Arr/Dep (catalogue): "People Power"


«Well, nobody's perfect»
Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot.   

The problem with power is that it always seems to be alien to us. We know that we may exert it because we are used to the idea that we fall into temptation, even though many of us no longer believe in God. Nevertheless, the temptation of power and its downfalls are judged differently from those concerning money or sex. It is unlikely that none of us has ever committed a transgression in terms of money, however small; and it is impossible that none of us has ever exceeded the limits of sex: we need to cheat, in our imagination at least. These ordinary transgressions are condemned, but tolerated. 


However, comprising power is not considered an everyday thing, and it is not tolerated. It is judged harshly, without exception. Downfalls regarding money can be a sign of intelligence, and those regarding Eros may even inspire fondness. Total uprightness does not. On the contrary, the abuse of power seems to be totally negative. There are many everyday, perhaps indispensable transgressions, because they underline our common humanity: double parking, not paying taxes, lying. Who has never desired the woman or man of another? On the contrary, figures in power - politicians, capitalists - tend towards exceptionality. The average person acknowledges their sins, but not those concerning power. I submit to power, I don?t inflict it. Power is on-high, far-off. No-global campaigners are convinced that President Bush and the multinationals exercise much more power than them, and much worse, who would dare to deny it? No, in all likelihood, they think they don?t exert any power, except what is minimum and good.       


But here I'm talking about bad power. No one is ashamed of being a good representative of the people, educator or parent. Instead, very few admit that they are bad parents because they abuse their power over their children ? that is, when they use it as an end unto itself. Parents recount that they lose their patience, they're tired, they don't give their children enough attention, not that they oppress them more than is inevitable, and beyond all reason. Because we know that power is an end unto itself. And yet common sense fails to acknowledge that oppressing others and even family members is part of our ordinary baggage of faults. Power is inflicted on me more than I inflict it on others. I am the one who is victim to, subject to, exploited by power.


Betrayal and cheating can stay in the world, but socio-political utopia would like oppression to disappear. The plan for a free and just world means purifying humanity of power, and the intensity of this ideal reveals that it is thought to be real. Not that humanity can free itself from all its stains. We know that some torments will never leave us, and to understand this all we have to do is experience long-term, intimate relationships. On the contrary, the majority think that humanity can become inhuman with regard to power, and indeed this is what they hope for. The inhumanity of the absence of power. Nevertheless, Hobbes claimed that power resides in the people, the ones who give the sovereign authority. In the Leviathan he writes that «every particular man is Author of all the Soveraigne doth; and consequently he that complaineth of injury from his Soveraigne, complaineth of that whereof he himselfe is Author; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himselfe». Hobbes says that power is ours, and we cannot shirk it. Democracy completed the job, because there are no longer any sovereigns upon whom to place the prerogative of power. In theory, and in part in reality (since we vote), we are the power.    


The contradiction comes about from the fact that power has not lost its negative quality now that it is close to us. There is an almost pathological split between the reality of power, that is, also its democratisation, and our enduring repulsion towards it. The distinction between subjects and sovereign remains, but its perception is mystified now that there are only voters and representatives. (And we fail to underline that fathers and mothers have always exerted power over their children). The difficulties of democracy and its political class are a screen allowing the people to hide that the situation has changed: the problem is no longer that the people have no power, but that they do. Evidently, it is not simple to separate good from bad power: it is a distinction that exceeds human possibilities. We do not demand love and friendship to be pure, and we accept relationships of affection despite their faults. (Psychotics do not accept that people are good and bad at the same time and therefore lurch between exaltation and contempt for others). Love for children can be possessive and susceptible. The perfect parent does not exist, and if they did, they would do damage. But let's not deny the value of being parents or friends even though we can't be perfect. (Who would want the perfect friend, and what would they be like?) 


Instead we expect power to be perfect, which it is not. Unlike other situations, which alternate between black and white, power must be deprived of its disturbing side. Dark power does not belong to me, or to just people. In close relationships we quickly lose our illusions of perfection, while from society we continue to expect absolute justice, enlightened government. But why do we set ourselves an ideal precisely where it is most difficult to achieve? Everyone is capable of loving, in one way or another. And yet we do not cherish false hopes as to love. Why do we place our expectations of absolute happiness upon power instead of upon love? After all, power is a mere capacity without contents, an instrumental energy. We deceive ourselves into believing that it is full, but it is empty. (Power over children would not make sense if it was not at the service of love). Finally, why is it so difficult to accept that this emptiness - which Freud calls Thanatos - is part of us alongside Eros? There is no good emptiness, nor any human who is full of love alone. Power is a tool, and when it is not, becoming an end unto itself, it becomes evil. Not insofar as it is at the service of evil, but because it is at its own service. Unfortunately, no one is able to keep it to the exclusive service of love, because no one is perfect, in this as in other circumstances. It is inevitable that power will fulfil its monstrous possibilities in each of us, more often than we may care to think. 

 Bugliani (philosophy researcher, University of Florence)


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