Sociological observation: the aura of power
When I came to this country in 1979, I was stunned by how much I hated the Soviet rituals that I saw perpetuated by American politicians. On the surface, their public attitudes toward their leaders are not very different from the Soviet nomenclature. I cannot help but be flabbergasted by the shows put on at the Republican and Democratic conventions, as they endorse their candidates for the presidency. Even more, I was stupefied by the behavior of those who attended the joint sessions of Congress. Their reactions to speeches given by American presidents were very similar to the behavior of delegates at the congresses of the Soviet Communist party.
Let us compare, for instance, the reaction of American politicians to Obama’s speech at his first joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009, and the reaction of the Soviet nomenclature to the speech by Leonid Brezhnev in front of the 23rd party congress, when Brezhnev spoke as the Secretary General for the first time, on March 27, 1966. Keep in mind the length of the speeches by both new leaders: . The total number of times Brezhnev was interrupted by applause during his speech was higher than the number of times American president was interrupted: 148 versus 63. But if you take into account the length of the speeches by the two new leaders— Brezhnev, according to the New York Times (March 30, 1966), spoke for about 4.5 hours (270 minutes); Obama, on the other hand, spoke for about one hour (52 minutes)—Brezhnev seriously lost to Obama in the intensity of the acclamation: 148 versus a potential 328.
The number of standing ovations given to the General Secretary, even without taking speech lengths into account, were far fewer than the President (3 versus 35). It is certain that speaker Nancy Pelosi, the chairman of the joint session, outran Mikhail Suslov, then a member of the Politburo and the major ideologue of the party, who presided at the party congress: while the speaker got to her feet to initiate or support a standing ovation 35 times (she initiated the ovation 22 times), Suslov only rose from his chair three times. (As matter of fact, the reaction to Obama’s speech at the joint session of Congress was typical for the last few decades: Clinton’s first speech of this sort was interrupted (taking into account that it was ten minutes longer ) as often as Obama’s, with 81 rounds of applause. Clinton also enjoyed 29 standing ovations, however Speaker Foley only jumpedto his feet twice.)
Despite the similarities in the behaviors of the political elites in both countries—specifically in their declarations of love for their leaders—there is no way to forget the radical differences between the two societies they represent. If Brezhnev’s regime was not as ugly as Stalin’s, it was still deeply repressive, and the fear of the political police was omnipresent in the country. American society, for all of its problems, is essentially a democratic system. Brezhnev came to power as the head of a plot against his master, before whom he had publicly groveled only two weeks before the coup. The ordinary Soviet citizen not only did not participate in the changing of the guard in the Kremlin, but did not even know what was going on in the Kremlin during the dramatic days of October 1964, until the curt official (and entirely false) statement that “dear Nikita Sergeevich” had resigned “because of health conditions.” Brezhnev’s team did not feel completely secure because, even by Soviet standards, the transition of power was illegitimate—never before or since has a Soviet leader been removed in the way Khrushchev was deposed. Brezhnev only acquired that feeling of security a few years after the coup. Conversely, Obama was elected president as a result of a stormy, but perfectly honest, election process. Only lunatics could doubt the legitimacy of his election. In the aftermath of the election, Obama’s popularity, both within the USA and in the world, was enormous. Even many of the voters who preferred McCain joined the well-wishers of the new president. Brezhnev’s appearance as the leader of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, was received by that country with resignation and indifference.
Brezhnev began his rule as an autocrat, while Obama, from the first minutes of his tenure, has been under the close supervision, and scrutiny, of several democratic institutions. Even the slightest public critique of Brezhnev was impossible, whereas Obama, since his first days in office, has been the target of various, often venomous, diatribes. It is remarkable that even though Obama was enthusiastically greeted during his address to the joint session of Congress, as mentioned earlier, during 8 of the 35 standing ovations, half of the congressional members stayed seated; they were members of the Republican party, of course. It would simply be impossible to imagine that even one person in the audience could abstain from a display of high positive emotion toward a General Secretary! In addition, the delegates at a Soviet party congress had to demonstrate their loyalty to Soviet ideology with their exuberant greetings of Brezhnev, while two ideologies hovered at the joint session of Congress—liberal and conservative. Yet, even with all these reservations, the audiences, whether at the Communist party congress, at the conventions of both of the leading American parties, or at a joint session of Congress, look very much alike.
So, why did these audiences of politicians greeting Soviet and American leaders behave so similarly? Why does it appear, at first sight, to be so improbable and so counter-intuitive? To begin with, I understand that the amazement I felt when I had my first taste of real American society ultimately stemmed from my dogma that used a purely democratic model to explain the political system in this society, while using the market model to describe the American economic system.
In fact, the analysis of American society needs the use of three major models: liberal, authoritarian and feudal. While the functioning of the competitive markets — both economic and political — demands the use of the liberal model, the behavior of the powerful state machine and corporations cannot be described or explained with only the liberal democratic model. To understand the governmental machine, we need to look at a purely authoritarian model, with its focus on the hierarchical principles of organization; for an analysis of the role of corporations, we need to look at the feudal model, with its focus on the coexistence of several centers of power and personal relations in politics. In my opinion, the three universal “ideal types” in Weberian styles are necessary for the analysis of any society, present or past. (We probably also need “the criminal type of organization” and “the religious type of organization” for our analysis of society, but not the anarchic type of organization, which, as we see from history, has a very low chance of survival—even on a micro level). I discussed “the segmented approach” in several of my publications, which can be found on my website.
To explain the remarkable similarities in the behaviors of Soviet and American politicians, I want to talk about the universal role of the state machine. Of course, in a totalitarian society such as the USSR, the state was a horrible instrument of persecution of the people, and was totally controlled by the leaders and the nomenclature. American statehood, in the form of the federal and state governments, is like an executive branch, but under the control of not just the legislators and courts, but the media as well. Even still, despite its radical differences, the American state machine shares several universal characteristics typical of a state machine in any society—whether it is the Roman empire, the Middle age monarchy, the Soviet system or the Latin American authoritarian regimes. The American government—federal and state—has one fifth of the country’s labor force under its direct power, and spends one-third of the GNP. With innumerable laws and rules, this government controls the behavior of all its citizens, restraining their freedom to act as producers or consumers.
But when the legislators excitedly greeted Obama as well as they had his predecessors, they saw in him—as the delegates of the Soviet party congresses saw in Brezhnev–more than a head of state, with high constitutional authority and control over gigantic labor and material resources. They saw the leader of a superpower who has the strongest army in the world under his command, and has the greatest economy in the world under his supervision; one who makes decisionsthat have a tremendous influence on the fate of his country and the whole world. (It is virtually impossible to find examples of the same rituals in European countries, all of which are much smaller than the USA or the former USSR. The parliaments in these countries greet their leaders much more modestly.)
An understanding of the individual power wielded by the American president or the General Secretary inspires awe in those who happen to be in their presence. Each of us can probably remember a time when we were in the presence of a much less powerful, but still dominant person, and fell under the spell of his personality; even when we knew, objectively, that they were really quite mediocre. In fact, it was George Orwell who realized the impact of the superior on subordinate better than anybody. The fear of a superior is a very old concept. But that this fear is easily transformed into love was indeed a great discovery; one which I could fully appreciate while living in Stalin’s Russia. It was, indeed, a perfect mechanism for the adaption to life in a hierarchical organization, big or small. Any subordinate in such an organization is inclined to love those who issue commands for him or her, be it a faculty member, nurse, worker, or sales girl. What we saw taking place in the Great Kremlin Palace or in the chamber on Capitol Hill fits very well into the Orwellian theory about the yearning of people to love.
Октябрь 15, 2009
Sociological observation: the aura of power
Sociological observation: the aura of power