Thursday, June 14, 2018

Power As Arbitrary and Conventional

Following the sickening spectacle of President Trump in conflict with our closest allies, single-handedly undermining the western alliance that has been in place since the end of the Second World War, and then cozying up to the dictator of North Korea, arguably a monster on a par with Hitler and Stalin, albeit on a smaller scale, I was reminded of what was said about the Nazi concentration camps. 

It was not just that the Nazis were cruel and inhuman, or used a mechanism for committing genocide with a factory-like efficiency. It was also that survivors described how guards and officers meted out punishments and rewards with no particular rationale, no sense of what kind of behavior was approved or disapproved of. There was no sense to their actions, no way to make meaning out of the misery they inflicted, no inkling of order within the chaos. It was a deliberate policy of confusion, a method of effecting complete and utter desperation and despair.

In other words, their actions were arbitrary. They had no rationale. They appeared to be entirely random in how they approached acts of reward and punishment. This made their actions utterly unpredictable. And this served to make their power essentially absolute.

Rules of any sort function as constraints, limitations. Imposing rules on what can or cannot be done help to make actions relatively predictable, at least to reduce their unpredictability. For this reason, rules serve as a counter to power, a way of constraining and limiting the exercise of power. They are a grammar governing human behavior.

Considering Trump's recent actions, they appear to be almost entirely arbitrary. Treating Canada as an adversary. Doing a 180 from threatening North Korea with nuclear devastation to giving them an unequivocal win on the world stage in exchange for nothing concrete, not to mention the leap frog from South Korea's initiative to meet with the North Korean dictator to Trump completely bypassing our South Korean allies. Sure, we can find explanations here and there for these moves, pundits can rationalize them in both positive and negative terms, but the bottom line is that are essentially random, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

The unpredictable nature of Trump's actions are key here. Everyone is taken by surprise, even in taking into account that he is unconventional, narcissistic, and seeking to undo everything that his predecessor accomplished. Even knowing all that, everyone is always surprised by his actions. And this, more than anything, serves to demonstrate his power.

Being arbitrary, being unpredictable, shows that he is free from any rules or conventions, any constraints or limitations, on his power.

At this point, I want to go back to Hannah Arendt's arguments about power as it relates to violence. I wrote a series of blog posts about that topic back in 2011:  Violence and Technology, Violence and Power, Violence and Identity, and Violence and Unity. The key point that Arendt makes is that violence stands in polar opposition to power. That is, the presence of violence represents a lack or loss of power, an attempt to compensate for its absence. Power requires acquiescence, obedience, the absence of resistance, whether violent or not.

Power, therefore, is demonstrated by the absence of the use of force, by the absence of any need for enforcement. What this means is that power is symbolic rather than substantive. You could call it rhetorical, or ideological (although that tends to be poorly defined), but mainly it's that power is a form of symbolism. It's not simply that symbols, language, discourse, etc.,  reflect the power relationships that exist in society, as folks like Foucault maintain, but that power itself is a form of symbolic communication. Power exists in the relationship between symbol and referent, signifier and signified, or in general semantics terms, between map and territory, between word and what the word represents.

It is, of course, basic communication 101 that a symbol is arbitrary and convention. It is arbitrary because it bears no necessary relationship to what it represents. Saying the word "fire" out loud has no actual connection to the phenomenon of burning. This is in contrast to the presence of smoke, for example, which always is a product of burning. That's why shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater can be a false alarm, and why the same phenomenon can be represented by saying words like, "feu,""feuer,""fuego," "brand," "zjarr," "hixs,""ahi," "srefah," "kaji da,""may ba-giy," "unlilo," etc. The connection between smoke and fire is causal, and the connection between a picture of fire and the phenomenon of flame is one of resemblance. But the connection between the word "fire" and the phenomenon is purely conventional, purely based on the unspoken and largely unconscious agreement that the word will "stand for," "point to," in other words represent the actual phenomenon (or concept that in turn represents the phenomenon).

Symbols are characterized as arbitrary and conventional. Power in its purest sense is arbitrary in nature, being fundamentally divorced from force, and violence. Power therefore is a form of the symbolic. The existence and expression of power is based on the acceptance of everyone concerned, those who "have" power" and those who do not, those who "wield" power and those upon whom that "power" is directed and exerted, the dominant and the subordinate. Power, in other words, is a product of convention, is conventional in the sense that it depends upon its acceptance by everyone involved.

The symbolic interactionist and sociologist Hugh Dalziel Duncan argued that societies are held together by symbols, and that it is only when people stop believing in their shared symbolic environment, when they question and reject its conventional meanings, that societies go into decline, and disintegrate, whether by revolution or other means. Power is conventional, based on agreement, as well as arbitrary. That is why power can evaporate quite suddenly, shockingly so. Think of the downfall of many a dictator. Think of the sudden dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But convention is also a kind of constraint, and therefore places some form of limitation and constraint on power. What this means is that there is a kind of dynamic tension between the arbitrary character of symbols/power, and their conventional aspect. In the absence of conventions, meaning cannot be established, purposeful communication breaks down, legitimacy is lost, and power vanishes, replaced by violence.

Trump's main motivations seem to include the demonstration and exercise of power, and in flouting established conventions regarding presidential conduct, he has been trying to establish that he is not bound by rules and norms, by constraints and limitations, that he is able to wield power in ways that his predecessors could not, that his power is near absolute. This is consistent with him wielding power in ways that seem random and unpredictable. He has an intuitive sense of the symbolic nature of power, and is seeking to maximize his hold on it by amplifying its arbitrary nature.

The problem is that he appears to be ignorant of the fact that the arbitrary exists in dynamic tension with the conventional. Trump not only bulldozes through existing conventions, having razed them to the ground, he does not replace them with new conventions, and in all probability is incapable of doing so. After all, it takes a truly great leader, like Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to accomplish that sort of thing.

It might be argued that the dynamic tension between the arbitrary and the conventional became unbalanced some time ago, leaning too far on the side of the conventional, and therefore biased toward stasis rather than change. But Trump, in shifting the balance in the other direction, threatens to go too far, and as conventions are eliminated, he moves closer and closer to destroying the symbolic order that keeps our society together. The result could be anarchy. Certainly, as the symbolic order is undermined, power will give way to violence.

Ironically, the very device that Trump uses to try to demonstrate his power may ultimately result in its evaporation. And as much as many of us would like to see that happen to Trump, I think we have to be aware that he may take our entire society with him on the way down.

Am I saying this purely to spread some doom and gloom all around? No, not really. Because if we understand what is going on, we can think of what we need to do. In this case, it is not enough to expect things to spring back to normal once Trump is gone. As much as the American experiment has proved to be resilient, permanent damage has been done, and this should not be, cannot be ignored.

Whoever follows Trump will have to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. Whoever follows him will have to re-establish conventions, not expect them to be restored on their own. Whoever follows him will need to establish new conventions as well, a tall order and an enormous opportunity. We will need someone on the order of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt at that time. For now, we can only pray that we get someone like that when the time comes. And that the time will come sooner, rather than later.

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