Water Man Spouts

Friday, October 12, 2007

On Power, Authority & Al Gore

The excitement among progressive democrats are feeling as a result of Al Gore’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize is encouraging. In the years since the US Supreme Court selected George W. Bush to be president, despite the fact that Gore won the election, the former US Senator and Vice President has undergone a transformation.

His books "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Assault on Reason" were evidence that he had moved beyond traditional politics. One could not seriously think that Bush, even with the help of five Supreme Court Justices, could translate his political power into a Nobel Peace Prize.
It is evident that many progressive democrats would like to see Gore use his current status to re-enter the field of traditional politics. Yet even those who have been most hopeful in the past year recognize that something has changed.

I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at the concepts of "power" and "authority," and to apply them to the current situation involving the 2008 elections, Al Gore, and progressive democrats.

Some basic concepts about power within the human community comes from the great German sociologist Max Weber. He wrote about three types: legal-rational authority, traditional authority, and charismatic authority. The legal-rational authority is the type that we associate with bureaucracies. It could be the school you attend, the industry you work for, or even the United States. Legal-rational authority is based upon the rules and regulations that are used by those in power to make the system flow to their best advantage.

Traditional authority is best understood as the consistent, multigenerational way of life of groups of extended families, which we can refer to as clans or tribes. It has been found among hunters and gathers, pastoral groups, and agricultural communities. In our modern society, there are groups such as the Amish and some Native American groups that are traditional societies. In the 1960s, some of the hippies lived in communes which were attempts to reestablish traditional community lifestyles. The most recognized power in these societies are the traditions of the past.

Weber also wrote about charismatic authority, which is found in individuals who are recognized as having personal power by the group. Charismatic leaders are found from time to time within all societies. Their power, which can be disruptive within the context of either a legal-rational (bureaucratic) or traditional society, tends to be relatively short-lived.

As a traditional society is transformed by means of production, such as an agricultural tribe being introduced to industrial trade/influences, there is often a specific type of charismatic figure, known as a reformation prophet. These figures attempt to bring their society back to the basic values found within their traditions. Sometimes, these individuals attempt to balance tradition with change, and at other times they simply reject any change.

Now let’s consider some of this in a slightly different context. We can think of another German sociologist, Ralf Dahrendork’s ideas, which are most famously expressed in his 1959 classic work "Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society." Many people focus on his comparisons with Marx’s ideas on class conflict, but we will look in what might be a less focused way. He views "authority" as the ability to issue commands that others follow.

Unlike Marx, who was confident that class struggle could be successfully ended, Dahrendork viewed it as essentially on-going. There are groups within the larger bureaucratic system that will always be vying for the authority or control within that system. If one looks at the United States today, and thinks of the republican vs democratic conflict; or the conservative vs liberal vs progressive within the democratic party; or the wealthy class versus the middle class and poor, we find some evidence that his theories can be applied to a certain extent.

Add to that the bureaucratic, legal- rational system’s conflict with more traditional societies that happen to have resources the larger society requires – be it the gold in the Black Hills in the late 1800s, the uranium found there a century later, or the oil in the Middle East – and we are witness to the conflicts which, by their nature, bring forth charismatic leaders who fall into the reformation mold.

When we look at an environmental advocate like Al Gore, or his friend Robert Kennedy Jr., we see that they are effective to an extent within the confines of the legal-rational system. Gore worked within the legislative and executive branch, and Kennedy within the judicial branch of our federal government. But, in time, the system could not fully accommodate either.

In his book "The Riverkeepers" (with John Cronin), Robert tells of being exposed to Native American tradition, when Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons told him, "It’s vanity to say we are protecting nature for the sake of the planet. The planet is four billion years old. Its crust is forty miles thick. It has survived freezing and warming and volcanoes and earthquakes. Nature will survive without us. But what will we be without nature?"

Robert told me that he recognizes that environmentalism and traditional Indian society are one in the same. That’s distinct from the concepts of reality as expressed by those with the power and authority in our legal-rational society. From a traditional point of view, leaders like Bush and Cheney are by-products from an irrational system. They are the definition of abusive power.

In "Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy," Robert tells about how when he speaks to audiences, both democrats and republicans respond positively to his environmental message. That power is muted by the legal-rational system’s media, which can distort anything that a Robert Kennedy or an Al Gore says. Watching a :15 second film clip on a tv screen is not the same as listening to either man in person.

It seems that Robert has endorsed, at this time, one of the democratic candidates for president. Reportedly, Al Gore may be about to endorse another candidate. This isn’t because one of the two is more honest, or more sincere, than the other. It means that they have different ideas on how to translate power during the primary season.

Far more important is the authority each has outside of the primary contest. And that is because they are telling all of us – you and me – that the power to transform this society isn’t found inside the halls of Washington, DC. It’s inside of you and me.

That’s real power.

1 Comments:

At October 18, 2007 at 7:30 PM, Blogger J said...

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