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How powerful is Liz Truss? The PM needs to be feared and loved

We will deliver! (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)


October 13, 2022   6 mins

“We will deliver, and deliver, and deliver!” proclaimed Liz Truss, sounding like a crazed obstetrician. While our new leader is taking her first gulps at the poisoned chalice of power, the outlook for those whom power likes to harass doesn’t look too rosy.

A few weeks ago, a police officer tried to arrest a man carrying a blank placard who might have written something offensive to the King on it. Perhaps this heralds a whole new category of crime, namely those which you haven’t committed and don’t even intend to, but always might. People going for a quiet run in the park might suddenly dash into a bank and rob it. We’re going to need a lot more prisons.

Most liberals and leftists look on power with suspicion. But this is because when they hear the word they instinctively think of dominant power, and look for some kind of resistance to it. But resistance is itself a form of power; not all power is oppressive. There are productive forms of it as well as despotic ones. It all depends on who has it for what purposes in which circumstances. Only those with enough power already can afford to be sniffy about it, just as there are millionaires who fix their thoughts on spiritual matters and despise the rest of us for our crass materialism.

The only thing worse than having too much power is having too little. Democracy isn’t the opposite of power but a particular form of it. You need power to free yourself from slavery or Vladimir Putin. The same is true of authority, not all of which is to be derided.

The Met police, for instance, are in trouble partly because becoming a police officer is an attractive prospect to a lot of natural-born bullies and rednecks, who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to kick other people around or make obscenely sexist remarks in the knowledge that their mates would be alarmed if they didn’t. Trying to root out police bigotry thus has its limits, like trying to root out aspiring entertainers who enjoy being applauded.

But there is also the authority of a Nelson Mandela, which is a question not of rank but of wisdom and experience. Knowledge without wisdom is impoverished. So is knowledge without knowing how to apply it. There is such a thing as tacit knowledge, meaning something you know but can’t formulate. Try teaching someone how to whistle “Hey Jude”.

Noam Chomsky once made an interesting comment on the flyblown old cliché “speaking truth to power”. He pointed out that power (of the dominant kind) knows the truth already. Only the excessively charitable see it as a clumsy but well-intentioned giant, blundering witlessly around the place and trampling on people like a rogue elephant without even noticing. On this theory, power is born of ignorance. If only it were aware of the havoc it wreaks, it would change its ways. If only the tobacco companies had known long ago about the lethal effects of smoking, they would have shifted over into producing cheese-and-onion crisps. If the logging companies are deaf to the danger of destroying the rainforests, let’s just tell them again, and then again. While we’re at it, let’s draw the attention of the gambling industry to the suicides whose blood they have on their hands.

Power, however, is far from witless. On the contrary, it makes use of highly specialised forms of knowledge all the time. Knowledge is itself a mode of power, rather as universities have become service stations for the capitalist economy. Power knows what’s going on in the most literal of senses, given its global networks of surveillance. It is perfectly conscious of its own darker machinations, but either doesn’t care or believes that they are unavoidable. What sustains it is not ignorance but self-interest. It isn’t schooling it needs, but restraining. This is also true at the individual level. There are people to whom one should no more give power than one would give a bowie knife to a toddler. The problem is that one usually finds out who they are when it’s too late.

It isn’t power, then, that needs the truth, which means that intellectuals will have to find some other high-minded justification for their salaries. It’s those whose lives power makes miserable. To be free, you need what is traditionally known as emancipatory knowledge — a grasp of your situation as a whole, one which involves not just a new view of the world but a new self-understanding. And this transformed self-understanding is itself an active force for change. If a process of political liberation is to be judged successful, those who emerge at the end of it aren’t quite the people they were when they started out.

David Hume, perhaps the greatest of British philosophers, writes rather surprisingly that power always lies with the governed. He’s not speaking of democracy, which hardly existed at the time, but of the fact that sovereignty ultimately rests on popular agreement. You can imprison some of the people all of the time, but you can’t imprison all of the people all of the time. Any form of rule which doesn’t engage the partial consent of the masses is unlikely to endure.

Without that consent, as Sigmund Freud remarks, it would be impossible to understand how so many civilisations have survived for so long despite the justifiable hostility of the common people. There must be enough people who are complicit in their own subjection — enough people on benefits, for example, who are rather taken with that nice Mr Kwarteng and think he is doing a great job. It’s true that consent needn’t mean affection: most governments have been tolerated rather than admired. Power is what we have to put up with. But people, being properly self-interested, will only submit to it as long as there is something in it for them.

What that is, of course, may be pathetically meagre. It may mean having the secret police search your flat only once a month rather than twice a week. Those who are subject to power are usually reluctant to revolt against it — not necessarily because they have any particular relish for it, but because of the dangers involved in confronting its violence, the lack of any obvious alternative, and the fact that they have too much to do without chaining themselves to each other for days on end. On the other hand, the moment citizens realise that there simply isn’t enough in it for them anymore, they will rebel as surely as night follows day. It is rational to do so, and human beings are somewhat rational creatures. When any alternative becomes better than what you have, the days of your rulers are numbered. This may be partly because there is no longer much in it for them either.

The great theorist of political consent is Edmund Burke. In his treatise on aesthetics, Burke tries to square the fact that the law must be feared with the need for it to be loved. If the former evokes the image of the father, the latter has a more maternal flavour. The authority of the father, Burke argues, “hinders us from having that entire love for him that we have for our mothers, where the parental authority is almost melted down into the mother’s fondness and indulgence”. The problem is that only love will bind us to the law, but this love is likely to weaken its force and inspire in us a benign contempt. Desperate to resolve this contradiction, Burke offers us the figure of the grandfather — male, to be sure, but tempered by old age with a certain gentleness of spirit. It is unlikely that this will provide much guidance for Liz Truss.

Freud, by contrast, sees no final solution to this dilemma. In his language, the law becomes the superego or source of punitive discipline; and since it is installed inside us all, its power is all the more draconian. To transgress it feels like violating ourselves. The law works as well as it does because we reap an obscene delight from being oppressed by it; and this is because being punished relieves us of our guilt. Yet we then feel guilty about our delight, which leads us to want more punishment. We revere the law, then, but our reverence is ambivalent: we never entirely submit to its coercion, and rejoice in seeing it brought low. No Tory government is going to work that one out.

The most authentic form of power, so we learn from King Lear, is one which maintains a pact with weakness and failure. The most elusive aspect of power is the exercise of it for its own sake. There is something excessive about this faculty, which tends to outstrip its practical goals and revel in itself. It wasn’t a burning desire to spread social sweetness and light which kept Boris Johnson hanging on to office like a burr to the seat of one’s pants. In this respect, power is as irrational as love.

Such power is not likely to disappear anytime soon, and this is good news for those who need to fight injustice. But we will know that genuine change has happened when the word no longer means quite what it means at present — when not only the power-situation, but the very concept of power, has been transformed almost out of recognition.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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j morgan
j morgan
1 year ago

“Speaking truth to power” isn’t necessarily telling the powerful something they don’t know, but rather saying what the powerful has ruled out as unsayable.

For example, let’s imagine a well-known male comedian and a large political party have cooked up a scheme to field this man as a woman candidate in a constituency.

Insisting in this scenario that the prospective MP is a man is surely speaking truth to power, as well as an act that potentially earns you social-media bans, lost work, social opprobrium, etc etc.

Them telling us a lie and trying to prevent us telling the truth is an act of dominance, and raw power if ever I’ve seen it.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

“Most liberals and leftists look on power with suspicion.”

Really? I thought it was with deep hunger given their predilection for insisting the rest of us abide by their idea of virtue.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

“The Met police, for instance, are in trouble partly because becoming a police officer is an attractive prospect to a lot of natural-born bullies and rednecks, who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to kick other people around”

Or literary critcs.

Last edited 1 year ago by polidori redux
Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I am a Red-Neck. The word was from white share-croppers working the cotton fields bent over with their hoes chopping the weeds.. and their necks would become deep red in the baking sun. it was a poor share-cropper and field hand…

I work construction in the South, pretty Red-neck – But the thing of a Red-Neck is he may be small minded, but at the same time he is salt of the earth – he is who actually does the work. Builds the houses, asphalts the roads, farms the soy beans, pulls the power lines, drives the 18 wheelers, fells the trees and drills the oil… Easy to look down on – but impossible to do without. Then also a hard headed intelligence, patriotism, honest, very hard working, and pretty much always, believes in Jesus and God.

Sixteen Tons
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded 16 tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said, “Well, a-bless my soul”

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Can’t no high toned woman make me walk the line

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t get you
Then the left one will

You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
the redneck lament……
Johnny Cash – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfp2O9ADwGk

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Interesting. I always thought Rednecks were associated with the Cornish criminals who were transported to the Sugar Plantations as slaves. They have always been an embarrassment to the Caribbean authorities and ranked at the bottom of the pecking order there. Now virtually extinct there particularly in Barbados.
Strange also that the word rednecks would never be allowed on the MSN forums. Not an offensive word but banned nevertheless.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
NS
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

hear hear!

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Quite. Has anyone watched Fresh Cops, on BBC3? I actually thought it was a spoof along the lines of Scot Squad at first. It would now seem that rather wet university graduates with very little gravitas are what the Police are looking for. But that doesn’t happen in the world of an ageing Marxist who has spent a lifetime playing the working class card In Oxbridge colleges. Thatcher is still in power and the SPG are still driving round London in an unmarked van, duffing up anyone from ethnic minorities.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Undiluted Claptrap, by an academic who’s spent his career specialising in the subject.

Referencing Hume, Burke and Shakespeare in an effort to appear learned, then displaying the toy-throwing ability of an experienced toddler is no way to go about political analysis.

If he’d employed the proverbial monkey that’d got bored with trying to reproduce the Works of Shakespeare to write this article for him, it might well have been more coherent.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I quite liked large parts of this article, but don’t think we ever got an answer to the question in the title – i.e. “How Powerful is Liz Truss ?”. And the conclusion didn’t make much sense for me.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

What a mess this article is. All jumbled up, ill thought out, inappropriate, quotes and allusions and cliches coming from a Hard left agenda.. Not even good writing by any means. Too much wrong to address.

As far as Truss – her political and economic instincts will destroy the Party, maybe the Nation. Truss said Boris did the Covid response correctly – although the economy is irreparably wrecked by exactly that. Then she said Boris pumping money and weapons into Ukraine was correct. This shows she is 100% wrong about everything.

And she is powerful because the Party is headless chickens – my guess is because things will blow up, and no one really wants their name attached to the disaster Boris created, and there is no real plan possible, which will save the day – so the Party cannot have an enemy to unify them and get behind in this fight – as they are the ones who created this convoluted mess. NO one is coming out of this self inflicted disaster with reputation intact.

Covid response and Ukraine were the biggest two petards to ever blow up wile still in the hands of the makers. They together have likely brought Britain it a full Stagflation. The economy is a ‘Dead Man Walking’ – as I have been saying – wait till Friday and see if the QE she triggered does stop – and QT return. I think it too late, I think the Gilts explode – but the timing of all this is on her (It had to come anyway, but could have come softer if planned).

Here is a great article on ‘LDI: the better mousetrap that almost broke the UK” about the leveraging of the pension funds. I wish Unherd could get this guy to write here https://worldnewsera.com/news/finance/stock-market/ldi-the-better-mousetrap-that-almost-broke-the-uk/
The foundation of this depression being the 13 years of QE and keeping interest at zero, and MMT levels of deficit spending by money printing – a Gift Gordon Brown gave the Nation, but one the Tories kept going, and then the Boris insane response to the flu, and then starting WWIII where it was not in National Interest.

P.S. as the £ devalues to pennies – just remember Brown sold the national Gold stockpile for about £220 an oz (In 1999, Chancellor Gordon Brown sought to sell off 401 tonnes (56%) of the UK’s gold reserves.)– haha, what a disaster – and he was Blair’s Finance guy – Blair, Brown, Boris – 3 guys who wrecked UK.

Ben J
Ben J
1 year ago

I’m paying for this, by the way, Terry. Please do better next time.

Brendan O'Leary
BO
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

The Left seeks Power, the Right seeks Freedom.
That’s the way it is these days. It’s not 1968 anymore.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago

Yes. How I wish someone would examine the revolution that has overtaken our society since 97 and so stop this endless obsession about what Boris Truss or Keir do. Where have the real levers of power gone? Who really wields it? This govt cannot control the Bank of England and certainly not the international money markets who are now re shaping KK’s budget piece by piece. The executive assured us it has the power to control our borders. But 35000 illegal economic migrants have landed on our beaches – the human rights legal framework set up by Blair is more powerful. Boris cried out in the covid crisis- we are pulling levers and nothing happens. He was a puppet of the more powerful medical industrial complex. And what about the communications of a government? The BBC has openly disavowed all pretence at partiality on net zero and suppresses information on grooming gangs and the Islamist threat. It toppled Boris over a leaving do. And drunk on power it will continue to harrass and undermine any Tory goverment. So lets stop pretending the PM matters. Powerful vested interests have grown parasitically on our neo Socialist State and they will all nimby and resist anything that threatens the 15 year Good Times Bubble. Lets speak about real Power.

Andrew Martin
AM
Andrew Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Yes the “Blob” It’s so nice to be able to say that word here. Banned by the American woke Microsoft News in the UK.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

Yes. 1984/2022. Our media has forfeited trust. It covers up numerous ugly truths and is now OPENLY evangelical for the dread toxic State ideologies – race hating identitarianism, Pol Potist Net Zero zealotry, Covid lies & catastrophism and sustained cover up of all truths about the dark underbelly of islamism/failed state multiculturalism. Any challenge to socio- economic Zombie State Orthodoxy and the Equality Cult – even a rational non Truss one – are doomed and on the Cancel List. America has led way. But the BBC – the bulwark against such tyranny – has utterly betrayed us all and taken a side. No honest open public debate exists on MSM today.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

‘Only those with enough power already can afford to be sniffy about it, just as there are millionaires who fix their thoughts on spiritual matters and despise the rest of us for our crass materialism.’

That hit home. Interesting article thanks.

James Jenkin
JJ
James Jenkin
1 year ago

A very interesting read, thank you! Lots of gems. But the point was …?

Antony Hirst
AH
Antony Hirst
1 year ago

You need power to free yourself from slavery or Vladimir Putin.”
Let’s just ignore it was those with power who shackled us to Putin 😀

Mark McKee
Mark McKee
1 year ago

When considering the question of whether it is preferable to be feared or loved, Machiavelli famously advised his Prince, “The answer is that one would prefer to be both but, since they don’t go together easily, if you have to choose, it’s much safer to be feared than loved.”

Benedict Waterson
BW
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago

‘Incentives’ might be a better word than power in the kind of market Liberal society he claims to describe, where the power of the state is conditional, limited and provisional, and incentives towards capital drive change. Leftist refs to ‘power’ always read like some primitive fear of a secret moral order of dark forces.

Nigel Rodgers
NR
Nigel Rodgers
1 year ago

For an Unherd column, this is remarkably dull and stale, even clichéd. I found it hard to finish.