The Human Condition:

Political and Economic Power – August 14, 2022

Hand grasping world

There is a type of person who wants to control other people, and this is part of the human condition. I am not one of them, being more interested in controlling myself and my future and understanding the world around me. And yet the part of me that wants to tell stories in my novels and share thoughts in these blogs is also a minor grasp at control: I want others to understand my world and maybe, just maybe, adopt part of it for their own.

When I was writing for the corporations, the thought was going around that people want to rise in the organization not so much because they desire to control the people below them as they want to be free of control from above and able to express their own vision and values—what they perceive as true and right—in order to influence the organization in the proper direction. But this is much the same thing as my writing ambitions. Businesspeople want to rise so they can influence what products are made available and that people will want and need, to the improvement of human life. Politicians want to rise in government so they can influence what people will do and say, for the good of society. Clerics want to rise in the church so they can influence what people believe and how they will live, for the benefit of their souls. Artists want to rise in the marketplace so they can influence what people perceive and feel, in order to advance human imagination and understanding. My world, my vision, and my values will ultimately impact your world, for your own good.

The centers of power change through the ages. In ancient Rome, it was the power of the patricians over the plebians, to influence political decisions and military expansion—until the emperor became all-powerful with control of the army. In medieval times, it was the political and military power of kings and barons vying with the spiritual power of popes and bishops for the hearts, minds, and obedience of the common people—until the king became more powerful and controlled the country. In the Western world after the Enlightenment, it was the power of democratically elected politicians and self-selected business titans to shape the political landscape and enhance the national economy—and we will see whether that arrangement survives or morphs into something else.

Power comes and goes. Right after World War II, economic power in this country lay with the technologies that had won the war—steelmaking, shipbuilding, airplane construction, and tank and automobile manufacturing—and the big names were Kaiser in the Bay Area, Boeing in the Northwest, and U.S. Steel, GM, and Ford in the Midwest. Soon enough, however, the technological emphasis shifted to communications and computing, and the big names were Western Digital, Intel, Texas Instruments, Microsoft, and Apple. Now the economic emphasis is on personal connection and convenient services, and the dominant players are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Amazon, and perhaps soon Uber and Lyft. Sometimes a disruptive technology like the semiconductor or the internet upsets old power complexes, which then wither away. Sometimes a new mode of thinking and believing inspires the population to shift gears and even engage in violent revolution.

In this country, we’ve seen the original emphasis on local and state government in the late 1700s and early 1800s shift to concentration in the federal government in order to rule the nation in a way the Constitution—which was originally a covenant among the states to provide for services, like national defense and international trade, that they could not undertake individually—never intended. The drift probably started with the Abolitionist movement in the 1840s, which wanted to end the institution of slavery everywhere in the country and resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s dogged pursuit of continuing the union through civil war and gave the notion of “states’ rights” a bad name. This concentration was speeded by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which started as an effort to reign in the railroads and soon spread to any enterprise whose supply chains, manufacturing locations, and sales crossed state lines.

The rising power of the federal government got a boost with the Wilson Administration in the 1910s and the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s, with their promotion of technical experts to establish and run national programs in war and in difficult economic times. It peaked from the 1960s to the 1980s with the Johnson Administration’s creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Nixon Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, the Carter Administration’s Departments of Energy and Education, and similar regulatory efforts. Federal bureaucracy has since had a free hand and gripped tighter and tighter with each omnibus bill that passes out of the U.S. Congress and leaves the icky details of governing with specific rules and regulations to the Civil Service–controlled agencies in the Executive branch.

Power is the ability to say, to decide, to enforce—and nobody gives it up without a fight. The socialism of the Old World was all about government owning the means of production and pushing corporations, capitalists, and the profit motive out of the picture. Marx envisioned that, once people got over their penchant for personal gain and began to cooperate,1 they would live forever in happy unity and the state would wither away—kind of like the feudal castle without the governing hand of the feudal lord.2 In this country, the progressive, socialist, collectivist impulse is to control rather than to own. President Obama had the option of acquiring ownership of General Motors and rejected it: why become responsible for actually building and selling cars, with all the hazards and risks that responsibility brings, when you can continue to control their design, manufacture, and sale through fuel and mileage standards, safety requirements, environmental regulations, and fiscal policy?

When socialism comes to this country, it will not be at gunpoint, will not make everyone an employee of the state, and will not put unskilled apparatchiks in charge of commercial operations. Instead, the federal government will tell business executives what to make, how to make it, where to sell it, at what price, and how much profit they can earn on it. Government control won’t be the state owning the hospitals and hiring the doctors as in Britain’s National Health Service, it will be economic control through a government-funded single-payer system—and let the people who actually run the facilities and provide the services figure out how to make it all work without going broke. American socialism won’t be the hard communism of the Soviets but the soft coercion of Miss Jean in Romper Room.3

And, of course, with government control, complex regulations, and the permissions they entail, comes the opportunity for corruption. Corporations and businesspeople, who want to bend the legislative and administrative will to their advantage, are obliged to offer favors and perks in persuasion of politicians and administrators, as well as lucrative positions after they leave public office. Large organizations are able to swing more weight and influence more legislative votes and administrative decisions than small ones. So the power of big business grows, the economy grows, the government grows—and taxes follow everywhere. That kind of power naturally creates its own defense. Those in power want to preserve the status quo. Look at President Trump, who campaigned on the promise of “draining the swamp.” The swamp rose up and drowned him with lies and innuendo about Russian collusion, court orders against his program changes, and the impeachment process on several issues—not to mention the mainstream media’s continued downpour of withering contempt. Nobody gives up power without a fight.

Now, I am not saying that we or our society should try to eliminate the human impulse to gain and exercise control. That would be simplistic, not to mention impossible. But as political observers and actors, we should be aware of the impulse. We should establish curbs on such behavior when it becomes socially, politically, and economically harmful. And when those bounds are overstepped, we should be prepared to fight.

1. The science fiction author Sarah Hoyt has opined that as soon as your program says something like “if people would only …” then you immediately go out of bounds. Human nature won’t change. People won’t become nicer, more cooperative, more selfless, or more servile because it is necessary for the success of your program. Some people will change, but many or most won’t, and societies can only evolve slowly over time. You can’t impose a blanket change on human nature as the premise for a social program that will take effect inside anyone’s lifetime.

2. Lenin was a Marxist, but he never subscribed to that “withering away” part of the program. His contribution to the doctrine was the notion of the “revolutionary vanguard”—that is, him and his cohort—which would stay in power and direct the course of events forever. Lenin wasn’t about to let go of power either.

3. If you don’t know that reference, ask your parents. “You don’t want to be a sad ‘Don’t Bee,’ do you? You want to be a happy ‘Do Bee.’ ” That was my childhood television. Yech!