A Short Note on Power and Responsibility by Benedict Thorn

Author: Benedict Thorn

(published at http://www.criticallegalthinking.com)

A short piece to mark just one example of the continuing intellectual hegemony of the banking/Thatcherism/Murdoch triad that infests British politics.  Listening to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, give an interview this morning to Evan Davis of the BBC, we heard him proclaim:

If they [the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks] have any shred of sense of responsibility or accountability for their position of power, then they should come and explain themselves before a select committee. 1

Much to unpack in that bit of fluff, but one of the conceptual strands, which echoed several of the speeches made in the House of Commons SO24 debate on the BSkyB bid the day before, was the intonation in slightly modified form of that New Labour mantra: no rights without responsibility.


We were struck by the slight alteration in the formulation: from rights and responsibility, the political class had shifted to power and responsibility.  It seems to us that this shift in semantics is not without its reason, in that, at one level, the blandness of Blair’s oft-repeated use of ‘rights’ at once required a subconscious PR makeover by today’s political class to indicate that something had really changed (honest).  But unconsciously one can discern that this change of terminology expressed a deeper affection of the minds of Cameron, Clegg, et al..    The New Labour doctrine had drawn heavily on the liberal myth that equality of abstract rights automatically equalled equality of real, effective rights; a non sequitur so daft it was already being decimated in the 17th century2. This myth had always provided good service to liberalism because it nevertheless performed the well-documented sleight-of-hand that everyone could fully exercise their rights, and it was entirely their fault if they did not.

That, of course, is the morality of the market.  A morality which can be found expressed in the statements of minister Iain Duncan-Smith: to be poor is a sin, which implies lack of merit, namely one is poor because one’s soul is unclean.  Hence the deep cruelty of the concept of the ‘undeserving poor’, for anyone who is poor, according to the morality of the market, is prima facie undeserving.  To be a member of the deserving poor, one must already have money.  One can see this as a two stage process, whereby at the first stage the market determines the worth of this or that person (by conferring upon them wealth), and then the semiotics of supplicant morality (it matters not which piece of flim-flam you choose, Catholicism, Protestantism, greed-is-good, economic theology) twists itself to fit this reality.  This link between money (nomisma) and normativity (nomos), wherein capital determines value and the ‘ought-to-be’, is perhaps the fullest inversion of Peripatetic ethics:

“….but money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the name ‘money’ (nomisma)-because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless.”Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [1133b 1]

So far as humanity confines itself within the limits of dynamic capital, it is this latter which has the power to change humanity, and make it useless.

The institutionalised politics of which Mr Clegg is a member is just such a piece of flim-flam, thus prone to magnificent contorsions as it seeks to capture market reality within a narrative of continuation, control, and legitimacy.  But as we can see, these twists are forced from without, and the language can belie the particular encounter political class-market insofar as this is characterised as one of market-action and political-class-passivity.  In short, the monkey may well decide its particular dance moves, but it still must conform to the rhythm of the organ-grinder.

We think this shift from ‘rights’ to ‘power’ is a particular expression of such an encounter.  The implicit fear that had reduced a former Prime Minister to tears was to a certain degree laid bare over the last 10 days.  Abstract rights suddenly became a patently inappropriate sign for the raw capitalistic power which was on display.  We wonder whether we were alone in noticing that after initial cries of disgust and demands for justice, when Rupert Murdoch landed in London to take the helm of News International, the politicians and media collectively bit its lip as if expecting the chastisement of a brutal father.  It was only when it didn’t materialise over the weekend that the cogs of a little Westminster revolt, began turning again, although the media continued to hail the Dirty Digger’s bravado in sacrificing theNews of the World to save Rebekah Brooks.  Thus when Nick Clegg and others unconsciously move to a language of ‘power and responsibility’, we take the view that this is a product of their experience, their encounter, with a real, tangible power.

The ‘responsibility’ side of the mantra remains to be investigated in perhaps a further piece.  One might say for now, however, that it continues to indicate a lack of intellectual tenor in the face of power.  In Murdoch, Westminster encountered an unignorably explicit manifestation of the potentia absolute mammonae, the absolute power of Capital, which, as with the God of the Medievals, has the power both to order the world, and to intervene in that order and break its rules.  There is no responsibility that restrains the exercise of an absolute power, and it was this principle that transferred so easily to the rule of the absolutist monarchs of the Early Modern period.  The French revolutionists (as much as the English) knew that power and responsibility were conceptions that belonged to totally different orders of political thought, the latter as we have said naming an abstract and discursive result, the former constituting the very order itself in which responsibility even makes sense.

They thus engaged with absolute power on its own terms.

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2011/jul/14/nickclegg-phone-hacking at 8.23am 
  1. Cf. for example Spinoza’s Political Treatise Ch.2 

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported license.

Cornelia’s House

She welcomes you with her Cheshire cat smile – not a grin, but a warmth of entry, and one that assures you of a safety and a seclusion that is peculiarly hers.  She takes your coat and you follow her like an obedient elephant chasing a gazelle as she darts and leaps through the rabbit warren rooms in to the velvet-curtained kitchen.

Lemon light falls from the high window in Jacob’s ladders, splicing the beclouded table that’s carpeted in a melee of cups and saucers to match the colour of the sunlight streaming in.  She hurries with the kettle, her blonde wisps of jagged hair trying to keep up, as she prepares to host with her coffee and her immersed interest in you.  As she takes her Lidl biscuits from an old Tupperware in the chocolate drawer in the towering Welsh dresser, you notice the soil on the woodened panels of the kitchen table.  You cup one of the lyburnum sprees in your hand, and try and place where it may have come from in the apple blossom garden outside.

Iron ore hands that could move mountains, pour milk for you in to the citrus-like jug.  The weight of the work outstanding on the house, press through her words as she relays to you what needs to be done outside and inside – on and on, and on …


“Which would you like – tea of coffee?”, she says through her infinite scarlet red smile.  “I’d love a cup of coffee”, I answer, each word tumbling out as though waiting for the other, in a self-conscious self-consciousness.  The scene moves from one of observation to involvement.  She has a presence that ushers in histories and imminences, and I find myself replying nervously, as though to match the abstemiousness of her question.

She begins to pour milk from the four litre Tesco bottle, into the jug, which I then pour into my lemon crockery.  “So, do you have some long-lost boyfriend down there in London?”, she enquires with a severity of fascination that almost arches the curvature of her spine.  “No, not at the moment”, I say, definitely blushing.  Her face is mapped with amorous pasts, her magnetic features part of the romantic narrative that removed her to the anagogic belvedere that is Plas Teg.  Her leopard print leggings, caked in moss and bits of grass from the garden, cling to her legs in anticipation that she tells you one of her many parables.  “Have you ever had any long lost boyfriends?”, I say, knowing full well her history with men, as relayed to me through the siphon that is my mother.  “Yes!”, she says, as though she had been waiting all morning for me to ask.  As though she may live within the words and the descriptions, where she can see him again.  As she tells you her intimacies, you know that she has relayed them many times before, her solitude urging her to reacquaint herself, fuelling her dauntless energy for the never-ending restoration of her magnificent house.

I find myself speaking from a predisposition that is reserved for someone I trust implicitly, yet at the same time with a guarded school-girlishness that suggests a wish to impress.  I dribble with agreements and nods of my head, but emanating from somewhere authentic and me.

“I don’t have many friends around here, apart from Simon who, bless him, comes to help me after his work, but he’s away in Cirencester at the moment, doin’ a horticulture degree.  He used to ‘elp me with the garden and all sorts, but dug up my ranunculus thinkin’ they were weeds!”  She pauses with her jaw protruding, animated with her wide smile and her eyes gleaming with a fond permissiveness of her friend’s mistaken botanics.  “Yes, I find people here a bit boring to be honest”, she says with a mischievous look that encourages me to agree.  “I like my neighbours and actually like their daughter even better, but I can’t just pop round there and see her and not the parents, now can I?!”, her arm outstretches with a nudge of further delighted persuasion.  Again, I don’t disagree.  “Right, shall we set to work?”, she says, gently but firmly gathering me together for my task for the day.  I could have sat consuming her for hours, cushioned by her uncommon aura, combined with the friendly embrace of the high-ceilinged starkness of her kitchen.  “Of course”, I say, and neatly place the chair under the table and put the crockery by the sink for washing up.


I put brush to stone and the verdigre transforms into the glaring white of glossy outdoor paint.  The bristles spit droplets on to gravel, revealing drip-scars from the year before as I make my accidental additions.  Moving the brush carefully over the cast of the statue, her Hellenic silhouette stares into the distance as though watching ships out at sea.  Minerals manicured to create her proud chest, the liquid gives her another layer of herself.  I paint the rose leaves that act as her scarf by mistake, and hastily try and wipe away the sticky mixture, but her accessory is now as alabaster as she is.

Time becomes achromic, devouring worlds beyond high walls and windows.  Cerebral activity creates glaciers and I am shifting at their pace.  The house is a siren, calling and drawing in.  My hands fall through heavy spring air, feet paddling through dense coordinates.  Collapsing from the graph paper sky, solar steps create stairs and I can see seagulls chasing the horizon.


With a push from the ground, I was back standing upright, staring into the mercury ripples of the mirror.  It was hung on its haunches, chipped plaster evident behind the back of its frame, as though it had been flung back with some force, multiple times.  I realised I had been lying with my cheek to the chill of the slate stone tiles that carpeted one of the many bathrooms.  My sinews felt twisted and awkward, as though I had been re-coagulated, re-worked in some way.  My arm appeared boneless, like I had been holding my chin in attentive boredom at something for too long, and the feeling had gone.  Pins and needles were fizzing down one side of my right leg.  I touched the mirror just to check the metallic reflection was as it said it was.  It was as impenetrable as one would expect it to be, and I wasn’t really sure what made me check.  I patted my jumper down a little, and adjusted myself using the glass.


The histories that have been written about Plas Teg have been well documented, and are re-told, re-lived, each time the guides take you around from one room to the next. Standing patiently on a stairwell whilst being intoxicated by tales of romance and tragedy, or the origin of the banister’s timber.  Each guide has their own approach, their own preferred story, every tour altering the building’s dramatic past through a resurgence in the now.  She or he will entertain a crowd of ten or twelve Sunday afternoon guests with their Wrexhamite lilt, or a Flintshire quip of this and that.  Couples from nearby Manchester or Liverpool, or those of Cestria, adorned with cameras that cannot be used, thick fleece coats and over-excitable imaginations.  But in order for the house to survive, the National Trust-esque element has to remain.  In order for Cornelia for to remain, there must be Plas Teg.

I had only met the ‘Friends of Plas Teg’ very recently, and until they appeared in full force all at once, I had no real idea of their existence.  But these are the many names and characters that you are assured to be familiar with, as they are weaved into Cornelia’s every day chat to you.  And her intrigued quizzing of how they can help and what they could do.  They are the figures that punctuate her speech, and her life, and the maintenance of her house, creating breaths in the paragraphs of her physical tasks, and hemming the security of her great house.


I walked form the stair case still in a state of almost translucence, I felt I had journeyed, but as far as I knew I had just been painting a statue.  There was a soft beading of sweat across my brow, I wiped away the perspiration with my cold hand.  There seemed to be shatterings of sand in the creases of my top, and my feet felt damp inside my walking boots.  I wasn’t sure whether it was a wise idea to see Cornelia in this sort of perturbed state.  I rested myself down on the wooden steps and caressed the 400 year old carpet, quizzing it with my fingers as though expecting the old worn out cloth to answer me and tell me all.  Its fibres were stringy almost like hay interwoven in colours dulled by centuries of bodies pummelling the fabric into the floor.  I felt a desire to wander back to the bathroom and re-examine the mirror.  I had exited at a bemused haste, unsure of why I had found myself here and wishing to question Cornelia on what had happened to me.  But something now told me not to ask, and the very same feeling was drawing me back to the washroom where I had unexpectedly found myself.  It was the Regency Bathroom, recounting the name from one of the tours I had assisted on.

My hands, still feeling for clues on the carpet, had warmed up.  Spring sunlight came through the tall dusty windows and massaged my previously aching limbs.  I was in a mood of immovable agitation, the urge to race up the pen-knife chipped staircase to the top floor and reacquaint myself with the room was regaining on me.  Like a rabbit caught in headlights, I was caught in an ancient stairwell.  I remembered that Cornelia had spent two whole years of her life, painstakingly removing jet black paint from the banisters, revealing mottled oak and the face of the elderly wood.  It was enough to put a preservation order on the stairs, and resulted in the house being saved at the same time.

Lost in history, I hadn’t noticed the door to the main hall ajar, and I recognised the busy sounds of Cornelia as she was fetching wood in from the garden to feed the newly-lit fire.  I summoned myself and checked my limbs again – I was warm, and feeling somewhat less disembodied than before.

“Ah, there you are!” she said, as I entered the inside of the huge stone doorway.  “How much did you manage to get done?”.  She was bent over small flames, intent on making them bigger.  I actually had no idea how I’d got on with the painting, and my brain began to squirm.  “Cornelia, I …”.  I suddenly coughed.  I was choking, as though my throat had been constricted.  “Are you alright, dear?”, sounded a concerned Cornelia as she peered up from the fireplace, through her Poundshop spectacles.

Dark phlegm bubbled and fell from my mouth, like an expelled salt-riddled slug.  I was finding it difficult to breath, but attempted a: “Yes, I think so.”

“Have you been eatin’ those funny lookin’ baguettes from Tesco?”.  Her accent was an aristocratic cockney, if there were such a thing.  “They always do that to me – get stuck on the roof of my mouth and make me choke.  Shall I get you some water?”

“No, I’m ok thanks now”, I said, wiping my salivered mouth with a tissue.  I had gathered it would be best to leave mentioning my strange experience to her for another time.  Something had definitely decided that for me, I thought, as I unblocked my sandpaper throat.