The Power Game

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

I learned about power without realizing it by simply having been a student of history. I was not enamored by the subject except if the teacher was particularly engaging. It was more about memorization and answering test questions correctly. I guess that tells me today that my teachers did not love history enough to be passionate about it and inspiring me to be more than just interested.

But real life teaches us about power in the most effective way. We see the dynamics of power in the home, in the school, among our peers, at such young ages. But most of us did not associate the intuitive lessons of power in our near environment with the power that was all the while so obvious in the subject of history. Our teachers must have been more intellectual and academic rather than strategic players of power. The indirect lessons about power in the books are no match for the daily lessons we get from life itself.

There are among us who hovered around power when we were young. Mostly, we must have been from families or clans who were involved in politics. And, in ways more subtle but nevertheless more powerful, if we were from families or clans who were wealthier than most in our environment and used that wealth to influence others, whether in politics, business or religion. Or, for the greater number, if our families or clans served those in politics or big business. Government is the biggest employer, in case we forgot, because it is the biggest business of all.

That means suppliers and contractors galore seeking business from government or used by the government to augment its capacity to serve the citizenry.

I had a rather unique opportunity to absorb the dynamics of power from boyhood because the family patriarch was deep in politics and industry. It took me many years to realize I had unique experiences about power because boys just want to be boys and enjoy what the moment, family and friends offer. Even through college, I only carried in the subconscious or the unconscious the subtle lessons from the particular environment I grew up in. In fact, it was only when I started working that I consciously became aware of the dynamics of power in both business and politics.

Martial law was declared just a few years after I was married and started working. It made a great personal impact because our respective employments were seriously affected. But we were a young couple and adjustments were more easily made – we had not settled deeply enough into habits that are hard to get rid of. Of course, the adjustment took a few years. Income and mobility were more restricted compared to before martial law, but our youth and talent made up for the passing difficulty. Through it all, though, martial law became a great teacher about power. When I started to read about the past, about specific historical developments, I saw quite acutely the dynamics of power, the contests of personalities even behind allegedly important issues.

The relationship between power and wealth is now unavoidably interwoven. We have read it or known it from real life experience that life has become more material. That means the spiritual side of life in the past must have been more competitive to the material but not so anymore. And the material side, from being more physical in the past, is now more commercial or financial. A power that was once measured in the physical is now measured by what has overtaken the physical, which is commercial or financial. That is how wealth equates to power and power equates wealth – having one would lead to the other. Of course, through war or large-scale conflict, power can become more physical again and reduce for the duration the status of wealth.

The traditional elite has thus changed as a consequence. Warlords became political lords, political lords became business moguls, or business moguls become political lords. Physical power, except in war or large-scale conflict, is lower in rank and can be employed by political or business lords. When the land was the main source of wealth, landowners were the elite. When industrialization came in, industrialists became political lords. But after agriculture and industrialization has come more varied sources of money, and thus, power. It may have started with illegal gambling but has grown even much faster and more massive through illegal drugs. Through the huge income from illegal gambling and illegal drugs, a new elite formation will come as well. Because the formula still holds – power brings money or money brings power.

Power and money are hard to deny. Their attraction is virtually irresistible. The center of power and money, then, has several levels of outer rings, from the second-in-command all the way to the innocent ordinary worker or government employee. Those farthest from the center may not realize it that they serve the same masters as those closest to the center – for as long as power and money are inseparable twins.

The thrust of civil society, driven by a refining social consciousness, is to restrain power by putting institutional checks and balances. That same trajectory is being applied to wealth, not in its creation but in its possession. The wisdom of progressive societies knows that great power will lead to great wealth, just as great wealth will lead to great power. This is expressed by efforts to tax more those who earn more and to restrict monopolies and cartels through anti-trust laws. Around the world, this same drama is being played out. It is only a matter of how much power and wealth dominate society, or how society is able to restrain or moderate power and wealth. The more authoritarian, the more the concentration of power and wealth. The more egalitarian, the more distributed are power and wealth.

Where are we now in this drama?

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