Monday 11 December 2017

Discerning the Intent of State Power

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
The fear of losing State Power corrupts those who wield it, and the fear of the scourge of State Power corrupts those who are subject to it. It is not State Power which corrupts, therefore, but fear: fear within the State, and fear among those who are subject to it.
How does one measure such fear? One measures it by the State’s dependency on the favour of the people, and by the people’s dependency of the favour of the State.  Such dependency further determines, on both sides, people’s ability to attain the things they desire.

The State, then, having a dependent people, may come to see itself as having Power in itself. But this is an illusion. Even if the State looks invincible, it is always dependent. It must mobilise, among other things, economic, social, and political forces in order to achieve a result.

This dependency may be good or it may be bad – depending on the reasons for the State’s dependency – and again, the reasons for the dependency of the people it governs.

In the country of my birth, South Africa, the State desires the seductions of power, while the people desire excessive goods and wealth. On both sides, we find a narcissistic impulse, therefore, which defines the reasons for dependency. This has gone so far as to earn the description ‘State Capture’ – in which the people, too, find themselves captured. 

In a sense, a new balance of power has been created, which is driven by people’s passions on both sides. This has so advanced that the traditional balance of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government seems lost. Instead, one finds a balance of desires: the State on one side, the people on the other.

There is a critical difference, however, between the dependency and desires of the State, and the dependency and desires of the people.

The dependency and desires of the State – and with that, the source of its Power – may be largely unknown and unseen. When a new government is installed, this waits to be revealed. Besides which, the State has the means and the power to withhold and frustrate such revelation, up to a point.

Society, on the other hand, has little means of hiding its transparency from the State. Its power – that which it has – is exposed at all times, because it is exercised in the open. Also, unlike the State, its power is not defined by its ability to prevent people from doing things, but includes an open process of self-definition and lifestyle preferences.

What to do, then, where there is an unhealthy dependency on the part of the State, not to speak of the people?

In such a situation, enlightening the State as to its true and noble purpose is futile. Informing bad Power about good Power is giving truth to those who do not love it. Besides, a State which is bad Power has already created the dependency on bad powers which perpetuate its desires – a further reminder that State Power is dependent, and only has the illusion of power.

Where could a solution lie?

The solution may lie in the distinction just traced above.  While the source of State Power may be unknown and unseen, that of the people is at all times laid bare, and is subordinate to the State. If there were no such openness among the people, the State would risk insurrection for its lack of knowledge.  At the same time, without openness on the part of the State, a nation risks a corrupt State.

What is true of the people needs to be true of the State. To obliterate the myths and assumptions which underlie a State corrupted by fear, we need truth – truth of the kind which reveals the true dynamics of State Power. More important even than the democratic process, the separation of powers, the rights of the people, may be the transparency of the State.


docmartincohen said...

"What is true of the people needs to be true of the State. To obliterate the myths and assumptions which underlie a State corrupted by fear, we need truth"

- do I detect a Platonic flavor here? Certainly you raise good questions. But we might recall too Plato's view that democracy produces poor outcomes - and instead an elite needs to lead. Is that true for South Africa?

Keith said...

There’s causation, I believe: The more autocratic is government (state power), the more fearful it is of losing power. As you point out, commonly ‘state power corrupts those who wield it’. Cyclically, the more fearful government is of losing power, the more autocratic it becomes and the more it engages in so-called domestic influence operations to defend its authoritarianism. It compensates for fear and aims to extend its power by cutting off discussion of critical issues and using a heavy fist to cower citizens into compliance. Police action — the indiscriminate long arm of government — works hard to ferret out reputed enemies of the state, however fanciful the charges. It is better, it is thought, to brutalize the innocent as collateral damage in destroying the purported guilty. The ‘transparency of the state’ you refer to is antithetical to many forms of oppressive governance whose ideology, out of distrust of the common citizen, prizes opacity. The effort to influence the influencers ratchets up. In some instances, the tense imbalance manages to persist for decades. In other instances, the imbalance inspires subjugated citizens to rise up — the ‘insurrection’ you cite. Hence the color revolutions, as well as more cataclysmic upheavals that have resulted in switching out of ideologies. However, such upheavals have not always led to the ‘transparency of the state’ you suggest is the ultimate outcome citizens should seek for best governance. Accordingly, neither the 'democratic process, [nor] the separation of powers, [nor] the rights of the people' should, I would argue, should be back-seated to 'transparency of the state'.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The political philosopher Charles de Montesquieu, in the early 18th century, developed the theory of the separation of powers -- and with it, of checks and balances: ‘Power checks power.’

There is, however, something that underlies the sepa­ration of powers, which is more basic than these powers. The separation of powers rests on the flow of information between them. Not only this, but the flow of information is critical to a balanced society, and world. It may conceivably be the difference between the survival or destruction of the human race.

Information, therefore, is ‘prior to’ the separation of powers, and is surely ‘prior to’ democracy -- in which case democracy may not be the summum bonum.

We have a problem in South Africa with the flow of information. Arguably that may be said of every country.

docmartincohen said...

'The separation of powers rests on the flow of information between them' - looks more like a 'necesary but not sufficient condition' to me...

Thomas O. Scarborough said...


Is democracy itself either necessary or sufficient? Perhaps it depends on the end -- assuming that it has an end.

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Partly. Some outcomes are poor and some are not. Where the judiciary is poor, democracy will produce poor outcomes. The South African judiciary is not entirely poor.

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