The Anatomy of Power
Some past and present critics of the established socio-economic order and the exercise of power in its maintenance.
Literature and links.

This is far too big a subject for one modest web-page, and what follows is the barest skeleton of a body of analysis and criticism of the workings of established power in recent times. This is a kind of personal reading list, chosen from a variety of disciplines and traditions: economics, politics, history, literature, journalism. With some very notable exceptions, the academic element has been kept to a minimum (this is because - these days - academia has become a market which feeds on itself, re-circulating tired ideas in a pretence of novelty; the endless sniping at each other of competitors for market visibility). In varying proportions, the following writers combine a commitment to social justice with the kind of honesty which shuns intellectual fashion. All focus on how power, in its various guises, leads so often to the personal misery of those over whom it maintains its advantage.

   


Thomas PaineThomas Paine (1737-1809)
The hero of liberty and humane champion of revolution that every British schoolchild hasn't heard of. It is still refreshing to read his coolly passionate, scathing prose, and his analysis of the way power works is as apposite now as it was two hundred years ago. It is also sobering, however, to reflect on how Reason, in which he believed so whole-heartedly, is in fact unable to withstand the machinations of Interest. Paine's principal works are Common Sense (encouraging the American Revolution), The Rights of Man (celebrating the French Revolution) and The Age of Reason.

Karl MarxKarl Marx (1818-1883)Typical that Marx should have been so effectively eclipsed at precisely the time his insights into the workings of capital are so relevant. Although pathetically optimistic in his view of the self-defeating nature of capitalism (power is, after all, power, and holds all the important cards) his understanding of the way social and 'psychological' processes rest on and are shaped by a (principally economic) material base still has a great deal to teach us, and has been assimilated hardly at all into the popular culture.
It would be absurd to list the writings of so towering a figure, but there is of course ample information on the web for anyone interested.

Leo TolstoyLeo Tolstoy (1828-1910) Another unsurpassable figure of the Nineteenth Century whose political/philosophical/religious writings have become virtually disregarded in the Twentieth. The most religious of a number of aristocratic Russian anarchists of his time, Tolstoy was nevertheless completely at odds with the established Orthodox Church, and his Christianity is of a variety which is profoundly political.
He wrote prolifically in the area of social criticism, and, naturally, with the same force and clarity as in his literary works. What Then Must We Do, A Confession, What I Believe, Essays From Tula (to name but a few) were widely read in his day and still have a freshness and relevance which (given the way things are) explains their relative unobtainability. His Letters and his Diaries (both edited by R.F. Christian) are also well worth reading.

R.H .TawneyR.H. Tawney (1880-1962) Economic historian whose work fired a generation or two and still exposes 'New Labour' for the shameful bunch of mediocre opportunists they were and are. His classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism remains an inspiring read.


Fernand BraudelFernand Braudel (1902-1985) Another historian whose voice carries well beyond Academia. His massive, three-volume Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. is wonderfully instructive, and has towards its end one of the most sobering (and quotable) passages I have ever come across.


Hannah ArendtHannah Arendt (1906-1975) Writes with a fiery commitment which makes her outstanding among academics. On Revolution has some of the most profound insights into the question of psychological 'motivation' that I have encountered, while the sheer clarity of Arendt's honesty on the question of 'evil' in Eichmann in Jerusalem made her extremely unpopular in some politically-correct quarters.

Her works include:-
Origins of Totalitarianism
The Human Condition
Between Past and Future
On Revolution
Eichmann in Jerusalem
Correspondence, 1926-1969 (memoirs)

C. Wright Mills C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) American sociologist whose writings are entirely accessible as well as extraordinarily broad and profound. His The Power Elite is a work of the first importance when it comes to understanding the machinery of modern society. Although published in 1956, its relevance to the present day is hardly dimmed at all and Mills's insights into the workings of power have yet to be fully understood and assimilated. Chapter 13 of this work ('The Mass Society') is by far the most acute and passionate account of the decline of the public into the mass that I've read, and should be pinned on the wall of every bureaucrat having to do with the organization and conduct of public living. Just as one thread of his argument, Mills suggests that what has subsequently become to rest exclusively in the realm of therapy is in fact a matter for education and political engagement. The idea that 'personal troubles' cannot be understood out of the context of the 'public issues' that in fact give rise to them forms the core of what he calls the 'sociological imagination', and his book of that name is also a tremendously rewarding read.
Mills's writings include:-
White Collar: The American Middle Classes
Power, Politics and People
The Power Elite
The Sociological Imagination
The Marxists

J.K. GalbraithJ.K. Galbraith (1908-2006) A persistently unfogged and compassionate analyst of the economic vices of our times, managing to stay uncorrupted by his close relationship with Democratic politics in the USA.


His works include:-
American Capitalism
The Affluent Society
The New Industrial State
The Culture of Contentment
The Anatomy of Power
The Good Society
The Economics of Innocent Fraud

Eric HobsbawmEric Hobsbawm (1917-2007) Another sound Marxist historian who writes for the general reader. The Age of Capital, The Age of Revolution and The Age of Empire are all highly instructive. I admire him most for writing The Age of Extremes. The Short History of the Twentieth Century- over 600 pages - without once mentioning Freud; this may be a bit of an oversight, but it is a satisfying tacit comment on the real importance of psychoanalysis.

Michel FoucaultMichel Foucault (1926-1984) As the principal analyst of Power to date, much of Foucault's writing is important, though some of it difficult for those of us unattuned to Gallic philosophical subtlety.
The following are of particular relevance to the theme of power and distress, with Discipline and Punish standing out as a classic of fundamental importance:-
Madness and Civilization
Discipline and Punish
History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction
The Use of Pleasure
The Care of the Self

Ivan IllichIvan Illich (1926 -2002) Another in the Christian anarchist mould (though he might well not have approved of this label), Illich's unswerving honesty meant that, though widely known and no doubt an icon for some, he never became a cultural superstar. His Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health will endure as a classic deconstruction of established power, and is in itself a work of art as well as a triumph of criticism. His much later, and hardly acknowledged Gender is in my view one of the bravest, most unflinching books ever written (unlikely to curry favour with feminists of the less reflective kind!). Illich's chief works include:-
Celebration of Awareness
Deschooling Society
Tools for Conviviality
Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis - the Expropriation of Health
Disabling Professions
The Right to Useful Unemployment
Shadow Work
Gender
H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness

Christopher LaschChristopher Lasch (1932 -1994) Trenchant critic of American society, Lasch shares some concerns with Michel Foucault. Lasch's principal focus is on the ways in which the public has during the course of the twentieth century disintegrated into the private world, such that individuals become preoccupied with their interior feelings and needs rather than with the possibility of becoming morally and democratically engaged with the world around them. Particularly in his The Minimal Self Lasch analyzes the role of what he calls the 'tutelary complex ' in this process - i.e., education, psychology, therapy, social work and so on. His later books are:-
Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged
The Culture of Narcissism
The Minimal Self
The True and Only Heaven

Noam ChomskyNoam Chomsky (1928 - )The latest, and by far the most impressive, of a distinguished line of American anarchists, Chomsky has managed to combine the role of a world leader in the academic field of linguistics with that of a tireless and colossally well-informed critic of established power, particularly in the form of Western imperialism. He has written extensively on a range of political issues and is a trenchant critic of the role of the media in protecting the interests of Power. Rather than attempting to list his works here, I recommend a visit to The Official Noam Chomsky Website

Pierre BourdieuPierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) French academic sociologist who succeeds in addressing a readership beyond the intellectual ivory towers of the university. A fair amount of his work is now available in English, and his Distinction, originally written in 1979, is a classic: a fascinating demonstration of how power and privilege manage to clothe themselves in an aura of admirability and - precisely - distinction.

Susan GeorgeSusan George (1934 -) Board Chair of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and connected with several NGOs including Greenpeace, Susan George has written a number of books on the North-South divide and the exploitation of 'Third' by the 'First World'. Faith and Credit, Penguin Books 1994, written with Fabrizio Sabelli, is a brilliant analysis of the role, function and effect of the World Bank - defined in the closing pages as 'the visible hand of the programme of unrestrained, free market capitalism'. Written with an extraordinary lightness of touch given the possible indigestibility of the subject matter, the book gives a memorable insight into the workings of power, both at the global level and within the microcosm of the Bank itself, which demonstrates within its own walls all the features of the wider society it so fundamentally influences. The Lugano Report (Pluto Press, 1999) is a blood-freezing exercise in intellectual empathy with the needs and requirements of global capitalism; it is written with gem-hard intelligence and steadiness of vision and demonstrates an understanding of power second to none. Susan George's 'Annexe' to the Report, only 17 pages long, is in itself a masterpiece. Her Another World is Possible If... (2004, Verso) is, again, a wonderfully lucid and accessible diagnosis of the evils of 'free-market', corporate capitalism, together with a constructively critical (and entirely supportive) analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the global movement that opposes it. In Hijacking America (Polity Press, 2008) she turns her attention with equal effect to the unstoppable and extremely well organized influence of the secular and religious Right on American culture as a whole. She is also brilliant at indicating why, at the individual level, people can become mesmerised by such influence; her insight on the attraction of fundamentalist religion, for example, is both persuasive and compassionate.

Will HuttonWill Hutton (1950 -) Former Guardian Economics Editor and subsequently editor of The Observer, now Chief Executive of the Industrial Society, Hutton published The State We're In (Jonathan Cape) in 1995. This book, by now a classic, provides an illuminating analysis of the socio-economic predicament of Britain during and after the Thatcher years. One of the very few informed writers on the scene to have the courage and percipience to keep alive a socialist perspective against the current of fashion and to suggest measures which, if anyone had the guts to put them into practice, might very well work. However, his contributions to On the Edge (Jonathan Cape, 2000), which he edited with Anthony Giddens, suggested that he had lost his way somewhat. Although there are a couple of excellent chapters in this volume, there are also some dreadful ones, and Hutton seems far too anxious to agree about the virtues of global capitalism with Giddens, the man whom Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant savage in Le Monde Diplomatique (May 2000) as the Pangloss of the new economy. Thankfully, Hutton's The World We're In (Little, Brown, 2002), saw him back on course. His Them and Us (Little, Brown, 2010) is a rather strange mixture of illuminating explanation of the banking crisis and slightly manic prescription of the solutions to the world' economic and political ills (among the chief of which is the adoption of 'fairness').

John Ralston SaulJohn Ralston Saul (1947 -) His book The Unconscious Civilization [Anansi Press (Canada) 1995; Penguin Books (GB) 1998] is excellent for its mordant critique of monetarism, the rule of the market, and above all corporatism (which he opposes to democracy), as well as the institutional props that maintain them. Inspiring passages on economic dogma, the abdication of the universities, the deformation of language, and other evils of the times. A polymath who seems to understand economics, Saul is a humanist democrat who champions the politics of disinterested public good and the corresponding power of citizenship. A touch intellectually rarefied, perhaps, but very well worth the effort.

Zygmunt BaumanZygmunt Bauman (1925 -) Sociologist and prolific writer on the 'postmodern' condition, his books are always interesting. In Work, Consumerism and the New Poor (Open University Press, 1998) and Globalization (Polity Press, 1998) he combines critique and compassion in a way which manages to avoid the kind of oppressive intellectualism which so easily renders sociological writing indigestible. Between them, these books give a convincing account of the way the global pursuit of profit and the consumer society have transformed (all but eradicated) an ethical stance towards poverty, representing it as a form of 'choice' on the part of those it afflicts.

John Pilger (1939 -) One of the very few members of that virtually extinct species: journalists who tell the truth as well as know what they're talking about (Nick Davies is another). Chomskian in his grasp of the issues, Pilger writes even better, and his Hidden Agendas, published in 1998 by Vintage, is one of the most riveting, and in an odd way reassuring, reads I've had in years. A collection of his articles is published under the title The New Rulers of the World (Verso, 2002).

Viviane ForresterViviane Forrester (1927 - ) French writer and journalist whose L'horreur économique, published in France in 1996, is translated as The Economic Horror and published by Polity Press in 1999. It is hard to overstate the significance of this book which speaks more powerfully and directly to the predicament we find ourselves in at the start of the millennium than any other I can think of. The author's view is bleak indeed, but stated with such courage and clarity (despite the appalling translation!), with such confidence in the validity of human subjectivity (in the best sense), that the possibility of rescue from our plight shines out.

George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot (1963 -) Environmentalist writer, campaigner and Guardian columnist whose Captive State. The Corporate Takeover of Britain, Macmillan, 2000, provides mind-boggling insights into the degree to which big business has penetrated the British government, civil service and principal institutions. Extremely well researched and documented, Monbiot's revelations should have led to a public outcry, but so far seem to have been greeted, as far as the mass media are concerned, with silence. He has also written The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order, Flamingo, 2003. His admirable website gives access to much of his published writing.

Naomi KleinNaomi Klein (1970 -) Canadian writer and journalist whose book No Logo, Flamingo 2001, received a lot of attention and is a best seller of its kind. Extremely accessibly written (with, in fact, a journalistic panache that some may find a bit tiresome at times) and full of well-researched detail, this admirably far-reaching book is truly invaluable for the light it casts on the economic policies of modern multi-national corporations and the theories and practices of marketing that accompany them. Her subsequent book The Shock Doctrine, Allen Lane 2007, is an extremely impressive continuation in the same genre: it documents in great detail, and with enviable clarity, the extent to which neoconservative economics, as preached by Milton Friedman and his 'Chicago School', have shaped the ruthlessness and rapicity of the Business domination of the globe. Klein argues that the technology of national take-over (as in Chile, Russia, South Africa and many other places) takes part of its inspiration from the psychiatric excesses of Dr Ewen Cameron in the 1950s, who 'brainwashed' his patients through, among other things, the unrestrained use of electro-shock - hence her title.

Noreena HertzNoreena Hertz Cambridge academic and author of The Silent Takeover. Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy. This is a superlatively good book. It covers the development of neo-liberal corporate capitalism with - so far as I am aware - a breadth and depth that is unprecedented, and embeds an extremely well-documented critique of the current situation in an historical understanding that serves to point us towards the possible politico-economic futures that await us. Passionate without being strident, careful to be balanced where an excess of passion would spoil her case, informed, percipient and wise, Noreena Hertz provides us with a truly invaluable text by means of which to analyze and understand the silent takeover of democratic politics by big business that is taking place under our noses. She offers no simple or easy solutions, but, partly because of this, her conclusions inspire hope - and/or resolve - more than despair.

Eduardo GaleanoEduardo Galeano Prolific South American writer whose book, Upside Down, Picador USA, 2001, takes just about the most unflinching look possible at the results of rampant global capitalism. The picture - bleak as it could be - is nevertheless painted with humour and warmth.

Allyson PollockAllyson Pollock Now head of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at Edinburgh University, Professor Pollock reports in her book NHS plc (Verso, 2005) the detailed and painstaking work of her team, then at University College London, in exposing the extent to which the British NHS has been taken over by private interests. This is, however, much more than a dry academic text and is brave and forthright in excoriating the licensed mafia (my words, not hers) that is devouring public services in this country. As seems inevitable, no sign of the outrage that the book's publication should have aroused. Her website is a must for anyone wanting to keep up with the market assault (via HM Government) on the NHS.

Adam Curtis is a film-maker who has over the years produced a riveting series of documentaries focussing on Adam Curtisthe ways in which power is distributed, exercised and abused, particularly in the Western world. His analyses are both profound and original and the connexions he makes are always thought-provoking, and often startlingly illuminating. His films are readily available on the Web, and he maintains a blog on the BBC website which is well worth following.

Chris Hedges is a writer and journalist who worked for many years as a foreign correspondent in some of the Chris Hedgesmost dangerous and war-ravaged parts of the globe. His experience leaves him with no illusions about what people are capable of doing to each other and what we as a species are doing to our own habitat. His book The World as It Is is a very bleak read indeed, but it is nevertheless somehow reassuring that there are still people who are able to contemplate the heart of darkness without blinking and describe it without pulling punches (glass-half-full people will not enjoy reading the book and will no doubt find a good deal to criticize). His critique of the role of the 'balanced' media is particularly powerful. Hedges is essentially an idealist who advocates perpetual rebellion against corrupt and ruthless power, but one fears that, if this could ever happen at all, it will only do so after all too much of his vision of disaster has come to pass. More information can be found on his website.

 

 

This page last updated 15.11.11

Go to:-
Homepage
Psychology and Psychiatry


 

       Activism
click here for a list of links to political websites dealing with power and the citizen