Wednesday, 10 September 2014

6. Fear and power - Power is asymmetry

Power is asymmetry. 

Power is asymmetry. It is the resolution of a tension that exists between sides originally equal. Power is the triumphal action of the winning side to precipitate and materialise potentiality. Making a decision and taking it to action means that one idea, one intention, took power over other or others. Even if the winning idea has integrated part of its opposite, there is always a winning idea.
Shall I make the pragmatic decision or shall I decide out of principle? Without this asymmetry we would not be able to eat as we would not be able to decide anything. Symmetry neutralises, asymmetry creates. For that reason, power (and the perceivable physical world) is by its own nature unbalanced. In this natural order of power, hierarchy is an intrinsic characteristic of power and therefore inevitable (even though it doesn't have to be static). We would never be able to create (organize ideas, make a decision and take an action) without some sort of hierarchies. See The hierarchy of values.

In economy, in politics, asymmetry is a very well known principle of power management. If a company would split the shares in two equal parts, the likelihood is that the decision making will be inefficient or non-existent.

At an individual level, how we use our power will dictate (or be dictated by) our personality. 

Vertical versus circular power

When we are connected to fear and we are in front of a perceived threat (real or imaginary), power will be structured vertically (in our brains and socially) as it will generate quicker responses, albeit less intelligent and innovative as it tends to replicate known formulas of coping (it triggers instinctive survival behaviour governed mainly by what's called the reptilian brain). See Identity and crisis.

Portret van het Menselijk Tekort.
 by Jaco Van Der Vaart
The more vertical the power, the less dissent it will allow, the more aggression and violence it'll require to sustain it. In this dynamic, there is no recognition of the other's individuality, which is only seen as a resource. This is easier to see at social level or in interpersonal relationships but it happens first within us. We fragment our personality and give power to certain characters -normally the ones that were in charge when we felt fear early on in our lives- and we remove power from what we consider our weaker sides, our wounded self. In an article of The Guardian, they included some anecdotes of encounters of US politicians with Vladimir Putin: "When George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes at a Moscow summit in May 2002, he reported, “I was able to get a sense of his soul”. When Joe Biden visited the Kremlin in 2011, he had a very different impression, telling Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand each other.” Seeing "souls" is -of course- about seeing beyond the mask that wants to hide our vulnerability. In his reply, Putin outwitted Biden suggesting he wouldn't find any vulnerability in him.

Darth Vader is a clear example of "the tragic hero" wounded by the separation from the feminine (his anger develops from the early separation from his mother, her death and the pregnancy of his wife), and this wounded side -the son, the husband- gets hidden under a mask. The warrior took charge but only to obey a ruthless Emperor. This character only survives with aggression. Once he got in contact again with his son, with love, he kills the emperor outside and within and ends up removing his mask (literally).

There is an irony in the impatience of the West to impose its democratic ideas. There is also anxiety. In fact, some people in the US argue that power is depleting, it's eroding (See: the end of power). In federal politics, this is partly because elected governments show due obedience to the contributors of the campaigns more than the electorate. Campaigns burn dollars in advertising so they need a lot and "one person, one vote" slowly changed to "one dollar, one vote". But this due obedience is a choice, a self preserving choice.
In World politics, it is simply too expensive to impose your will to the entire world. In this regard, power is slowly shifting mechanism from vertical (concentrated, single-minded, highly hierarchical, quicker BUT less sophisticated) to circular (more agents in the table, micro-tensions, asymmetry created by micro-alliances, might be slower if not disciplined, generally smarter). In this shift, that includes the US being more part of a circle, the creative result of power, how it precipitates and materialises, will be much greater (albeit maybe slower). More things will be done. 

But this is a process: a process of individuation of people that adds up ("trickle up") to a social and international power rearrangement. Power of an individuated person, the one that has become adult by successfully separating himself from the (m)other, will associate in circles. The problems are: 1. no one can do this process for us 2. we cannot do this process for others 3. We are not all at the same stage of this process, ever. 
Once we recognised ourselves, then we are able to recognise others and are able to successfully organize circular power, more creative as it unlocks collective intelligenceCircular power not only requires trusting individuals but also the ability to read, recognise and connect with others whilst have the discipline to conduct conversations and transactions that enable action.

During the dictatorship in Argentina, people were not allowed to gather in public spaces. The mothers of the people that started to go missing did not have any place to go, to denounce, to complain. They started to gather in Plaza de Mayo and under police orders of "circulate", they started walking in circles, in silence every Thursday. They walked around the pyramid. This circular power was one of great defiance against the vertical power of the dictatorship.

When this process does not truly come from an inner transformation ie someone else killing the "external" Emperor, it does not "work" in terms of enabling people to organise in circles (eg a democratic system), at least not immediately. It was their job to recognise in the external emperor the internal one and gather the force to overcome this brutal father figure -outside and inside-. When the process is cut, we'll probably run amok trying to build a new emperor to kill or we'll go through a period of deep crisis. If this is constantly interrupted, it can become a chronic issue. This is a current topic of discussion that analyses the result of West intervention in the middle east: how much it failed in imposing democracy, can you accept or work with dictatorships?, how much can you really do to bring about stability and social order?, etc. (See The truth about evil,  Are dictators worse than anarchy?Anarchy vs Stability: Dictatorship and chaos go hand in hand).  

The blurred lines of a circle: still democratic?

However the difference between what is truly a circular and vertical structure sometimes is subtle and not easy to distinguish. The European Union and even more the United Kingdom are in serious debate about it, with the Scottish Independence referendum and even the EU referendum promised by David Cameron. More broadly democracy (circular power) is being discussed more than ever. Is it really circular including us all? or are these circles responding to a vertical structure taking power away from people, like the Lord of the Rings's rings circles ended up responding to a single unchallengeable ring (ie, the 1%, the "market")? In this sense, it's always interesting to see "the market" not approving a democratic result, such as Dilma Rousseff reelection in Brazil. 

In vertical structures there is always a surrendering of power. In fact, every time we feel identified with anything there is a transfer of power. 

Whose wish is it?

Whose wish is it? is in my opinion the key question to think about when any sort of union is taking an action (a couple, a family, a group, a country). When it is the wish of one made true by the strength (the libido) of all then, there is domination. In this case the leading force in the union becomes a 'devouring mother': the one that feeds from the libido she steals from the children, depriving them of expressing their own identity. The one that wishes for you, the one that thinks for you, the one that does for you. Many fairy tales are based around this conflict, normally through the figure of the witch (representing the bad mother). 
I remain truly puzzled by by John F. Kennedy famous speech "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." It is supposed to be an empowering message but... If we change 'country' for the word 'mother'... then it becomes a slightly creepy 'devouring mother' message and the standing ovation slowly becomes a paused and isolated applause. It does not say "ask what you can do for yourself, for your family" or "whilst we think what this country can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself, your family and your community too" (I admit, though, that it lacks the power of a snappy quote). 
The distinction can be quite thin. We read it everyday in the news. "Italy is not pushing fast enough for the changes that Angela Merkel wants to see". Whose wish is it?

In economic matters, "this is truly complicated, let us do the thinking for you" is a tacit and constant message which slowly pushes democracy towards the realms of elitocracy. It's refreshing to hear and see Dr. Ha-Joon Chang saying otherwise in his book "Economics, but not as you know it".

But the examples are everywhere. Whose wish is it? is behind our lack of understanding of the Ukraine crisis. How much the Crimea referendum voices the wish of the people living in Crimea? How much it is a civil war and how much it is a covert invasion to stop Nato? 
But most important of all, because everything starts in a small scale, is "whose wish is it" in our lives? why did I study the career I chose? Was it truly my wish or was I trying to make my parents happy, feed them instead of myself with my choice? (In this article Venus Williams says that tennis was in fact her father's wish) Whose wish is it being expressed with my partner? Do all voices have their space? And with my children?

Dynamic asymmetry 

Power is by nature unbalanced, I said. But it does not mean that the unbalance needs to be always leaning towards one side (nor that any particular hierarchy needs to be set in stone) on the contrary. The more it is unbalanced towards one side, the bigger the change needed, the bigger the revolution (this word sounds particularly evocative in this context)The quicker we move to regain equilibrium, the further we'll get. As much as walking or probably even better, spinning (it's a circle!)... revolving.
Crisis points would still tend to require a slightly more verticality, though (quicker, more assertive action). I always think of it as I go up a mountain with my car. I could not advance well in fifth gear. I might need to be in 2nd or 3th. But I cannot remain in 2nd gear forever. I would not get where I need to go. 

And why is there a mountain anyway?


More links:

Elif Shafak, about the power of circles: The politics of fiction

Ha-Joon Chang: Economics, but not as you know it

PS: Huffington Post UK, Scottish Independece: Darth Vader chases Labor MPs around Glasgow. :)

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