08 May 2014

Some Musings About Power

Go here to read an excellent post by Jordan Ballor where he reviews "The End of Power" by Moisés Naím. Naím's thesis is that the explosion of productivity and wealth that has come to characterize first the West and thence, more or less, the rest of the world has lead to the empowering of many millions of individuals. This individual empowerment then leads to the reduction of power of the governments of nation states as individuals are no longer content to be the subjects of a small number of governing (and often arbitrary) elites.

Ballor agrees that Naím's three forces of More (material prosperity), Mobility (of people and their loyalties), and Mentality (this-world and individual-centered) have empowered multitudes of the masses in ways unimaginable before the 18th century. As I would put it, Naím's is a more simply argued and narrowly focused version of Charles Taylor's "This Secular Age" (on which I posted here, here, here, and here).

Ballor dissents, however, from Naím's conclusion that the downward movement of power from elites to masses has come at the (sole) expense of the top. Instead--and entirely correctly I would add--it has come largely at the expense of the middle: "Power has really decayed most significantly in the institutions Edmund Burke called 'little platoons,' the mediating structures of civil society Tocqueville identified as so important and characteristic of American life."

Ballor observes that the power of nation states and corporate concentrations of capital have not decreased at a rate equal to the growth of power of individuals. Indeed, those at the top, as I argued in Puritanism and Contract Law, have co-opted much of the value added by the diligence of modernizing individuals and the disciplined nations they have created. Growth in power at each end of the spectrum has thus come at the expense of the middle. As Ballor puts it, "power has actually been increasingly evacuated from the middle, flowing instead to the top and the bottom."

That Naím should miss this important effect of his three M's comes as no surprise. Both the collectivist Left and many of the libertarian Right take for granted that society is nothing more than various aggregations of individuals. From the Left, the work of those accidental aggregations of individuals can be efficiently subsumed by central planning. From the Gary Becker-influenced Right, such aggregations are mere epiphenomena equally created and sloughed off at will by desiring individuals.

For those who believe that social institutions (like but not limited to the family) are every bit as "real" as the individual, Naím's conclusion begs the question: What can reverse the gradual (or not-so-gradual) evisceration of the socializing Middle? Should we participate in forming communities in the spirit of Alasdair MacIntyre's new St. Benedict? Or should we place our bets on Dale Coulter's hope for a global Spirit-led renewal movement? Or can they somehow be combined in the spirit of James K.A. Smith's vision for a Church that revitalizes historical liturgical practices to an end of re-forming desires?

Ballor cites to Dutch theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper for his perceptive but now century-old diagnosis of the problem. Others including George Marsden look to Kuyper for his prescription for a reinvigorated associational (as opposed to individual) liberalism. Frankly, I'm afraid that the horse of a renewed associational vigor is long out of the barn.

What's my prescription, you ask? While I believe that's Smith's approach offers the best solution in the long run, I do not labor under the apprehension that the solution will be anything other than long in coming. Until then, living--and litigating, as and when necessary--for associational freedom will have to do.

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