Thursday, July 15, 2010

Frances Moore Lappé, Why Power Is Not a Dirty Word

Why Power Is Not a Dirty Word by Frances Moore Lappé (via EB)

No, again. In recent decades, a revolution in our understanding of human nature has produced evidence from neuroscience to anthropology that we have all the social “wiring” needed to make the turn toward life. It turns out we’ve evolved to take pleasure in and to need cooperation, empathy, fairness, and efficacy.

Human beings are social by nature. How many of our wisdom traditions already told us this?

Then what is preventing us from moving toward the world that almost all of us want? My short answer is that we feel powerless. We feel powerless to act on what we know.

And what robs us of power?

For some, it’s the false idea that we have to change human nature itself; that we have to overcome our Stone Age emotions, as esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson tells us.

Others cling to the notion that most of us are OK, but there’s an evil minority—be it people raking in the dough on Wall Street or hiding in caves in Pakistan. The solution is to get rid of “them” so we can have the world we want.

To me, both seem daunting, truly impossible tasks.

What if there were a wholly different way of seeing the challenge that gets at the very root of our powerlessness, and is grounded in the latest science?

In Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want, I suggest that we humans find our power only as we embrace the totality of our complex nature: accepting that, yes, we are hard-wired (or at least, “soft-wired”) to be caring and cooperative problem-solvers. And at the same time, lab experiments, as well as current and past genocides, prove that under the right (wrong) conditions, most of us will brutalize others.

It’s tough to truly accept that both attributes exist within virtually all of us, but the payoff for taking this mental leap is huge.

From this frame, we know what to do. We don’t have to change human nature or get rid of the evil ones. We have to first identify the social rules and norms that both bring out the best in us and keep the worst in check; and then work to manifest precisely those conditions.

I believe the evidence shows that three conditions, in particular, lead humans to no good. They are concentration of power, anonymity, and scapegoating.

If that is the case, progress toward the world we want comes as we dissolve these conditions and move toward communities and societies with widely dispersed power, transparent public decision making, and shared responsibility for creating solutions instead of looking for someone to blame.

The great news is that millions of people worldwide are fostering the conditions that bring out the best in us. But if despair is still a danger for many who feel powerless to act on what we know now, maybe it’s time we rethink power itself.

A traditional conservative can agree with the decentralization of power, but what of the rest? The author seems like a democrat, and while the three factor she lists can contribute or exacerbate evil, the conservative does not put the blame wholly on a bad system. We must also look at the responsibility of the moral agent for his actions. Laws shape our actions and character -- but what laws would the author endorse? I suspect that her choices would differ significantly from the conservative, republican or not.

Just as important, the findings of neuroscience suggest a great way to empower ourselves. We can place ourselves in the company of those more courageous than we are. For sure, we’ll become more like them.

Thus, our most important choices may be deciding whom we spend time with as friends, colleagues, and partners. And “spending time” means more than face-to-face contact. What we see on TV, in films, and on the Internet, what we read and therefore imagine—all are firing mirror neurons in our brains and forming us. Knowing this, we can choose courage—and power.

Relocalization requires that we focus on building up community, though it may be too late for conservatives to do much to stem the progressive tide. While some conservatives and radicals see the importance of community, I do not think there is much of a competition between the two groups, if only because what is being done overall to build community is rather insignificant in comparison to the social trends of decline affecting the country. I might be wrong.

I think the author is overly optimistic in thinking that these small beginning steps can lead to legislative reform at the Federal level:

Our every act shapes the field of power relationships, and the rules we create determine whether they will be life-serving.

Today’s rules, for example, allow private-money’s influence over public decisions to create one of the three conditions proven to lead to no good: highly concentrated power. Lobbyists spent $3.5 billion last year to influence Congress, funding more than two dozen lobbyists for every single legislator citizens have elected to represent them.

Once we fully embrace the notion that dispersion and accountability of power is key to our thriving, then we will no longer be surprised when a new president fails to turn the ship of state. Instead, we’ll realize the need and see our power to change the rules.

Right now, we have a prime opportunity. Both houses of Congress are considering the Fair Elections Now Act, which would establish voluntary public financing of congressional elections. It would enable everyday citizens—the waitress, teacher, or truck driver—to run for office without being tethered to corporate money. It’s built on a system that is already working in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut.

No matter what else we are doing to promote democracy we can each press our representatives to get on board. We can make campaign finance reform a sexy, compelling issue, knowing it’s needed to move on everything from serious climate-change legislation to remaking our banking system.


For further inquiry:
I've been dipping into Illich again,but it is taking me a while to read through his essays.
Illich accords a primacy to love, but what is it for Christ to be anarchist? Does Illich distinguish between power and authority? Between command and exploitation or coercion? Is there such a thing as the moral use of power? And is disparity in power or inequality in general tantamount to injustice?

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