The nature of power is power over nature

Power is ultimately about control over what we call natural resources, although to use that term presupposes the instrumental relationship that composes part of the power dynamic. Power is based on the appropriation of nature: making what belongs to all in common into one’s own, e.g., drilling land to take oil from the ground. Sometimes, especially at this point in history, the initial appropriation of nature occurred long ago, and the act of power is the reappropriation of nature: making what belongs to another into one’s own, whether by purchase or force.

Simply to use nature as a resource, to drink water from a stream or pick a berry from a bush, is not necessarily an assertion of power; but to pollute or dam the water, or to pick most of the berries in a region, or to appropriate a piece of land in order to plant and cultivate berry bushes, would qualify. Appropriation is exclusive: it makes nature one’s own as against anyone else, whether by claiming a property right to it, defending it by force, or depleting, diminishing, or polluting it so that others cannot equally use it. And the “others” against whom resources are appropriated include other living things, not only humans, so the use of natural resources may be the imposition of power over nature even if those resources are shared with other people, though typically resources are rarely if ever shared beyond a small in-group so almost all appropriation operates to exclude both other people and other species.

And power includes control over a natural resource we tend not to think of as natural: people. This may be done indirectly, by concentrating control over other natural resources such that people become dependent on the controller, or directly, which usually follows the former, as when one instrumentalizes people for one’s own gain, i.e., for one’s own greater appropriation of nature. This exploitation differs from government, which at least in theory should involve the sharing of resources rather than their appropriation, but most government has been created or captured by power-holders who wield political forces to further concentrate their power.

Much of the appropriation and reappropriation of nature composing power dynamics today occurs under the guise of money. What is money for, ultimately, but to secure some natural resources for oneself against others?

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War

Add to the list of killers far more prolific than terrorists or criminals: wagers of war.

What if candidates for office could foment the same enthusiasm against war as they do against the measurably less harmful events of terror and crime? The unfeasibility of doing so tells us what matters is not the destructiveness of terror or crime, but their usefulness: they are evil embodied in some Other and thus serve as scapegoats to unite people behind an opportunistic leader. Opposing the evil of war, by contrast, would require something far more daunting than targeting Muslim or black people: confronting ourselves.

Ending war would require that we confront the system in which we all live and invest our sense of meaning in world history: the system of nation-states competing for power. It would require cooperation that is not merely international like the League of Nations or the United Nations, but supranational: it would require giving up, or at least demoting, the idea of the sovereign nation-state whose primary purpose is to serve a distinct group of people living within its borders. The ideas of sovereignty, nationhood, citizenship, and borders would need to be demoted, too. This change in perspective would apply to disincentivize civil wars, too, for there would not be a nation worth fighting for control of. We would understand the world not as a competition between us and them over limited resources but a collaboration amongst us all for shared well-being.

Of course, to end terrorism or crime would similarly require collapsing the false divisions of us and them, of individual and system. Cracking down on immigrants and criminal suspects are not genuine strategies to end terrorism or crime but to perpetuate them. Similarly, fighting wars perpetuates war, even “good wars” like World War II which led directly to the Cold War and Korea, Vietnam, and myriad wars in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

Free

Yesterday I visited a client in prison. As his lawyer, I was able to meet with him in the quarantine unit where prisoners are housed for their first 30 days without access to visitors except attorneys and clergy. A series of guards escorted me through successive parts of the complex as I made my way toward the quarantine unit, one guard passing me off to the next on the other side of a containment door.

The hallways were claustrophobic: thick concrete, flickering florescent light, air somehow sterile and foul-smelling at once. A breath of oxygen came as a relief when one guard escorted me outside and we descended a metal-cage staircase into the yard. As we walked briskly across the yard, prisoners singly or in pairs passed by us with seeming purpose, en route to or from surrounding buildings and gates.

The sky was overcast, the feel of coming rain in the air. I looked up at the landscape rising beyond the walls of the prison: a crag covered with forest but for a gash of exposed granite. Low heavy clouds made the formation feel close, looming over us. I recognized it: the granite quarry. The access roads, now derelict and overgrown, make unofficial running trails. I had learned the route up to the ancient quarry from high school peers who sneaked out of class early to dive into the granite-bowl pools on hot days late in the school year. We did not realize at the time that convicts had carved those pools and built their own prison from the stone.

On a run a few weeks ago I had been exploring side trails near the quarry when I came to a clearing for power lines carrying electricity toward the prison, affording an unexpected view into the complex below. It was too far to see much more than the outlines of walls and buildings, yet I felt voyeuristic. I heard shouting. I shuddered and resumed my run after a few moments.

From inside the prison yard I was struck by the sight of this place of illicit, youthful freedom so near and yet unattainable. As we crossed the yard, the guard asked, “Have you been here before?”

“No,” I replied, “but I’ve been there,” gesturing toward the quarry. “There are running trails. You can see in from up there.”

“Really? You can probably see our firing range. I’m surprised they let people in there. We shoot into those woods for target practice.”

“Good to know. I’ll run faster next time.”

We reached a gate and another guard brought me inside the diagnostic unit. I waited for my client in a tiny room the size of a confessional booth. Unlike the rest of the facility lined with thick concrete, this room had thin walls. There were gaps between the door and door frame through which the guard outside could almost certainly hear our conversation. My client, a big guy, arrived and was clearly uncomfortable in the close quarters. I had to give him the cruel news that his housing discrimination claim had resolved in his favor, securing his housing for another year, the very day that he had been sentenced to secure housing for four years.

He did not want to talk long. He was uncomfortable for other reasons, too, suffering withdrawal from prescribed pain medication that they refused to provide in prison. His chronic back injury was inflicted by a guard during his previous term at this prison.

As a disability rights attorney, I felt an impulse to advocate for him to receive the medication, but our office does not handle individual cases regarding conditions of confinement, with good reason: these wrongs are so numerous and so difficult to vindicate that we cannot afford to use our limited resources on them. Instead we advocate for community services that help keep people with disabilities free from confinement in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and other forms of segregation. Legal aid attorneys generally work “in the trenches” on such one-off cases without systemic impact because Congress has prohibited them from filing class actions; however, Congress has also prohibited legal aid offices from representing people in prison.

So my only recourse was to refer my client to a private attorney, whom he cannot afford, or his public defender, who similarly lacks the capacity to litigate conditions of confinement, allocating precious resources to keeping people out of prison. Our meeting ended after a few minutes with the disquieting mutual awareness that I was no longer useful to my client, and that no one was.

Later that day, back at my office, the rain began. I looked out my window and, despite the weather, felt the need to be outside. I sneaked out of work early and headed for the trails.

Decarceration under Trump

Unconscionable contradictions permeate America’s criminal justice system. Our “land of the free” has only 5% of the world’s total population, but over 20% of its prisoners. The thousands who were convicted but subsequently lucky enough to be exonerated by DNA evidence imply that an unknowable but certainly nauseating number of remaining prisoners are also innocent. An even greater number of prisoners are of questionable blameworthiness when considering the nonviolent nature of the offense, the accused’s mental health or intellectual ability, or factors such as socioeconomic duress and institutional racism.

Even in cases in which culpability is clear, justice is dubious: we sentence individuals to years, decades, lifetimes of confinement in subhuman conditions in which they are further deprived of the opportunities they probably lacked in the life leading up to the crime. There we subject them to brutality at the hands of other inmates and guards. Meanwhile, many political officials, police officers, military commanders, corporate executives, and domestic partners who commit repeated financial, environmental, and physical abuses against vulnerable victims go largely unpunished and remain in positions of power.

And, perhaps the most perverse contradiction of criminal justice, not only is the system unjust, it makes all of us less safe. It drains tax revenue that could fund education, medical and mental health care, affordable housing, employment and anti-poverty programs, and prosecution of the most harmful crimes. Upon re-entry, former prisoners are routinely rejected for jobs, housing, public benefits, student loans, and never permitted to have a say in the democracy of which they are supposedly citizens. These consequences of conviction leave those who supposedly paid their debt to society with few incentives but to commit more, and more dangerous, crimes, employing the knowledge and connections gained from living amidst criminals.

The need for reform is pressing. Yet where Obama attempted to chip away at the power of the prison industrial complex, Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions promise to amplify it. Nonetheless, and all the more so, now is the time for criminal justice reformers to be ambitious. There may be more hope than you would think from reading national headlines.

Consider that when Obama suspended the federal government’s use of for-profit prisons and reduced the sentences of hundreds of nonviolent prisoners, it was both a momentous step and a small one. He reversed course from decades of perverse policy, but only for a relatively small share of the nation’s prisoners, over 90% of whom are locked up on the state and local level. By the same token, when Sessions recently reverted federal policy to embrace private prisons and double-down on severe sentences for nonviolent offenders, these steps were shameful, racist, tragic — but limited in effectiveness for the same reason as Obama’s reforms: states hold most of the power in America’s criminal justice system.

And there are reasons to be hopeful about the prospect of reform on the state level — real reform, on the scale of decarceration and prison abolition. New York is poised to close Rikers Island and replace it with smaller, more community-based jails. And reforms are not limited to liberal jurisdictions. Even Sessions’s home state of Alabama has been working to reduce its prison population by incarcerating fewer nonviolent offenders. States and cities continue legalizing or decriminalizing recreational marijuana despite Sessions’s anti-factual and probably race-motivated opposition to it.

There is an important feature of state government that makes such reforms appealing. States must balance their budgets, and criminal justice reform is an investment in cost savings. It costs more to warehouse people in prisons than to provide them mental health services in the community or send them to college. It costs more to militarize police forces than to train more officers to walk a beat in communities. Legalizing marijuana generates revenue for states while policing, prosecuting, and punishing people for marijuana wastes money better spent on protecting people from actual harms. And keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison reduces recidivism, saving taxpayer money.

But this compelling economic argument raises a question. Why are lawmakers not already falling over each other to achieve such cost savings? The likely answer is the tremendous pressure exerted by two factors working in tandem: the powerful prison lobbies and the electoral popularity of being “tough on crime.” It is time for voters to become smart about crime. We need to counter the scaremongering about “inner cities” and immigration with the truth: being tough on crime ruins lives, wastes money, and makes our country more dangerous, so that a few may profit.

Why he gets away with it

How does he get away with it? This is the question about Trump many of us ask over and over again. He has said and done so much that would seemingly disqualify him from leading the United States in the 21st century, from calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” to firing the FBI director for investigating Russian collusion in his election.

One may object that Trump is not getting away with it. The DOJ has appointed a special counsel to investigate the Russia matter. Calls for impeachment are growing. Courts have blocked the Muslim ban. The administration appears chaotic and ineffective. Yet Trump retains support from 96% of the 63 million Americans who elected him. Each setback — blamed on “so-called” judges, “fake news,” or the “deep state” — seems only to reinforce their view that the problem is not Trump but our democratic institutions.

So the question stands: How does he get away it? The answer may be worse than we think, a long-developing crisis that cannot be corrected by impeachment, judicial review, or mid-term elections: weakening belief in the legitimacy of constitutional democracy itself.

A recent study asked people to rate the importance of living in a country governed democratically. While 75% of Americans born in the 1930s answered it is essential, a mere 30% born in the 1980s agreed. How would people prefer to be governed? According to the same study, an increasing percentage of Americans believe it would be good to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with elections. Another study by the same researchers found that only 43% of Americans, and only 19% of millennials, think it would be illegitimate for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job.

These statistics suggest that decades of polarization, gridlock, and corruption have eroded belief in constitutional democracy. It is no wonder that over 40% of eligible Americans did not bother to vote for a presidential candidate in 2016, including over 50% of millennials: to many people, elections do not seem to make a difference.

People look at what big business and high technology have achieved compared to our messy, inefficient democracy and find the latter antiquated. Donald Trump appeals as a strong leader who can cut through red tape, dispense with political correctness, run the country like a business — a CEO or, in political terms, an authoritarian.

And this democratic skepticism comes not only from authoritarians and libertarians, but from the left, too. People look at the corruption and unfairness, even under the redemptive possibility of Obama — from unlimited campaign contributions to bailing out Wall Street, from engaging in covert imperialism to waging wars in the name of democracy — and find America’s vaunted democratic ideals hypocritical. As a result, they do not vote, vote third-party, or vote for Trump because at least he makes the injustice plain, rather than adding insult to injury by paying lip service to democratic ideals.

In other words, Trump can get away with it because so many of us expect nothing better from our democracy and do not believe there is any hope for good government.

This nihilistic realism poses a grave danger because it leaves us with no argument against power, no standards against which to measure the actions of those holding power. But if we wish to defend America’s rule of law, we can not take its axiomatic desirability for granted, because growing segments of the country, on both the right and the left, do not. We must critically examine our governing order and articulate how to fix it.

For example, we must end the gerrymandering that ensures polarization and reform the electoral system so that everyone’s vote counts equally. We must restrict campaign contributions and limit the outsized political influence of concentrated wealth. We must reform taxes so that the wealthiest pay their fair share and raise wages so that working people can save for retirement. We must stop supporting aggression abroad and cooperate to solve global crises rather than exacerbate them.

Alas, none of these measures will be enacted under current leadership. But we who hold out hope for good government must at least persuade people that the distortions of democracy, not democracy itself, are the problem, and they can be fixed. We must work to make good government worth believing in, before it is too late.