Friday, January 07, 2011

Power and the left

I should add to yesterday's post that "the left" isn't a meaningless category. But it describes an orientation toward, not a category of, power. You might have lots of power, or very little power, and be "of the left" -- in other words, favor a more equitable distribution of power.

Many admirable proponents of social change come from privileged backgrounds, and what often makes them admirable is what they choose to do with their privilege. They find themselves in a particular situation -- for example, due to their skin color -- and they have to make a choice about how to respond. Too often I think people condemn others for falling into the "wrong" category of power, rather than judging them on the basis of their response -- or, orientation.

Individuals can't always control the kinds of power they are implicated in, but they can acknowledge their situation and orient themselves in one direction or another. To the extent that their choices prove useful to people in other, lesser categories of power is in my view the most important basis for evaluating their work. So the value in "being of the left" is something that can only be realized in our relationships with other people.

Class, on the other hand, is a category of power. If you are working class -- i.e., you work for others to survive -- this puts you at an objective disadvantage vis-a-vis the ruling class. You don't know if you are going to have a job tomorrow, and you don't know if your health coverage will meet your family's needs today, etc. There are all kinds of stresses and demands that seem to grow with each passing year. Meanwhile, the owning, and by extension the ruling classes are sitting on top of untold fortunes which they won't invest unless they are guaranteed whatever return suits their fancy. They are in possession of the wealth of the society, which they use to write laws and elect representatives, while the rest of us are "just lucky to have a job" and subsequently spend most of our waking hours working them.

So there is an importance difference, as well as an important relationship, between occupying a particular position of power, on the one hand; and advocating for a more equal distribution of power, on the other. The first might be "class" or "gender," while the second is usually called "the left." Problems can come from either department: whether, as in yesterday's post, the working classes pursue a rightward position; or when lefties abandon them in response, and prefer to condemn them as idiots or racists because they are reacting to their relative powerlessness in destructive, socially prescribed ways.


Jack Crow said...

You really cannot "distribute power." It's not a thing to be handed from one possessor to another.

Anonymous said...

@ jack crow

can you explain why "power cannot be distributed".? As a Union electrician i assert that its meant to be distributed

Jack Crow said...

JRB is not discussing electricity. He's discussing conduct as if it's an object.

Peter Ward said...

Apart from race, one generally has to give up whatever privilege one started with to join the left. You can't, e.g., be a manager punishing workers for trying to unionize and a leftist in any legitimate sense--i.e., one's privilege comes from actively working against the left (though the manager doubtless has an ideological buttress protecting him or her from seeing the reality of what he or she is doing).

And, by the way, I often feel, if people--those of a "middle class", the ones that actually protect ruling class interests (but are neither "owners" nor "workers" themselves)--merely abstained from certain occupations (managing, police, law, teaching*, art directing etc) we'd see the millennium in a heartbeat.

*I include teaching with some reservation. But I think it's fair to say education is used as much as possible as a tool by those in power.

JRB said...


People really have to make these choices for themselves. If "giving up one's privilege" as a manager means adversely impacting not only one's subordinates, who might actually endorse your style of managing compared to the likely alternatives, but also one's family, as in the case when one's spouse or children must bear the brunt of your "dedication to the left," then we quickly see that such choices are not always so simple. As far as I am concerned, they are best justified in relation to the people they affect, not only in abstract, but also concrete terms. This is why I am very much opposed to prescribing what others must do to warrant my consideration.