Thursday, July 2, 2009



Power interests me because it pervades our lives. In many cases, we do not even perceive oppressive power relationships because they are everywhere. We accustom ourselves to them. We subject ourselves to them, even unconsciously. Most conspicuously, we live under certain public powers. There is overt public power, as when government cracks down on protests or visibly executes a condemned man. There is also subtle public power, as when tax collectors privately pursue individuals who do not have money to pay their tax bill. Government holds its power over us by threatening legal compulsion: Either we obey rules or it inflicts pain on our bodies and property. This is how public power operates.

But all exercises in public power pale in comparison to the ingenious methods designed to serve private power. As pervasive as government power may be, it still knows boundaries. Despite some glaring exceptions throughout our history, government must always act according to some legal authority that derives from a written, public source. Furthermore, government agents must abide by certain constitutional restrictions when impacting citizens’ bodies, liberty and property. These constitutional restrictions incidentally enforce “governmental decency” on State actors. In short, there are certain things that government simply cannot do. Not so with private actors.

Private power is far more pervasive than public power. The law cannot be everywhere all the time. In fact, the Constitution expressly and impliedly keeps government out of certain spaces and decisions. See, e.g., U.S. Const., Amendments III (no soldiers in private homes), IV (no unreasonable searches or seizures), V (no compelled self-incrimination or land seizures without just compensation), IX (unenumerated rights), XIV ("Due Process liberty," including freedom from "arbitrary government action"). The Constitution also prohibits government from directly regulating men’s minds, thoughts, opinions, beliefs or conscience. See, e.g., U.S. Const. Amendment I. But private power knows no such restrictions. It can freely enter men’s homes, appeal to their conscience and affect their decisions, no matter how intimate. While private power does not always carry legal force, it can deploy the law when it must. It is no exaggeration to say that the law serves private power, not the other way around.

What is private power? Power itself is a nebulous concept. Generally, it refers to one man’s or group’s authority over another man or another group. This, in turn, does not necessarily mean legal authority. It is much broader than that. Power includes the power to impinge on a person’s conscience, to make him feel guilty, to make him change his behavior or to make him feel obligated in any sense. In essence, power subjects: It impresses the object with a sense of “smallness” compared to the person who applies the power. It enforces obedience, as the employer cows the employee. Power is multifaceted. It appears in every context. But there is one prominent commonality in all this variety: Power always involves inequality. Without inequality in advantage, wealth, money or even sexual appeal, power could not break its objects into submission. When it comes to power, there are strong parties and weak parties. The weak party needs something the strong party has. As such, he must modify his behavior to adhere to the strong party’s requirements.

Yet power operates in far subtler ways than naked oppression. After all, if power is too oppressive, its subjects revolt, just as a dog will abandon its master if he is too heavy-handed. Power does not just dominate in a petty or brutish way; it also pervades lives. Consider the employee who awakes every morning knowing that he must appear at his job. Power pervades his life; he needs the paycheck to feed himself and his family. He does not question how he gets it; he surrenders to power and follows its commands. It is unconscious. He does not revolt against it; it is not petty. Power might inspire resentment, but not enough to make him question its basic authority. Resentment or not, power pervades his life and channels his decisions. Or consider the debtor who struggles to pay back his creditor. He lives his economic life knowing that he must fork over a good amount of his earnings to a stronger party who can hurt him if he does not. Power overshadows the debtor’s life as it did the employee’s. It constrains his thoughts and actions. It makes decisions for him. It impacts his freedom. It weakens his will. It subjects him to a “more powerful” decisionmaker. Why? Because he needed something he did not have before. To get it, he surrenders to private power. He pays as much with his soul as he does with his money.

Debt interests me for the same reason that power does. After all, debt relationships express power. Debt is incident to power. If power expresses a relationship between strong and weak parties that includes subtle mental controls, debt is a perfect example. Creditors are strong; they have something the debtor needs. Debtors, by contrast, are weak. They surrender both their souls and their money to get what the creditor has. Even if the debtor takes something worth comparatively little, the creditor relishes his power over the debtor by demanding far more in return. For example, creditors might loan $25,000 to a debtor. In return, the debtor must pay back $37,500 in two years. If he does not, the creditors have a legal right to seize anything the debtor owns to make good the debt. If the debtor succeeds in paying back the creditor, he gets nothing; he merely eludes the pain the creditor might have inflicted had he defaulted. And he actually enriches the creditor in the process. For creditors, it is a win-win situation: If they do not make a profit on the debtor, they can take what they want from him. If they do make a profit, well, who can argue with success? Yet the debtor lives under pressure. He either must enrich the creditor or lose everything. In this sense, we see classic inequality at work: Debtors and creditors face unequal burdens and owe unequal obligations to each other. And only the debtor lives in fear of legal compulsion. The creditor is the one with the real power—the power to force another to give him something or suffer for failing to deliver.

How does power describe its subjects? Language expresses power in an extremely subtle way, for only the powerful have the authority to choose prevailing words. They have the authority to label their subjects with concepts and epithets. They have the authority to channel both meaning and morality against those who defy them. On this point, consider the word creditors use to describe debtors who neglect their obligations: Delinquents. Creditors use the word in a very matter-of-fact way. They send a letter: “The balance due on this account is now delinquent.” The debtor feels morally bad about this result. He feels scolded. And he knows that the creditor now has power to do even more harm. Power functions best when it constrains its subjects’ minds with guilt, shame and obligation. Power uses the word “delinquent” to evoke these negative moral feelings in the “bad” debtor.

But why exactly “delinquent?” What does “delinquency” have to do with repaying money used for some forgotten commercial purchase? After all, etymologically speaking, “delinquency” delivers a strong moral rebuke. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.), “delinquency” stems from the Latin word “delinquentia,” meaning “to leave undone or to commit a fault.” True, the concept involves “leaving something off” or “omitting to do something.” But it also includes a strong moral element. It does not just mean neglect; it means neglect that makes the person morally blameworthy. The definitions bear out this interpretation. “Delinquency,” according to Webster, means not just “1. failure or neglect to do what the law or duty requires,” but also “3. a fault or misdeed.” More to the point, “delinquency” broadly refers to “thorough badness” or even “outlawry,” as we hear in terms such as “perpetual delinquent” or “juvenile delinquent.” Referring to this definition, Webster says that “delinquency” can also mean “behavior…that is antisocial or in violation of the law.” Id. at Definition 4.

In this grammatical light, we see that a “delinquent” is unsalvageable. When we label someone a “delinquent,” we condemn in strong moral terms. A “delinquent” is not just someone who forgets to pay something once in a while. He is a brigand, an outlaw, an irretrievable criminal. He is not just a person who forgets to send in a check for $45.12 every month; he is by nature “antisocial,” commits “faults or misdeeds” and invariably acts “in violation of the law.”

Power consciously controls language in these circumstances. It consciously chooses the word “delinquency” to apply to debt because it wants debtors to feel bad about neglecting their obligations to their superiors. But does failing to pay a bill really render the debtor an “outlaw?” Isn’t this going a bit too far? We all neglect things from time to time. Life submerges us with picayune tasks every day. It is understandable that we might pass one over now and then. From power’s perspective, it is all right to pass over some tasks, but not tasks in which power has an interest, such as a loan payment. You are not an outlaw if you forget to pick up your daughter at school one day, but you are an outlaw if you miss your car payment. Power wants debtors to feel bad about neglecting particular obligations, not all obligations. Specifically, power appeals to the debtor’s conscience when it stands to gain from the debtor. Thus, power cares only for itself; it uses morality and language to enforce obligations that provide benefit. In the abstract, it does not care about “obligation.” It cares only about obligations from which it can derive personal enrichment.

I do not like this at all. We all have a right to use language to express ourselves. No one has authority to selectively alter a word’s meaning to assert his own material dominance over another person. Yet this is precisely what private power does with the word “delinquency;” and no one really seems to notice. Private power has hijacked this word in order to crush its subjects into moral dejection. Why? Because it knows that morally guilty and shameful people are more likely to be obedient and to hand over what it wants. Although morality has very little to do with private commercial dealing, private power injects morality into commercial dealing because it provides additional assurance that it will make a profit. In a strange way, too, it uses morality to remind its subjects who is boss. After all, bosses don’t feel guilt or shame; they are the ones who inflict those feelings on their underlings. Guilt and shame—along with all moral feelings—flow downward. People feel guilty and shameful when they fail to adhere to a standard imposed from above. There is nothing "above" power; power is “the above.” Only those under power can feel guilt and shame. And they are effective weapons to compel allegiance.

Private power is “above” us everywhere. When we actually feel morally bad when we receive “delinquency” letters, we know we’re subjects. Unlike public power, private power does not just impact our bodies and property. It also impacts our deepest moral feelings. That is real, abiding power. That is the kind of power against which revolt is impossible. By comparison, public power and the law are clumsy, imperfect weapons. Private power, on the other hand, is so pervasive and so subtle that is virtually invisible. It influences minds and emotions, not just pocketbooks. And private power prefers it that way: Private. Why attract attention when you don’t need to?

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