As a former price controller in the Roosevelt administration, former Ambassador to India, and confidant of presidents and...



As a former price controller in the Roosevelt administration, former Ambassador to India, and confidant of presidents and other Washington bigwigs, Galbraith can honestly say that ""for some forty years. . .I have been involved with the subject of power."" And, after much thought, he has produced a slight meditation on the subject--with few signs of that first-hand experience. In Galbraith's view, there are three basic forms of power. There's the negative power of simple force that gets people to do (or accept) things they don't want to do, which Galbraith calls ""condign"" power; there's the positive use of a reward for doing something, which is ""compensatory"" power; and then there's the kind of power that operates by persuasion, education, or socialization, and this is ""conditioned"" power. Alongside these forms of power are three, loosely corresponding factors through which they operate: these are personality, property, and organization. Once this conceptual scheme is established, the rest falls into place. Using a few historical examples, Galbraith argues that the forms have followed a rough historical progression, though condign power has generally been the weakest. In precapitalist Europe, for example, power was divided between the Church, which combined all forms of power, and the feudal lords, whose power was principally of the condign and compensatory varieties. The last was no match, however, for the new compensatory power of emergent capitalism. Initially, capitalism relied on its property, but when that failed it found an ally in the state's condign power. Nonetheless, as both the state and the corporation have become vast organizations, the historical trend has been toward conditioned power. The result, Galbraith thinks, has been a dispersal of power: more people have access to a share of power through access to organizations, and the state is no longer an unthinking ally of the corporation. (Corporate use of compensatory power has therefore been curtailed--i.e., bribes are exceptions.) So Galbraith winds up where he's been for a long time--as a believer in big business and big government, with emphasis on the latter. This is a sanguine conclusion, fear of concentrated military power aside. (Galbraith calls for grassroots organization to oppose military power.) It is also not much of a step beyond Max Weber; the only real difference is Weber's belief that modern society, long on organization (bureaucracy) but short on inspiration, tended to let charismatic personalities in through the back door. Complacency, in fact, pervades the essay, dampening any sign of Galbraith's celebrated wit--a pity, because this uninspired exercise could use a little something to perk it up.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983

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