Bad power, worse power

Thanks for all the comments on the last post. Here's my spin on "From Poverty to Power". 

Duncan Green's popular blog is excellent- good, solid development thinking without anything radical. He gives us safe,  relatively conservative, middle-of-the-road thoughts and ideas - lots of them, all very interesting and written in an engaging conversational style. Duncan, who must be a very busy dude,  is also fantastic at replying. Here's an interaction I had with him about his blog title- "From Poverty to Power". 

take them from Poverty to Power and someone loses...

take them from Poverty to Power and someone loses...

Power, one of my biggest themes,  is something I think and  write about it time and again. For example this piece about the interplay of poverty and power published in The British Medical Journal, or this blog in which I describe power and its effects rippling up and down through humanity like a fractal, self-similar at all scales. At whatever level power appears in human systems it informs every other level. A dictator, beaten as a child, might brutalize his political prisoners. A super-power deploying high-tech weapons against less militarized opponents to win political power sets off an endless cascade. As well as telling middle-sized nations to buy and use arms against nations smaller and weaker than themselves its also teaching  its own young men to hit their wives and girlfriends.  Poverty and Power cut to humanity's core. 

 Power- having more than others, whether that be physical strength, control of resources, money, political clout, information- is , by definition, relative. Just like poverty. Someone moving 'up' from poverty (having relatively less)  to power (having relatively more) automatically means someone else moves down. Its an endless cycle, this From-Poverty-to-Power game seven billion of us play on our spherical game-board. Everyone, every community, ethnic group or nation uses their own keep-power-in-my-group tactics: some exploit child labour, others invent Apartheid and caste, nations launch wars of terror, in Rwanda Hutus-killed-Tutsis-killed-Hutus, corporations re-locate to tax havens, dictators "eliminate" opponents,  men dominate women, communities exclude disabled,  some try power-holding by racism, some simply hit their wives.... A prominent Christian once asked me to pray for God to kill the Dalai Lama. Good power against evil (i.e. bad power) he said.

No! I want development as more than an endless zero sum power-cycling game, every winner off-set by a loser somwhere else. "From Poverty to Power" grates philosophically. Me being me, I couldn’t stop myself sending Ducan this:

Hey Duncan, 

Just one of millions on your mailing list- lots of interesting stuff in there but I do have a deep and basic critique of your blog. The name you chose. From Poverty to Power?????? Sure, nice alliteration that slips smoothly of the tongue but I reckon totally wrong. Your blog's name buys into common human ideas that got us into this mess in the first place,  rather than radical and transformative thinking that might get us out.

Duncan, the genesis of poverty is power. People are poor BECAUSE Of power and its misuse. Power- having more (control of resources, knowledge, influence, information, status) than others- is an expression of inequality. If in my development work I help to make someone or some group powerful I automatically make someone else less powerful (aka poor). The ideal is equality (of resources, political influence, inclusion etc etc). 

Less poetic, but much deeper would be "From poverty to equality", or "from Poverty to Justice", "from poverty to cooperation" perhaps or, if you want to risk being uber-radical, "From poverty to love".  Equality, justice and especially love are the opposite of power. Equality, justice and love are all transformative. Poverty could not exist in the presence of any of them. 

That's my two cents to complicate your day.  You probably get a zillion e-mails a day, but if you have time I'd love to read your response. 


Duncan (being Duncan) sent me this one-liner:


"In my book, there's good power and bad power - you need the former to combat the latter." 


Good power and bad power!!!! Really???? In my book power is not separable into good and bad. Also, in my book, power is a reality of how humanity operates but is not a development aspiration.

Maybe Gandhi, Luther-King and Mandela harnessed good power (what about Che Guevara, Trotsky, Aung San Suu Kyi*...?). Surely, I tell myself, the women’s empowerment project I work with is harnessing "good power". However power is that dark material that humanity can neither harness nor understand. Its just power, integral not separable into good and bad. Wanting the power in my hands to always be only the good stuff doesn't help. Humans can't control power.  Once unfettered it runs its own wild course.

"Enduring Freedom"  Photo: US DoD, public domain.

Here is the horrific photo: a young blonde woman in camos looking quintessentially American- alive, determined and white. Using rubber gloves to avoid contaminating herself by contact with the rest of humanity she's distributing water. The objects of her ministrations,  downcast blindfolded brown men in orange jumpsuits, hands tied are indeed  enduring US' version of freedom.

Everyone's power is good power. At least that's what they tell others-and themselves. Here's an image of a woman- young blonde and empowered. A century ago she would not have been allowed to vote. Today she's not only helped choose her government but  has also chosen to 'serve' it in a military career. All good, no? Hmmm.... handing out water to new arrivals at Camp X-Ray has her. holding all the aces in the middle of a  picture dripping with bad power. Its like that with power- the line between good and bad finer than that between "water" and "waterboard". Torture in Guantanamo  goes  under the name "Operation Enduring Freedom" perhaps because its designed for American citizens to enjoy their freedom even as others endure it.

Not long ago Pol-Pot told Cambodians to use power to reboot society for the good of all. He called it "Year Zero". Last century blond Aryans used power (their Führer told them it was good) to push Jews into trains. This century high caste Indians use power to keep low caste Indians in their "(God-given" they say) place. Today all over the world factory workers give jobs to illegal immigrants who would otherwise not find work... and pay them inhuman wages. Shortly after the horrors in Europe Jews got a nation- and power. Now young Israelis facing Palestinians tell themselves (they have to) the guns in their hands represent good power, while stones  in their opponents' are symbols of bad power.  Young Americans in Guantanamo Bay  do the same.They are able to torture because they know their victims, though charged of no crime, are bad people- as certified by their Vice-president: "The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantánamo are bad people. I mean… Cheney 2005 "Bad people"! DIck and George (good people) authorized good American kids to use "enhanced interrogation techniques"  (good power), waterboards and all. Despite his promises Nobel Peace laureate, lawyer and Christian Barak Obama, (definitely cool, certainly powerful, surely good?) never got that uncorked genie of power back in its bottle. Instead he added US drone strikes against other bad people in bad parts of the world. 

Who can appropriately deploy good power and keep it from going bad? Who can even tell good and bad power apart? Not Dick Cheney, Not Barak Obama. Not Robert Mugabe, shining light of disempowered blacks' struggle against white repression in Rhodesia who became the darkest of dictators in Zimbabwe. Not an Indian father who sends his son to school,  but not his daughter. Not soldiers who liberate a country and rape aid workers. Not the Australian government which protects the interests of a nation of immigrants (or recent descendants of) by herding asylum seekers into inhuman offshore holding pens. Not a high-caste Indian.  Not me when with my wife and children, I use power- so often badly.  Not Duncan Green. Not anyone.

"Good power against bad power" buys into an endless cycle. I need development to be  something more inspiring, something transformative.

Disillusioned I replied:

 Thanks Duncan,  for taking the time to reply.

I disagree- but I am an 8 on the ennyagram,,, Would love to explore ideas with you, but this kind of stuff never goes well in e-mail. The only way would be a yarn over a good coffee (or beer)-  and that ain’t going to happen.

Hasta la vista




Post script:*  I wrote this piece when I still adulated Aung San Suu Kyi, before news of her silence and probable collusion in the awful ethnic cleansing of Myanmar's Rohingya people came out. It is even more pertinent now that this extraordinary and flawed leader is in the list of humans who found power in their hands but were unable to control it JM 9-9-17


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