Energy and Society: Chapter 13: The Enlargement and Concentration of Political Power


Philosophers and other thinkers concerned with human behavior have for a very long time been concerned with human power. In every situation where men have been studied, it is clear that some people are able to propose and initiate actions that others respond to. Compliance may be taken as evidence that they choose voluntarily to comply with what is required of them. But there is evidence that often the choice was not necessarily made to improve one’s lot, but rather to avoid a worse one. In the latter situation, one has to know what is the worst, in the mind of the actor, that can happen to him. For some, death represents that condition, but in many situations, men have chosen to die rather than be forced to live under some feared or hated condition, including punishment in hell after death.

All those who attempt to explain behavior in terms of human choice among anticipated consequence face these facts. Some have abandoned the idea that human choice matters. They rely upon some kind of determinism, physical, biological, technological or social. Such systems of thought are weakened by the fact that no set of people exhibit behavior that is absolutely predictable on the basis of any such set of “causes.”

Among social scientists today, regularities are often treated as if they represented the outcome of interactions between a number of sets of factors that can be discovered by using various bodies of knowledge. It is only in terms of the limits they impose that absolute predictions can be made. Thus, when there is no further conversion of energy by the human body we can say it is dead, and it ceases to be a variable converter in the social system of which it was a part. The ability to impose physical coercion, up to and including the destruction of life is, then, the kind of sanction that can impose one absolute limit on human behavior.

It is, however, also possible to anticipate a wide range of situations where there is a very high degree of compliance, even though there is no evidence of physical coercion or the threat of its use to enforce conformity. All of these may be said to evidence “influence” rather than control. Or alternately, any kind of action, psychological or physical, that has an effect on behavior may be called a control, and those who exercise it be declared to have power. For centuries, there was a struggle between those scholars who posited for man “free will” and those who accepted the idea that regularities in human conduct could be explained in terms of natural law. The struggle goes on, but nowadays, concern has for the most part been centered around the observation of regularities and deviance rather than argument about absolutes. There still remains the fact that the exercise of physical coercion is regarded as a special kind of act. And the belief that those who perform it must, themselves, be carefully controlled, if not by man, then by immutable laws. In this view, civil society ceases to exist where this is not the case. Among the founding fathers, as many leading scholars of their time there was confusion as to what is a society, and what is a state. I am here limiting the word “state” to include only those organizations that are permitted legitimately to exercise physical coercion. Such organizations may also perform many functions that are also performed by other institutions such as the church, the family and the market.

The fear of abuse, of coercive use of power, by those who govern was a major element that led the makers of the U.S. Constitution to limit strictly the legitimate use of physical coercion by the government they were creating. But as we have already seen, many situations that now threaten the citizen and his society can apparently be brought under control only by grossly extending political power. This has made it impossible for legitimacy to be confined to acts which were originally thought to be authorized by the will of the Creator. New interpretations of constitutional limits were required to solve problems created by the shift to high-energy society.

In part, the increase represents the taking over of functions previously performed by other institutions and in part, it represents the exercise of types of social control which were unnecessary or impossible in the low-energy society.

The developments already cited made it less and less possible for traditional codes of conduct, interpreted by traditional means and implemented by existing administrative agencies, to meet the needs that arose in the high-energy society. The price system supplanted many of the old ways of meeting needs. The use of contracts in which the subscribing parties agreed upon a code to govern part of their relations during a specific period of time was another such development. The enforcement of these agreements required the power of the state. But the numerous consequences of the new relationships emerging from high-energy technology were of great concern to many besides those immediately involved in a contract or sale. To guard their interest, further controls both on the market and on the nature of the contract were needed. When these groups demanded protection, it was often supplied by the state.

One of the groups most adversely affected by the appearance of the contract and price systems was the family. It is not possible, since there are so many variations of the kinship unit, to show just how each type would be affected by each change in converters or by a specific change in the market. However, there are some general propositions which have already been presented here, and others which can be made, which will now bring together to make clearer the cumulative effects of high-energy technology upon the family.

Some changes were due to the limited effectiveness of the family both as a consumption and as a production unit. As was shown earlier, the use of the flowing stream and the sailing ship led, in some places, to replacement of the family as an economic unit by the feudal system or some type of slavery. With the use of coal, oil, gas, and hydroelectricity the family became even less capable of competing successfully with other social groups in performing some of its functions. One of the principal factors which affected it was change in the relationship between production, consumption, and land ownership.

Where private ownership and inheritance of land prevail in the low-energy society, and land is scare, control over land can become the basis for exploitation of children by their parents or of siblings by on of their number. The power of the patriarch to determine which of his children shall inherit land enables him to make the welfare of the head of the family the primary object of family activity. Primogeniture, by guaranteeing to the firstborn that he will inherit, regardless of whether or not he makes any contribution to the welfare of the rest of the family, similarly lends itself to exploitation. Thus, viewed historically the family exhibits, in addition to the affectional and reciprocal arrangements so widely approved, definite compulsive and exploitative aspects. In Christian countries, particularly in the United States, the family is idealized. It is regarded as being almost totally a beneficent institution for all its members throughout their lives, and its negative aspects, which frequently prevail even in Christian society, are overlooked.

By shaping his early experience, parents can inculcate in a child the values in which their welfare depends. Family control over land and over surplus energy, which might be used to create or secure tools and additional converters, increases the certainty that if parents “train up a child in the way he should go,” he will not, as an adult, “depart from it.” The emergence of forms of energy which did not depend upon control over arable land provided the exploited members of the family with alternatives to family control. They could now survive without their father’s blessing or the cooperation of other members of the family; they could escape from what had been in the low-energy society inescapable. The way out often entailed migration.

Migration robbed the community of origin, in turn, of its hold over its members. Between them, the family and the other groups rooted in the local community had held a monopoly on the development of skills and had exercised control over the vocational codes which limited access to and performance within occupations. With the development of the new skills involved in the use of high-energy converters, the family lost some of its capacity to develop in its members the attitudes which assured that family values would be given a high place in a well-defended complex including the values of other competing groups. In low-energy society, the interplay of institutions provided a network of controls which supported one another. There was no such thing as an “economic man,” for, whether making war, worshiping, or participating in the acts necessary to secure sustenance, the individual was constantly made aware of the sanctions that might be applied by other groups to which he belonged if in one endeavor he should violate the code of anther group. The sacred rites through which he was endowed with his innermost personality were not separable from the mundane habits by which he secured food, shelter, and clothing. The removal of some acts from the matrix in which they had functioned robbed the system of the means by which balance among the various claims on the individual was obtained and security for each group and institution was assured. The deviant could no longer be required to conform to group standards on pain of punishment or expulsion. He might now attach himself to some independent organization which existed to serve the new converters, such as a ship’s company or a corporation, and there survive and prosper even while his one-time superiors declined in prestige and the system they served disintegrated.

The family thus lost some of its capacity to carry on those of its functions which depended upon its ability to discipline its members. In the kinship system the protection of the weak and ill-favored was secured by placing bonds on the strong and well-favored. Divested of such control, the family could no longer protect those unable to fend for themselves. But the groups which made use of the more productive or valuable individuals of the family seldom assumed responsibility for those whom the family could no longer provide with care. There was bound to be a searching and sifting of alternatives to determine who now should assume old family responsibilities.

Changes in the family thus gave rise to changes in other social arrangements. Loss of family control over its younger members results in a situation in which there is no surety that care and affection lavished upon children will be reciprocated in the declining years of parents. Those anticipating their own declining years are, therefore, required to look elsewhere for assurance that they will not become a “burden” to their children. It is also apparent that in high-energy society children are no longer a potent source of aid to parents in their efforts to accumulate the means to provide old-age security. A tractor frequently costs far less than rearing a child to the age at which he can be useful, and the cost of a child’s food alone is greater than that of the fuel which supply more than the equivalent of his mechanical energy. Children in the urban home perform few functions which a machine cannot perform more cheaply; the mounting cost of urban housing, clothing, recreating, and education makes the cost of child-rearing very much greater than any financial gain which is likely to result from his services to the family of origin. Parents, therefore, increasingly seek means to escape the costs which child-rearing entails. This results in declining fertility and increasing demands that family burdens be shared by other institutions.

Expanding functions of the state

As a consequence of the family’s declining ability to perform what were once family functions, a number of other associations and institutions have had to assume them. In the West, labor unions have required employers to provide pensions and disability and burial funds. Corporations are forced to set aside reserves to provide such services. Fraternal and benefit societies are organized specifically to perform such functions, and “private” insurance against the vicissitudes of life takes a multitude of forms. But all together these take on only a small part as compared with the number of functions assumed by the state.

In every high-energy society, the state is required to bear at least part of the cost of educating children, and the care of the aged is a mounting burden on the taxpayer. Even in the United States, where ideology officially frowns on “socialized medicine,” the care of the mentally ill is assumed for the most part to be a responsibility of the state, and the cost of the care of men injured or killed in wars no longer falls entirely on the families of these men. Where the family is broken, the state more frequently than the relatives assumes responsibility for the care of the dependent children. When family income falls below a certain level, Medicaid provides medical care, food stamps, and if a member is incapacitated, supplementary insurance. In most high-energy societies, part of the burden of caring for the sick and the injured falls upon the state instead of the family of the disabled. It is the state as often as the family that attempts to reform the delinquent. The state arrogates to itself the duty of punishing the criminal. If the market fails to provide the means whereby the family can secure the means to subsistence, the state attempts to supply it. These functions have been assumed even where they are hardly defended, let alone encouraged, by official ideology. Whatever explanation is offered, it is clear that the increased activity of the state in areas previously covered by the family is neither fortuitous nor entirely the outgrowth of ideological roots.

In democratic states, privately organized groups are continually being formed to fill the gaps between what emerging values demand and what already existing organization can do. In the course of time, many functions originating in such private organization have been transferred to the state. In the socialist states, government has directly assumed many functions previously performed by the family.

Loss of local autonomy

To the functions of the state, there have also been added some which were previously carried on by locally-centered organizations. These agencies are frequently unable to cope with the power wielded by such giant entities as the corporations of the West, or the trusts and other agencies of the totalitarian states. In the high-energy society, a decision to alter the whole character of an area can be made without the consent or even the knowledge of the local population; the economic base of the community thus becomes subject to the vagaries of the market or to decisions made in some distant directors’ meeting or by some government bureaucrats as to whether or not a particular undertaking should be discourage, encouraged, permitted, or prohibited. When such a decision is made, the state usually has to take on a number of new functions, for the organizations which carry on the changed economic functions often are without the authority, and frequently have no motive, to supply the new services which are now required. The provision of schools, roads, streets, lighting, hospitals, sanitary systems, public transportation, and other necessities is sometimes left completely out of the calculations of those who introduce the new productive facilities. Moreover, whether unemployment, collapse, prosperity, or boom follows, only limited modifying action is possible within the local community.

It has also become apparent that sometimes decisions made locally will not be tolerated by others who have more power than can be wielded by local groups. The conflict between what has been considered moral in a particular place and what is demanded by outside force has probably been most frequent and most crucial when codes connected with property have come into conflict with other codes that demand conduct in opposition to that required by property rights. Values learned in the family from elders and neighbors sometimes preclude the relations necessary to high-energy technology. Such norms may interfere with the efficient operations of enterprise; if followed absolutely, they might make the new technique unworkable. Conversely, the adoption of new rules made necessary by new techniques frequently will completely destroy the existing social system. In such circumstances a close relation between morality and law, between what is taught in the family and neighborhood and what is demanded by the state, is almost impossible. What people have been trained to want to do, clashes with what they subsequently discover they have to do. The freedom of those imbued by the traditional morality with one set of values interferes with the freedom of those acting on the basis of another set of values. For example, a worker who, in response to the demands of groups in the local community, fulfills such obligations as those of bread-winner, husband, and father may, in the struggle over the terms of a collective bargaining contract, be required to remain on strike and thus be unable to fulfill the demands of his other roles. Similarly, the manager of a local plant owned by a distant corporation may be required to shut the plant down, causing great losses to all his local friends who are in business as well as to his employees. Again, local resources may be purchased and taken out of production by an owner who seeks either to remove a competitor from the market or to establish a reserve for future use. The whole basis of community life may thus be destroyed.

In situations like this, it will be a rare community in which locally responsible officers will willingly act to preserve the interests of distant property owners against those of their constituents. Usually, the locally elected administrative officials conveniently fail to note trespass, and local juries do not find evidence on which to indict or convict. The enforcement of contract under these circumstances may require the fullest use of the centralized power of the state. To protect property rights the central state has frequently authorized police action by officers actually selected and paid by, and responsible to the property owner. Government has made this use of power in many places and at many times. Examples abound, among them the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Coal and Iron Police, and the Carboneri. The evidence here suggests that, whether or not the particular parties to the contracts (sometimes called “treaties” when a small and “primitive” party is being dealt with) entered them willingly, a great many of those affected accepted the consequences unwillingly, and only in the face of overpowering force brought to bear by the state.

Political control of production

The separation of the site of production from that of consumption has similarly involved an increase in state power. If food is prepared in a distant packing plant, its consumer no longer is in a position to judge whether his health is being adequately protected by those who prepare and process that food. If drugs, serums, and vaccines for which only the very carefully trained technician can set adequate standards (and detect deviations from them), are manufactured in a remote plant, the old adage, “Let the buyer beware” provides no basis for effective control. Where standards can be set and policed only through state agencies, increased use of the state is essential.

In the same way, specialization has contributed to the multiplication of state function:  the determination of individual competence in many specialized fields has been added to the state’s obligations. The consumer is no longer expected to risk his life or his property in uncertified hands until such time as the competence of the specialist he needs has been demonstrated, and, on the other hand, the competent practitioner is afforded a means by which he can be freed from the competition of the charlatan. Judgment in the market place is supplemented by examination of the credentials offered and of the results of tests designed by those in a position to pass on competence, responsibility, and integrity. A study made in 23 states of this country as early as 1929 found more than 1,200 occupations, entry to which was limited by government. Today, following a half century of increasing governmental power, the number is legion. This, in what is probably the least regulated of the societies extensively using high-energy technology!

The effects of competition between areas well advanced in the accumulation of converters, and in the social and technical conditions required to make use of high-energy technology, and those not so well equipped has led to continuous effort by groups in the “backward” states to preserve the integrity of their regional culture. Tariffs, quotas, rationing, favorable and unfavorable exchange rates for goods and services thought to protect one group against another or one nation against another have multiplied with the spread of industrialism. Often these rules regulate what it was previously impossible or unnecessary to regulate. In particular, regions dominated by food raisers have clamored for a means to escape the consequence of unregulated competition between high- and low-energy converters.

Political distribution of surpluses

As has been noted, such competition has had the effect of demoralizing the food raiser and frequently of destroying a long-established culture. Confronted in the market by a colossus in the form of the agent of a corporation or an industrial state, the farmer has turned to his government for help in making the struggle more equal. Every food-raising area has sought some kind of political protection against domination in the uncontrolled market. Efforts have proceeded along two lines. One is the use of the power of the state, supplemented by that of such organizations as cooperatives, to match the power of the organized industrialist worker and management. To this end the state is expected to extend to the farmer special privileges in organization and special concessions in taxation. Farms demand special forms of credit and monetary and fiscal policies favorable to farm groups. In some cases, specific protection for farm prices as against those of other goods has also been obtained. Methods of assuring “fair” prices have included “dumping” surplus abroad and subsidizing special classes at home who can consume what will not be bought at the protect price. There has also been deliberate destruction of crops and farm products, in addition, of course, to tariffs and other barriers to imported foods.

A second line of effort is pursued by farmers, along with other groups who are able to exercise more power in the political than in the economic realm, in demanding a redistribution of national income. Their success in this effort has grown out of the conditions under which high-energy technology has come into use. In most of the places where it developed, high-energy technology was achieved only at the price of political compromise. Coalition of a number of groups with somewhat differing values and purposes but all interested in using the new converters was necessary to wrest power from the old rulers. In the struggle the aid of many men was needed. The myth most successful in bringing about the required political changes was dependent on a successful appeal to the “common man.”

Put more exactly, perhaps, the appeal was in terms of those values most widely shared in the society. Whether the liberal democratic state is regarded as being run by a succession of contending power groups, who appeal for support in the name of the values they are prepared to enhance and protect, or as being run by the masses, who seek leaders willing to pursue the values to which “common men” are devoted, it must necessarily serve values widely held.

In states of this type, a referendum is occasionally held to determine whether the existing government serves more of the widely held values than it is currently believed some alternative coalition might do. But even if no such method is used, the state must either serve widely held and significant values, or devote endless energy to coercing those whose choices are frustrated. Thus the consequences of the dogma “one man, one vote” makes the democratic state far more responsive to the wishes of the man in the street with limited wealth than is either the oligarchic corporation or in the market, wherein “one dollar, or one share of stock, one vote” may prevail. As we have seen, the new converters required concentration of power in the hands of management. In democratic states, this clashes with the dispersed power of the people. Such states, possessing the power to limit and coerce, are required by their voters to undo the “injustice” which arises from the “abuse” of great power of wealth and position in the corporation and the market.

Government by administration

The compromise which was required to bring about the transition to high-energy in England, and in some degree elsewhere in the West, gave power to the voter, the laborer, and the consumer. The increase in the power of these groups was not so extensive in Germany, Russia, and Japan. There the power of the high-energy technology fell largely into the hands of those already influential in government. In these countries, government, being less subject to the demands of the multitude, could retain control over the new surpluses. Instead of distributing the surpluses, politicians appealed to tradition, patriotism, racism, and similar values to justify state control over them. The power developed was used to make the position of the elite more secure; only such concessions were made to values revealed by or created in the market or the local community, or to the democratic tendency, as were thought necessary to consolidate that position. Thus, both the democratic and the nondemocratic state have shown a tendency to turn away from the most widespread possible use of the market to determine the “just” allocation of goods and services produced. To many, the state represents a more equitable distributor of some valued goods and services than the market. The “judicial” functions of the state also increase with the increased use of energy.

As the number of conflicts between the codes which governed the old institutions and the codes found necessary and desirable under high-energy usage multiplies, the old means become less and less adequate for settling disputes. In the low-energy society, conflicts between husband and wife, parents and children, neighbors, employees and employers, and fellow workers are often settled by relatively informal means; appeal to a higher authority to bring about a settlement is infrequent. Where there is widespread adherence to a religion, a priest may be called in to give the “just” answer. For the most part, the individual is left to make his decision in contemplation of its probable results. Thus, for example, where divorce may be unilaterally invoked, its possible consequences in terms of repayment of dowry or bride price, shame and humiliation for the whole clan, ostracism and denial of religious consolation, or loss of the affection and services of children may prevent it in all but the most unusual circumstances. Again, the local reputation of the worker and the employer with whom he may be involved in a dispute may be altered by a decision locally thought to violate justice, and the subsequent effects on ability to hire or be hired may greatly temper the position of both parties to a labor dispute.

Sanctions such as these continue to modify this kind of relationship in high-energy society. However, the growing mobility required for increased use of high-energy technology, and the inability to modify by local action decisions and codes, made at a distance, rob the local system of many of its sanctions and render some of the remaining ones inoperable. As the rate of change increases, there is a growing diversity of values among members of families and an increased disparity between the values of succeeding generations. Alterations in role requirements, as between husbands and wives, parents and children, make formal action by the state more and more necessary. Laws to enforce the care of parents by children and children by parents, regulations concerning joint and community property by husbands and wives, decisions concerning inheritance, all these become more subject to state action when there is the widespread and rapid change which accompanies an increased use of new converters. As in the cases noted earlier, this involves the state in operations very different from those foreseen by the founding fathers. Instead of serving as a referee in a game with well-established rules, the politician is required at once to discover emerging norms, enunciate and implement them, and enforce sanctions against violators.

War and the modern state

In such circumstances a “government of laws” loses most of its meaning. If, when circumstances change, decisions previously made are repeated verbatim, the consequences of the restated decisions are nonetheless different from the consequences of the original decisions. If new decisions are made in the light of differing circumstances, the surety which once characterized “the law” is replaced by uncertainty. The rapid growth of administrative law in all high-energy societies reflects the necessity to control even the controllers, so that their decisions will have at least the similitude of consistency. The continuous alteration of constitutional law in all those countries which claim to be bound by constitutional limits, even though the changes are made in such fashion that the duties of the agents of the state can be carried on behind a façade of continuity, amounts in fact to change in fundamental law.

Perhaps none of these changes— or all of them put together— has had as much effect on the state as has the use of high-energy technology in warfare. For reasons, some of which are already apparent and some of which we shall discuss in the next chapter, increased warfare has accompanied the emergence of high-energy technology. But whatever the reasons for war, preparation for it and its execution involve entirely different social consequence under high-energy technology from those seen in low-energy society.

The tremendous emphasis upon manpower directly engaged on the field of battle, which was characteristic even of the First World War, made population as such a much more significant factor in determining victory than it currently is or is subsequently likely to be. A regiment of Napoleon’s troops could be equipped for war for less energy than it costs to provide the pilot of one jet fighter-bomber with the tools he commands. The energy costs of the first atomic bomb were probably in excess of the energy expended in many a whole battle in previous wars. Techniques of command in the field and techniques of preparing for war have become so different as a consequence of changes in the converters used that the whole matter of determining what weapons shall be invented and who shall command them must be reconsidered.

While it is still possible to give nominal command to the members of some ancient class or caste, such as the Samurai or the Junkers, control in fact passes to those who can design, produce, and handle tanks, planes, radar and sonar gear, rockets, missiles, and other new converters. Much of the actual power wielded by the state is thus transferred to those who are technically competent. No state has been able to find within the limits of its hereditary aristocracy all the individuals who can and will develop an understanding of new techniques. Failure to discover and educate those with the capacity to invent and operate high-energy technology makes a state vulnerable to attack by technically more competent states. With a change in converters there is bound to be a shift in the locus of actual power both within states and between them.

The arbitrament of war forces the abandonment of much of the old façade which hides this shift. War frequently brings to power men who have not been educated to defend the values highly prized by the older ruling groups and who are willing to use energy in any way that will obtain results. Among the means they use will be some previously not considered to be moral. Because the ability to command technical resources is only infrequently developed along with a thorough understanding of the relationship between technology and the values which it is designed to serve or is capable of serving, ends-destroying use of means becomes probable. Nevertheless the military man must be given wide latitude in choosing his means, else the whole existence of the state may be jeopardized. Moreover, because of the continuous threat of war a great deal of control over research and the development of new knowledge and new technique must fall into the hands of the military. States which attain great military competence develop, in the process, the ability to achieve many values which depend upon the use of force. In such cases, it is undoubtedly true that if the new technical knowledge had been developed under other auspices, much more time, effort, and thought would have been directed toward the achievement of values which are not dependent on force.

Political bureaucracy

The state, whether as an administrator of “welfare programs,” as a provider and enforcer of norms and standards, as an adjudicator of disputes, as a developer of new knowledge, or as a war-making agency, develops great bureaucratic structures. For many of those who serve in such structures, the activities which they pursue become both important ends in themselves and also significant means to achieve other ends, such as a personal power and prestige or security. As in the case of those using other institutions, the groups that serve the state come to be concerned about the maintenance of the values which their personal ideas, ideals, and purposes serve. They compete with groups promoting the activities of older institutions like the family and the church and newer ones like the market and the corporation. They do not assume that the state must stand aside and permit others to create values that will take precedence over those which the individuals who serve the state wish, in its behalf, to maintain.

In education

The state has become, in every high-energy society, the major institution providing training for children in the instrumental arts and sciences. It competes with other institutions for determining the ends to which these arts and sciences are to be devoted. It also is the largest assembler of statistical evidence as to the significant developments in society, and through its emphasis in the selection of the data collected it can, to a degree, determine the interpretation of the society which emerges. Through its machinery are collected the “secret” data about other states which are used to justify its actions in “foreign” affairs. Judicious manipulation both in collecting and in presenting such data gives the agent of the state a tremendous advantage over others who may be attempting to determine the purposes and abilities of those in control of other states. Propaganda issued by government bureaucrats in the attempt to justify their past actions and to prepare the way for their future actions is backed by resources not available to any but the larges corporations and the most powerful churches. As a consequence of these and other factors, the values which the state seeks to develop come more and more to be those furthering the aims of the elites which govern the state, as differentiated from the elites which pursue their aims through indoctrination within the family, the community, the church, the market, and the corporation. Perhaps most significant:  when all other actions fail, those who control the state have the right “legitimately” to utilize physical coercion to achieve their aims.

In business

It is a consequence of the realization of the tremendous strategic advantage of those who govern the state that the relation between “politics” and “economics” has undergone such a reversal in high-energy societies during the last half century. As we have seen, the businessman of the nineteenth century found himself possessed of so much power through the use of the concept of private property and the surplus energy it permitted him to control, that he made great efforts to confine the state to the performance of a very limited set of functions. “Economic” considerations became dominant, and businessmen eschewed politics and values politically served. But, as we have noted, partly in reaction to the consequences of businessmen’s decision, there was subsequently great increase in the power of the state. Today, as a result, more and more power-seeking men are to be found taking positions in government. From here they can direct may of the value-creating and value-mediating relationships which they could not influence even as heads of great corporations. In the United States, for example, there were, before the Second World War and the New Deal, a number of corporations which produced goods with a greater money value, employed more workers, or controlled more physical property than many of the state governments. A few rivaled even the national government in respect to the power and influence which they wielded. Today, the operations of the Department of Defense make even the largest of the corporations seem small by comparison. It is little wonder that men long since provided with every status-giving symbol attainable by possessors of wealth are tuning to the state to further their power and prestige. In so doing, they elevate the status of government office, for government service is shown to compare favorably with the top positions in private business which they abandon to join it.

It is now recognized that in large part, the consequences of economic acts can be altered as easily and as surely by direct political control, that is, by fiscal, monetary, and taxing policies, as they can by such economic measures as changes in methods of production, advertising, and marketing practices. The proper sphere of the market comes thus to be discovered as well through political as through economic experiment and experience. In place of a fixed concept of the legitimate sphere of government there develops a poorly defined zone whose limits are hardly ascertainable by even the most erudite scholar and are certainly not definite enough to be pointed out to a new generation with any exactitude.

The future of government

This brings to the forefront, the central problem of political science, that of determining the limits on legitimate acts of government and the means by which such limits are worked out. Speculation about where the process of increasing state function will stop has been accompanied by numerous pronouncements about where it should stop. Functions regarded in one area at a particular time as being legitimately performed by government have there been regarded at another time as belong “naturally” to the individual, the family, the market, the church, or some local agency. Divine Providence is regarded in some places as having sanctioned the allocation to the state of functions, which in other places are not considered to be within the province of the state at all. Decisions as to the legitimate distribution of functions among various institutions which may be in conflict over the issue puts a heavy burden on the agents of the state. They must, to a degree, share in determining the range in which it is legitimately the function of the state itself to perform.

The consent of the governed

It is hard to account for the fact that men will acquiesce in the exercise of power by other men, acting in the name of government, which may deprive them of their liberty, take from them part of the product of their labor, seize gains resulting from the ownership of property, order them into situations where they face injury and death, and deprive those most dear to them of their property and their lives. The theory of divine right, which was widespread in old, stable, and well-established societies in the past, has ceased to be accepted as an adequate explanation for this phenomenon in modern, secular, industrial societies.

Accounting for the state by an explanation based on the crude theory of force — that is, the position that some men have the physical capacity to force their will on others — fares little better. Government officials attempting new functions which appear to the impartial observer to be nor more injurious or dangerous than many of the acts which they are regularly permitted to carry out, sometimes meet with resistance, even including the use of force. Why, if the power of government is great enough to intimidate the subject so that he down not resist one of its acts, is that power insufficient to force him to acquiesce in another? Inability to find an adequate answer to this question has led many political theorists to abandon the doctrine that explains the legitimacy of state power in terms of physical force alone. But those theorists have found it very hard to locate the factors which do determine in each case which functions of government will be accepted as legitimate. Within the state formal structure provides an answer of sorts. It shows how and where the decision is to be made as to which functions the state will perform. It also shows what the state is at the moment prepared to do, if not the limits upon what it might conceivably do. A body of usage, treaty, and international law serves similarly as a rough indicator of what is to be expected between states. But, as we have seen, efforts to increase the use of energy have been accompanied by a series of efforts to change the functions which the state will be expected to perform.

Western theory generally assumes the proposition that government is legitimate only when it proceeds from “the consent of the governed.” If this position is accepted, it requires both the statesman and the political scientist to determine which acts, done in the name of the state by whom, to whom, under what conditions, will willingly be assented to.

Law is not to be regarded as being static and fixed. The conditions producing changes in the law then become subject to scrutiny:  the whole body of values existing and emergent in a society, as well as the social organization and controls which are used to create and mediate them, must be examined. No attempt will be made here to carry out such a complete examination. It may be possible, however, for us to indicate the nature of the influence that changes in the converters in use are apt to have on the determination of just which functions will be considered legitimately undertaken by the state.

The means used in a society to attain the ends pursued there — including the means of production of physical goods — often come to be considered ends in themselves. In the United States, for example, the government guarantees that no person shall be made subject to penalty except by “due process of law.” But there can be no “due process” which robs the citizen of his property rights or requires him to undergo “involuntary servitude” except in the armed services or as a punishment for the commission of a crime. Thus, not only the means by which the state regulates the productive activities of the individual prescribed but also the institutions through which production is regularly undertaken are protected. Other states similarly assert the final value of their established ways.

This identity of ends and means may be disturbed if the existence of a society is so patently threatened that a choice must be made between sacrificing the whole system and allowing changes to be made in some parts of it in order to preserve the rest. The introduction of new converters frequently poses such a threat. In these situations some ways of doing things that had come to be considered ends in themselves may come again to be regarded as means only, and as subject to alteration if this will serve to maintain other values. Once it is felt that the security of the society against the threatened loss of its most significant values has been attained, scrutiny of the system will again be undertaken. Some will seek to continue those means that are found to be successful in meeting the threat, while others will seek to return to the old ways. War or depression, for example, may require the adoption of many new types of institutional control. Those who feel that they have gained more by these new arrangements than they will gain from a return to the older setup will seek to sanctify the more recent as against the traditional system. Very often the crisis which requires a shift in means-ends relationship results in the relocation of control over physical power in the society and alters the relative influence of the various groups in determining the new hierarchy of values. A new equilibrium of power emerges over time. As this new equilibrium, backed by the new order of values, comes to be commonly accepted in the society, the more important values become so significant that even coercion will be given sanction if it is required to preserve them. When the state acts in support of such values, it acts “legitimately” even if it resorts to force. But by the same token the emergent system of values will be setting limits both upon the means which those who act for the state may use and on the ends for which they may legitimately use those means.

“Pressure" politics

While the power of various groups within the state is shifting, because of the adoption of new converters, the agents of the state are confronted with a dilemma. One group may demand that it receive aid or protection from the state and another group deny that the state has any right to provide such aid. If those who govern fail to respond to the first group, they may be confronted with the threat of civil disobedience, civil war, or a coup d’etat, whereas if they accede to this demand, they may be confronted by reactionary revolution. The range of legitimate governmental action falls between these extremes. Government acting under the political influence of one party may approach the limit of what another party will, though grudgingly, acquiesce in — or vice versa, again up to the limit permitted. So long as there exists assurance that government will use only those means which the ultimate values of most of the citizens justify, and will use even these means only in spheres of activity similarly justified, government is legitimate. The older democratic societies all passed through periods of civil strife that arose when the government in power did not recognize these limits. But these older democratic states made the transition to high-energy society under conditions which held the rate of change in check and permitted new value hierarchies justifying the new functions of government to become widespread before new areas of power were carved out.

In some of the states now going through the transition the flow of energy has increased so rapidly that coercion of great numbers of people is possible at such a rate that no corresponding rate of change in the value system can be made. For it is not easy to get adults to accept basic values that are different from or contrary to those that held sway in childhood. While increased knowledge about psychology has permitted us to hurry somewhat the processes of psychic change, and particularly to modify the specific objectives valued by men, there is much evidence that it is still very difficult to alter the basic personality structure shaped by a culture in the child’s early years. It is in part upon this fact that the continuity of morality, religion, and law depends. Thus the state is able to change its legitimate range of activities only slowly. In addition, since one of the first consequences of the adoption of high-energy technology in a region is an increase in longevity there, high-energy societies face the difficulty of dealing with a continually increasing inertia resulting from the existence in their midst of a growing proportion of old people. At the same time, as we have seen, increased use of high-energy converters is also accompanied by demands that the state assume new functions. It is not uncommon to find groups urging extension of the functions of government in their own behalf and concurrently opposing the enlargement of state function in any other direction. The result has been a good deal of ideological double talk, accompanied by sporadic enlargement of the scope of the state to include functions not justified by the moral convictions of many of the groups brought under the new controls.

Political theory versus political practice

Various means of assuring the legitimacy of state policy in the midst of this confusing interplay of forces have been attempted in the democratic states. In most of them, however, there have been periods of stalemate and vacillation followed by periods when the party in power rode roughshod over the protests of many minorities, disregarding the fact that such action was not legitimatized by traditional morality. To pick an example from American history, it was thus that the South was forced, following its unsuccessful attempt at secession, to accept a government which was not legitimatized by Southern morality. The government which was regarded as legitimate by authorities in Washington had to be defended by the use, or threatened use, of Union armies. The national government specifically repudiated the acts of the Confederacy, regarded as legitimate in the South, and any effort to conform to the obligations undertaken in its name was enjoined. Following the withdrawal of Northern troops, the legitimate governments of the states of the South openly denied to their black citizens rights that were supposed to be guaranteed them by the Constitution. In many other ways these state governments revised the effective law of the nation as it affected the South. History reveals many such denials of the rights of minorities as consequence of changes in the power position of various groups. Such acts have, in turn, decreased the probability that the basic morality of the minority recently deprived of power will sanction the acts of these governments.

A government acting under the control of those who have recently gained power through a shift in the energy system is not often immediately considered to be legitimate. It cannot always be foreseen whether in fact it will ever become legitimate, for much depends upon the conditions which surround the new state and the use to which the new surplus is put. So, when the defenders of a modern dictatorship assert that theirs is but a temporary autocracy, which will serve only until conditions favorable for democratic government have arisen, their position cannot be dismissed out of hand. Actually, such a course was pursued by the United States in the Phillipines, and the British in Indian an elsewhere, to say nothing of its being the basis of the mandate system of the League of Nations. The claim that a dictatorship is temporary can best be tested by discovering whether the acts of the dictator are such that, given time, a value system including a morality to support the kind of regime planned is in fact likely to grow up. A brief period will suffice in many cases to make it clear that democratic government is not possible in the foreseeable future. In other cases, it will become clear that an oligarchy that controls and increases the surplus energy derived from high-energy technology is not likely to be dethroned by the resistance of angry, disgusted, demoralized but comparatively weak proponents of government based on values derived from and dependent upon the operations of low-energy society.

Our short survey has shown how the increased power of the state has derived from the transition to high-energy technology, and indicated some of the areas into which it is likely to go. There is no clear answer as to what the range of legitimate power of the state may be in the high-energy society, for as yet the ability to legitimatize the functions which many groups demand of government is not established. But is does appear more and more clearly that the high concentration of control over physical energy which the new converters make possible upsets many of the factors entering into the balance of power within and between states under which democratic government emerged and survived.

It is also clear that the power to resist the “advance” toward high-energy civilizations is not certain. One of the most significant blocks to that advance is the emergence of new hand-held weapons that make it possible for a relatively few determined dissidents to wreak havoc on the high-energy societies. And as we are becoming more and more aware, the sources of surplus energy that permitted and encouraged change are being rapidly exhausted. Without the advantages that these energy sources gave, the superiority of new ideology and new rationalization supporting the expansion of the West may be seen not as eternal verities but as fallacies based on very temporary conditions.

This is a chapter from Energy and Society: The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development (e-book).
Previous: Chapter 12: The Distribution of Consumer Goods  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Chapter 14: Not One World, But Many




Cottrell, F. (2009). Energy and Society: Chapter 13: The Enlargement and Concentration of Political Power. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.