25 November 2015

The inherent illegitimacy of social power

Every now and again I get to feeling like some things are really obvious, but no one else seems to get them.  Or maybe they're too polite to talk about them.  And then sometimes I get writing fiction and bits of reality insist on intruding, or maybe vice-versa, and I get an explanation of why I cannot stand to read a lot of otherwise excellent writing.  And then I wonder if I ought to post this at all.

But, anyway; if we talk about "power" in a human social context, power is the ability to have other people not fight back when you harm them.

(If you're doing a really good job exercising power, they'll come up with reasons why they deserve to be hurt.  A mediocre job will have them come up with reasons why they cannot hope to retaliate effectively.)

Any power structure has to do two things; it has to make it unambiguous who is allowed to hurt whom[1], and it has to get itself copied into the future.

Attaching the exercise of power to individuals isn't the only way or the best way to organize society, but it's extremely persistent.

It's extremely persistent because it's simple—better usually means more complicated means more maintenance and more trouble with system exploits by defection—and because it provides a powerful motivation; no one wants to be powerless because being powerless means you get abused.

There's a big set of social and economic changes going on where the (obviously) economically superior form of organization says "let's not structure society around who gets hurt" and there's enormous pushback from the people who have power and want to keep it.

(This is why it's useless to talk about "privilege"; privilege is in the passive voice, and you don't get from impersonal historical forces to a recognition that those who now have power ought not to because there is no legitimate exercise of social power vesting in individuals.)

So one response to the helpless—refugees, the poor, anybody lacking the social connections to have a good-enough lawyer—is to hurt them.  This has (from inside that social structure) the positive feature of reinforcing the social order.

So when people get up and make calls for refusing any and all Syrian refugees, the harm to the refugees isn't a lamentable side effect of due public caution; it's the point.  It establishes who legitimately exercises power.

When people engage with art by adding layers of story, there's a ubiquitous tendency to make violence and cruelty not that character's fault because that's the character they like. This is arguably what art is for.  This context of art makes looking at the legitimacy of social power vested in individuals difficult.  (There isn't any, unless you agree that you should be hurt for the convenience or pleasure of others.  It's…awkward, to have to start over.)

This presents the really difficult question of "what else should we do?"

Social power structures depend on getting copied into the future.  Imagining an entire future is too difficult; no one can, or can expect, to be able to do that.

Fortunately, an entire future is not necessary.  Delegitimizing social power vested in individuals -- agreeing that nobody gets to hurt others because they want to (or claim they need to, or have a belief system which asserts the positive good of coercion…) -- is enough.  The result isn't predictable in detail, but is predictably better in result.

It's enough to get something better; that's success.  Control, specific foreknowledge of just what better thing can be had, isn't available and (fortunately) is not required.

[1] this is why "gender neutral" children's clothing looks like boy's clothes.  In a patriarchial culture, girl's clothes label you as someone anyone male can hurt.  Very nearly someone who anyone male should hurt.


FeepingCreature said...

Okay, uh, I'd like to know how you expect to run a civilization without the ability to punish defectors.

Or to put it in simpler terms, how you want me to defend myself against, say, burglars without police. (Police, after all, being a social institution to which we grant the right to exercise violence against others.) If cops can't hurt burglars, or for that matter shoot serial killers, I don't see how you anticipate your "obviously better" civilization surviving _any crime whatsoever_.

Graydon said...

How'd you get from the illegitimacy of the personal exercise of power (or constructing social hierarchies through legitimizing personal exercise of power) to "without the ability to punish defectors"?

Police aren't the only way to do it; current police mostly exist to protect concentrations of property. Consider what kind of systemic change we'd get if any police who kill or gravely injure someone on the job must leave all police work forever. (As distinct from being praised or promoted for it.) A police force organized like that would attract different people and necessarily approach policing differently.

Protection is collective; even the deadliest person alive needs to sleep. The recognition that the police don't work for you, and that they don't work for you because you're not rich, is a pretty basic thing for most people here-and-now. A more egalitarian society wouldn't have rich people and it would allow collective action and collective organization as a regular social thing. So instead of you as an individual having to manage everything for your house -- which is what makes burglary relatively easy -- you might well belong to an organization that can maintain monitoring and identification and alarms, so that any burglar has to deal with the very high likelihood of being identified and having to escape a lot of people. Which ought in turn to make burglary less attractive.

Plus, if you don't have the poverty gradient, educate generally, and insist everybody works, you presumably have less impetus towards burglary. A "well, we have to catch them after" approach isn't optimal social design. (Much like it's better to vaccinate than cure.)

None of which requires "I get to hurt you because of who I am (or because of who you are)" as a structural element in the social organization.

FeepingCreature said...

Fair enough, I guess I rounded you to "nobody gets to use force legitimately, ever", which is not what you said.

First, I guess I'd note that we're now at "it should be possible to have protection of shared property, which means this situation is not obviously worse", which is a far cry from "this situation is obviously better". Second, I feel it would not take long for our communal common-protection group to designate somebody as "guard", who gets to put on metal armor and carry sharp pointy sticks and/or firearms and chase off/after the burglar if one shows up. At which point you're halfway to reinventing police. Few of your group will enjoy getting up at 4am to chase after a burglar in their nightgown. (Third, as a capitalist I don't honestly mind the police prioritizing protecting the rich, since they're by definition more societally valued. (Disagree? Then increase taxation. Monetary value is how capitalism encodes societal value, I don't see anything directly wrong with that; capitalism is a tool, and as with any tool GIGO.))

That said: we specialize because it's more effective. I'm not sure how you escape that gradient. Police aren't the only way to do it, but the natural tendency seems to be towards police or something structurally equivalent.

Graydon said...

I'm not a capitalist; the usual complaint about capitalism is that it requires people who prefer to lose rather than cheat in order to work, but that's a general issue with social organizations of any kind. The better criticism of capitalism is that market mechanisms don't set accurate prices, and accurate prices would be about the only excuse for the social costs.

So if we can agree on "protection of shared property", perhaps we could consider mechanisms other than force? Such as guaranteeing both minimums of material prosperity and that the range of material prosperities will be limited?

I'll certainly go for a historical tendency to use police, but that's because the historical case involves defending surplus from the starving. (Or wet, cold, and malnourished.) The thing I'm arguing for as obviously better is the case where there is neither the authoritarian context nor the permissibility of the starving.

(And one of the hard things about the Commonweal is writing about such a social organization in a believable way.)