When one nation dominates other nations militarily and culturally, that nation is an instrument of imperial rule or, for short, Empire. The same situation applies when corporations dominate the world. There is one-sided rule and over suffering.
Increasingly throughout the world people are hoping for a different kind of order, one based on multiple poles of influence rather than a single pole of influence. In the words of John B. Cobb., Jr., they seek to "seize an alternative" that is more relational and sustainable, more just and peaceful, more conducive to the flourishing of life in local settings. Indeed, they yearn for a world that is a community of communities of communities rather than a world that is dominated by Empire; riddled with war and the threat of nuclear war, poverty, deprivation, inequality, and disease.
If hopes for a post-imperial world are to be realized at all, foreign and domestic policies alike must be based in a worldview that values relational power over unilateral power. At least this is how those of us influenced by the relational perspective of Alfred North Whitehead see things. It seems to us that we've gotten into the mess today, in part, because we have been governed by a false notion of power and a false image of what the world is really like. Here is our proposal:
Unilateral Power and Empire
The unilateral conception of power rests on a substantialist view of reality. That is to say, if reality is constituted by discrete, isolated substances that require nothing but themselves (and God) to exist, then the values that become central are self-sufficiency and independence. The consequence of such a view of reality on the conception of power is that power is “a one-way street,” the ability to affect, to influence another. Its exercise is the manifestation of unilateral power. Anything that is one’s opposite, allowing oneself to be influenced by others is seen as a sign of weakness.
There are numerous examples of unilateral power, which are invariably hierarchical: some people are higher than others on the socio-politico-economic scale, more often than not with undue concentrations of power and wealth, while the majority are lower on the scale. Among the most readily discernible expressions of unilateral power are patriarchal institutionalizations of gender relations. Men are deemed superior because they are supposedly active, self-sufficient, independent, unemotional, and unaffected by the vicissitudes of life. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be dependent, the “weaker sex” in need of domination, of both the brains and brawn of men. The most perverted and distorted expressions of the unilateral conception of power are child and spousal abuse, in whatever form.
The ultimate legitimation of unilateral power has been provided by the understanding of divine power as unilateral power. In spite of nuanced philosophical arguments and maneuvers, in effect, God has been traditionally conceived as the sole power in the universe, perfect in that power. As part of the very meaning of divine perfection, God has been typically understood to be supremely unaffected by the world.
This was no less true of the deism of the Enlightenment. God created the world by setting the machinery of the universe in motion, which is perfectly capable of operating according to its own laws. There is precious little left for God to do, although he/she is perfectly capable of intervening unilaterally “from the outside“ in case the world needs any repairs.
On this matter, several observations are warranted. The first involves the problematic nature of attributing personal agency to communities. It is tempting and attractive to attribute subjective agency to groups and communities. However, the problem is that historically the use of organic metaphors, particularly ones that use some sort of a “soul” that dominates the body and in which the “whole” in effect overwhelms “the parts,” have tended to legitimize domination and exploitation.
Not only is this evident in the case of feudalism, it is even more blatant in the rhetoric of fascism (and in a different way, Stalinism!), in which the value of individuals resides solely in the degree to which they are of use to the state. The state embodies “the whole” that is society; the Party, whether fascist, National Socialist, or Communist, embodies the vanguard that should lead the state, in effect is the state, as party and state overlap and are collapsed in one another to a considerable extent; society, “the people,” “the working” class, the state, the party, are all then embodied in the omniscient leader—“Il Duce,” “Der Fuehrer,” “the Master” (Stalin). In effect, in various ways, the state, the party, “the Leader” all embody the “Soul” that dominates the inferior “Body” that is human society.
The Agency of Communities
Thus, we need a fresh way of talking about the actions of organic communities, communities constituted by interrelated and interdependent parts, without attributing subjective agency to those communities. One way of doing this is to talk by way of analogy. That is to say, communities can be said to act through institutions that embody them without having the subjective agency of an individual human being. They have properties that are “analogous” to human beings. Another way to avoid the attribution of individual subjectivity but to be true to their collective power is to speak of them as networks of intersubjectivity: that is, networks of shared experiences, values, purposes, and narratives that have a communal vitality of their own. The point is that, one way or another, we need to be honest about the power that communities have as communities.
Approximations not Utopias
However we might imagine the agency of communities, we need to keep in mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s frequent admonition that there is a vast difference in the morality practiced in personal and inter-personal relations and that practiced in the relations between nations and communities. In truth, the overly-elevated self-regard that characterizes some human individuals makes love impracticable in the relation between communities. What is possible are relative approximations of justice that are characterized by an ever shifting balance of power. While the lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been powerful witness to the power of love in communal life, their strategies of non-violence also sought the expression of love in social justice and certainly confronted (and ultimately) changed unilateral, coercive power. Niebuhr reminds us that, when it comes to these more social expressions of love, the best hope is approximations, not utopias. This does not mean that utopianic hopes are illegitimate; it means instead that they are lures for reflection and action which, in optimum circumstances, invite meaningful approximations of the ideals they inspire. At their worst, they inspire totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism is the most extreme form of unilateral power. The party-state, whether Communist, National Socialist, or Fascist, attempts to control every facet through an endless reign of terror and a seamless web of informers. Opposition is ruthlessly suppressed and eliminated, providing a model for what would happen to those inclined to do likewise. Endless mass rituals (at which attendance is mandatory) reenact, reinforce, and inculcate the mythos and ideology of the party state. The individual is of value only to the degree that she/he is of value to the party state.
Empires throughout history give another example of unilateral power. Empires conquer other peoples and spread their might militarily, politically, economically, and culturally. The ways of the conqueror are imposed unilaterally on the vanquished. The myths, symbols, and rituals of religion, as well as quasi-secular religions and civil religions, provide legitimation for the creation of Empire. All peoples have a sense of their own distinctiveness, which is expressed in shared mythos, rituals, and narratives. When these lapse into a sense of exceptionalism, of being better than the Other, they provide legitimation for the creation and expansion of Empire. There usually follow attempts to remake conquered peoples into the image of the conqueror.
Alexander the Great created one of the largest and most powerful empires of the Ancient World in no small measure motivated by the desire to spread Hellenistic civilization. The Romans established the Pax Romana, a two hundred year period of Roman Peace, by conquering much of then known parts of the world. They certainly had a sense of historical calling, of the specialness of Rome and its destiny.
In American history, one of the dominant themes is that of American exceptionalism, expressed in various ways: the manifest destiny of the United States to spread from sea to shining sea; as justification for U.S. entry into World War I, to make the world safe for democracy; and in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the justification of American involvement in Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, endeavoring to spread democracy and free markets.
The aftermath of World War II saw four and a half decades of two mighty Empires competing with each other in a Cold War (with some periodic Hot Wars) with the United States emerging as the sole superpower. People in the United States were proud of winning the Cold War.
Such sentiments and the political rhetoric surrounding them reinforced the long standing tradition of American exceptionalism. Out of power following the election of Bill Clinton, neo-conservatives began advocating the resolute and unequivocal use of unilateral military power anywhere in the world, including Iraq and Iran. There was no concern with the niceties of public opinion, the concerns of allies or treaty obligations, or moral sensibilities. There was very explicit talk of Empire and the mission of the United States to expand that Empire for the good of humanity.
Neo-conservatives were recruited in significant numbers into influential positions in the Bush Administration. Their desire to project and use unilateral power led directly to the war in Iraq and other manifestations of the unilateral foreign policy of the Bush Administration. Perhaps the best summary of this discussion of unilateral power is Chairman Mao’s oft quoted statement, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Relational Power and a Multi-Polar World
Unlike substantialist views of reality which provide the foundation for unilateral understandings of power, process views (Whiteheadian in particular) see the basic units of reality in terms of interrelated and interdependent events extended in space time. In process thought, anything actual at all, from the tiniest energy event to human beings, has some degree of power. No organism can stay alive without some exercise of some degree of power.
A momentary subjective experience, an actual occasion, has both a receptive side, receiving data from the past, and an active side, deciding how it constitutes itself, deciding how it prehends influences from the past and actualizes the possibilities of the moment and of the future. If then, there is a receptive as well as an active side to all experience, then for process thought power also must have both a receptiveand an active side. Power is not only the capacity to affect, to carry out a purpose, but also the capacity to undergo an effect, to be acted upon.
Thus, consistent with its vision of a relational and participatory universe, process thought envisions power as relational. While in one sense independence and self-sufficiency are to be prized, this is not to be done in an atomistic way that cuts us off from a fundamental sense of relatedness but in a way that fosters interdependence, a word that captures both independence and relatedness.
Gender Relations and Theology
The relational view of power has important consequences for gender relations. The lives of men can be vastly enriched by nurturing their sense of relatedness without giving up their sense of autonomy. The lives of women can affirm a fundamental sense of autonomy and not be swallowed up in relationships, even as they affirm their basic experience of relatedness.
It also has implications for theology, especially those of the monotheistic type. At least this is how process theology sees things. If, as process theologians propose, God is the chief exemplification of metaphysical categories, then God is the supreme example of relational power. God is supremely relational on the active side, “the primordial nature,” as God lures the creatures with ideal possibilities to realize themselves in their fundamental interdependence with one another. God is supremely relational on the receptive side, “the consequent nature,” as God feels the feelings of the creatures and preserves them everlastingly with no loss of immediacy.
In Whiteheadian process thought, God always acts persuasively rather than coercively. Following Whitehead, process thinkers have rebelled against tyrannical images of God. In keeping with this and in being consistent, coherent, and adequate in upholding the freedom of all actualities, process thinkers have maintained that God does not voluntarily relinquish or limit the divine power, but rather is “subject to the rules of the game” (is their chief exemplification), much in the manner that constitutional monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers in modern democracies are not above, but subject to the laws of their countries. Seeing God as the chief exemplification of metaphysical categories shows the thoroughgoing consistency of process thought’s vision of relational power.
In truth, relationality seeps its way even into hierarchical relations. To be sure, power may be hierarchical and disproportional to one side. Nevertheless, as we have seen, anything that is has to exercise some power in order to exist. It is possible, at least in theory, to resist the power of the barrel of a gun. A recognition of relationality within hierarchy leads to a hope that, even within hierarchies, more productive forms of relational power can evolve. It begins with listening.
Consensus Thinking over Conflict Thinking
There is an affinity between process thought and consensus theories in sociology and political science. Like process thought, consensus or functionalist theories uphold an organic view of society in which societies are seen as composed of interdependent and interrelated parts, with each part contributing to the whole; change one part or one set of relationships and you have changed the whole, however incrementally. Thus, according to this view, social change is gradual, evolutionary, reformist, attained on the basis of consensus.
One aspect of contemporary sociology and political science is the division between consensus and conflict theories. Defenders of the conflict theory maintain that society is made up of competing groups struggling over scarce resources. Conflict theorists can ask quite appropriately whether process thought, with its emphasis on gentleness and persuasion can take conflict into account. Process thought is quite aware of conflict (i.e., Whitehead’s statement that “all life is robbery”) and tragedy, with which it often deals in a moving way. Indeed, process thought can and should take insights from conflict thinking into account. Still, in process thinking, there is a strong preference for relationality.
Process and Empire
So what would process thought say about Empire? As we have seen, the process view of reality is one of a participatory universe made up of diverse, interdependent parts. Process thought affirms freedom and diversity in the matrix of the fundamental interdependence of all things. Thus, the freedom of other creatures, human and non-human, is not a threat to us if we are truly interdependent with one another. In many circumstances our freedom is enriched by the freedom of others, because we are interdependently free.
In similar fashion, diversity is not a threat to our individual identities but rather something that can enrich who we are becoming. To be sure, differences can be the source of tension. But this tension can be creative as the momentary self encounters people, cultures, and ideas that are different and takes them into itself, thus becoming a larger, richer self.
All of the foregoing presupposes process thought’s relational view of the self, of any momentary experience. If the self is a relational momentary experience, it is not an encapsulated self concerned only with the present moment; it is also concerned, at the very least, with future states of itself. Thus, the boundaries of our care and concern do not stop at the edge of our skins. Using the model of the momentary self being concerned with our future selves, which are other selves, we have the foundation for claiming that it is natural to be concerned for others, to be altruistic.
In analogous fashion, process thought would argue for respect for and understanding of peoples and communities different from ourselves. The very expression of respect and appreciation goes a long way towards nurturing relationships.
In a similar fashion, the freedom and independence of other communities are not threats to us, but something to be respected, honored, and nurtured. Freedom is not imposing our way of life, our form of government, or even bringing other nations and communities into the global community. Rather, it is respect for and encouragement of those nations and communities to decide for themselves who they want to become.
We are not so sanguine as to claim that there will be no conflict or clash of interests. (Process thinkers disagree on pacifism and the restrained use of force.) However, in an interrelated and interdependent world, no matter how much conflicting and competing interests, values, and ideologies we may have, we are always going to have some coincidence of interest and purposes. And we can always foster relationships by building on those interests and common purposes.
Empires overstretch even as they exercise their infinite capacity for self-deceit in thinking that they are building a world of order and stability. Process thought envisions a world without Empires, a multi-polar world.
In this regard, process thought has something in common with advocates of soft power. One of its leading advocates, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government and Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, is typical of this group in advocating persuasive rather than coercive power, by affecting without commanding, and leading by example.
Nye’s view of soft power had considerable currency in the Clinton Administration and continues to do so in the Democratic Party, whether in the campaigns of Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, or the party at large. (In a different way, the first Bush Administration did not act unilaterally in the Gulf War but consulted and drew in allies.) Andrew J. Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism and the policies of the Bush Administration in The Limits of Power approximates more closely a relational view of power.
Nevertheless, as close as they come, most advocates of soft power do not quite reach a fully relational view of power. With the notable exception of Bacevich, they presuppose an American preeminence for which the exercise of soft power is a softer and kinder version of the unilateral advancement of the interests of the American Empire.
In contrast, process thinkers would envision a truly multi-polar world, a community of communities in which the independence, freedom, and distinctiveness of each community in its fundamental interdependence with all others would be nurtured. The formation of the requisite structures for accomplishing this would be an ongoing task.
This may all seem hopelessly unrealistic and utopian. Yet, as we noted above, it provides the lure of a vision of a community of communities that combines the actual with the possible, what is with what might be. And it provides an invitation to enter into a listening approach to life, wherein we listen to peoples and communities who are different from us, but who deserve their place on a small but beautiful planet, in which we can dwell in rich ways, if relational power is seen for what it is: an approximation of beauty in community life.
**Portions of this essay have been previously published by Les Muray as “Empire, Relational Power, and a Multi-Polar World,” in Mark Dibben and Rebecca Newton, eds., Applied Process Thought2: Following a Trail Ablaze (Frankfurt: ontos verlag, 2009), 237-244.
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Frankenberry, N., “Classical Theism, Panentheism and Pantheism: On the Relation between God Construction and Gender Construction,” Zygon:Journal of Religion and Science 28/1 (March 1993).
Loomer, B.M., “Two Conceptions of Power,” Process Studies, Volume 6, Number 1, Summer 1976, pp.5-32
Nye, J.S., Jr., Soft Power : The Means to Success in World Politics (New York : Public Affairs, 2004).
Suchocki, M. H., The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1995)