Saturday, January 22, 2011

The History of Humanity is a History of Power Relations

There is nothing more distracting to the observer of politics and international affairs today than the labels attached to geographic entities within imaginary lines drawn on a map of the world. The more I think about it, the more I find that a "state" is really a way of managing populations. Some states are more efficient in the way they organise their affairs, whilst others are less so. The methods of organisation include the judiciary, the government, utility services, health care and even the military. The more efficiently these affairs are managed, the less obvious it becomes that the state is an apparatus which is oiled, not by the citizenry, but by a regional or national elite. Where the affairs are inefficiently handled, such as we saw in a country like Tunisia recently, the state and its population take a life of their own and turn against this nobility or bourgeoisie (for lack of a better term). The state is, in effect, a mask which hides the true power relations that exist and are essential for the functioning of any society. These relations have existed throughout human history.

There are, in each state, groups or families which find themselves either in positions of power or vying for such positions. The judiciary, the rights of individual citizens and the manner of opportunities available, depends on the sophistication with which such groups can manage their affairs and the perceptions of those affairs. So, for example, in the United States there is a discourse of life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed by that country's constitution. This narrative is taken for granted by that nation's citizens and is the underlying assumption from which they handle their relationships and their view of the world. This narrative is very successful, in fact it might be the most successful one in the world at the moment, as it has successfully been transplanted as a basis for the discourse of most of the modern world.

The interesting event is when the interests of different groups in different states come into conflict. Within one country this usually leads to a power struggle - we can see examples of this in Middle Eastern states such as Lebanon or Syria. In other countries, where the interests of a group of families or individuals has succeeded in establishing itself by exiling or eliminating their rivals, the interests can then be projected globally and they can compete or interact with other elites that have emerged in different lands. Where diplomacy reaches a dead end, war becomes its continuation. The affairs of Europe in the last three hundred years are clear evidence of this.

Where war is not an option, or cannot bring about the desired result, another method is used. This method has become extremely popular following the end of the Cold War, it is in essence the discourse surrounding human rights. In this discourse, the populations of both states are roused against the elites of the rival group where it has failed to provide an efficient enough administration and satisfactory conditions for its population. In 1953, a group of powerful individuals in Britain and the United States successfully engineered a revolution against the government of the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh - toppling it.These conditions, as we again see with Iran today, can be exacerbated through sanctions. Yet it is important to remember that underlying this entire state of affairs is a complex global network of power relations that begins with wealthy local families in a small town somewhere in Midwest America or in Pakistan, and culminates in the boardrooms of powerful global corporations or various rulers.

This network, whether in Mecca or Rome, needs to be understood fully and engaged with for anybody wishing to understand what is happening. The history of humanity is the history of these power relations. It is not, as some Western political philosophers mistakenly assumed, the history of some people or other's struggle for freedom.

1 comment:

Eamon said...

This is pretty well dead-on, says an American in New York City. The thing about power is that it never gives up anything willingly. The people are hugely powerful, but their strength tends to stay latent. What we need instead of relatively isolated outbreaks of people-power like the Arab Spring--although the Arab Spring is surely to be praised--is a strengthening of the International Solidarity movement against aggressive war, unjust economic exploitation, and environmental degradation.