Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Introduction to Bertrand Russell's Power: A New Social Analysis - Samuel Brittan


A large part of this book is concerned with the classification of different sources of power:- such as priestly, kingly, revolutionary or economic power. Russell's aim is to investigate how we can enjoy the advantages of state power, to prevent the Hobbesian war of all against all, while taming its excesses. Few people will go to Russell for illumination on economic matters. But even here he provides a healthy reminder that the right to ownership is ultimately based on violence, or if you like, legitimate violence. This is something that mainstream economists, in their absorption with soluble models, are in danger not so much in disputing as of overlooking. A little bit of political economy might have helped Russell in his prime object of analysing power. In a competitive free enterprise democracy a wealthy man has the power to obtain a goat if he wishes. Power in this sense is virtually synonymous with wealth. But he cannot force a particular human being to hand over a particular animal. He must go to the market place and find a willing seller. There is here a vital difference between power over commodities and power over human beings. As Keynes put it at the end of his General Theory (which appeared in 1936): it is better that a rich man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow men. Russell nearly arrives at this point when he states that oligarchies of the rich have on the whole been enlightened and astute, citing in particular the Republic of Venice. "Money made in commerce is made by cleverness which is not dictatorial, and this characteristic is displayed by governments composed by successful merchants." But he then throws the argument away by moving over to the modern industrial magnate, supposedly leading armies of employees who need to be coerced. Russell was influenced by the widespread belief in the 1930s that the way ahead in capitalist countries was through larger and larger business trusts and that technology and nationalism were eroding old fashioned competition. Writing when he did he had more excuse than today's anti-globalisers, who have failed to appreciate the half century of increased competition and the erosion of barriers to international trade in the aftermath of World War Two. Like Hobbes, Russell is convinced that political force is required to protect people from tearing each other to pieces; but unlike him he regards the best bet as democracy. He is not starry-eyed about it and disputes the now fashionable, wrong-headed, doctrine that democracies never wage aggressive war. Democracy has the limited virtue of making government pay some attention to the welfare of their subjects - only some. But he shows the temper of his time in suggesting that democracy has little chance of becoming entrenched in eastern Europe and Asia.


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