the better for him and for you. If he had to file reports, he could say you were a decent person and took it in good spirit when you always lost at chess. You just kept your fingers crossed that you were not playing against someone who would one day turn into the grim reaper.

In Imperial Russia, that possibility of a local deal had an ironic version. Over a very long period, it was the practice to exile religious dissidents to the most distant and often inhospitable parts of the Empire. But those parts had to be administered and not everyone wanted to volunteer to go and do it. Local populations were often hostile and unreliable. But the religious dissidents were generally hard-working, honest, literate, and - importantly - Russian speaking. So in the end the power which had exiled them sometimes employed them to run things. It’s a story which probably could be repeated from other parts of the world.
Those who avoid power are very sensitive to it; their antennae locate its presence very precisely. They may be very ordinary and unexceptional people, but they sense power. That is true in such simple cases as the person who prefers to be self-employed rather than employed by some corporate power, caught up in the force-fields of office politics. You may not earn as much money but no one is telling you how to dress or putting you through performance reviews or holding out incentives. Corporate power can be suffocating and self-employment feels like freedom. It’s true that you are then face-to-face with the tax system, but you can dodge that by employing an accountant who is used to it.

You can also avoid power by ignoring its updates. It may seem hard to believe, but there are indeed many people who do not know the name of the Prime Minister (it can change so often!), the current foreign exchange rate, the content of Donald Trump’s latest tweet. True, they may be able to tell you the names of celebrities who have recently had a Brazilian bum lift, but it is well-recognised that Celebrity News is a standard escape from the “real world”. It is actually quite effective. The problem with regular News is that it gets to us and reminds us just how strong are the force fields to which we are subject. Rather as we can take a paracetamol and try with reasonable success to ignore the cold we have got, so we can take a dose of who is sleeping with whom and thereby avoid thinking about who is bombing whom.

This will encourage the reader to interject that it just shows that you can never escape from power. Foucault was right. That can always be made to be true, but it is also true that concepts are rendered vacuous when they cease to discriminate. Power is everywhere, but some good and some bad. Power is everywhere but sometimes more benign, sometimes less so. You could say that a good society is one where power is something which can be fairly easily avoided and where there is no need to spend much time either seeking power or contesting it. 

There are those who have thought of the ideal society as one which is a bit laid back and where no one is desperate to monopolise power or destroy it. In that situation, we can just get on with our lives. Rather than Power to the People we may be lucky enough to live in a space where there is no need for power to anyone. Utopian, I know.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019

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