Dubious Categories

The ANATOMY OF POWER by John Kenneth Galbraith. Houghton Mifflin, $15.95.
ORIGINALITY LOOKS feckless to the tired mind. So John Kenneth Galbraith, in the foreword to his new book, puts Machiavelli’s ideas among those “I do not find useful.” The words instill a premonition soon confirmed: we are dealing with a tired book.
As an admirer of Galbraith’s earlier work, including his recent autobiography, I had never understood those who say that he considers arch language a substitute for thought. But here, at least, Galbraith himself makes me understand the criticism. He lists as his private discovery three categories of power, whose rationale is mainly that of alliteration: power condign, compensatory, and conditioned. Since the words as he uses them do not mean what they seem to, Galbraith can explain their willed ambiguity under the pretense that he is exploring the elusive nature of power itself.
The adjective condign means suitable; but since it is often used with the noun “punishment,” Galbraith decides that it should mean “punitive.” A doctor might as well proclaim a medical advance because he prescribes aspirin for “splittings” rather than “headaches.” Compensatory power would most naturally be taken as a redressing power—what Galbraith has called, in other places, countervailing power. But since the phrase “workmen’s compensation” has been used for forms of pay, he makes it mean the power to pay or reward. The third term, conditioned power, is the most convoluted. In normal English, this should mean limited power, power held on conditions. But Galbraith, by heroic ellipsis, makes it mean power that arises from the conditioning of those over whom the power is exercised.
Turn now to one of Machiavelli’s worthier successors, David Hume: “It is therefore on opinion only that government is founded. . . . Opinion is of two kinds; to wit, opinion of interest, and opinion of right.” People submit to power because it profits them, or because they feel they ought to submit. Opinion of interest covers, roughly, Galbraith’s first two forms of power—response to threats of punishment and promises of pay. And opinion of right can be forced into some approximation of “conditional” power—people obey if they are conditioned to obedience. But Hume sees that power rises from the people paid and not from the man paying; their concept of adequate pay is the test of the power that can be exerted over them. The largest cash sum in the world cannot buy a man whose opinion of reward is different from the payer’s—if, for instance, the currency he deals in is honor, or attachment to ancestral land, or fear of another person, or fear of the afterlife. Men act from interest, but have different opinions of what really serves their interest.
Consider the reversals of power we witnessed in 1973. President Nixon entered his second term after a landslide electoral victory, intent on remaking government, possessed of many (if not all) of the tools for carrying out that intent. Congress was debilitated. Then, almost overnight, power drained from the President, filling up those startled and unlikely new receptacles, the members of the House Judiciary Committee.
What had happened to shift power about so drastically? The office of the presidency had not changed, nor its legal authority. Its resources, physical and propagandistic, were intact, and the person of its holder had not changed. What changed, and swiftly, was the belief that President Nixon could and should remake government, as a legitimate exercise, for the public advantage.
Suddenly, the House had power to impeach. Not because of any alteration in the Constitution, where de jure authori-
zation had existed all along, as a dead letter. The people wielding power had not changed—Chairman Peter Rodino, riding the air shuttle, read Raoul Berger’s book on impeachment behind a blank paper cover, afraid to let it be known that he might consider so huge an exercise of constitutional prerogative. Opinion was forcing him to be powerful, as in Rousseau’s saying that people must be forced to be free.
Galbraith would no doubt place Henry Adams’s treatment of the Virgin and the dynamo among “the ideas I do not find useful.” That leaves him free to write;
In the Middle Ages there could have been little talk or thought of power. It was massively possessed only by the prince, the baron, and the priest. . . . For the silent masses, powerlessness was the natural order of things. Power was not discussed because only a tiny minority of the people exercised it.
The Virgin generated power as visible in its effects as the power of the dynamo in Adams’s time. What drained the power from her? A change in the opinion of her worshipers. So power was derived from the “powerless” even at that time. According to Adams, plugging into the cosmic energies of the Virgin was more satisfying than drawing electrical energy from a dynamo; the one form of power enlarged its user, the other diminished him—which was part of the pathos of historical progress that haunted Adams. Here was a comparison that worked in only one direction. Diana of the Ephesians could be considered an “animated dynamo,” but the dynamo could never become a goddess, hard as Adams tried to pray to it. “Radium denied its God. . . . All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.”
Galbraith tries to describe something like the pathos Adams discerned in the modern world; but he lacks the intellectual instruments required, because he will not depend on his betters. He thinks that alienation from power is caused by the shrinking of two sources of it—personality and property—and the corresponding growth of a third: organization. It is typical of Galbraith that he sees the historical change as depriving us of two channels for assertion, not as an alteration in kinds of submission.
Galbraith’s three sources of power are forcibly yoked to his three alliterative categories of power—personality to the condign, property to the compensatory, and organization to the conditioned. Having created these arbitrary categories, he must labor to escape them—noting, for instance, that personality was mainly connected with punishment at the outset of the historical process, though now it is more often associated with conditioned power (which belongs to a different “source”).
Galbraith is so afraid of cliché that he explains his useless categories in affectedly original language, dandiacal and periphrastic. Instead of saying that we should keep a shrewd eye on the military, he tells us: “The aggregate of the power so exercised should never be dismissed from the more available mind.”For “frequently” he gives us (frequently) “in frequent case.”Instead of saying that things have changed, he does this little dance: “Meanwhile a new order has arrived and has the modern relevance.”
Those who think of power as mainly assertion have come at their subject from the wrong end. Galbraith’s own performance shows us why. Because of the sheer assertion of his will over words, he loses the power to persuade. By a paradox that Machiavelli could have explained to him, one must yield in order to prevail: “You must woo the inhabitants to acquire their country.” ­