Brian Martin discusses power with Jeffery Klaehn

Extracted from Jeffery Klaehn, "Discourses on power", in Jeffery Klaehn (ed.), The Political Economy of Media and Power (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 9-48.

This chapter contains questions by Jeffery Klaehn and responses from several individuals, compiled, organised and edited by Jeffery Klaehn.

These are the responses by Brian Martin, as submitted.

Jeffery Klaehn: How would you define the concept of power?   What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

Brian Martin: I'm going to start with an example and then relate it to power.

Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia and head of the Socialist Party, fostered Serbian nationalism to cement his power. In response to Serbian operations in Kosovo, in 1999 NATO forces initiated a massive bombing campaign. Milosevic withdrew troops from Kosovo, but the bombing actually solidified his rule by uniting the Serbian population against the foreign attackers.

In 2000, the grassroots movement Otpor, not linked to any political party, campaigned against Milosevic using leaflets, slogans, music and humorous stunts. When the police responded with arrests and beatings, Otpor used these to publicise the regime's brutality. Milosevic called an early election; opposition parties created a unified platform. When Milosevic tried to steal the election through voting fraud, the population responded to an opposition call to march on Belgrade. This nonviolent campaign undermined police loyalty and caused Milosevic to capitulate.

Power for oppressive purposes is sometimes called "power over." This is the power of Serbian troops in Kosovo and the power of NATO bombing. In contrast is "power to". This is the power to resist oppression, the power of the Serbian people to oppose Milosevic's regime without harming its functionaries. "Power to" is sometimes called empowerment.

Power can be displayed in actions, such as the NATO bombing, but just as important is the power inherent in social arrangements, such as the economic power of NATO countries to fund military forces and the political power of Milosevic's Socialist Party. Capacities built into social structures enable the exercise of power in action. Milosevic ruled Serbia not through his own physical strength but through his role as party leader.

Social power is a relationship: it only exists through other people's participation or acquiescence. Milosevic's power evaporated when the Serbian people - including many of the regime's troops - stopped obeying and transferred their loyalty elsewhere.

JK: In what ways does power manifest itself, ideologically, economically, socially?   Whatever you may like to touch upon -

BM: The automobile is part of many overlapping systems of power. To build cars requires the mobilisation of human and material resources: engineers design cars, companies build them, contractors supply parts and transportation systems deliver them. Then sellers exchange cars for money and owners drive them.

Cars on their own make no sense without roads: governments build and regulate transportation systems. The legal system is involved to license drivers and deal with disputes over ownership and accidents. The health system copes with deaths and injuries from accidents. Cars impact on the environment through air pollution and greenhouse gases. Maintaining reliable sources of oil helps drive international trade, diplomacy and sometimes war.

The car is the centre of a system of transport - sometimes called automobility - that, to most people, seems entirely natural, just the way things are. Few people spend time imagining a world without cars, or even a neighbourhood without cars. In a sense, several systems of power have coalesced to create a perception that there is no alternative. Even those who question the car culture usually address limited matters, pushing for safety features, fuel efficiency, car pooling or better public transport.

The car system is no accident: powerful groups have devoted vast efforts to create and maintain it. Economic power is deployed by the automobile industry, the oil industry and others. Political power is deployed by car-sympathetic politicians and agencies. Social power is manifest in expectations of family and friends about car ownership and use: young people want to drive as soon as possible. The reality of cars and the inducements of advertisers shape people's thinking, making cars seem necessary, even inevitable, something that can be called ideological power.

JK: What about the power of corporations and the media?

BM: Ralph Nader first became famous as a whistleblower. In 1966, his book Unsafe at Any Speed was published, exposing the car industry. General Motors instigated a covert investigation of Nader which, when exposed, discredited the company.

Few whistleblowers have such a good outcome. Sociologist Deena Weinstein argues that bureaucracies, including corporations, are similar to authoritarian states: there is no internal democracy, no permitted opposition movements, no free speech, no free assembly. Anyone who speaks out against a boss, or is critical of the company, is subject to reprisals: harassment, ostracism, reprimands, demotion, transfer, dismissal, blacklisting.

The power of corporate elites is like the power of rulers of repressive regimes, with one major exception: corporate elites seldom exercise violence against opponents. Their power comes from a widespread acceptance of the legitimacy of hierarchy. If the entire workforce started doing things differently, perhaps producing alternative products, corporate elites would have no way to stop it, except by calling for support from government and other corporations. Internal corporate power thus meshes with state and market power.

Externally, corporations exert power through buying, selling and manipulating. The key characteristic here is that a few people - corporate elites - have far more power than workers or community members. Bucking the system as an individual is a prescription for disaster. The way to bring about change is through collective action, for example in unions or consumer movements.

The mass media are run by governments or corporations, in both cases run as hierarchical systems. They play a special role in information and communication, but as power systems are not too different from other bureaucracies.

JK: Why is the concept of power important in relation to the study of human rights?

BM: Torture is the exercise of physical power against individuals to cause pain, for purposes of extracting information or causing fear. Torture of an individual involves a power relation between the torturer and the victim, but there is a wider dimension. Most torture is carried out by governments - dozens of them around the world - and these governments use their economic and political power to protect torture and torturers from scrutiny, through secrecy, police powers, bureaucratic arrangements, and international diplomacy.

Human rights discourse can be an effective rhetorical tool to oppose torture and other assaults on human rights. But human rights declarations do not by themselves lead to observance. State power frequently trumps human rights.

Most people are familiar with the arms trade; fewer are aware of the massive trade in the technology of repression: electroshock weapons, leg irons, stun grenades and computer surveillance systems. The biggest producers of this technology are western companies; western governments have regulations about export but loopholes allow a vigorous trade. Opponents of the trade in torture technology are confronting a powerful system. They use the language of human rights; to be successful, they need to mobilise public opinion.

In 2004, images of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, by US prison guards, were published in the mass media. Most torture is carried out in secret, because so many people are outraged by it. The Abu Ghraib photos broke through this secrecy barrier. Few torturers are ever brought to justice, but US military investigators pursued the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib.

However, senior US officials responsible for policy at Abu Ghraib and other prisons worldwide were not prosecuted, though they were named (at least by some commentators) and thereby shamed. In most countries where torture is carried out, there are no consequences for perpetrators and officials. Torture will continue as long as the power systems that sustain it.

JK: In what ways does power manifest itself in international law and within international bodies, such as the G-8?  

BM: In 2002, President George Bush and senior US government figures began planning to conquer Iraq, culminating in the invasion in March the following year. If such an invasion had occurred a century earlier, no legal issues would have been involved: there was no accepted international law against unprovoked aggression or conquest. But after the two world wars, governments set up international organisations to regulate war, and international law has developed increasing recognition.

The raw exercise of military power has become less acceptable: critics can cite law against it. The power associated with the law derives from people and governments subscribing to the principles involved. Invading Iraq appeared to be a blatant violation of international law, so Bush and company decided to seek an endorsement from the United Nations. But other governments on the UN Security Council - bolstered by massive public protest - were not receptive, despite US government threats and inducements behind the scenes. (The US government, using its enormous economic and political power, threatening trade reprisals and offering money.)

Rather than take the matter to a Security Council vote and suffer the humiliation of a defeat, the US government withdrew its motion and proceeded with the invasion. The violation of international law contributed to an enormous backlash: opinion polls in numerous countries showed decreased respect for the US.

JK: Your thoughts on engagement and resistance?

BM: East Timor was invaded and illegally occupied by the Indonesian military in 1975, leading to massive loss of life over the course of the following   two decades. By the 1990s, the East Timorese resistance movement (Fretilin) shifted its emphasis from armed struggle in the countryside to civilian protest in the cities. On December 12, 1991, there was a peaceful pro-independence protest as part of a funeral march in Dili, the capital city of East Timor. Indonesian troops opened fire on the marchers as they entered Santa Cruz cemetery.

This massacre might have remained hidden except that Western journalists were present, recording the events. Testimony, photos, and video footage caused outrage internationally and triggered a massive expansion of international support for East Timor's independence.

In this instance the Indonesian military seemed to have an overwhelming advantage. But killing hundreds of peaceful protesters backfired on the Indonesian government, because it was widely seen as a gross abuse of power and because vivid, credible information was made available to receptive audiences.

Perpetrators of injustice commonly use five methods to reduce outrage about their actions. They cover up the actions, devalue the target, reinterpret the events to be something less objectionable or to blame others, use official channels to give an appearance of justice, and intimidate or bribe targets, witnesses, and supporters. All these methods were used by the Indonesian government in relation to the Dili massacre, but in this case these efforts did not succeed. Those trying to mobilize against injustice need to counter each of these five methods. They need to expose what happened, validate the target, interpret the events as unjust, avoid official channels, and resist or expose intimidation and bribery.

The Dili massacre was obvious and dramatic: troops were shooting peaceful protesters without provocation. Earlier, when Fretilin had used armed struggle, Indonesian atrocities and human rights violations   had not caused nearly the same outrage, because the situation was perceived and cast as a war, in which both sides were perpetrators of violence, and also because the Indonesian aggression against East Timor was accorded minimal coverage in the Western media. Apparent weakness - for example a commitment to nonviolence - can sometimes be a great source of strength in terms of resisting power and responding to abuses of power

The key goal in resistance is mobilization: encouraging more people to understand what is happening and to support or take action. This is a long-term process. What seems to be a defeat can be the foundation of success. The Dili massacre was a terrible tragedy but, on the morning after, many East Timorese were smiling because they knew, due to the presence of Western observers, that this time their suffering would be noticed. They were right.

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