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O.T. FORD

 

Society at the broadest level is among the subjects captured least accurately by conventional concepts and terms, even conventional academic concepts and terms. Accordingly, a foundation for understanding various subjects within society must be built on an array of technical terms to describe concepts not used in conventional discussions.

Interests

An interest is a belief about what is good. The totality of a person’s interests is its interest set. The intersection of two or more interest sets — that is, the common interests of two or more persons — is a joint interest set. Every joint interest set defines an interest group. An interest group is thus the ad hoc collection of all those who hold a particular interest or set of interests. If an interest is defined generally or vaguely, the interest group will be larger; if it is defined specifically, the corresponding group will be smaller. As an interest persists over time, its corresponding group will gain and lose members, as those members’ interests change.

Morality is belief about the good as applied to behavior, about what persons should and should not do. A person’s morality is thus a subset of its interests. No person ever deliberately acts against its own interests, including its own morality. There is a difference between professed moral beliefs and actual moral beliefs. How an individual chooses to act in a given situation at a given time is the best evidence of what that individual believes to be justified in that situation at that time. That fact is not changed if at an earlier or later time the individual professes or even genuinely believes an act to be immoral. Put another way, we can never really know what an individual believes until that belief is tested by a practical situation.

Institutions

A role is a social relationship or set of relationships meant to be held by a person but defined independently of the person who holds it, which thus may be occupied by different persons. Roles may be generic (boss) or specific (my boss). When I do my job, I follow the instructions of my boss, not as an individual, but as the holder of that particular role. If my boss retires and someone else is hired to that position, I will follow the instructions of my new boss, even if my old boss calls and tells me to do something else, because I answer to the role, not the person. It doesn’t matter how much I liked or trusted my old boss.

An institution is a role, or a relationship or set of relationships among roles. In other words, an institution can be one person or many persons working together, but any of those persons can be replaced with other persons without changing the basic nature of the institution. Institutions can be for a variety of conventional purposes; churches, businesses, and street gangs can all be institutions. Individual people come and go; the institution continues. A company that has lasted for eighty or ninety years must be an institution, because individual humans don’t work for eighty or ninety years. In the genuine democracies, our governments are institutions; the power of the mayor is passed from one human to another after an election, and the new mayor has approximately the same powers as the old one.

An organization is a structured relationship among persons. It may or may not be an institution. An organization can have roles even if it is not an institution; what makes an organization non-institutional is that is it not composed entirely of roles.

Institutionalization is the degree to which any organization functions as an institution, a collection of roles, as opposed to a collection of humans. An organization is fully institutionalized if it consists of nothing but roles, if the organization is not dependent on the personality of anyone occupying any of its roles. Because democratic governments are more or less fully institutionalized, those of us who live under them have a tendency to believe that all (or at least most) governments are. There are rare exceptions; most people looking at Nazi Germany understood that the Third Reich was oriented around Hitler, and if he died, a new “Führer” would not have the same control over Germany. But in fact, many present and past governments are nowhere near as institutionalized as the democratic governments are. A recent example has emerged in Burma. The main democratic party, the National League for Democracy (အမျိုးသားဒီမိုကရေစီအဖွဲ့ချုပ် « ’Amuisā-Dīmuikarecī-’Ap‛æk‛up »), has dominated all recent free-and-fair elections, and has a majority of parliamentary seats from the recent election. In a normal, institutionalized system, its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (အောင်ဆန်းစုကြည် « ’Oŋ C‛an: Cu Krañ »), should become the head of government, which in Burma is supposed to be the president. But the military (which has been ruling Burma) designed a presidency for Burma specifically to keep Suu from taking it. In response, the NLD selected a president who will answer to Suu as party leader. Thus, Suu becomes the head of government of Burma, even though institutionally, the head of government was supposed to be the president. Presumably, when Suu retires or the NLD loses an election, the next leader of the dominant party will not be prohibited from taking the presidency, and will do so, making Burma more institutionalized.

Influence

To control is to determine the state or future of. Control is generally what you think it is, and of course when defined this way control is fairly rigid. It can thus be more helpful to speak more broadly, of influence. To influence is to affect the state or future of. Influence can extend to full control, but it can also be a matter of degree, and many forces can influence a condition or outcome collectively, without any one of them having control.

Power is the ability to influence. This ability to influence can be anything from interpersonal interactions to economics and politics at the social level.

Compliance occurs whenever one person does as instructed or requested by another, regardless of reason. Reasons for compliance can thus include both enthusiasm and duress, and any point in between. Authority is the ability to wield the power of others by securing direct compliance.

Resources are sources of influence other than authority. Resources can be inherent in the person or institution, hence inalienable, or they can be alienable, in which case they contribute to power when not yet alienated, and mostly in the act of alienation. In this definition, “natural resources” have the potential to become resources, but only become such when brought into use by persons or institutions for the purpose of influence. Inalienable resources for a person can include knowledge or physical abilities; a clear example of alienable resources would be money. Clearly, though, the possession of certain alienable resources, including money, gives power to individuals through the mere possibility of alienation. A person with money is much more likely to get compliance on the hope that the person will share some of the money.

We can speak of personal authority and personal resources, belonging to the person, or institutional authority and institutional resources, belonging to the institution. Authority and inalienable resources are inherent, but they are nonetheless subject to change. An individual may learn or forget things, for example, thus increasing or decreasing personal resources. A law could be passed that changes the power inherent in a political office, or the board of directors of a company could give new responsibilities to the CEO. To the extent that it exists, then, “political capital” would be classified as an alienable resource.

Politics

Politics is the attempt to influence society. It consists of interest groups pursuing their interests through the use of power. Interest groups will use whatever power they have, based on assessments of effectiveness and the effects on other interests. There are innumerable interests and therefore innumerable interest groups, often changing constantly while responding to changing circumstances. Politics is thus a mêlée of power.

Traditional political analysis has often suggested that capturing the institutions of government is the goal of politics. This is too limited. A group can effect its interests through means short of fully taking over the government. There are lesser acts, clearly political, that don’t involve anything identifiable as government. Within politics and political sociology, there is a tendency to categorize groups by means; “insiders” have certain means and use those, while “outsiders” have lesser means and use those. In fact, if the lesser means (such as protests and disruptive actions) are deemed useful, they will at times be used by “insiders”. In democracies, organizing to win elections is common across the power spectrum, since in fully-democratic states, elections determine governmental power itself.

The term ‘politics’ is not generally applied so broadly, but any exceptions are not truly a matter of principle; they are not qualitatively different (that is, of a different kind), but perhaps only quantitatively different (that is, to a different degree). For example, if a person tries to convince a friend to help him move his furniture, that would not typically be considered a political act; but when the president tries to convince the public to call their representatives, that clearly would be considered a political act. But these are merely points on a continuum. A celebrity trying to persuade the public to donate to disaster relief may be considered political, or may not. Similarly, we will often not include in politics acts that have an economic motive; if a person takes a job at the corner coffee shop, it would probably not be considered political. And yet there are many states in the world under the control of individuals whose motives must be described as wholly or largely economic, because the state can be used to enrich individuals and in many cases it is. Most dictators make themselves and their families and friends fabulously wealthy. But the wealth comes from control of the government, so seeking that wealth cannot be separated neatly from politics. (Donald Trump, of course, is merely the latest of many elected officials to use their positions for illicit wealth.)

 

© O.T. FORD

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