on 15 June 2010
Russell intended this book to found a new science, of human power, in the societal sense. Power meaning 'the production of intended effects'. (His definition, not mine. He seemed to assume power-loving men would always know what they wanted, and how to get it).
Although this book is well worth reading, five stars for breadth of content, there are innumerable difficulties; which I'll try to sketch out... starting from the chapter headings -
I THE IMPULSE TO POWER/ II LEADERS AND FOLLOWERS
These chapters try to synthesis practical needs (e.g. houses have to be built somewhere) with giving and taking orders. 'Some men's characters lead them always to command, others always to obey; between these extremes lie the mass of average human beings..' (Russell seems pretty completely to discount competence and learning the ways things are done). He regards people as being influenceable in three ways--direct force, economic effects--goodies vs fines--and beliefs. He goes on to look at variations on these themes...
III THE FORMS OF POWER/ IV PRIESTLY POWER/ V KINGLY POWER/ VI NAKED POWER/ VII REVOLUTIONARY POWER/ VIII ECONOMIC POWER/ IX POWER OVER OPINION
Russell identifies 'power' as a central concept, like energy in physics, presumably derived in the same way by slowly noticing phenomena have things in common. Quite often he uses metaphors evidently based on things like kinetic energy, or stored energy. It's never quite clear whether his examples are idiosyncratic, one-off, unrepeatable illustrations which are only used e.g. to show power coalescing into ever-larger units, or whether the processes they illustrate are in principle considered to be capable of recurring. For instance, he says at one point that given a totalitarian state, all the forms of power he's considered become outdated and only of historical interest. He says somewhere else China has 'always been an exception to all rules'.
'Priestly power' omits all consideration of science; and yet surely astronomy was the basis of many traditional priesthoods; the working-out of calendars is quite a considerable achievement.
Russell gives naked power a foundation-stone status. And yet surely there are costs associated with military power: resources needed for manpower, weaponry, food and so on. Russell comes close to censoring out the relation between money and force.
His category of 'revolutionary power' was no doubt influenced by the USSR. He includes early Christianity, the Reformation and 'rights of man' revolution, I hope not too optimistically. This category incidentally also shows Russell assumes things will evolve for the better--his whole book shows developments as tending to be beneficial. Thus he says e.g. 'Monarchy consequently remained weak until it had got the better of both the Church and the feudal [i.e. Germanic] nobility'. Russell is weak on the actual physics of the world: he doesn't consider e.g. Europe as subdivided by mountains and other obstacles, and thus packed with 'defensible space', as opposed to say the steppes of Russia or prairies of north America. He is in my view weak on economic power; he regards credit as the ability to transfer a consumable surplus from group A to group B, but doesn't mention the time element--which could be centuries. He doesn't mention the problem of trust in paper money and credit. He describes then-modern corporate capitalism as presented by Berle and Means, but without defining 'capitalism' or having evidence why financial power should coalesce--not surprising as he had no idea about the Fed and similar structures. Incidentally he talks about 'coloured labour': 'Let us consider.. the power of the plutocracy in a democratic country. It has been unable to introduce Asiatic labour in California, except in early days in small numbers...' For some reason, he splits 'power over opinion' from creeds. It's worth noticing this is a Christian outlook, as many 'creeds' are not of a nature that can be separated from actions--Judaism, Islam, Confucianism interlock with their followers' habits.
X CREEDS AS SOURCES OF POWER/ XI THE BIOLOGY OF ORGANIZATIONS/ XII POWERS AND FORMS OF GOVERNMENT/ XIII ORGANIZATIONS AND THE INDIVIDUAL
Russell considers 'The classic example of power through fanaticism is the rise of Islam' which added nothing to Arabic economic power or technique, but nevertheless 'won'. It's a typical example from history taken from these not very satisfactory chapters. Russell was trying to decide whether fanaticism is likely to succeed, and come up with the classic liberal denial of this possibility: 'the cases in which fanaticism has brought nothing but disaster are much more numerous than those in which it has brought even temporary success. It ruined Jerusalem in the time of Titus, and Constantinople in 1453 ... It brought about the decay of Spain.. through the expulsion of the Jews and Moors ... the most successful nations, throughout modern times, have been those least addicted to the persecution of heretics. ... it is necessary to find a compromise between two opposite truisms. The first.. is: men who agree in their beliefs can co-operate more whole-heartedly than men who disagree. The second is: men whose beliefs are in accordance with fact are more likely to succeed than men whose beliefs are mistaken. ..'
On organisations, Russell regards law and medicine purely as professions with internal rules, but is not aware of the possibilities of legal frauds and corruption and medical frauds. In Britain in the 1930s, they were unthinkable, or at least unspeakable.
His analysis of organisations, and their internal government and density of control over members, assumes general good behaviour, and fails to deal with criminals, determined long-term liars, vicious invasions, vicious subversives, and the sort of behaviour attributable to Jews. It therefore fails to get to grips with the most serious problems.
XIV COMPETITION/ XV POWER AND MORAL CODES/ XVI POWER PHILOSOPHIES/ XVII THE ETHICS OF POWER
Four more chapters dealing with (roughly) peoples' attitudes to power. 'Competition for power is of two sorts: between organizations, and between individuals for leadership within an organization. Competition .. only arises when they have objects which are more or less similar, but incompatible'.
Russell is unconsciously nationalistic: the idea of 'multicultural societies' is almost completely missing, though he notes that Roman Catholicism never worked out a theoretical separation from those things 'that are Caesar's'. Accordingly, Russell doesn't deal well with empires, monarchs claiming rule over other kingdoms, multinational companies, or elites which straddle other groups. Since this is has always been fairly common it's a serious omission.
Much of this material is 1930s-specific: Spanish Civil War, Stalin, Italy, and so on. Russell is surprisingly insular, and always takes the conventional 'western' side, i.e. 'liberals' plus 'Jews' (in quotations because of the Khazar connection), something which sits very uneasily with philosophical objectivity. Thus there's a section on Mussolini fire-bombing in Abyssinia--but not on the British bombing Iraq at the same time. His comments on 'Jews' are completely conventional (and yet he has seen for himself 'Jewish' groups taking over and inventing the USSR, and probably read about Bela Kun in Hungary). Hitler and Stalin are regarded as worshipping Wotan and Dialectical Materialism (in this way Russell is spared the examination of their actual deeds). Japan has 'dangerous thoughts', but apparently nowhere else. The Spanish Inquisition is frowned upon; and yet Spain was unique in having the problem of dealing with both 'Jews' and Muslims, both holding as a religious axiom a belief in telling lies. There are some references in Russell's oeuvre to sadism; note of course the idea is implicitly attributed to a Frenchman. His example of political assassination is of Napoleon III, not any of the numerous 'Jewish' murders. 'It would be a mistake to suppose that big business, under Fascism, controls the State more than it does in England, France, or America. On the contrary, in Italy and Germany the State has used the fear of Communism to make itself supreme over big business as over everything else.' -- 'communism' is, incorrectly, not attributed by Russell to 'Jews'. He loathes the German philosopher Fichte, and yet many British and especially Jewish 'thinkers' had essentially similar ideas.
XVIII THE TAMING OF POWER
Russell has four preconditions--political, economic, and propaganda (shouldn't one of these be force?); and the psychological condition of people.
Russell had some mathematical skill, so it surprises me he didn't to find try some method of predicting quarrels and perhaps countering them. If group A has power measures as 100 units, and B has 75, and if A fights B, the relative and absolute power balances are likely to change. There's scope for group C to benefit, too. Or is there maybe some approach through set theories? The great advantage of history as a guide is that the events did actually happen--if it's reliable history. Nobody uses a theoretical model of human behaviour to guess.
NB a new edition has a painfully embarrassing cover design--with an electric power plug.
on 17 December 2010
I really like this book - Russell writes in an engaging way, showing his immense knowledge of history. It's so interesting I think my wish list of books has increased by about 5: some of the issues Russell raises to do with the reformation and the Roman Empire left me wanting to learn more. I wish more academics who are concerned with such interesting subjects could write so well.
My reservation, which is not major, is with Russell's use of some of the historical information. The anthropological reference to Rivers are incredibly outdated which isn't any fault of Russell's, but leaves the modern reader with a very simplified/essentialised view of 'primitive' societies. I also find Russell's treatment of some of the historical narrative, particularly to do with the Roman Empire, lacking in criticism. While the case studies illustrate his thesis I wonder sometimes whether it was all that simple.
All this said, the impact of some of his insights are flabbergasting - I will sometimes read a sentence and literally have to put the book down to ponder the meaning of what I have just taken in. These knockout blows are as relevant to the context in which Power was written (1938) as to now (2010).
With the established church in the UK on the wane, suspects held without charge and students on the street now is as good a time as any to ponder the power structures that underlie this all.
If you liked this definitely read 'The Prince' and if you're getting in the power groove, try Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish'