Power Grid


John Wright


My wife was watching news coverage of the New Hampshire primary last night, and I happened to overhear the word power used in some context. For some reason my associative thought processes tied together political power and electrical power, and the result was intriguing. An imaginary newspaper headline flashed through my mind, "250 Million USA Citizens Are Without Power Tonight." What a disaster it would be if our electrical power grids failed and ninety percent of us found ourselves in darkness, unable to conduct our lives in accordance with our wants! Immediately, I reflected that terrible possibility into the realm of living our lives without political power.

Perhaps my comparison or association of those two types of power is inappropriate. Perhaps not. On one hand we quickly realize how our lives would be negatively affected if we lost control of our comforts and conveniences due to lack of electromotive power. Our civilization would quickly deteriorate as we painfully returned to life as it was in the 1850s. If we lost electrical power gradually, say one city per year, we would be uncomfortable and somewhat fearful, but we would adapt if we believed the situation irreversible or outside of our control.

Gradual loss of electrical power would result in the wealthiest quickly migrating and acquiring whatever was left so as to retain their comforts and other advantages. Indeed, if we lost only 90% of our electrical power, that which was left would become owned and used only by the wealthy. Could you blame them? Of course not! Our natural survival instincts drive us to survive first and then to prosper, based on whatever resources are available that we can harness. There would be a real and obvious class difference apparent between the lives of the common people and the lives of the wealthy. We would regress as a society.

Life without electrical power for 90% of us would result in us becoming laborers on the farm and in the diminished cities. We would find ourselves working for ten or more hours per day, six days a week. We would die young, perhaps in our fifties, as advanced medical care would not be available to most of us. The transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next would degrade as we became ever more wrapped up in basic survival, remembering that the good old days of powered appliances as well as advanced education were gone. Such entertainment as we would have would be local and comparatively crude compared to our present options.

As a whole, the quality of life would diminish on behalf of physical survival, and our sense of self would adapt to that reality. There would be, of course, a small group of wealthy people who would not have a marked decline in quality of life, except perhaps for the loss of air travel for quick vacations.

Okay, enough of the description of life degrading gradually with the loss of electrical power. The obvious follow-on thought is: What if we common citizens gradually lost our political power? First, would we know it if it happened gradually? Second, would the quality of our individual lives decline as we lost power? Third, would there ever be a practical way to get it back even if we realized the value of what we had lost? Would we grasp the meaning of the question: How much power is enough? Would we have a good and well thought out answer?

The temptation to wax into smartaleck analogies like dim bulbs resulting from low power is something I will try to avoid as I develop the ideas for the remainder of this article. Libertarians would certainly embrace the concerns I have stated, and they would attribute most of our societal problems to the gradual loss of political power of the common citizens. They would be right in that a high sense of responsibility is only relevant to those conditions where the responsible person has the power to control that for which they are given responsibility. They would be wrong to the extent that a certain number of us in each generation are worthless regardless of the power we might exercise as individuals, as other life determining factors can be overwhelming in determining our effectiveness, e.g. genetic limitations.

Idealistic views of our past society, say around 1945, would promote the idea that we are all in the game working for a better "America." We were all in the game back then because the wealthy, as they did throughout history, depended on the labor and goodwill of those who were not wealthy to create or obtain goods and services. It is easy to see how a bi-directional loyalty was the natural order. We needed each other.

Political power was shared, albeit imperfectly, as the masses could and did periodically rise up and elect presidents and congressmen who would represent the interests of the masses if they wanted to keep their jobs. Realized mutual dependency gave us unions to keep the greed of the wealthy counterbalanced with the appetites of the masses. In short, the then equivalent of 250 million people were not without political power any night or day.

Given the rise of automation and the later availability of cheap foreign labor, the "loyalty" that used to exist by necessity began a sharp decline. The political power of the masses started to decline markedly as their jobs, mostly manufacturing at first, disappeared early in the 1980s. The so-called service jobs that were developed to replace the manufacturing jobs were pathetic in terms of hourly wages. Thus we saw a decline in job security and income in terms of real purchasing power, and that is loss of power. But is it a loss of political power? Yes, it surely is, for as wealth concentrates to smaller numbers of people it is they who have the political clout and not the masses.

We all have heard the moaning about campaign finance reform, which is a kind of lip service to the masses to get them to believe that the wealthy will not have a disproportionate influence in the selection, promotion and electing of political candidates who will favor the goals of the wealthy, at the expense of the masses. This national dissembling cannot hide the fact of the severe reduction in political power of the masses. What are they going to do about it? Go on strike? Lets not be ridiculous, for most any group that goes on strike has almost no impact. Yes, there are a few exceptions, like the Teamsters, but they really are only a few exceptions in a multitude of low pay service jobs. The masses have lost political power because they no longer have economic power or the ability to demand economic power.

This societal evolution is not at all difficult to understand. Mostly, modernization has all but eliminated the dependency of the wealthy on the masses for labor. This situation has no counterbalance. It is a one-way street. Thus it is appropriate to think back to the fictitious headline earlier in this article and note the truth that 250 million USA citizens are without power tonight and likely for all the remainder of their days.

It will be interesting to watch the coming political campaigns during 2004, after the Democrats finally nominate their candidate for president. Already there are rumblings about taking back our country from the corporations and from the lackeys holding political office who support the wealthy corporation objective of profit with no regard for the common USA citizen. In an earlier article I hypothesized the coming of bitter political battles and violence during 2004. Well see.

I see the coming elections, both for president and the Congress, to be a very final statement about the true measure of the political power of the masses. If the common citizens are too dense to grasp the crimes that have been committed against them, and if they fail to use the voting process to eliminate disasters like NAFTA and foreign outsourcing and illegal immigration, then they are inherently without power, regardless of the laws written on their behalf by our founders.