Values cards project – power

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I think about power, the first thing that comes to mind is, I’ve wondered about the word empowerment. It’s not a word that exists in French. But I’m interested in this idea, this word, that the question of power has to do with, it’s not only who has it, but how it might be given to someone. The word, empowerment, it’s often used in the context of racial difference or disability. And the idea here is that some people have less power, for whatever reason, and they should be given that power somehow.

B: So, that’s interesting, because it’s more about equality. While when I think of power, I tend to think of it as being conceptually related to liberty.

A: Well, if you look at the sustainable development goals, it’s about building a society where nobody’s left behind. And if you think of it in relation to power, it’s not just about you deciding for yourself, but that everyone has access to conditions where they can make use of their power. Maybe there’s something there. That ideological void we’re facing now, left and right, particularly on the left. We’re heading out of Marxism, so what on the horizon for left-wing thinking? We need to find new concepts, and maybe that will be power, empowerment, governance.

B: So you’re saying, we need reflections on power, how it is distributed, what conditions we need so that we can exercise it?

A: Maybe. Also, power is more difficult in a world that’s full of complex systems, and all our daily lives depend on those systems. This complexity stands in the way of political initiative, because you can’t really take initiative, everything is part of a system.

B: Well, one of the big problems today, when you talk about governance, it’s the void of power – not just ideology, but power. Do you know Moses Naim? He was a Minister in Venezuela, and he wrote a book called ‘The end of power’. He writes about something he calls the Gulliver Effect. That it’s harder today to get anything done, because all sorts of little groups are able to block you. Nobody’s got enough power to get anything done, only to veto you. And so, nothing changes.

A: What that makes me think about is the structures of the EU, and other international institutions. We’ve attempted to develop this globalized economy, as a way to support peace. The idea is that once we’re interdependent, there will not be war. But then, those visions are just a big system, that’s not really working well. And so you’re torn between two visions: the machine exerting power, or then a nationalist vision that defends choice, liberty. That’s Marine Le Pen, and nationalist ideology.

B: Maybe, we need to consider the limits of democracy. It only works up to a certain level. It’s very good for local, but not when you look at the bigger issues.

A: I wonder. Are there any global issues that could be properly handled at the national levels? I think there isn’t anyone, not environment, not immigration.

B: I don’t think there is, but we wish there was. And that’s what’s behind this nationalist ideology.

A: Another direction I’d like to take is, our relationship to power has a lot of influence on the way that authority works in the family. In France, we have this vertical relationship to power, and it’s the same in the family. I see that with my kids: when there’s a bit of tension, I just use that kind of vertical authority.

B:  Well, it feels to me like, in Southern European societies, it’s more about a family network, and a more matriarchal type of power. There’s formal power, sure, but also there is informal power, norms to follow, and the women are mediating that.

A: Well, in Japan, women are not allowed to work, but the husband gives his salary to his wife at the beginning of the month, and she makes all the decisions for the house. The husband just receives some pocket money, but he makes no decision on children’s education, or how to manage the household finances.

B: It’s something I’ve always wondered. Whether there is some ‘hidden power’ given to women in those circumstances, or not. My grand-mother used to repeat ‘I am a slave, I am a slave to your grandfather’. But meanwhile, my impression was that she ruled the house. And I always wonder, whether that litany she repeated was a way to hide her real power – like you do things to avoid the evil eye – or whether that was her actual perception.

A: Well, if you look at Confucius, he says everyone must play their role. It’s not about individual freedom, and it applies to everyone, the husband and the wife, the children and the parents. It’s not like one has power and the other doesn’t. Rather, power happens someone in the form of their relationship, if they play their role properly.

B: And in the same way, without a network of norms, and without a common language, there is no power anymore. There is no way for anyone to manifest their freedom.

A: So maybe power is about convincing people that what you want, or what the collective wants, is also what they want?

B: There’s two questions we might look at here. First, we can look at who’s got power in the group? And then, does the group itself have power, and is it able to transform the world in depth, and in the long-term?

A: If we go back to the question of family then, what’s the purpose of family? In traditional family forms, women have a structuring role, like a glue, and their role is to make sure that the members to hold together. While the men bring in the resources so the family can continue to exist as an organization. At least that’s how it is in my model.

B: Well, that’s not how I see it. I have this image of the family which is not primarily nuclear, but extended, like a network. And the goal here is to maintain a comparative advantage for the members of the group. What that requires is a form of stability, and sharing resources among the members, so that they can do better than other families, or people who have no family.

A: A thing there is that power always depends on size. China, Google or the Catholic church are more powerful than Switzerland or a small hedge fund, even if they’re very well run, more effective, faster, or more profitable. They may be more profitable, but they won’t be more powerful, until they grow big.

B: What about we think of power as about continuity over time? Maybe that’s what a family is about: its goal is just its own continuity over time?

A: That would apply if you look at successful families, like Hermes. The brand was started by protestant upper bourgeoisie, and it’s still in their hands. So here’s a successful family, they succeeded financially, and as a family.

B: Could we say that in a small business, there is more freedom? And there’s a sort of continuity between nuclear family and small business. While a larger structure requires more effort to maintain itself and coordinate, understand how things work. But it’s also more solid, and more welcoming to diversity. While a small business or a nuclear family works very well if people are benevolent and intelligent, but it’s catastrophic otherwise.

A: Maybe we can look at this, that in American companies, there is great apparent freedom, but de facto autonomy is very limited, because there is so much process involved. While in a Japanese organization, there’s a lot of formalities, but much more real freedom than appears on the surface. And so what this is about is that without trust, you just can’t execute, or operate. That the purpose of rituals that are about forgiveness, they have to do with maintaining trust. And without that trust, there is no way for power to work.

B: That’s exactly what I say about Italian style apologies. You apologize not because you feel guilty, but to show that you respect the established order, and that you broke it. You assert that you want to continue existing in the same world. And that’s another condition for power – that people belong to the same world.

On voluntary servitude

“How is it possible that so many people, so many towns, so many cities, so many nations, can endure a single tyrant, whose only power is that which people give him; who cannot hurt them, except inasmuch as they will endure it; who would not cause any harm, except they would rather suffer than contradict.” This passage appears in the first pages of La Boetie’s Treatise on Voluntary Servitude. No wonder Montaigne had a crush on the man.

This text is not offering a solution, but forcefully raising the question of our submission to power. Why do we yield? Our countries, let’s call them Western democracies, have grown out of political tyranny. But how many families, neighbourhoods, or business units live in fear of a single despot.

Power is a relationship. It may be cast in layers of regulations, property deeds, and privileges. But the fundamental premise remains. No single individual will ever contain their own power. Mana does not emanate from a sacred space within the tyrant’s body. Its existence depends on a complex network of relationships, glued in fear and hope, of which we form a node. And the first step to freedom may be no more than acknowledging this, always – you’re only powerful because people let you.