Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Polarities of Power

I think I've cracked the code on what I was calling postcolonial military history. It's really an expanded view of the field's subject matter based on what I'm tentatively calling "polarities of power."

That is to say, imagine the world in terms of haves and have nots, which groups occupy the dominant positions and which ones are marginalized, the oppressors and the oppressed, the colonizers and the colonized. Think of the power relationships between the two as a sort of magnetic field. Near the "equator" the plus and minus charges seems relatively equal--the give and take occurs in everyday negotiations with a lot of interplay between the two. But the whole structure of power is governed by the poles. In geology these correspond to magnetic north and south. In terms of social power they correspond to the violent imposition of, or resistance to, the will of a given polity/elite. If this sounds murky, think of the icons of these two polarities as Robert E. Lee (the dominators) and Che Guevara (the resisters).

Doesn't have to be these two men. But they're particularly good for the job. As I explained a few days ago to Tom Bruscino when he asked about War Historian's logo:

OK, here goes with a bit more explanation. Both are cult figures who, in the popular imagination of their proponents, are thought almost Christlike. So they're icons of the best in the warrior ethos. They have that in common. But Lee fought to preserve a system of stratified power, Che fought to challenge and overthrow such a system. Military historians, in effect, spend most of their time looking over the shoulders of the Lee's of this world. They need to look with equal facility over the shoulders of the Che's. I plan to write a short, direct essay on what I call "postcolonial military history" in a day or two. Let me know whether or not this brief downpayment on that post seems clear to you. Venceremos! ;-)
BTW: This is that "short, direct essay."

Tom responded:

Makes sense to me. A question: Where does George Washington fit in this discussion? (Note I did not call it a model, for the very reason that individuals like GW don't fit very well.) Washington was fighting both to overthow a system and to preserve another one. Just something to think about.
They say the earth's magnetic field reverses every several thousand years. This can happen in a human being's life, too.


redrasputin said...

Interesting analogy. Especially so if you consider that when you cut a magnet in half, you reproduce the lines of force in each new magnet. Thus, George Washington fits into the discussion. His orientation (resistor/dominator) didn’t reverse the way the earth’s does, with the whole staying the same and the polarity changing, but as a result of his position changing relative to the rest of the structure. His rebellion was in the name of freedom for those he considered his equals, but that freedom and equality was part of a social structure founded on domination. Cut the upper part of the whole away and Washington's position becomes the top, reproducing the same relations in the altered structure.

A similar change can be seen in Che enthusiastically helping Castro establish a far more thorough-going dictatorship than the one they had helped overthrow (all in the name of resisting stratified power, of course).

Mark G. said...

Thank you very much for that insight! I wonder if the magnetic field thing will be as robust a metaphor as it seems at first blush. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

I am not quite so sure that being a victim i.e. not having power at the moment (or the "colonized" to use the jargon if you will :) ) conveys any moral high ground in most cases. To my mind it conveys nothing more than a lack of power compared to another. If you simply reverse the roles where the "evil colonizer" becomes oppressed by another more powerful party, it is just as ugly. The "oppressed" Algerian FLN so beloved of the western left, once in office were every bit as cuddly as the French. Human nature is human nature, no matter where you go or when you look. Whichever group musters the most power just controls the situation and writes the histories.

I would say that the west is distinguished in this universal theme by one unique characteristic. We do self criticism, wandering into self flagellation and self hatred the further left you go in response to our own use of power. I am unaware of other non-western cultures that do that. Whether that self criticism is healthy, or if some is healthy and too much is not, I leave to those wiser than me to figure out. But it does seem unique to the west as far as I can tell.