Power, again.

AuthorRyn, Claes G.
PositionResponse to articles in this issue by Marshall DeRosa, p. 86, and Chris Woltermann, p. 90

Each of the participants in this exchange are willing, more or less, to give a hearing to my argument about power. That the argument is also eliciting some puzzlement and misunderstanding is not surprising; it runs counter to some deeply ingrained habits of thought.

Before discussing the three comments, I should probably remind the reader of how the debate between Paul Gottfried and me got started. I have long tried to show that power relations are a good deal more complex than is usually assumed by students of politics. In the Humanitas article that precipitated the current discussion I took up the subject with special reference to Professor Gottfried's book After Liberalism. In the article and in a later rejoinder to Professor Gottfried I expressed reservations about simply identifying political power with coercion. I questioned that political elites autonomously generate their own power, that they exercise power unilaterally, and that they, more than any other elites, shape the long-term direction of society. I also questioned a positivistic-sociological conception of elites.

Political elites do not simply impose their will on a people. Their being in power is in an important sense symptomatic of the moral-cultural-intellectual life of society, which is shaped in the long run by thinkers and artists as much as by politicians. Political elites sometimes affect the future decisively, but they can and cannot do various things depending on the moral-cultural-intellectual climate of their societies. In addition, there is always an element of give and take, of power sharing, between rulers and ruled. Political elites can exercise authority because of an existing or incipient willingness, however grudging in some cases, to accept their rule. The ground for their authority must have been prepared within the larger civilization to which they belong. The time must have become "ripe." Not even a totalitarian regime can generate all of its power from within itself and exercise it in utter disregard of the deepest beliefs of a people. To some extent it must even derive its authority from tradi tions that it despises. During the Second World War Stalin asked the armies of the Soviet Union to fight not for the Communist party or the proletariat but for "Mother Russia." Even radical political departures from traditional ways are prepared in the mind and the imagination of a people and are made possible by a simmering social crisis related to the larger trends of civilization.

Political and other elites are never wholly distinct from the rest of society. They blend into other social groups. Being first of all members of the human race, they are not defined exclusively or mainly by their political functions or positions. In the end, they cannot be clearly differentiated. For that reason, the term "elite," must, like many other terms that are very useful but philosophically coarse, be employed with caution, so that in reflection about sociopolitical phenomena a simple, unambiguous theoretical abstraction does not replace complex, ambiguous human reality.

Attending to the complexities of power relations and...

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