March 17, 2003

The innards of power

What I hate most from some protesters and activists in the antiwar movement is their defective conception of how power actually works inside the Bush Administration, their stereotypical and caricatured vision of their opponents.

I understand: it’s a political tactic. Ridicule makes good agitprop, or so they think. Just on that score alone, I think they’d better think again. George Bush may actually be strengthened by the constant drumbeat of portrayals of him as stupid, because it helps him do the usual populist judo-throw of dismissing his opponents as effete Eastern eggheads and crackpot college students. Anti-intellectualism runs deep in America.

Caricature also makes many folks uncomfortable: it seems unkind, overwrought, hysteric. It’s ok when it comes from David Letterman or Conan O’Brien: they’re paid to do this stuff. As a weapon in the streets, I wonder about its effectiveness.

What really worries me, however, is that at least some antiwar activists I encounter seem to believe wholeheartedly in a conspiratorial interpretation of how the White House actually works on a day-to-day basis. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other officials are depicted as always knowing what they want to have happen and always doing what exactly what they need to get what they want. Everything is a plan, everything is instrumental, everything goes according to script, and there is perfect unanimity between all parts of the administration. It all locks perfectly in place.

In a more scholarly context, I tend to characterize this view as “power always knows what it needs, and always does exactly what it should to satisfy its needs”, with the usual corollary being that if the powerful do not get what they want, it is because they were opposed. If you want a tremendously sophisticated and often interesting example of this way of thinking, Perry Anderson’s essay in the London Review of Books is a pretty good read. For Anderson, everything that is happening now is part of the same seamless design, even much of the opposition to the war. (I clearly fall under the heading of a 'prudential opponent' who is part of the problem, not the solution, in Anderson's eyes.)

This is simply wrong as an empirical depiction of the ethnographic reality of power. No, I don’t have a bug under the table in the Oval Office. But once upon a time, there was such a bug, placed ever-so-kindly by a gent named Richard Nixon. Now that the question of what Nixon knew and when he knew it is part of the past, the transcripts of his taped conversations and meetings are a treasure trove for historians and anthropologists. Not just for students of the Nixon Administration, but for anyone who wants to know more about how power actually works on the inside.

Reading the transcripts, you sometimes see the conspiratorial, instrumental side of power. Sometimes Nixon and his aides saw the political chessboard clearly and acted forcefully (and illegally or illicitly) to move the pieces according to a grand design. Yes, the transcripts also show that they had more information and more tools to act with than Joe Schmoe on the street: that’s what power is in a nutshell. But far more often, they were fumbling in the dark just as much as anyone else, sharing crackpot theories, going off onto weird tangents, toying with idiosyncratic hypotheses about why events were unfolding as they were, and enunciating contradictory or confusing directions. Sometimes the transcripts are like an echo chamber of Richard Nixon’s labrythine mind and sometimes they are like a bull session between a bunch of middle managers gathered around the water cooler.

This is not the only fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the interior of power available to us. Working in the Zimbabwe National Archives and other archives, I have often read documents that record some inner aspect of deliberations between colonial officials, and similar patterns appear. Sometimes they’re chillingly directed and forceful, but most of the time, they reveal confused men trying to sort out situations they barely understand with imperfect tools that they use badly, if at all.

What does this mean for the Iraq War? Simply this: we do not know for certain what is going on inside the inner circle of power, but we dare not assume it is dictated by some relentless service to a rigorously instrumental goal that is clearly perceived by all of the men and women making policy, that they are power acting as power ought to achieve the things that power wants.

Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice: they’re all human, too. I am not being a carebear, embracing them in a warm and fuzzy hug. Humans can err and prevaricate and commit knowing misdeeds. Humans can be monsters or they can just be bumblers. But any theory about why they are doing this that begins and ends with an assumption that they are not humans just like us is a non-starter. Any representation of their thinking that depends upon them being god-like in the clarity and perfection or their knowledge, or demonic in their ability to completely ignore or commission human suffering, is foolish. They are not homo omnipotentus, a different species.

The question of “why” matters enormously. There are reasonable working hypotheses out there. Personally, I favor the proposition that this is a kind of hubris, that Wolfowitz and Perle actually believe in the “democratic domino theory” and are carrying out a geopolitical experiment on its behalf with all the good intentions in the world. There may be many other motives and ideas, some of them contradictory, some venal, some foolish, some pragmatic. Some of the people in the administration may even wish they hadn’t gotten themselves into this mess but see no way out of the corner they painted themselves into.

If we’re going to talk about the “why”, we have to be talking about human beings. We have to have the same open ethnographic curiosity we bring to the question of why people in general do the things they do. Because only with this kind of understanding do we have any hope of seeing at least some avenues of escape, some possibilities for redeeming the blunder we are now embarked upon, some chance to connect with the interior of power.