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Bertrand de Jouvenel on Power

Bertrand de Jouvenel on Power

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Published by: Ana Tanase on Aug 12, 2010
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Bertrand De Jouvenel (1893-1987)
On Power, Its Nature and theHistory of Its Growth
Book by Bertrand de Jouvenel, D. W. Brogan, J. F.Huntington; Viking Press, 1949
Original title: Du pouvoir: Histoire naturelle de sacroissance
1. The mystery of civil obedience. 2. The historical character of obedience. 3. Statics and dynamics of obedience. 4. Obedience linkedto credit.
AFTER describing in his lost treatises on Constitutions the variousgovernmental structures of a large number of different societies,Aristotle, in the
, reduced them all to three basic types:monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The characteristics of thesethree types, in the various mixtures in which they were found inpractice, accounted for all the forms of Power which had come underhis observation.Ever since then political science, or what passes for such, hasfollowed obediently in the footsteps of the master. The discussion of the different forms of Power is always with us because, there being inevery society a centre of control, everyone is naturally interested inthe questions of its powers, its organization, and its conduct.There is, however, another phenomenon that also deserves someconsideration: the fact that over every human community therereigns a government at all. The differences between forms of government in different societies and the changes of form within thesame society are but the accidents, to borrow the terminology of philosophy, of the same essence. The essence is Power. And we maywell break off from inquring into
what is the best form
of Power-frompolitical ethics--to ask
what is the essence
of Power--to construct apolitical metaphysic.The problem may also be looked at from another angle, which permitsof a simpler statement of it. At all times and in all places we areconfronted with the phenomenon of civil obedience. An order issuedby Power gets obeyed by the community at large. When Poweraddresses itself to a foreign state, the weight behind its words is inproportion to its own ability to make itself obeyed and win from thatobedience the means of action. It all turns on that obedience. Whoknows the reasons for that obedience knows the inner nature of Power.
Another point is that, as history shows, obedience has certain limitswithin which Power must keep, just as there is a limit to the amountof a society's resources which it can take for its own. These limits, asobservation shows us, do not remain static throughout the history of a society. For example, the Capetian
 Kings could not impose directtaxation, and the Bourbons could not exact military service.The fraction or quantum of a society's resources which Power cantake for its own is theoretically measurable. Clearly it is strictlyproportioned to the quantum of obedience. And these variations in theresources available to Power are the measure of its own extent. Weare safe in saying that the more completely Power can control theactions of the members of society and turn their resources to its uses,the greater is Power's extent.
The study of the successive variationsin its resources is to consider the history of Power by reference to itsextent--a very different thing from the history usually written of it, byreference to its forms.These variations in the extent of Power, considered as a function of the age of a society, could be represented in the form of a graph. Willthe curve run in capricious indentations, or will its general direction besufficiently defined to enable us to speak of Power being subject to alaw of development in the society in question? Taking the latterhypothesis to be true, and also taking the view that human history, inso far as it has come down to us, is but the arrangement in theirorder of the successive histories of big societies or civilizations (intothe formation of which smaller ones have gone), all carried forwardon the same impulse, then we may easily conceive that the curves of Power in all these big societies will probably show a certain similarityto each other and that to examine them may throw some light on thecourse taken by civilizations. The start of our inquiry will be anattempt to penetrate to the es-
The Capetian dynasty ruled in France from 987 to 1328.
What the author has here in mind can be pictured as a mathematicalrelationship: , thenumerator and the denominator both being variables by reference to time andcircumstance. The study of this relationship is the main purpose of the book.This mathematical view of the matter may help to clarify the author's meaning,but it must not be supposed that the fraction can at any given moment beaccurately quantified, though the proportion of the national income taken intaxation and the proportion of the nation's manpower taken in conscriptionwould always be serviceable indications.
sence of Power. It may be that we shall not succeed in in it, nor issuccess absolutely necessary to our purpose, for what we are reallyafter is the relation, to put it broadly, of Power to society, the formerbeing considered as a function of the latter. And these two we canregard, if we have to, as unknown variables of which nothing can begrasped but the relationship between them. But history, when all issaid, cannot be reduced in this way to an affair of mathematics. Andwe must not neglect whatever aids our vision.
The High School of our species, curiosity, requires the unusual forits awakening. Just as it took prodigies, eclipses, or comets, to startour distant ancestors inquiring into the structure of the universe, so inour time crises have been needed for the birth of an economic science,and thirty millions of unemployed for it to become widespread. If theyhappen every day, then the most surprising events do not act on ourintelligences. Hence it is, no doubt, that so little thought has beengiven to the amazing faculty for obedience of groupings of men,whether numbering thousands or millions, which causes them to obeythe rules and orders of a few.It needs only an order for the tumultuous flood of vehicles whichthroughout a vast country kept to the left to change sides and keep tothe right. It needs only an order for an entire people to quit theirfields, their workshops, and their offices, and flock to barracks.Discipline on such a scale as this [said Necker] must astound any manwho is capable of reflection. This obedience on the part of a very largenumber to a very small one is a thing singular to observe andmysterious to think on
.To Rousseau the spectacle of Power recalls "Archimedes sitting calmlyon the shore and effortlessly launching a large ship."
 Anyone who has ever started a small society for some special objectknows well the propensity of its members, even though they haveentered of their own accord into a voluntary engagement for apurpose to which they attach importance, to leave the society in thelurch. We may, then, well feel surprise at the docility of men in theirdealings with a large society.Someone says, "Come," and come we do. Someone says, "Go," andgo we do. We give obedience to the tax-gatherer, to the policeman,and to the sergeant-major. As it is certain that it is not before them-19- that we bow down, it must be before the men above them, eventhough, as often happens, we despise their characters and suspecttheir designs.What, then, is the nature of their authority over us? Is it because theyhave at their disposal the means of physical coercion and are strongerthan ourselves that we yield to them? It is true that we go in fear of the compulsion which they can apply to us. But to apply it they musthave the help of a veritable army of underlings. We have still toexplain where they get this army and what secures them their fidelity:in that aspect Power appears to us in the guise of a small societycommanding a larger.It is, however, far from being the case that Power has always had atits disposal a vast apparatus of coercion. Rome, for instance, as it wasfor many centuries, had no permanent officials; no standing army setfoot inside its walls, and its magistrates had but a few lictors to dotheir will. The only force of which Power then disposed to restrain anindividual member of the community was what it drew from thecommunity as a whole.Would it, then, be true to say that Power owes its efficaciousness tofeelings, not of fear, but of partnership? That a group of humanbeings has a collective mind, a national genius, and a general will?And that its government is the personification of the group, the publicexpression of its mind, the embodiment of its genius, and thepromulgation of its will? So that the mystery of obedience dissolvesbeneath the fact that we are in reality only obeying ourselves? Thathas been the explanation favoured by our men of law; its vogue hasbeen assisted both by the double meaning of the word "state" and byits conformity with certain usages of our day. The expression "state"comprises two very different meanings. First, it denotes anyorganized society with an autonomous government: in that sense weare all members of a state and we are the state. But the word alsomeans the governmental machine in that society. In that sense themembers of a state are those with a share of Power and they are thestate. The proposition that the state, meaning thereby thegovernmental machine, rules a society is nothing more than a truism;but once inject surreptitiously its other meaning into the word "state,"and the proposition becomes the quite unproven one that the societyis ruling itself. What we have here is, clearly, a piece of unconsciousselfdeception. The reason why it is not too flagrant for concealment is-20-

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