The COVID crisis is revealing many things, including (for some, at least) a truth about the nature of power. Hint: it’s partly connected to that interesting category of people, the previously-ignored but now newly-discovered “essential workers.”
Before we go further, let me offer here some contrarian notions about power, drawing from the work of my friend Fred Dewey, author of The School of Public Life and a keen student of the thought of Hannah Arendt:
- Power is actually the easiest thing, for it is what we already have. It could be said to be found “lying in the streets.”
- We are taught, on the other hand, that we do not have power, that we must work to get it, that other people have it.
- But power cannot be taken from us: it exists between all of us, not potentially but inherently. It is what keeps every system, society, and situation going.
- Power is not violence, force, control, domination, or confusion. It is not resistance or protest. It is the opposite of all these things. It is the power to fix and repair our social world, in cooperation, with all our differences.
- Power is therefore found in the political, a category of action which we have almost entirely lost.
- Every day, power is made to appear as if we do not have it by the forces of deception and deflection. Repeatedly, we are talked out of our power. And yet nothing could go on at all without it and us.
Why is it always to hard for us to find and exercise power? Because (as Fred Dewey argues) it is hard to see what is real: that we are the ones who keep everything going.
This is what Rosa Parks knew when she initiated the historic Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, not merely because (as she is often quoted) she was “tired” but because she was “tired of giving in.” In fact, Parks, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, had completed a course in non-violent resistance at the Highlander School shortly before her act of resistance. She was fully aware that her assertion of power might inspire others to pick up power, as in fact they did over this first, year-long mass protest in civil rights history launched a few days after her refusal.
And as the recent multi-racial and global protests against the killing of George Floyd have demonstrated, power is indeed lying in the streets, waiting for us to pick it up. Putting it another way, power (in Hannah Arendt’s definition) is found where we come together, in the space of public appearance, a kind of space in which we have been sorely lacking, long before the pandemic sent us all indoors.
And picking up power does indeed change the world. Miraculously in the last few months, tens of millions of people in the streets has created–publicly and in full view–a wave of changes, both small and large, in both public perception of the solidarity around racial justice and in reforms of various kinds around policing and the criminal justice system.
Why has this recent experience of power felt so exceptional? Because for many decades, our public realm has been both devalued and privatized. Genuine politics–meaning, us, the people, gathered together to debate and decide, face to face–has been disappeared, made non-existent. Our political parties, our financial system, our polarized media sources all exercise a kind of violence against reality and truth in order to create an ideological hyper-reality. As Dewey phrases it, “fiction, not power, corrupts.”
Self-government, the claiming of our power, is merely to take what we have. It’s to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement about the foundation of freedom and power: “All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” We must restring this network and recognize that if we can simply learn to trust each other again, we have everything we need to build the blessed community we all yearn for.