Most people learned in the matter possess some variation on a sociological definition of the concept of power. Maybe a person digs that old and lovable anarchist C. Wright Mills, in many ways the daddy of popular elite theory, who wrote "As the channels of communication become more and more monopolized, and party machines and economic pressures, based on vested shams, continue to monopolize the chances of effective political organization, the opportunities to act and to communicate politically are minimized. The political intellectual is, increasingly, an employee living off the communication machineries which are based on the very opposite of what he would like to stand for." For the more functionalistic or systems theory-oriented social scientist, Talcott Parsons interpreted power as "The probability within a social relationship of being able to secure one's own ends even against opposition." Or, to hop back to Mills again, we can try this on for a nice fit: "We understand by power the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action."
I have always opted for the somewhat simpler yet infinitely more useful definition provided by Max Weber, which goes like this: "Power is the ability to control others, even against their will."
The biggest determinant of power is inequality. The absence of equality is not simply the result of great quantities of wealth; it is the economic, political and spiritual rationalization for that inequality. Those who have not allowed the religion that they want others to labor beneath to get in the way of their own scruples when it comes to fucking over the masses will invariably accumulate more wealth. Once this wealth has been swindled away, maintaining the "natural" growth of that wealth becomes the lone purpose for the person's continued existence, which is likely why inheritance is the overwhelming factor that spreads wealth on this planet. Sorry, hard work and intelligence has nothing whatsoever to do with getting rich. The ability to steal comes first, followed closely by utilizing one's access to the means of whipping the weaknesses of organized religion onto the masses so that those sad fools will come to accept their meager lot in life. That is why, even if God does exist, he has to be one incredible bastard to allow this kind of crap, even if it is in the furtherance of some psychotic scheme of the universe.
The most fascinating part of all this, as far as I am concerned, is that power seems to originate from the willingness to steal. Now, look. I'm not a child. I realize that some kid growing up in the suburbs who lives in a comfortable house with lots of music and books and a drum set and friends--just like I did--is not a born thief any more than his parents necessarily were. What I am saying is that this kid probably doesn't completely recognize that his creature comforts are all that separate him from the poor fellow going through his parents' trash bin out back. The old man sniffing around for some discarded sandwich in the dumpster and the kid who is sent off to school every day to learn how to be a "responsible member of society" are in pretty much the same boat, a boat that belongs to someone neither one of them have met, that someone being a guy who has more control over their lives than anyone whose name they hear on the local or national news.
The difference between the Big Boy sociologists I mention way back at the beginning of this little exercise is that Mills saw this power as an inherently unwelcome thing and Parsons grooved on it totally.
That distinction is one which today separates the people in the country now known as the United States more than does anything else. It divides us more than idiot religions, more than tastes in adolescent music, observances of national holidays or patriotic leanings. Some people--and you've met them, probably recently--honestly take it as an act of faith that what they see as the inherent inequality of people to be at its base a good thing.
The reason I bring all this up is that a few weeks ago I received a correspondence from a reader that has troubled me ever since. It has troubled me for many reasons, not the least of which being that I used to know the woman who wrote it and never imagined that she would grow up to believe the kind of things she said in her letter. Part of what she said was: "I believe in the Holy Bible as the word of God. I do not believe in the redistribution of wealth or in the socialist policies of Barack Obama."
This did not come from some white trash imbecile. This came from a comfortably middle class woman who I knew a little (apparently very little) from high school.
And she is not alone in her views.
I used to teach at a small liberal arts college here in town. It was mostly introductory matters, although I made a point of trying to cram as much information into each eight-week semester as possible. Invariably, there would be maybe ten to fifteen percent of each class who would collectively freak out at the very suggestion that things in this country were (a) not necessarily 100 percent perfect, (b) not necessarily 100 percent in accordance with the will of the Lord, and (c) absolutely threatened by the invisible but real communist menace lurking in the halls of the White House.
To these students, as with the woman from my high school, the imbalance in opportunity, the theft of resources and the hording of wealth are all inherently good things.
I can admit that when I was a kid I did not necessarily understand how things had come to be the way they were, but there was never a day in my life when I could accept the notion that there was anything proper about the division of wealth. On the contrary, my own influences (even as a teenager, or especially as a teenager) made it clear that young people had a responsibility to question the existing order of things because one of the few good things about growing up in America is that you at least have the luxury of questioning the way things are in America, at least for the time being. And so I never took it on faith that my bosses at the restaurant where I slaved as a kid necessarily knew what was in my best interests. I never made the assumption that the bully-boys at my high school who held titles such as Chemistry Teacher, Vice-Principal and Principal gave a rat's ass about whether I lived or died. I never believed for a minute that the local sheriff was anything other than a punk in a squad car looking for someone to push around to compensate for his own inherent lack of male hormonal stability. Indeed, I understood people in a position of presumed authority to be the targets of every opportunity to question, to resist, to defy, and if there was any value in any of the things they tried to get me to believe, then by God those things would not feel threatened by the frequently anemic efforts of some snot-nosed kid such as myself.
But of course their collective authority was the farthest thing from being legitimate, although it would be a few years before I realized just how illegitimate most of it was.
The democracy that the thug Principal of my high school (Dow West, if you want to know his name) claimed to value played no role whatsoever in his own personal rise to power over a bunch of pubescent farm boys and girls with about as much sophistication with the complex world outside as a banana split lying on the summer sidewalk. The "honest day's work" that Chuck Orr demanded from his employees at the restaurant was not repaid with "an honest day's pay" or else I would not have had to contact the state labor board--and me just a teenager--to get back the money the fat bastard had stolen from not only me but from all of us working there by way of shaving fifteen minutes off each of our day's pay and jamming it into his porcine pockets. And as for the hooligan sheriff, well, his son is now the sheriff, so we see the role of nepotism in a small town.
As to the letter, well, what can a person do? It isn't my responsibility to save souls or even to save people from themselves. What is my responsibility, however, is to take every opportunity properly available to rail against this type of plantation house slave mentality. That phrase? Oh, you like that? Yeah, it refers to the house slaves, the ones who didn't work the fields but instead served coffee to the masters and tea to the misses and who wouldn't even nod their heads to the poor bastards sweating out among the cane and cotton because after all God had put everyone in a place for a reason. The kid that I was growing up in Circleville, Ohio and the man I later became are really the same person. I'm still a field slave and I still spit on the ground every time I encounter one of those high-toned light skinned caramel-colored yellow-bellies kowtowing to the master as if somehow they will rise above their class rather than rise with it.
And, in common with the brave and strong members of the Occupy Movement that continues across this world--the one great movement of our lifetimes, at least so far--I remain convinced that a better world is possible.