Left-wing ambivalence toward power

There’s no shortage of reasons to be ambivalent toward power. A cursory glance at the 20th Century should cause serious wariness — at the very least toward some of the horrible ways power can be wielded. This wariness, though, is asymmetrical between the political Left and Right — as are its consequences. And I believe this is one of the most important dynamics in need of deeper examination by Left organizers, organizations, and movements.

While there’s evidence that Leftwing ambivalence toward power has existed in many iterations throughout history, I think there’s even more evidence that the paralyzing effects have gotten significantly worse in the past half-century (in the United States), as “character structures” have shifted, and the meaning of activism itself has changed.

Some of this assertion is based on the influential frameworks put forward in The Lonely Crowd, which makes the case that the new predominant character structure (“other-oriented”) in the United States, arising from a backdrop of abundance, places more value on the life of the group than on what the group achieves. Similarly, political scientist Ronald Inglehart asserts a consistent rise in a politics of self-expression across all highly industrialized societies, which started to become dramatically apparent around, say, 1968. I believe these patterns have played out asymmetrically between the Left and the Right, hugely affecting patterns of social organization, activism and social movements.

The main thrust of this asymmetry is that, if politics has become more self-expressive and group-expressive than instrumental (i.e. with the measurable goal of accomplishing X) to most participants, then egalitarian-oriented activists may seek to express their egalitarian values in their groups more than they focus on building vehicles that can accomplish a concrete egalitarian goal or political agenda. On our side, the fulfillment of an egalitarian self-expression can be accomplished within the internal life of the group (or campaign) itself, without ever actually having to win anything. On the Right, the fulfillment of an authoritarian self-expression (to be perhaps a little harsh and overly general in my label) can only be accomplished by actually building and wielding power. This pattern is relatively new (most evident the past 50 years) and, IMHO, it constitutes one of the most paralyzing cultural constraints our movements face today. It is perhaps the primary reason why the Right invests so heavily in leadership development and building organizations, while much of the Left is ambivalent, even self-sabotaging, about both enterprises (and often even about strategy).

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right…”

Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change… And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites — polar opposites — so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love… Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.

—Martin Luther King Jr.

3 responses to “Left-wing ambivalence toward power”

  1. […] concern is about power and the US Left’s ambivalence toward it. Rather than framing a conversation about how a Left might build and wield power, the term […]

  2. […] crisis of our times is that those driven by ideals and those driven by ‘power for power’s sake’ have […]

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