Monday, February 13, 2012

A Few Underlying Principles of Society and Governance

 by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

One reason we have such difficulty talking to each other about politics today is that we have fundamentally different perceptions about how a society works.  Below are a few examples of what I mean.  We could elevate the level of debate in this country if we could  bridge some of these more basic understandings.  [This document is a work in progress.  I will continue to add to it and to incorporate your ideas and suggestions as appropriate.  If you are viewing this for the first time, stop back again in the future to see how it is evolving.  Please do add your comments and suggestions below.  Thank you.]

Some Underlying Principles

Starting very basic, what is social power?  

In physics, power = work.  Think of social power is similar terms.  Social power = organized human action.  Whenever people work together their coordinated activity is social power in action.  It is social power in an active , or kinetic form.  As is true of Newton’s description of power in Physics, social power can also be stored up in many ways.  Examples of stored up social power include money, position, status, privilege, prestige to name a few.  Each of these forms of power has the potential to organize human actions.  Individuals who possess wealth or status or position are more able to direct the labor of others to fulfill there purposes.  

  • It’s easy to loose sight of the fact that social power is ultimately coordinated social action.  It would be easier to see this if we were just  a small band of hunter gatherers, I suppose.  But we increasingly live in a global society where networks of coordinated human activity is incredibly complex and finely layered.  The human labor and coordinated actions it takes just to put breakfast on your table is more than our brains can fully grasp.  If you are reading this on a computer monitor, take a moment to try and name all the industries and activities involved in creating your monitor.  Don’t forget to include the coordinated human actions that those industries must depend on to function.  You might want to start with mining operations for the minerals from which your monitor is made, or work backwards from the packing material you tossed out when you first brought it home undamaged from the store.  

  • Once you run through all the human actions and interdependencies required to bring these words to your eyes you will have touched upon nearly every industry and human institutions that makes up our world (and you wondered why it cost so much… )  All of this coordinated, non-stop human action is social power at work. 

  • Note that social power is organized action, it’s not random, and the actions have to ultimately benefit the group doing the action.  The seemingly random actions of a single individual may have benefit to the person, but it doesn’t necessarily benefit  their group. 

  • The social power of an individual or a group is the power to organize the actions of others.  Organizing the actions of other may take either persuasive or coercive forms, and often times both are employed.  Organizing actions include envisioning, designing, planning, translating, modeling and communicating, among other actions.  The span of control that a person or group has over the actions of others is the limit of the social power invested in that person or group.  This concept is scalable to the size of the organizational units under consideration.  

·         In society at large, wealth, or the power to create or control wealth, is a manifestation of potential power.  People who are wealthy or control wealth have more persuasive and coercive powers to organize human activity than those with less wealth or financial control.

·         In the context presented above, it is easier to see that wages paid to laborers in a field or factory is a transaction that unleashes kinetic social power.  Stored up wealth that could be used one day to pay laborers is potential social power.  The potential social power of stored wealth can take many forms that allow a person of wealth to persuade others and influence coordinated social action without actually spending capital.  This is true because all  forms of attributed power (position, status, privilege, knowledge, etc.) ultimately reflect the ability of the person with these attributes to organize the actions of others and because the attributes of power are also transmutable.  Any attribute of power can be converted or transformed into any other attribute of power.  A person very knowledgeable can gain status and become a person others turn to for advice (before taking an action).  A person born into privilege can use that privilege to “jump the line” and occupy powerful positions, etc.

·         Once it is understood that the ability to organize the actions of laborers, or example, is a measure of social power, it is easy to understand why organized labor unions present such a direct threat to the commercial establishment in particular.

·         Governments remain the principle organizational power in modern society.  It can take many forms.  In our representative democracy, the power of individuals is conveyed by vote to representatives whose legitimate power to govern derives from the general consent of all citizens under contract to accept majority rule following fair elections.

·         Much is written about this, and it is generally well understood,  so I have little to add except to point out some of the signs that our Republic is in trouble.  Under this form of governance, representatives who receive the most votes go on to fill positions of power (from which they coordinate human activity) on behalf of everyone who lives in their district or state.  This is so because our social contract implies that everyone in the minority agrees to accept majority rule.  In exchange for this acceptance of majority rule, elected representative are supposed to represent the interests of everyone in their district, not just the interests of those who elected them.  The acceptance of majority rule is also built on the foundation that elections are legitimate, fair and open.

·         When powerful individuals or groups persuade governments to act on behalf of minority interests, this violates the social contract.  When elected representative ignore the general welfare or interests of those who didn’t vote for them in the election, this violates the social contract.  When members of congress no longer allow legislation to pass by a simple majority of votes, this violates our social contract.  When money in politics allows wealthy minority voices greater access to mass media, or allows political parties to manipulate voting districts or voting processes for political self-interests, this corrupts the foundation of democracy and violates our social contract. 

·         The principle limits to majority rule are the articulated rights of individual members of society which cannot be abridged by majority rule and can be enforced by the rule of law.

·         In large societies, access to the means of mass communication is an important source of power as this is an essential component in organizing human activity.  It is distinct, but not separate, from the power of ideas or invocative imagery to persuade or compel others to act.  In the last century the power of the electronic media has grown to rival the other manifestations of power and must now be  given full consideration in any discussion of social power.

·         On an individual level, all power is an intoxicant and therefore addictive.  It is human nature that people with great power over time will selfishly act to preserve or increase their power.  

·         Human institutions designed to serve society can only succeed if they are structured and operated to minimize the self-serving interests of  powerful individuals.

·                     When the structure of both human institutions and governments fail to control for the self-interests of people in power, the self-interests of those in power become aligned in ways that serve their mutual interests to the detriment of the institutions and society at large.

·                     Society succeeds in serving its members to the extent that individuals are willing to modulate their self-interests for the sake of the greater good.  

There is a growing body of scholarly evidence to support the position that the human ability to self-sacrifice for family, clan or country has a genetic component, which has given the human species a competitive advantage. The ability to make personal sacrifices may be the key that explain our higher social order.  If true, then Ayn Rand and the Chicago economists who preach that greed is good have certainly overstated the case.  Those who argue that a free market unfettered by human constraints would be ideal probably don't accept that markets are human institutions requiring appropriate structure and regulations.  If organized human active is kinetic power, then it become clear how organized labor threatens wealthy interests.   These are just a few examples of the implications from what is stated here. I welcome you thoughts and comments.


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