Tag Archives: power

Charles McGrath

[Robert] Caro had a[n] epiphany about power in the early ’60s. He had moved on to Newsday by then, where he discovered that he had a knack for investigative reporting, and was assigned to look into a plan by Robert Moses to build a bridge from Rye, N.Y., across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. “This was the world’s worst idea,” he told me. “The piers would have had to be so big that they’d disrupt the tides.” Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of this scheme, and it seemed to have persuaded just about everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then, he recalled, he got a call from a friend in Albany saying, “Bob, I think you need to come up here.” Caro said: “I got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing some preliminary step toward the bridge, and it passed by something like 138-4. That was one of the transformational moments of my life. I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’”

The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’”

Charles McGrath, ‘Robert Caro’s Big Dig’, The New York Times, April 12, 2012

Adam Smith

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, bk. 3, ch. 4

Bertrand Russell

The orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken in supposing that economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in social sciences. The desire for commodities, when separated from power and glory, is finite, and can be fully satisfied by a moderate competence. The really expensive desires are not dictated by a love of material comfort. Such commodities as a legislature rendered subservient by corruption, or a private picture gallery of Old Masters selected by experts, are sought for the sake of power or glory, not as affording comfortable places in which to sit. When a moderate degree of comfort is assured, both individuals and communities will pursue power rather than wealth: they may seek wealth as a means to power, or the may forgo an increase of wealth in order to secure an increase of power, but in the former case as in the latter their fundamental motive is not economic.

This error in orthodox and Marxist economics is not merely theoretical, but is of the greatest practical importance, and has caused some of the principal events of recent times to be misunderstood. It is only by realising that love of power is the cause of the activities that are important in social affairs that history, whether ancient or modern, can be rightly interpreted.

Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis, London, 1938, p. 9

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

[D]efense mechanisms are part of the Western intellectual’s standard equipment. Since I have frequently met with them here, I take the liberty of examining them more closely.

The first argument is really a matter of semantics. Our society has seen fit to be permissive about the old taboos of language. Nobody is shocked any more by the ancient and indispensable four-letter-words. At the same time, a new crop of words has been banished, by common consent, from polite society: words like exploitation and imperialism. The have acquired a touch of obscenity. Political scientists have taken to paraphrases and circumlocution which sound like the neurotic euphemisms of the Victorians. Some sociologists have gone so far as to deny the very existence of a ruling class. Obviously, it is easier to abolish the word exploitation than the thing it designates; but then, to do away with the term is not to do away with the problem.
A second defense device is using psychology as a shield. I have been told that it is sick and paranoid to conceive of a powerful set of people who are a danger to the rest of the world. This amounts to saying that instead of listening to his arguments it is better to watch the patient. Now it is not an easy thing to defend yourself against amateur psychiatrists. I shall limit myself to a few essential points. I do not imagine a conspiracy, since there is no need for such a thing. A social class, and especially a ruling class, is not held together by secret bonds, by common and glaringly evident self-interest. I do not fabricate monsters. Everybody knows that bank presidents, generals, and military industrialists do not look like comicstric demons: they are well-mannered, nice gentlemen, possibly lovers of chamber music with a philanthropic bent of mind. There was no lack of such kind people even in the Germany of the Thirties. Their moral insanity does not derive from their individual character, but from their social function.

Finally, there is a political defense mechanism operating with the assertion that all of the things which I submit are just communist propaganda. I have no reason to fear this time-honored indictment. It is inaccurate, vague, and irrational. First of all, the word Communism, used as a singular, has become rather meaningless. It covers a wide variety of conflicting ideas; some of them are even mutually exclusive. Furthermore, my opinion of American foreign policy is shared by Greek liberals and Latin American archbishops, by Norwegian peasants and French industrialists: people who are not generally thought of as being in the vanguard of “Communism”.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, ‘On Leaving America’, The New York Review of Books, vol. 10, no. 4 (February 29, 1968)

Norman Finkelstein

Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo. “The last thing you can be accused of is having turned your coat,” Thomas Mann wrote a convert to National Socialism right after Hitler’s seizure of power. “You always wore it the ‘right’ way around.” If apostasy weren’t conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions. But that’s never been the case. The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away.

Norman Finkelstein, ‘Fraternally Yours, Chris’