Man’s attempted exercise of power over other men is as old as history. Of almost equal age are man’s speculations concerning the dangers of power and the means by which it might be limited. Decentralization and a supposition of a framework of Natural Law, limiting ruler and ruled alike, have emerged as man’s two best answers to the problem of power.
Yet, in the modern history of power, these traditional safeguards have been confronted with new definitions and new applications of power, posing a greater threat to man than in any of his previous history.
Initially, the coming of democracy was viewed as a final end to entrenched power, as a permanent emasculation of the social agencies and spiritual authorities which were viewed as standing in the path of man’s liberty. Once the authority of church, king, and aristocracy were swept away, the reign of all men was to begin. What may well have happened is less an end to power than its transference to new owners.
Hobbes defined political power as political liberty and insisted that man would be free when he possessed a share of political government. Yet the fragmentation of political power into bits and pieces at once so numerous and so small, as accomplished in modern democracy, may well have offered an illusory freedom to the individual, since it offered him an essentially illusory sovereignty. As long ago as 1870, Proudhon warned in his Theory of the Constitutional Movement in the Nineteenth Century:
It is no use saying that an elected person or the representative of the people is only the trustee for the people… in despite of principle, the delegate of the sovereign will be the master of the sovereign. Sovereignty on which a man cannot enter, if I may so put it, is as empty a right as property on which he cannot enter.
The democratic ideal did not originally intend to substitute the arbitrary will of the citizenry for the arbitrary will of the King. But, as Georges Clemenceau wearily observed as he contemplated the condition of democratic Europe in the early twentieth century, "… had we expected that these majorities of a day would exercise the same authority as that possessed by our ancient kings, we should but have effected an exchange of tyrants." The fragmentation of sovereignty occurring in mass democracy thus proved a feeble shield for individual liberty.
Both of the traditional guarantees of limited power, decentralization and Natural Law, had been subverted in the process. Decentralization of power throughout the private, institutional framework of society had been replaced with the comparatively meaningless fragmentation of sovereignty among vast numbers of individuals. The idea of Natural Law, of limitations placed upon ruler and ruled alike, had been replaced by the dangerous and totally incorrect vox populi, vox dei. The stage was set for the confusion of the "power of the people" with the "liberty of the people." And the power about to be exercised in the name of the people was destined to make all previous exercises of power throughout history seem pale by comparison.
Sovereignty and Power
As he witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, Benjamin Constant accurately predicted the disasters to come in his admirable little book, The Course of Constitutional Politics:
The establishment of sovereignty of the people in an unlimited form is to create and play at dice with a measure of Power which is too great in itself and is an evil in whatever hands it is placed.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Tocqueville, von Mohl, Burckhardt, and Acton shared these serious doubts about unlimited democracy. They prophesied that the very democracy which had originally been conceived for the emancipation of the individual could itself become the means of a new enslavement.
A recent television comedy sketch conveys the place of power in the new democratic era perhaps even more effectively than the thoughtful essays of social critics. In the scene, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney are trying to decide which of them will occupy the master bedroom at a hotel they are visiting. Carney delivers a lecture about "democratic processes" and "the American way," prompting a series of votes which, naturally enough, always produce a one-one tie. Carney proposes, "I’ll vote for you, if you’ll vote for me," again producing the same result. They then decide to flip a coin. Gleason calls "heads," and Carney then challenges Gleason’s right to make the choice, insisting, "That’s undemocratic."
The comedians exploit the ridiculous situation to its fullest extent, proposing various devices to solve the problem and yet always coming up against Carney’s assertion that Gleason’s choice of a means to settle the dispute is "undemocratic." Gleason finally loses his temper, and gives the answer which majorities often give in the process of decision making: "See the size of this fist? It’s bigger than yours, isn’t it? That’s why I get my choice!"
The current of reform in the eighteenth century which swept away monarchy and promised a brighter day for the common man through democratic processes was quite properly directed against abuses of power by those who operated the political processes of the state. The reforming current was equally correct in its opposition to power when exercised in the private realm through monopoly situations (situations usually stemming from political grants of power by the state).
This reforming zeal began to go astray when it mistook the close connections between the clergy and royal absolutism for a connection between religion and morality on the one hand and political power and exploitation on the other. Bodin and other apologists for Divine Right had so interwoven Natural Law and Divine Right that the reformers rejected moral restraint when they rejected monarchy, thus throwing out the baby with the bath and opening the door to a tremendous centralization of power because they discarded one of the two great bulwarks against power, the assumption of a law limiting ruler and ruled alike.
The Decline of Power?
Though power had been distrusted when in the hands of church, monarch, and aristocracy, the reformers came to feel that power could be safely entrusted to the people. Even such a stanch advocate of personal liberty as John Stuart Mill came to believe that power was no longer a decisive factor in politics, since the rule of the people would lead to the equitable solution of all problems through free discussion in a common market place of ideas.
Other nineteenth century advocates of freedom also saw power as a declining force which would no longer trouble the modern world. Reasoning from his organic analogies patterned after Darwinian theories of evolution within the animal kingdom, Herbert Spencer attempted to demonstrate that an abatement of power was to be the natural result of evolution and progress.
The First World War made clear that free discussion and popular sovereignty had, in fact, not done away with power at all. Yet, even then, the reformers were not fully convinced. The rhetoric of the World War I era is filled to overflowing with statements placing blame for that outburst of raw power on a last desperate reaction of the old nondemocratic order. What solutions did the reformers offer for this new outburst of power? More democracy, of course: "Open covenants openly arrived at," "self-determination of peoples," and a League of Nations extending discussion and democracy to a truly international level. Thus, the democracies put on the greatest display of raw power exercised until that moment in history, in the name of "making the world safe for democracy."
It might be argued that a monarchical Germany started the war, not the Western democracies. Yet even if such a thesis could be demonstrated (and the facts would indicate that all the major nations, democracies and monarchies alike, played their part in bringing on the war) it would still be true that even the most democratic of Western nations soon came to copy the Prussian methods of mobilizing the private sector and the individual citizen for "total" war efforts. Even in England and the United States, the two nations in which the individual citizen had been most successful in preserving his liberty against the encroachment of governmental power, conscription became the means of providing an army, while great pressures of borrowing and inflation, amounting to a form of economic conscription, provided the war chest.
Preservation of Democracy
The "good cause" justifying this extension of power was the preservation of "democracy" itself. Under the new democratic regimes, the warfare state pointed the way toward the welfare state, since both were to give endless and often irresponsible power to the few while degrading the many, all in the name of an abstract equality of men. Oddly enough, this "equality" is only to be achieved, its proponents tell us, through a tremendous inequality in the exercise of power, giving some men the right to act for others.
If the First World War had only shaken the dogma that democracy meant an end to the dangers of power, the Second World War ended such a notion once and for all. Since the late 1930′s, we have seen the unrestricted play of power on our society and the world, limited effectively by neither political theory nor moral principle. The traditional safeguards of decentralization and Natural Law
have both been undercut by democracy, only to have democracy itself provide a fertile field for the most unchecked reign of power in world history. Apparently Lord Acton was right about the corrupting capabilities of power. Surely, Hitler and his gang should be sufficient proof of that fact.
For a time, some of the reformers still argued that such power was not harmful so long as it worked toward "humanitarian" goals. We all remember the years when the totalitarian regime of Stalin was viewed by many in the West as being somehow morally superior to the totalitarian regime of Hitler. But, in practice, the Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and any number of other subject peoples surely could point to no distinguishing characteristics between the Red totalitarianism and the Brown.
The Warfare State
Meanwhile, how did power fare in those Western democracies which prided themselves on being most nontotalitarian? In the words of one of the most distinguished students of power:
Whereas the Capetian kings made war with a few seignorial contingents whose service was for no more than forty days, the popular states of today have power to call to the colours, and keep there indefinitely, the entire male population. Whereas the feudal monarchs could nourish hostilities only with the resources of their own domains, their successors have at their disposal the entire national income. The citizens of medieval cities at war could, if they were not too near to the actual theatre of operations, take no notice of it. Nowadays friend and foe alike would burn their houses, slaughter their families, and measure their own doughty deeds in ravaged acres. Even Thought herself, in former times contemptuous of these brawls, has now been roped in by devotees of conquest to proclaim the civilizing virtues of gangsters and incendiaries.
How is it possible not to see in this stupendous degradation of our civilization the fruits of state absolutism? Everything is thrown into war because Power disposes of everything.1
The Welfare State
So much for the modern warfare state. What of the modern welfare state? The same era which saw the rise of democratic reformism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw the widespread acceptance of the principles of natural science and the unfortunate accompanying tendency to apply the methodology of science in the political and social realms. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte remarked, "If we do not allow free thinking in chemistry or biology, why should we allow it in morals or politics?" Fichte carried that assumption to its logical conclusion: "To compel man to adopt the right form of government, to impose Right on them by force, is not only the right, but the sacred duty of every man who has both the insight and the power to do so." This assumption lies at the root of the subsequent "social planning" which has come to dominate modern society. Men are now to be made free from their own ignorance and inadequacy. Power used to coerce is thus supposed to be beneficent power, power exercised "for the good" of the many.
Throughout history, the greatest vice of power had generally been thought to be the restriction of individual liberty which the exercise of such power entailed. But once modern man began to recognize no restriction of Natural Law upon his capability to know what is "best" for people and know it better than the individual citizen himself, the modern statist was in a position —
… to ignore the actual wishes of men or societies, to bully, oppress, torture them in the name, and on behalf of their "real" selves, in the secure knowledge that whatever is the true goal of man (happiness, fulfillment of duty, wisdom, a just society, self-fulfillment) must be identical with his freedom — the free choice of his "true," albeit submerged and inarticulate, self.2
The Planning State
In such a system, what limitation of power is now to be recognized? What is to be the basis of the new political morality? As John Dewey, a philosopher of the new humanitarian planned society, phrased it, "Whether [the use of force] is justifiable or not… is, in substance, a question of efficiency (including economy) of means in the accomplishing of ends…. The criterion of value lies in the relative efficiency and economy of the expenditure of force as a means to an end."3 In a word, all the traditional safeguards against power are now to be discounted in favor of a single measure: utility.
In a textbook entitled Our Economic Society and Its Problems, one of the planners of the new order, Rexford G. Tugwell, explicitly stated the new definition of power:
The real challenge to America… is the challenge of the planning idea. Russia has silenced forever the notion that economic affairs are governed by adamant natural laws. She has demonstrated that men have it in their power to set up the system they want and to make it obedient to their wishes.
With Russia as an example, intelligent people in America… will want to plan and act.
A New Definition of Freedom
As Friedrich Hayek has made abundantly clear, it is only modern man that has confused freedom from coercion (the traditional use of the word) with an illusory freedom from obstacles, implying a physical ability of man to be in complete control of and beyond the limitations of his natural environment. In this way, individual freedom has been corrupted until it implies a "right" to any material benefit which the social order can procure for him.
Once this identification of freedom with power is admitted, there is no limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word "liberty" can be used to support measures which destroy individual liberty, no end to the tricks by which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty and that in totalitarian states liberty has been suppressed in the name of liberty….
This reinterpretation of liberty is particularly ominous because it has penetrated deeply into the usage of some of the countries where, in fact, individual freedom is still largely preserved. In the United States it has come to be widely accepted as the foundation for the political philosophy dominant in "liberal" circles. Such recognized intellectual leaders of the "progressives" as J. R. Commons and John Dewey have spread an ideology in which "liberty is power, effective power to do specific things" and the "demand of liberty is the demand for power," while the absence of coercion is merely "the negative side of freedom" and "is to be prized only as a means to Freedom which is power."4
Power = More Power
It is instructive that the great proletarian revolutions of modern times, those in France and Russia, both promised a revolt against power. Shortly before assuming authority, Lenin wrote that it was the task of the Revolution to "concentrate all its forces against the might of the state; its task is not to improve the governmental machine but to destroy it and blot it out." The revolutionaries acting in the name of the people have moved against power with the avowed purpose not of assuming that power but of destroying it. Despite this, those who assumed temporary power to destroy other concentrations of power have usually proven unwilling to relinquish that authority once the revolutionary process is brought to completion.
Before the rapids, there was the rule of a Charles I, a Louis XVI, a Nicholas II. After them, that of a Cromwell, a Napoleon, a Stalin. Such are the masters to whom the peoples that rose against Stuart or Bourbon or Romanov "tyranny" find themselves subjected next…. The Cromwells and Stalins are no fortuitous consequence, no accidental happening, of the revolutionary tempest. Rather they are its predestined goal, towards which the entire upheaval was moving inevitably; the cycle began with the downfall of an inadequate Power only to close with the consolidation of a more absolute Power.5
In both the nontotalitarian Western world and in the more frankly totalitarian experiments, the same pattern holds true. The initial assault against power is followed by a more complete and all-pervasive power structure of its own. The danger of such structures is all the more enhanced by the fact that such despotisms are erected in the name of "the people."
In the words of Henry Mencken:
It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.6
The Modern State
If the modern state has indeed become so all-pervasive in its exercise of power, why is there not more organized resistance? It is the pretext that such power is wielded by and for "the people" which in effect has delivered the people, the individual citizens, into the hands of this new despotic power.
This power now exercised in the name of "the people" whether in the welfare state pattern or the frankly totalitarian form, is tremendous in scope. Worse yet, such power tends naturally to accumulate still more power to itself. An Italian scholar who witnessed the rise of the fascist state in Europe, Guglielmo. Ferrero, has made the shrewd observation that a government of great power tends to suspect that the citizens being governed would like to throw off the yoke which they bear. It is Ferrero’s thesis that this fear of the government against the governed, thus engendered, tends to rise to a greater and greater level as more power is exercised — thus the more totalitarian a government, the more dictatorial, oppressive, and brutal it is likely to become.
Thus power breeds appetite for more power, until not only obedience, but enthusiasm, is expected from the subjects of that power. It was Napoleon who first made wide use of deliberately contrived propaganda techniques to win enthusiasm for the regime in power. Since then, virtually every wielder of great power has further perfected the same technique. "Public image," a desire to be at once powerful and popular, seems to be a common goal in such societies. Often the pursuit of this goal has produced suppression of facts which might prove unpopular. We have all come to expect such suppression from the modern totalitarian state. We are also now learning that a "credibility gap" can exist in our own society as well.
Thus, the powerful state comes to fear the subjects over whom it exercises power, while the individual citizen comes to fear the increasing repressions and interferences of the all-powerful state. It is to this that Ferrero refers:
It is impossible to inspire fear in men without ending up by fearing them: from this moral law springs the most fearful torment of life —the reciprocal fear between government and its subjects.7
The root of this fear in both the governing and the governed is the fear of power, rampant and unchained from Western civilization’s traditional limitations of power, decentralization and Natural Law. Power in such a society is finally embraced because of its capacity to produce discipline. The exercise of power thus becomes an end in itself, rather than a means.
Finally, under whatever political label, a new agency has come into being in the modern world:
Throughout the world, a new revolutionary theory and system seem to be taking substance: what Tocqueville predicted long ago as "democratic despotism," but harsher than he expected even that tyranny to be; in some sense, what Mr. James Burnham calls "the managerial revolution"; super-bureaucracy, arrogating to itself functions that cannot properly appertain to the bureau or the cabinet; the planned economy, encompassing not merely the economy proper, however, but the whole moral and intellectual range of human activities; the grand form of Plannwirtschaft, state planning for its own sake, state socialism devoid of the sentimental aims which originally characterized socialism.8
The next article in this series will discuss the "Social Effects" of Power.
1 Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power (New York: Viking Press, 1949), p. 152.
2 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 18.
3 John Dewey, "Force and Coercion," Ethics XXVI (1916), pp. 362 and 364.
4 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), pp. 16-17.
5 Jouvenel, op. cit., p. 216.
6 Albert Jay Nock, Our Enemy, the State (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1946), flyleaf.
7 Guglielmo Ferrero, The Principles of Power (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942), p. 313.
8 Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953), p. 533.