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 

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