This essay originally appeared in Why Can’t I Eat My Dog?, a monthly feature in my newsletter. It has been edited slightly for this format.
Like many of you, I’ve been preoccupied by the issue of power in the United States. I’ve been thinking about how cultural change and policy interact; how power is conferred and reinforced, and how exactly to understand where our national cultural is at this moment in time. The last preoccupation is likely impossible until historians get a crack at things a few decades from now. Things are moving so fast that it’s difficult for social scientists to get a true handle on what’s going on.
Knowing full well that distrust of institutions is partly what contributed to our present, incomprehensible reality, I find myself wary of those with institutional power who have failed, over and over, to push back against the unilateral directives coming from our Executive branch. Deep down, I had more faith in both parties, and perhaps especially in the party with which I most frequently disagree. Surely Republicans held the sanctity of our national narrative in higher regard than this. Surely they would be the ones to say, “Enough” and take action to protect, if not the people being harmed, then the Constitution. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on them until I found myself shocked, again and again, by their lack of action. Here I was, assuming they were the party who truly cared about America. And now I’m not sure they even have the power to do anything, much less the will.
Power is tricky. At once simple and complicated, it can be easy to locate but difficult to trace. The origins of power are distinct, yet related to, the execution of power. But where is power located?
- In individuals whose actions have consequences for others. An individual’s authority is granted by the populace over whom they have power – either explicitly (via democratic elections) implicitly (via cultural tradition) or by violence (see “military might,” below). Leaders have a social contract with the public over which they have power – without the public’s support, an individual cannot impose their will without additional sources of power (see below). Authority is earned and can erode if the social contract between the public and the individual leader is broken.
- In institutions that provide the scaffolding of civil society. A few days ago, I read in the LA Times that the Getty released a statement condemning the recent executive order that resulted in a travel ban. The fact that an arts institution wrote a statement commenting on a federal action, released it, and was taken seriously by a media organization speaks to the power that institutions have within our society. But institutions, like individuals, also owe their cultural cache to the unspoken acknowledgment of the public, who confer upon them the status of institution within the broader social landscape. Institutions are authorities when it comes to certain types of knowledge, leaders by virtue of their reputations as depositories of society’s “best.”
- The media is a special type of institution that has enormous power of information and the dissemination of knowledge. They often steer the direction of public discourse by choosing how to represent reality, and as such act as intermediaries between the state and its citizens. But the media, too, is dependent upon the public for their authority. The power to produce information as knowledge is granted by the people who interact with this institution and its knowledge. Once people distrust a source of information, that source’s power is diminished.
- In military might – physical power. This is related to the power of individuals and the state/institutions, in that most state power is underwritten by the possibility of military force. That is, the threat of violence. I don’t agree with everything in this sobering Politico article, but this line illustrates the primacy of violence to any system of power: “We must (re)accept the notion that hard power is the guarantor of any international system: security is a precondition for anything (everything) else.”
- In capitalist societies, power also lies in money. This is why you are often addressed as a consumer, and called upon to exercise your power by buying or refusing to buy certain items produced by certain companies. This is why the Citizens United decision was so important. Why people are up in arms with billionaires gaining direct access to government through cabinet appointments. The power that accumulated capital has over our institutions cannot be overstated, and it’s the reason – and it pains me to say this – a corporate response to the federal government may be our best hope to stop the deterioration of our national institutions and social structure.
- But there’s an important location I’ve failed to devote separate attention: the public. The public is a consistent source of power, as many of the entities where power is located draw their authority from the complicity of the people. So ultimately, power is located in society.
- In culture. People who shape policy respond to public sentiment, to cultural shifts. To shift the execution and consequences of power, culture must shift. Understandings of what power is, who or what can wield it, and in what ways, can change and thus alter the social fabric.
Our social fabric is partially held together by the nation-state and the ideologies it reinforces. The nation and the state are distinct, yet interrelated, entities. The nation is a cultural entity – comprised of its citizens. The state is the institutionalization of that national culture, backed by military might. Our national culture has always dehumanized people arriving from different places. Our state has always afforded different strata rights and privileges to groups of people arbitrarily delineated and made distinct from the un-marked “white” category of person who is automatically afforded full rights and humanity. How do we change culture and enact policy that aligns with our values and serves everyone; treats everyone as fully human?
Our nation has always been broken. Our country exists because of colonialism: we are colonizers, reaping the benefits from land stolen from people white colonizers considered sub-human. Anthropology is itself a product of colonialism, and we have a moral responsibility to do no further harm with this form of knowledge production. That means listening to the people we aim to understand, ensuring they speak for themselves, bringing their truths to light. Deconstructing the many meanings of cultural practices.
We are constantly creating and reinforcing aspects of our society and culture as we go about the practice of living. This means we all have some power to shape reality, to effect change. I’ve been thinking about what I can do, besides calling my representatives, to help heal our nation. How cultural change can influence policy. It’s my duty to expend effort in service of the greater good, especially if my efforts can benefit those who have been repeatedly disadvantaged by our government, institutions, and other social systems.
After spending the past year half-heartedly trying to be a freelance writer, and falling back into grant writing and nonprofit communications, it’s clear that what I need to do is draw on my training in the social sciences and get to work. I’ll be looking for ways to contribute to organizations that are working for social justice, and that means acknowledging that while my experience of obtaining my MA was traumatic, it in no way negates the social science training that I have at my disposal. It’s my obligation, and my desire, to apply my training to the betterment of society.
2 responses to “On Culture and Power”
Two thoughts. 1. I think power lies in anything that those *with* power don’t want you to do; that’s why they don’t want you to do it. So anything you’re doing that makes the powerful upset contains some degree of power within in. Like asking these questions. Like looking at history. Like pointing to the complicity of our institutions. All of which to say, thanks for this and keep on keeping on.
2. RE institutions and being surprised by their misuse of power. I’ve been thinking a lot about Acton, the British lord who wrote in 1887 that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lots of people know the quote. I don’t know how many know that Acton wrote that in reply to someone who was trying to essentially give a pass to a certain institution’s misuse of power. And the institution Acton was holding to account for it’s misuse of power was the Christian Church. Nobody’s clean. And I love that here you’re reminding us of that.
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Re – your first point: I hadn’t thought of things in that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Finding power in that which makes the powerful uncomfortable. Oh, sweet irony.