** Berle, Adolf A. (1969). Power. New York: Harcourt Brace & World:
This is an outstanding book, in my opinion, and the best examination of power I have found. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print. Although I encourage you to find and read the entire book, perhaps the following notes from my reading may be useful.
Berle had a long and distinguished public career, beginning when he was a member of the American delegation to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference and continuing with service in the administrations of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. He also was a Professor of Law at Columbia University, Chairman of the Board of The Twentieth Century Fund, and wrote many other books and papers.
The book's 603 pages are divided into seven sections. The following notes deal with the three sections I think are most relevant to typical organizations: (a) the two introductory chapters, (b) "Book One - The Laws of Power," and (c) "Book Six - The Decline of Power." The other four sections in the book are more specialized, but also have much good thinking (2- Economic Power, 3- Political Power in the U.S., 4- Judicial Political Power: The Supreme Court of the U.S., and 5- International Power).
I experience this book as an extremely valuable and insightful exposition of many aspects of power, rather than as advocating a particular (possibly oppressive) orientation toward the use of power. The value of the book to me has increased as I have spent additional time with it and with Berle's ideas. I'm impressed with his intellect, insights, and ability to write with clarity and elegance.
Some of the parts I found particularly useful were:
Prologue in Pergamum, just inland from the Aegean coast of Asia Minor (p.3ff): * Altar of Zeus set up c. 226 B.C., rededicated in 190 B.C. for c. the following half-century, Pergamum was perhaps the most brilliant kingdom in the Mediterranean world. Second only to that of Alexandria, its library was the greatest. Its sculpture rivaled that of Athens in the age of Pericles. Its temples reflected its worship of power.
* (p.7) Near Zeus's altar on the Pergamum acropolis lie ruins of the temple of Pallas
Athena; she signified wisdom and the results of thought; she could reason, a capacity not given to
Zeus. He lay with Metis. Earth and Heaven warned him against this: Metis was, they said wiser
than the gods. Her offspring could challenge him and he had best be on his guard. ...So Zeus
swallowed Metis... but thought could not be destroyed. Palas Athena, Metis' daughter, exploded,
fully armed, from the head of Zeus; and thereafter, in an odd love-hate relations she became his
The allegory dramatically expresses one of the laws of power. Truth and reason can challenge power. It is, apparently, impossible to kill or constrain thought and reason. It is, of course, possible to kill the thinker - but his thought remains; it cannot be wiped out. ...Nor can power, if it is to survive, do without thought, wisdom, reason, and knowledge. So it must live with their challenge while using their product.
(p.8) The myth outlines the endless paradox of contest between power and its companion idea system; the endless love-hate between king and priest. The alliance is at once essential and uneasy. Ideas and knowledge threaten the power holder; the priest continually threatens the king. The power holder steadily fears, often contests with, the thinker; frequently he tries to destroy him. On his side, the thinker plots against the power holder; the priest seeks to make himself king. Victory of either over the other is self-destructive. The two forces must coexist. Each is essential to the other; neither can exercise both functions.
(p.10) (gazing again across the Aegean Sea) we discover a third ever-present element in the exercise of power. Its divinity is Apollo, god of the lyre, father of the Muses, symbol of artistic force.
Historically, power has always sought the assistance of the arts. Why, it is difficult to tell. ...(11) we find power associated invariably with two external forces: a system of ideas and, more hesitantly, a system of art. One of the fascinations of the study of power lies in the fact that artists and thinkers, will they, nill they, never fully accept power. Yet they are never fulfilled except under conditions only power can create.
(11) Power, wielded by its holders, was a developed fact when known history begins. (13) History ...records how uneasy the coexistence is between the power system and the idea system. ...(14) But a companion constant in history is the fact that where the priest takes over power, or, alternatively, where the king takes over the religion, the system explodes or decays. ...(14) Well, power can decree a dogma, and perhaps men can be made to swallow it, but power cannot make acquired characteristics hereditary, and empiric evidence presently will establish that fact. Then the knowledge and the conclusion drawn from it will cease to be valid. Power systems attempting to rely on invalid knowledge are bound to get into trouble. ...(15) Conversely, when the priest becomes power holder, he fares little better. Power invariably involves dealing with realities. The priest-become-king cannot impose the absolutes of his religion on the affairs of the day. He must adjust to the fact that soldiers can go only so far; that an economic system can support only so many people; that men, armies, and the forces of production do not come into existence merely because he asks the gods to provide them. ...(15) The king cannot for long be high priest; the religious leader cannot for long be ruler. The two callings are incompatible. If there are exceptions to this rule, I have not encountered them.
(17) Power and love are the two oldest known phenomena of human emotions. Neither wholly yields to rational discussion; poets have as good insights as philosophers. ...The literature of power is surprisingly scant. Perhaps it is natural that power comes off second best. Love is intensely personal and might be expected to interest everyone. Power, though also personal, is most dramatic when intensely political; its political aspects overshadow the personal dramas it causes.
(18) Current American thinking has regarded power as a dirty subject, and desire for its possession a naughty emotion... In point of fact, an element of power is essential to every human development above the level of Robinson Crusoe on his island. But power, wherever found and at whatever level, is capable of abuse.
(19) In the U.S., we have made a discovery. We are coming to understand, slowly, that property and power are essentially the same substance - although in different phases of distribution. ...Property changes its form and aggregates its power elements as great collectives... increasingly carry on production...
(21) Power... is both subjective - an aspect of human experience - and objective - a fact in society. Like love, it can be intensely personal. Or it can be vastly and diffusively inclusive. It is also a universal human experience. Few individuals have not had and exercised some of it in their lives... (25) I propose ...that what happened yesterday ... will continue to happen five thousand years hence (that we can learn from and project from the past to the future)
(19) When the greatest single study of power on record - Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince - was written, the subject seemed comparatively understandable... A modern Machiavelli has to follow power endlessly divided, subdivided, maintained, and applied through thousands of institution The subject has thus become more complex. Yet it is the same story.
(28ff) Machiavelli, a frustrated government servant, exiled at the age of 44, living penuriously outside Florence from the year 1513, where he wrote The Prince, a detached treatise on the method by which dictatorial power was got or held, which he hoped would get him a new job in the Florentine government, then dominated by his enemy Lorenzo de 'Medici.
What Machiavelli did have was a powerful sense of the necessity of order. ...But a major consideration was left out. Without a system of law or morals, there is no way by which institutions can be built or power transmitted.
(30) In justice to Machiavelli, he was not attempting a theory of power; he was writing a manual of renaissance politics. ...There is a danger of taking Machiavelli more seriously than he intended. His doctrine outlined rules of action for power holders who were not princes but businessmen.
(31) It is quite another proposition to say that power is inherently evil, dangerous, or useless. Actually, power is an essential ingredient at every level of human organization. ...Power, ... is governed by the same laws in any situation, great or small, and wherever found. (32) The cases of Stalin and Ford can be duplicated ...Absolute power holders... do become mad and have been destroyed with wearing frequency. ...Unlike Nietzsche, we shall find that power is rarely, if ever, a force by itself. Nietzsche, like the Marquis de Sade, who anticipated some of his doctrines, ended in a madhouse - the only possible result of a religion of power for its own sake. The interplay between power and its institutions and the idea system and its impact - the continuing duel between Zeus and Metis (Thought) and, after her, Palas Athena (Intellect) - is constant.
BOOK ONE: THE LAWS OF POWER
The overall organization of this section is around "five natural laws of power, which he offers as testable" (37):
Law I. Power invariably fills any vacuum in human organization (between chaos and power, the latter always prevails):
Law II. Power Is Invariably Personal (59)
Law III. Power is Invariably Based on a System of Ideas or Philosophy (84)
Law IV. Power is Exercised Through, and Depends on, Institutions (92)
Law V. Power Is Invariably Confronted with, and Acts in the Presence of, a Field of Responsibility (115)
VI. Concluding Section: The Higher Criticism
BOOK SIX: THE DECLINE OF POWER
(533) We began our study of power at the altar of Zeus on the high acropolis of Pergamum. ...In their brief but brilliant era, the rulers of Pergamum gave order and law to most of Asia Minor and doctrine and learning to much of the world of history. All aspects of Pergamese power had been concentrated on that rock cap, today a majestic mass of ruins overlooking an insignificant Turkish town. Comparable meeting of power cannot be had in the twentieth-century world, certainly not in the most powerful single nation, the United States....
(534) Implacable, it seems, the balance of twentieth-century currents undermines the possibility of concentrated power. Power exists, as it always has, but fragmented, lodged among men administering all manner of diverse institutions - political, commercial, military, educational - and is subdivided among and within each of these. Yet strangely and paradoxically, never has power been more urgently invoked, perhaps, than at present.
Above all, it is sought most passionately by those who attack it as an undefined "power structure," when their desires or ideals are frustrated, their grievances unattended, their possibilities unrealized. Intellectuals cry out against it even as they silently cherish (and sometimes express) their wish that a locus of power may come into being whose fiat will make their dreams real. Humbler people, finding life difficult and unfair, demand that an abstraction, the "state," legislate more gracious and tolerable conditions. Rarely, perhaps, has there been such yearning for a center of power to which appeal can be made, and that is capable of making changes in conditions and altering the course of events.
(535) The notable fact of contemporary history is that power finds ultimate embodiment in men directing states - this means in heads of political institutions. But these chiefs, principal bearers of power, have sunk from rulers to administrators. They must devise, plead, and persuade more often than they command. As always, men seek and enjoy power when they can get it. Having it, they nevertheless work in a climate of conditions essentially adverse to power holders.
(536) Though power holders did not and do not replace prophets, popes, priests, or philosophers, another group in some measure now occupies part of the ecclesiastical territory. These are the scientists and their children, the technicians... But they refuse to represent either god or state, though they may believe in the former and sometimes serve the latter.
(537) Monopoly of political, spiritual, and intellectual resources is now impossible... Legendary Zeus may have sensed his downfall when Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to men. Prometheus could be chained, but fire was irrevocably loose among men, for each to make of it what he chose.
(538) Meanwhile, the religions, the philosophies, the idea systems on which power institutions have been based cease to have that passionate hold on the minds and hearts of men which reinforced the older power systems...
Each power holder must therefore choose - or develop - his own philosophy, and attain acceptance of it as best he can... So each power holder constructs or adopts or at least professes his own philosophy or religion, necessarily drawing heavily on the inheritance and tradition of the nation he governs, the corporation he runs, the school he administers, or the family he guides.
Plato dreamed of a civilization in which philosophers would be kings and kings philosophers. Surprisingly, it has in a measure arrived - with the sardonic twist history often gives to realized ideas. The twist of our time is that the political leader is not a king, except occasionally; that he is not a philosopher, but is conscripted into being one; that he must accommodate his philosophy to his politics, instead of the reverse.
(547) The scope of a modern capital in a superpower today is so great that each institution can, does, and, in fact, must acquire a life of its own. Each can, and as a rule will, accommodate the expressed policies of the president. It will obey his direct orders, though a great deal can be done to change or shift them by "interpreting" them... So the palace become a place where conflicting interests are resolved, rather than where orders are given.
(548) He (the president) has a strategic position from which to exercise "leadership." In terms of American power, leadership is no better than the extent of followership it excites.
As one element, the power of the palace in America is qualified by widespread information... (although the knowledge may be illusory)
(549) Nor is it possible for the American (or perhaps any other) palace now to know enough about all the myriad fields for whose conditions it is held responsible. Other men must accumulate and estimate the knowledge; on their summaries the power holder mus decide.
(550) An yet, obstinate human instinct seeks to find and trust a man in any major emergency... Americans expect him, as personal leader, to avert impending chaos, to interpret events to them, to act. They hold him responsible for the outcome. Though the acropolis is dispersed, the palace is not extinct.
Epilogue in America
This last chapter in Berle's book is a clever imaginary discussion between Berle and Zeus, later including Athena, in Berle's office in the 1960s, in which Berle asks questions while Zeus and Athena provide the insights. A few examples:
(554) "Any resource of nature brought under control of men can and will be used. After Prometheus stole my fire, no act of mine could control it. Momentarily, power can determine what occurs next - little more. During its moment, only it creates reality. Never has power on this earth held control beyond the moment."
(555) "Power exists. At any given minute, any given man may be completely in its grip. Or, for that matter, kingdoms or continents. When I say you take it too seriously, I mean you assume its lasting effects can be willed by the holder. This is illusion."
(556) "I say power controls immediate events - but forces other than power determine their results.
(559) "You are confusing two subjects - the existence and maintenance of power, on the one hand, and, on the other, an estimate of the use to which it is put....
Power is no judge of values. It acts instinctively against chaos and to maintain itself. Automatically, it will create a degree of order, if only because no order exists without power and no power exists without order... What the order signifies, what its control of immediate events does with and to people, not excepting my power-holding pupils, is, whether good or bad, really not my business."
(559) "...you yourself observed... that the results of any act, especially acts of historical significance, were unpredictable... So a power holder will, in your absurd modern phrase, 'conserve options,' meaning that he tries not to bind his future actions...
(560) "I give power to men, and men are curious animals. They work on two levels. In power, they try to do what has to be done. But also, they obstinately keep on thinking. There, I cannot help. I somewhat limit their thinking because they must do what has to be done, and in doing so usually become more interested in the process of their power than in the results of their thought. Still worse, when they think, they usually battle their own power instincts. I concede that thought at long last can bind power itself."
Now, Athena is talking with Berle:
(561) "He probably said, with his usual disarming honesty, that power rarely knew what it was doing. So it sought the view of thinkers and artists and occasionally followed them. In any case, without the order he creates, thought and feeling could not very well be pursued... (men) often ask me and my pupils to what use they can put their power. More often than not they find the advice inconvenient. Frequently, the best use of power may be not to use it, or sometimes not even to have it - a view that hardly can please a power holder."
(562) "The real function of power and the order it creates... is the liberation of men and women to think and be and make the most of themselves...
"Paradoxically," I commented, "this liberation of men seems to run counter to the principle of power, perhaps even of order. Men and women given the instruments of life and production and thought will be able to refuse allegiance or obedience to power."
"Any woman understands that paradox... The essence of creation is that the thing created, be it child or idea or work of art, is independent of its creator; strong enough, indeed, to defy or even deny him...
Power always can destroy itself without help... If it has no purpose, its owner goes mad, and self-destruction ends it If its holder's chief purpose is to deify the power holder, disintegration is even more rapid. But when it liberates men and women, each develops in himself a measure of power. They contend with themselves, with each other, and with their power itself... Power is most safely held when it fosters and gives effect to these dreams and makes possible their pursuit.
(563) Your democratic institutions... must foster, defend, and enlarge institutions by which knowledge can be made greater and choices wider and more certain... Power must even devise and maintain political institutions capable of changing power holders themselves - an idea not widely accepted until recently, and not happily accepted in many places even now.
(564) ...power is not the producer, is not the merchant, is not the teacher, is not the painter, is not the musician. It can only command my pupils and my brother's disciples to go to work."
(567) Zeus nodded, "But giving power to any of them means denying power to most of their fellows. So a few of them must dominate the rest... They fight what they call the 'Establishment' because, in fact, they wish to be the 'Establishment.'
"No," Athena answered. "They think they are fighting an establishment. In fact, they are fighting themselves. They ask my father for power for the purpose, they say, of finding a meaningful life - as though he could give that or had ever given it...
(568) "Little as you liked my mother, you pondered marvelous schemes in your heart to bring into being men who would defend against destructive gods..."
|Last modified June 15, 2003||Copyright 1996-2003 Rex Mitchell|