Power and powerlessness

The following from Wings Over Scotland reminded me of an article I wrote recently for iScot Magazine.

So that’s clear. There is no peaceful democratic avenue by which the people of Scotland could express the wish for a second referendum which the two main Unionist parties would accept. They have EXPLICITLY said, in full public view, that they would reject any democratic mandate.

There were what seemed to be an uncommon number of affecting deaths in 2016. For me, the demise of Fidel Castro was not one of them. Even in my youth, I never bought into the myth of the man. I was never able to see Castro as the great hero that some made him out to be. But neither was I susceptible to the demonising propaganda.

There is no denying that Castro’s regime did great things for the people of Cuba. That small, poor, isolated nation managed remarkable achievements against daunting odds. Doubtless, that regime also committed some horrific crimes. These crimes are not minimised in any way by acknowledging that they were probably no worse than the acts perpetrated by regimes that those demonising Castro found it expedient to befriend. That, as they say, is politics.

There is more than just weary cynicism in that last remark. I have come to be persuaded that there is something in the fundamental nature of human politics which makes certain outcomes all but inevitable. The great tides of history carry events with a deal of predictability. Only local currents provide the irregularity which, in a biological analogy would correspond to random mutations.

In general, things are as they are because that is how they must be. Nothing is predestined to be a certain way. But everything is constrained by everything else. The universe didn’t start with a big bang, it started with a rule; a simple algorithm which stated if this, then that. Life is the product of a proliferation of rules. Without those rules, no life exists. Break too many of those rules, life ceases to be viable.

Many years ago, I read a book by Canadian economist and economic historian, JK Galbraith, called American Capitalism. This book had a powerful influence on me. As did most of Galbraith’s other writing. But it was the concept of countervailing power, or countervailence, which truly tickled my intellect. Not that this was a new idea. As I later discovered, countervailence had been part of political theory for centuries before Galbraith picked it up and applied it in the context of market economics. This was where I encountered it. It was fortunate that I did so. As Galbraith’s many admirers will testify, he has an extraordinary talent when it comes to bringing such ideas to life.

At this point I must offer a disclaimer. JK Galbraith is in no way to be held responsible for what follows. He merely stimulated the thought process. The thoughts themselves are mine alone, and I am am entirely to blame for any errors of detail or reasoning. Or any failure to adequately explain. With that understanding, I will attempt a concise explanation of countervailence as I think it pertains to political movements.

Society comprises various power centres. For our purposes, we will consider only two general categories – prevailing, or established power; and countervailing power. The point is that the form taken by countervailing power is defined by prevailing power. To put it simply, established authority ‘decides’ the nature of any challenge to that authority. The countervailing power can only be what the prevailing power ‘allows’ it to be.

We might think of it as a liquid filling a vessel. The liquid, or countervailence, must take the shape of the space defined by the vessel, or prevailing power.

Not in any absolute sense, of course. Things are rarely that simple. Human affairs are not commonly mechanistic. The vessel may be flexible and/or elastic. The degree of flexibility and/or elasticity may vary across the internal surface which constrains the countervailing power. The countervailing power itself may not be a homogeneous mass. It may not entirely fill the vessel. It may, therefore, only be defined by certain parts of that internal surface. And it need not be of a regular consistency. It may be, in whole or part, more or less viscous.

The overarching rule is that, to qualify as such, countervailing power must exist and function within the confines of of the space defined by prevailing power. The form and nature and effect of countervailence ultimately depends on the form and nature and effect of established authority.

Castro’s regime was/is what it was/is because that was all it could be given the shape of the political space in which it was forced to exist and operate. A space overwhelmingly defined by the USA. The USA was/is the prevailing power. And, as somebody (almost) once said, with prevailing power comes great responsibility.

Revolution, according to this theory, is best seen not as a violent reaction against legitimate authority, as it tends to be portrayed by established power, but as the resort of those denied access to any other means of making countervailing power effective. Terrorism, in some of its forms at least, may be regarded as the only recourse for those denied an alternative.

None of which absolves any of the perpetrators of violence, whether it be on behalf of established power or in the name of countervailence. What we are considering here is, not the particular actions or motivations of individuals and groups, but the massive and coldly disinterested forces on which those individuals and groups are carried. Within the swirling waters of politics at any level there are unquestionably ‘bad guys’; and, just possibly, a few ‘good guys’. But the waters themselves don’t care. And if we want to better understand the forces which drive our politics then it may be wise to set aside emotive rhetoric of adulation and demonisation, the better to discern what lies beneath.

Who can deny that such understanding is important? Critical, even. As 2017 begins, there is, across the entire realm of human affairs from the interpersonal to the local to the global, a sense of disintegration such as few would claim to have known before. A sense of those underlying forces running out of control. Any control. A sense that, unless we get to grips with ‘things’, they will seize hold of us – in ways we will not like.

There is this feeling that we are simultaneously threatened with total subjugation by some ominous form of prevailing power, and the complete collapse of all functional authority under the strain of accommodating a proliferation of countervailing powers. A feeling which is all the more disconcerting and discomfiting for the inherent contradiction.

There are lessons in this concept of prevailing/countervailing power for all of us. Not least, and by way of an illustrative example, for a Yes movement in Scotland which, if these theories are at all valid, has become the positive, peaceful aspirational political force that it is in large part due to the space allowed it by the British state. Some will claim, with considerable justification, that this was down to the complacency of firmly entrenched traditional power rather than any respect for the democratic process. But both sides in this political interplay should be mindful that all actions have consequences.

The fight to restore Scotland’s independence is being conducted in a political space which is not fixed. That space can change. It is most likely to change due to the actions of the prevailing power. For the simple reason that it is the prevailing power and, therefore, has the greatest power to effect change. Let’s all just pause to appreciate the space that we have. And to reflect on what implications changes to the space might have for the nature of countervailence in our little corner of history’s ocean.

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6 thoughts on “Power and powerlessness

  1. Geejay

    An intelligent well written article, if I may say so.

    The notion that no mandate is big enough, not more than 50%, so not even 100%, not even a vote in the Scottish Parliament, is so preposterous, is such a denial of the limited democracy that this benighted UK holds dear, while a Tory government backed by only 30 odd percent of voters is enough to bring about whatever legislation they please, that I thought “surely this has reached further than Scotland”. So I went over the the beacon of the liberal left (as it once was), the Groaniad, to see if there was any intelligent discussion of Davidson and Dugdale’s rejection of democracy and their embrace of totalitarianism and all I could find was an article by Hassan that was notable only for the usual cliches, the limited analysis, the non-truths, the weasel words – the crap written for an English audience.

    And I thought, we have many fine writers on social media up here, Bell, Ponsonby, Bateman, Campbell, Kavanagh, Grousebeater, Kelly, Robertson to name just a few I read regularly and the best the Guardian can give us is Hassan and he doesn’t even deal with the most significant issue of recent days.

    But then those who write for organs that support the prevailing force, and write in support of their world view, because it pays a bill, are themselves part of the prevailing force and will not acknowledge that their even is a countervailing force and a countervailing politics.

    1. Peter A Bell

      Many thanks for your comment. I’m very flattered to be included in your list of ‘approved’ writers.

      I do think things are changing, albeit gradually. Increasing numbers of people are turning to alternative media as they are turned off the traditional media. Eyes are being opened. It’s important that we persist. When people come looking for a different perspective, we have to ensure that it’s here for them.

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        Your are right about JK Galbraith, Peter. His book on “Money, (Whence it Came, Where it Went) is both one of the funniest and most interesting and enlightening books I’ve ever read. Just now reading Tom Nairn’s “Enchanted Glass” which is a great dissection of the basis of the UK State. I recommend it to you if you haven’t already read it.

    2. Jams O'Donnell

      For a comprehensive dissection of the supposedly “radical” and “leftish” Guardian, see the “Media Lens” website.

  2. Bibbit

    Reading this only makes me more convinced that the prevailing Yoons most pressing goal, after this General Election, will be to dismantle Scots devolution. That is hinted at word by weasel word, in May’s speeches. Listen carefully. They are obtuse enough for may to claim in the months to come that everyone must have undertood what she meant and the MSM will pliantly create this false history.

    So, the kid gloves come off, if May wins Thursday’s General Election and the full scale assault on dismantling Scotland’s political space will begin in deadly earnest.

    The three stooges, Davidson, Dugdale & Rennie will lead that assault from inside the keep. But, but, but.. ‘they’ll be turkeys voting for Christmas,’ I hear you say, ‘Why would they end their own jobs?’. They won’t be out of jobs as their reward, for opening the castle gates from the inside, will see their ermined bahookies ensconced in the HOuse of Lords; as the great Saviours of the Yoonion.

    The assault on Scotland is coming, just as sure as the turnin’ o the earth.

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