Wednesday, June 16, 2010

the roots of power

Three really insightful paragraphs from the classic 1977 book, Poor People's Movements:

Common sense and historical experience combine to suggest a simple but compelling view of the roots of power in any society.  Crudely but clearly stated, those who control the means of physical coercion, and those who control the means of producing wealth, have power over those who do not.  This much is true whether the means of coercion consists in the primitive force of a warrior caste or the technological force of a modern army.  And it is true whether the control of production consists in control by priests of the mysteries of the calendar on which agriculture depends, or control by financiers of the large-scale capital on which industrial production depends. Since coercive force can be used to gain control of the means of producing wealth, and since control of wealth can be used to gain coercive force, those two sources of power tend over time to be drawn together within one ruling class.

Common sense and historical experience also combine to suggest that these sources of power are protected and enlarged by the use of that power not only to control the actions of men and women, but also to control their beliefs.  What some call superstructure, and what others call culture, includes an elaborate system of beliefs and ritual behaviors which defines for people what is right and what is wrong and why; what is possible and what is impossible; and the behavioral imperatives that follow from these beliefs.  Because this superstructure of beliefs and rituals is evolved in the context of unequal power, it is inevitable that beliefs and rituals reinforce inequality, by rendering the powerful divine and the challengers evil.  Thus the class struggles that might otherwise be inevitable in sharply unequal societies ordinarily do not seem either possible or right from the perspective of those who live within the structure of belief and ritual fashioned by those societies.  People whose only possible recourse in struggle is to defy the beliefs and rituals laid down by their rulers ordinarily do not.

What common sense and historical experience suggest has been true of many society is no less true of modern capitalist societies, the United States among them.  Power is rooted in the control of coercive force and in the control of the means of production.  However, in capitalist societies this reality is not legitimated by rendering the powerful divine, but by obscuring their existence....

--Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People's Movements: Why They Success, How they Fail, p. 1-2.

For more on the way that culture normalizes and obscures the true workings of society, please see my earlier posts on Freire. For a very different look at the role of culture and what it can mean to suddenly see and understand the culture all around us, check out this brilliant speech by the late novelist David Foster Wallace titled, This is Water.

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