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Wednesday, 19 September 2007


I've read Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect and I'm not about to argue about the corrupting effect of licensed abuse. Nor do I depart from the (often misquoted) Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (the "tend to" bit, so often omitted, is very pertinent). But I also quote Acton's contemporary Disraeli: "all power is a trust ... we are accountable for its exercise ... from the people and for the people all springs and all must exist". Accountability is critical in the exercise of power and Blair – who, by the way, should be lumped with Bush (eg as "unthinking") with great care – was gravely at fault in progressively discounting the Commons as a forum in which to be accountable.

But look, you assert that "a person stops behaving normally when placed in a position of authority" as if we don't all assume – or allow ourselves to be placed in – many positions of authority in our various roles in the world. Any parent (save for the proverbial doormat) is in a position of power over the child. One who keeps a dog is in a position of authority. A shopkeeper has authority over his customers ("my premises") as does a busdriver over the passengers, a doctor over her patients, a traffic warden over parkers, the teacher, the solicitor, the accountant, the police officer, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. If the argument is that we should eschew any role or relationship in which there is a scintilla of power or – not quite the same thing – authority, we shall be living like amoeba (not, of course, like termites or wasps whose living arrangements depend wholly upon deference to power and authority). When you claim to find power "distasteful", you need to look at your own life and confront honestly the degree to which you willy-nilly exercise power therein, whether in familial and personal relationships or in passing daily transactions.

I don't like tinpot Hitlers (to use a phrase from my Dad's generation) any more than you do. I don't disagree with all of the examples you offer of officiousness in officialdom – though I think anedcotes usually need to be handled with caution, one of the reasons why I can't get excited about the supposed rights of the village flower-tender. I do think that health and safety regulations have become restrictive in all kinds of ways but that is in some measure because a cottage industry of complaints and rights-claiming has grown up, built on the mendacious no-win-no-fee business designed to exploit vulnerable and cash-strapped people's notion that they might get compensation for some imagined disadvantage.

But I don't think it advances the debate to lump together politicians, any more than it reduces road rage to characterise traffic wardens in the way that motorists (especially when caught breaking the law) tend to do.

I concede a number of your points. Yes it is true that at different times we all don a mantle of authority. You cite examples of parents and children and dogs and their owners. To my mind, these are the only two examples that offer a parallel with the government and the governed, i.e. there is no choice on the part of those required to submit. In your other examples, it is possible to go somewhere else.
However, there are key differences between these examples and government. The successful culmination of the parent/child relationship is the eventual breaking of ties of authority. And the word owner defines the nature of the human/dog relationship (I hesitate to mention slavery to explain why this is not a good model for designing inter-human relationships).
I also don’t think that the parent/child model is an appropriate way to design a structure for adults living in a community. Not long ago that is exactly what we had in Britain; the monarch was father of the country. And leaders still are in many parts of the world where Saddams and Mugabes lock “naughty children” away and beat them and worse. And feel justified in doing so.
Each of us has only one life and it is wrong that other people should presume to curtail the enjoyment of that life except where someone else is harmed. This is where democracy comes in and why it is so important that it is properly structured. It should be the job of an elected government executive to propose the rules which define the boundaries of freedom. But two things should constrain them in their deliberations. First, a proper code of civil liberties which defines boundaries beyond which legislation must not stray. Second, an independent group of elected representatives whose job is to scrutinise proposals without being in the thrall of the executive.
You put this so well:
But I also quote Acton's contemporary Disraeli: "all power is a trust ... we are accountable for its exercise ... from the people and for the people all springs and all must exist". Accountability is critical in the exercise of power and Blair – who, by the way, should be lumped with Bush (eg as "unthinking") with great care – was gravely at fault in progressively discounting the Commons as a forum in which to be accountable.

It is for this that Tony Blair should not be forgiven. It was unthinking, and like many of the restrictions on freedom that were imposed at the same time, it was done in a mood of hysteria and from a misplaced reliance on personal conviction.
I hope it can be undone. But it will not be easy because it is hard for many of us to appreciate the enormity of what has been done. We have come to be complacent about our freedoms. Democracy is fragile. I quote from a review of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy by Eric D. Weitz in the Economist:
“… an often gripping work from which two main lessons can be drawn. One is how quickly democracy can slip away. In 1928 the Nazis won just 2.6% of the vote; five years later Hitler was in power. The other … is how often democracy is under most threat not from enemies abroad but from those who use its institutions and claim to speak in its name.”

Ok, several things. Parents and dog-owners are certainly not the only power-wielders whose 'victims' have no choice. Successive generations of writers – playwrights especially, because they can present the power struggle in dialogue form – have explored the nature of power and subjugation between couples and intimates: Shakespeare, the Restoration writers of comedy, Strindberg, Pinter, Mamet, many others. What's more, governments in properly organised democracies do indeed offer a "choice on the part of those required to submit". I know that there are those who demur at the invitation to vote – which, who knows?, may be offered again next month – but they can't then claim that they have no choice. I have felt that successive elections have offered me plenty of scope for tactical voting. My natural inclination has been to vote Labour and I did so from the first election in which I could vote until 1997, the last time I so voted in a general election. In 2001, I already thought that Blair had taken us to war too many times (this was before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan) and I deplored the government's reactionary policy on immigration. By a stroke of luck, the local MP (we then lived in Crouch End, London) was the minister with responsibility for immigration policy and the swing against her was the second largest against Labour anywhere in the country. Happily for the respectability of the Hornsey & Wood Green constituency, the swing was to the Liberal Democrats, not to the Tories or the unashamedly racist parties. In 2005 the seat fell to the Lib Dems, their first in north London for generations, but by that time we were voting in the west country. The local MP is a Conservative but a controversial one and the Liberal Democrats ever entertain a lively hope of unseating him. Frankly, there is no point in voting Labour here, save that our parish council has a single Labour councillor, astoundingly the representative for our ward (which on the face of it is a very middle class village). I gladly vote Labour in the parish elections because I think it important to keep a Labour voice there. So you see, the electors have lots of choice and lots of power.

As to Blair and his disregard of the House: I don't think this was a sudden event or any sort of Machiavellian plot. I think it was "unthinking" but perhaps not in the way that you mean. I feel sure that Blair was most guided in his political career by his religious belief. I think he was more of a God man, veering to a Catholic man, than he was a Labour man. His handling of party management, in which he was very lucky to find the party co-operative and quiescent so long as he was able to deliver electoral success, was singularly poor, the worst since Ramsay MacDonald. He was extraordinarily lucky that no issue ever precipitated a wholesale revolt on the back benches (shame on the backbenchers). But my sense of it is that this was not a cynical exclusion of the party from the role of government, it was just a failure of sensibility about the party because Blair had no real party base. Unlike Brown, Prescott, Benn (Tony and indeed Hilary) and other modern Labour bigwigs, he had never cultivated the myriad sub-groupings within the Labour movement. It never occurred to him that it was necessary.

As a government, Labour has been much too influenced by the security services, which is really where the controlling freakery is coming from. Historically, Labour has always been too impressed by professionalism (or what it sees as professionalism) and too ready to listen to those who claim to speak with the voice of experience. Tories are (still) more inclined to listen to those who went to the right school, know the right chaps and belong to the right clubs. Who is to say which party swallows more bullshit?

Sorry it has taken me a couple of days to get back to this.
You make two points: 1 power and subjugation between couples and intimates, and 2 tactical voting.

1 This first point in interesting but not strictly relevant. Why do people regularly place themselves in positions (often but not always relationships) where their freedom is restricted? I find it intriguing that Philip Zimbardo moved from his Stamford Prison Experiment work to studying shyness, which he sees as a private self imposed prison. There are many other private prisons, including those constructed for themselves by women unable to leave relationships with domineering and abusive partners. I do not understand these dynamics, so have little to say about them. But I plan to read more. This type of psychological entrapment is, however, not the same as having to subject oneself to the laws of the community in which you reside.

2 The fact that people feel the need to vote tactically supports my position. Why should people have to vote for a party that they do not support in order to undermine the one that they hate more? This is a stupidity and it reinforces the argument that the system should be changed. My own decision not to vote is based on exactly this. When I went, in my youth, to join the Labour Party, the first thing I was told was how they used the planning system to gerrymander elections. If you have a system with dishonesty and deceit at its core, you don’t have a snowball’s chance of moving towards a society where people value honour and decency.

I have little to say about your reflections on Blair, though I find them interesting. I am not close enough to what goes on to make that kind of judgment. I see his actions as despicable because he did so much harm, not only for no gain, but he also caused irreparable damage in many areas. And from what one hears, he did it against the advice of those who understood the situation better. I don’t think that religious conviction is a good excuse for damaging (and ending) so many people's lives and for undermining civil liberties.

It is interesting that he has now taken on the job of Middle East envoy. My wife thinks he has taken it from vanity, from an addiction to the feeling of importance. I, on the other hand, wonder whether he has, at some level, realized what he has done and is taking it on as a penance.

Most likely, he is so vain and stupid that he thinks his naïve enthusiasm can make a difference.

Interesting debate. However the question that always exercises me is how to achieve change without first engaging fully with the current system, to the extent of seeking power on a mandate for change. It seems to me that, short of popular revolution, which most likely must be facilitated by the rise of some kind of visionary demagogue anyway, the only way to change is through working from the inside. Commentators, the fourth estate, can only do so much - like Hayek through Thatcher, they've still got to find a political sponsor with the potential to win, and win big.

Dear Jock
Good to hear from you. I hope that you have followed the link to Common Sense’s Blog where this discussion continues.

You are right that achieving change will eventually, require engagement. Because of my advanced age, that is not – for me – a real option. So I don’t have the unenviable task of choosing between the present political parties, none of which I find satisfactory.

However, I feel that I do have something to say and I hope to get heard. Specifically, I find that none of the suggested systems of proportional representation which are currently on offer are satisfactory. Their big weakness is that they confer even more power to political parties. I am at present working on an alternative suggestion which would return power to elected members of parliament. It would make them more responsible to their electors and less dependent on their party machines.

As for implementation, again you are right. There must be people working from the inside. But it is hard to see how they can avoid being swept away from their objectives by the realities of our present electoral system.
So an alternative/additional strategy is this:
• Focus attention on the weaknesses in the system
• Highlight its stupidities and venalities
• Jump on board the only popular trend that could help – the falling electoral turnout – by organising a movement of voter strikes
This would deprive government of legitimacy and force a rethink.
But in order for this to work a viable alternative voting system must exist and its advantages must be both understandable and popular.

Wow, I feel pretty silly trying to throw in my comment here. The comments you get are as long, if not longer than your original post. Freaking crazy. Anyway I'll just add a quick comment here, Paulus:

I'm trying to figure out if you're being sarcastic in your last paragraph there mentioning implementation. if its sarcasm, then just ignore me here, but focusing attention on certain things and highlighting stupidities doesn't seem like a great plan. This sort of thinking will just lead to a spiral of worsening conditions in the way things are implemented, in my opinion.

Hi Sandy

Thanks for stopping by to add your comment. I guess you are based in the States. We're here in little old England but I suspect that we share some problems. Over here there has been a big scandal about Members of Parliament cheating when they claim their expenses and four of them are being prosecuted and a whole lot more have been forced to resign their posts at the next election. The result has been the beginnings of change in the political system, including a rethink of the voting system.
You may be right and this may make things worse but somehow the unfair system we have should be changed and I can't think of any other way of going forward other than pointing out bad things.
I have been to your site and love the dog skeleton suits. Each of the dogs we have had has been a rescue dog, one that has ended up in a home for unwanted dogs for one reason or another. We have chosen quite old dogs and the one we have had for the last six years is about 13 years old now. So too old to introduce to an outfit. There is a picture of me with my previous dog here
All the best

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