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The nature of political power

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In politics, power is referred to as the ability of the ruler to dissuade the ruled from doing something they want to do or to persuade them to do something they refuse to do. Referencing Robert MacIver’s work The Web of Government, Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, defines political power as “the total authority, influence, pressure and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power holder.”

An example of this would be the tussle between the Pakistan army and the rights-based movement called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM. The army is using its power to get PTM leadership to give up its peaceful resistance “against” the state.  The DG Inter-Services Public Relations Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor a few weeks ago while threatening PTM leaders said, “Their (PTM’s) time is up.” This is the language of power or political power.

But what is the real essence of power and how does it work?

Normally, when people think of power, they think of armed forces, weapons and other means that governments employ to subdue their subjects or other nations. This view of power is what Gene Sharp calls the “monolith theory” of power. It assumes that “the power of a government is a relatively fixed quantum (i.e. “a discrete unit quantity of energy”), a “given,” a strong, independent, durable (if not indestructible), self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating force.” In other words, in this view, the people are at the mercy of the goodwill, decisions and support of their government or other hierarchical systems.

The monolith theory equates power with physical might that is almost unalterable and unbreakable unless countered by a mightier physical force. In Sharp’s view, it is this idea that underlies most political violence, wars and the possession of nuclear weapons.

This view of power has undermined an alternative theory that Sharp calls the “pluralistic-dependency theory” of nonviolent action. This view is the converse of the monolith theory because it assumes that “governments depend on people, that power is pluralistic (as it rises from many parts of society), and that political power is fragile because it depends on many groups for reinforcement of its power sources.”

The monolith theory overlooks the fact that political power consists in outside sources  such as authority (the ruler’s right to command and be obeyed), human resources (persons who obey and assist the ruler), skills and knowledge (of such persons to meet the needs of the ruler), intangible psychological and ideological factors (such as obedience by the ruled, and common faith and ideology that affect the power of the ruler in relation to the people), material resources (that the ruler controls to their advantage) and finally sanctions to enforce obedience of the subjects.

Sharp argues that the effectiveness of these sources, in turn, depends on obedience. And obedience should be loyal not forced. It is also important to make the distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability or the capacity to rule but authority is the right, that people give to the ruler, to command. When the ruler loses authority in the eyes of the ruled, then the sheer use of force and coercion may not command obedience. Sharp contends that “Because authority must by definition be voluntarily accepted by the people, the authority of the ruler will depend upon the goodwill of the subjects and will vary as the goodwill varies.”

The utter use of force can not command obedience when the authority weakens or collapses. He asserts, “The weakening or collapse of that authority inevitably tends to loosen the subjects’ predisposition toward obedience. Obedience will no longer be habitual; the decision to obey or not to obey will be made consciously, and obedience may be refused.”

The obedience of the subject is the most important single quality of any government and thus, in Sharp’s words, “obedience is at the heart of political power.” People obey the ruler because of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest and other factors but their obedience is not a given and hence not inevitable.

Building on Jouvenel’s argument in On Power, Sharp claims that “At any given point in a given society there are limits within which a ruler must stay if his commands are to be obeyed. These limits are subject to change throughout the history of a society.” Finally, quoting Russell (Power), he notes, “Obedience can be enforced only while the mass of men are in some sort of agreement with the law. There is no lack of examples of opposition and successful opposition, to government decision.”

Keeping the pluralistic view of political power in mind, the best course of action for the government in Pakistan, especially the army, is to sit with PTM leaders and negotiate the movement’s demands with them. The use of physical force has been tried in the past year, and the result has been the further mushrooming of PTM. When people refuse to be suffered by the threat of sanctions i.e. when threats do not affect their mind and emotions, physical compulsion becomes ineffective. Compelling people by force  to obey “rules” is not obedience and can never be permanent. The Pakistan army knows this. But the good news is that PTM also knows their power. And they should continue to resist,  for there is no going back now.





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