Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Invasion of the Power Snatchers

Human history is filled with reminders that we should treat each other in a reciprocal manner, and not let anyone get away with taking advantage of others in ways they would never tolerate themselves. Embedded in ethical codes, moral tales, and religious commandments – this Golden Rule tells us that everyone should be accorded equal respect, and none is to be placed at the whim or mercy of someone else. This calls for sustained vigilance against anyone seeking to appropriate too much power for themselves.

Exceptional circumstances, which call for power to be vested in a single decision-maker, should be treated precisely as exceptional with effective plans to end any temporary concentration of emergency power.

And we should beware of the antics of those who are as adept at assuming the mantle of a Midas as that of a Caesar. We must be prepared to reverse the hyper-accumulation of wealth by an elite, and ensure it is adequately counter-balanced by tax-based redistribution. Attempts to deceive people into surrendering power to a privileged few by dressing the latter’s interests up as vital economic, military or religious goals must be exposed and rejected. The basic needs of those in the weakest position must never be passed over in any trade-off to satisfy the demands of the strong. The capacity for whistle-blowing by the few and open protest by the many must be reinforced and built into the machinery of civic resistance.

But when confronted by the entrenched position of the powerful, it is easy to believe that the concentration of power is not just unavoidable, but irreversible. Precisely because the power gap has widened, the powerful would be less and less inclined to give way, while others are powerless precisely to the extent that they cannot challenge the status quo. Instead of tackling the problem of power imbalance, people are then told to accept the inevitability, even the sanctity, of power divisions such that reciprocity gives way permanently to an asymmetric relationship – the disadvantaged shall act out of deference or fear to ensure they are not even worse off, and the privileged shall act out of their generosity or mercy in granting a few small concessions.

Consequently, all too many resign themselves to living under prevailing power structures, because it is drummed into them that significant changes could never be achieved.

In reality, power relations that are more balanced and thus conducive to reciprocity can be attained. Throughout history, the progressive struggle has successfully challenged the epistemological authority of dogmatists, and opened up the field of knowledge to wider participation; confronted the evaluative authority of edicts and traditions that neglect the interests of those with little power, and promoted the equal respect for all; and opposed the executive authority of leaders to make unaccountable decisions, and introduced instead more power sharing.

Yet the enemy of reciprocity is never completely vanquished. As soon as we let our guard down, those who seek to dominate and exploit others will emerge again and manipulate society to amass wealth and power for themselves at everyone else’s expense.

To protect all that is fair and decent in human interactions, we must therefore relentlessly repel the invasion of the power snatchers.

For a detailed exposition see: Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle.

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