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The rhetoric and reality of power

In any form of institution, power operates at three levels -- a set of dominant ‘ideals’, dominant ‘interests’ and ‘identity’ -- which together constitute the power matrix of the institution and the predominant ideology that drives it, writes John Samuel

Rhetoric and reality are in eternal competition when it comes to legitimation of power by institutions. Both often do not come together in politics, for once a politician gets into the driver’s seat he/she succumbs to the power matrix of the nation state. In spite of the pre-election rhetoric and promises, most politicians become entrenched in the dominant power ideology of the state in a given context. So, whilst there may be incremental changes in policy options, almost all fall in line with the existing status quo.

That is why there was not a lot of difference when the NDA took over in Delhi.  And that is why one did not have any illusions about Obama when he came to power in the US as he too is driven by the logic and dominant ideology of the US as a nation state.

Although I have never been a formal student of history, I am an ardent reader of the history of institutions, ideas, ideals and power. This is what I have learnt from history:

  • In any form of institution (family, government, corporate, NGO), power operates at three levels -- a set of dominant ‘ideals’, dominant ‘interests’ and ‘identity’ -- which together constitute the power matrix of the institution and the predominant ideology that drives it.
  • Institutionalised forms of power often thrive by promising freedom and invoking fear.
  • Institutions thrive by promising and providing security and services that address people’s psychological and physical needs.
  • All institutionalised forms of power create their own sets of myths to sustain both power and status in a combination of ‘collective’, ‘consensus’ and ‘control’.
  • Once power has been institutionalised and entrenched, it requires a legitimating and legitimising rationale of language, symbols and argument, along with its totems and taboos. These narratives of legitimation get codified as ‘ideals’ to conceal the dominant interest that operates in the foreground and background. In the beginning, these ideals were legitimised by the dominant institutions of power. Then they were sanctified as myths, symbols, icons, behaviour, beliefs and rituals. That is how most religions got established.
  • When religions are established as the dominant and dominating forms of power, a counter discourse begins to emerge and alternative forms of power are constituted.
  • When institutionalised forms of power get less consensual and collective and fail to provide the promised security or services to their stakeholders, the performance quotient of power decreases giving rise to a legitimacy crisis and paving the way for another set of legitimating ideas and ideals -- physical (war) or societal (revolutions). Every now and then, we see institutionalised power matrixes being contested and another set of power rationalisation emerging.
  • The present nation state is simply a form of institutionalised power that also thrives on ideals, interests and identity (language, territory, religion, colour, creed). Liberalism, socialism, communism are all rationalised knowledge arguments to legitimise one or other set of power at a given point in time and space. All institutionalised forms of power, whether family or government, maintain the status quo through negotiating between ideals, interests and identity through a mix of so-called security and services.
  • As long as an institution is able to ensure security, services, collective legitimation and a threshold level of consensus, people tend to conform. It’s when these core performances of institutions are compromised that change is imminent, either through violence, revolution or peaceful transitions.
  • Human beings don’t live by bread alone. People need ideals and identity and a sense of belonging to an institutionalised form of power to feel free and secure. Hence, all institutionalised power requires a vision, values and sense of mission though many of these tend to be ‘games’ of language, revealing and concealing at the same time. 

Infochange News & Features, February 2015