Thanksgiving and the Nature of Power

Without a struggle, there can be no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. — Frederick Douglas

Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner. – Huey Newton

Thanksgiving can be just what its name describes:  a moment to gather with loved ones to express thanks for the good in our lives.  We may feel that our circumstances depend on our own efforts, or on our ability to stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, or on the influence of whatever form of chance or higher power we may choose to believe in.  Regardless, it is an opportunity to appreciate how much we have, whatever that is.

But Thanksgiving is also a time to think about power and wealth.  The massive theft of natural resources from this continent’s indigenous peoples was – along with slavery – the primary source of the wealth on which this nation grew.   Later, the exploited sweat of immigrants turned that wealth into industrial might.  Throughout, the power to develop this wealth was exercised with enormous levels of both entrepreneurial creativity and dehumanizing brutality.  The consequences of our relatively unregulated system of greed-driven accumulation are both a high material standard of living and enormous social and environmental damage.

It is true that power is force.  Unless there is a crisis that forces their hand, the powerful never willingly give up wealth or status.  When threatened, they will use force if they think it will be effective.  Mao Zedong was correct that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun” because violence, even if only threatened, is always a short-term trump card.

But in a deeper sense, power is about control.  When circumstances require it, elites make concessions that provide some level of relief to protesters grievances – but structuring the reform in ways that integrate the outsiders into the overall system that gives the elites their advantages in the first place.  In this context, power is really about influencing the conceptual/emotional framework through which people experience and understand reality.   Power comes from surrounding people with a cultural/media environment that defines what reality is, what is desirable or good, what is possible, and what is unacceptable.


Power Is More Than Force

Sustainable power comes when the people you want to influence believe there is no alternative but to do what you want.  The collapse of the Soviet Union made much of the world believe that the US version of unregulated business profit-seeking was the only viable economic model for global interaction, and that they had no option but to do whatever they could to attract multi-national corporations into their country.  This seemed to be an “objective truth” independent of US threats to punish countries that didn’t fall into line – and even despite the fact that the most successful developing nations were using a different model.

However, even better than a TINA mindset (“there is no alternative”) is if other people come to believe that they actually want to do what you want them to do, if other groups are eager to buy into the system as junior partners.  Of course, getting to this kind of “yes” is facilitated by a history of attacks on non-conformists, by limiting the available options, and by making sure that newcomers feel they’ve got something to gain by enlisting in exchange for giving up control over their own future.  (We used to call this “getting co-opted” – which is a more complicated process than getting “bought off” or bribed.)  But just as important is shaping the mental context so that they can’t even imagine doing something that would take them outside of the world desired by those more powerful than themselves.

The classic example of this process is what happened to the American labor movement.  As industrialization spread, the violence of the workplace made many workers feel they were in a life-or-death struggle with the emerging corporations.  Union organizing drives took enormous courage and a radical vision.  It took the Great Depression (which weakened employers political power), the sit-down-strike offensive of the 1930s (that created industrial unions on a mass scale), the New Deal (which incorporated those unions into the Democratic coalition), WWII (which allowed the government to enforce stable union-employer relations), and the Cold War (which allowed the government and business to set strict limits on union influence) – but eventually big business accepted that unions could be junior partners.  On the other side, the labor movement had to give up its radical visions and political independence.  Unions were able to fight to secure meaningful wage and benefit improvements but unable to challenge owner’s control of investment and an extremely broad set of “management rights.”  In addition, while unions were accepted as active participants in electoral coalitions and allowed to lobby elected officials for reforms, they weren’t allowed to support policies (or hire people) that challenged the country’s imperial role.

The American Heritage

Partly, this compromise worked because the United States has a culture of inclusion.  The powers-that-be don’t make entry easy.  But the most important legacy of our country’s founders is the universalist framework of its core ideals.  Ironically, it was probably the arrogance of the classist, racist, and sexist Founding Fathers that allowed them to assume they embodied the essence of all humanity.  We’re lucky that they did, that they wrote “We the people…” rather than “We property-owning, slavery-accepting, male carriers of Anglo-Saxon genes…”

Of course the Founders didn’t live up to their words.  But the words were inspirational and open-ended enough to allow group after group to believe in the official democratic ideals and to demand that they be included in the nation’s definition of “We the people.”

The key fact is that most people want to be part of America rather than destroy it – even if they also want the country to change in significant ways.  The resilience of American politics is that it has historically found ways to let them join – usually, of course, only after enormous suffering and struggle and even then only in a subordinate role.  Then, once a group secures a niche, they face the endless challenge of maintaining it.  And that leads to the question of who do they ally with – do they unite with the next wave of newcomers to continue demanding concessions from the establishment, or do they see the newcomers as a threat and turn to the establishment for protection?

What To Do At A Tea Party

In this context, while it may seem that the lunatic fringe has taken over American politics, the reality may be more complicated.  It’s true that ideas recently considered ridiculous even by right-wing GOP leaders will now have prominent supporters in the US Congress that convenes in January, 2011.  As an editorial in the The Nation put it: “In race after race, top Republicans and their allies provide partisan, ideological and financial cover for candidates they once dismissed as unqualified, unsavory or unconscionable…In 2010 Republican leaders have abandoned even mainstream conservatives…while welcoming the wrecking crew.”  (11/8/10).

The nature of right wing politics has definitely shifted towards fundamentalist social conservatism combined with a nativist (if not racist) populism and a desire for authoritarian crackdowns on threats both internal and foreign – with an underside of direct action terrorism against those seen as deviant or evil.  And billionaire right-wing funders have used the whip of their money to move the Republican Party towards becoming an ideologically disciplined group, as opposed to the Democrat’s continuing amalgam of disparate local interests.

But all that doesn’t explain the Democrat’s mid-term losses.   It’s not so much that people voted for the Republicans as that they didn’t vote for the Democrats.  The total electoral was nearly 20 million smaller than in 2008.  Among those who did vote, the biggest swing was among seniors, who went for the GOP by a 21 point margin.  According to James Surowiecki (New Yorker, 11/21/10), “seniors think of Medicare as an ‘entitlement’—something that they have a right to because they paid for it, via Medicare taxes—and decry the new bill as a giveaway that will come at their expense…. saying, ‘I’ve got mine—good luck getting yours.’”

The Obama Administration simply hadn’t continued to inspire or engage many of its supporters who felt the President was out of touch with the continuing pain of their lives caused by the financial-industry-created recession.  People were angry and looking for a way to express their anger at an Administration that seemed to prioritize saving Wall Street and rewarding its arrogance rather than punishing or reforming it.  Ironically, Obama was probably only able to be elected because of his mild-mannered rationality, his willingness to listen to everyone to find pragmatic compromises, his lack of aggressive leadership – the American electorate would not have supported an angry black man (or woman).  But partly because of these same characteristics, once sworn in Obama has been seen as unable to exercise the power of his office.  Even though he has actually accomplished more in two years than most Administrations do in four, on the highest visibility issues the Democrat’s inability to translate their Congressional majority into new laws has made him appear ineffective and weak.

When times are hard, when insecurity grows, when the world seems dangerous and the future uncertain, people look for the safety of what George Lakoff describes as the “strict father” whose forcefulness, assumed authority, and upholding of traditional stability provides a shelter from the anxiety and fear.  “He knows what’s right and wrong, and he’s going to take it to the people. He’s not going to ask permission, or have a discussion; he’s going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority.”  When W. Bush took office, he didn’t waste a minute worrying about the thinness of his electoral margin.  He took complete and aggressive control of the Administration (or rather, he appeared to – we now know that Vice President Cheney was actually running things).  The great strength of authoritarian conservatives are that their very actions help create the more competitive and brutal world that strengthens their appeal.

Framing Our Agenda

What’s this got to do with public health, or transportation, or livable communities?

First, we can never assume that we will win merely because we are right.  The established interests whose wealth and status is derived from the current state of affairs will not willingly cede their advantages.  And we have to remember the breath of businesses and people who profit from our auto-centric economy – the car manufacturers, oil companies, steel and rubber and fabric makers, coal companies, rail roads (that carry the supplies), gas station owners, trucking firms, insurance companies, real estate and construction businesses, lawn care firms, and more and more.

If we want to win we have to patiently mobilize sufficient political power, pull together a sufficiently strong coalition, to force the status quo to negotiate.  And we also have to hope that our projections of the future are sufficiently correct that even elite groups come to accept that dealing with us (or at least paying attention to our solutions) is unavoidable – rising fuel costs, the need to slow down climate change, increasingly intolerable congestion, the growing desire of the old and young to live in more compact urban neighborhoods, the need for growing numbers of people to be more physically active to control their weight and prevent (or deal with) chronic disease.

Second, we will only pull together the needed political power by framing our vision in universal terms.  Simply demanding more bike lanes or sidewalks, promoting density, demanding the elimination of sugar-sweetened beverages will just position us as fringe cranks.  We have to advocate for a vision that the majority of people can support, that begins to depict the kind of life they desire for themselves.  Our vision has to be about the vitality of our communities, the friendly peacefulness of our neighborhoods, the safety of our streets, the well-being of our parents, the health of our children, the pleasures of getting out of our house.  And our vision must be inspirational – a timid vision or tactics will create no headwind, pull in no additional support, make no different.

Third, we can never allow established pundits or the media portray what we want as impossible or irrelevant.  Controlling our public image is often our most important concern.

Fourth, we need to know when to compromise and when to push.  We will never get all that we want.  In fact, for many years all we’ll win will be tokens and half measures.  But if we’re right, and the inevitable crises start occurring, we have to be willing to be bold and push for the maximum.  When the opportunity comes, we have to be willing to take and use all the power we can.

And finally, we have to remember that for all its faults, there is much about our society that is worth celebrating, so we can occasional relax, enjoy, enjoy the turkey, and give thanks.

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