Respect, Power and the Personal Domain

Chris is right on the money in his observations on Blair’s ‘Respect Agenda’ in noting that:

What people in deprived areas are deprived of is not (merely) money; in any historic or global perspective, the average tenant in such areas is amazingly prosperous.

Instead, what they lack is a feeling of power. From childhood, through schooling and into meaningless jobs, the poor learn that they have little ability to control or improve their own lives. This leads them to tolerate bad behaviour and littered environments in a way that richer people – who have a (possibly inflated) sense of their power – do not. They just feel that they don’t have the power to change things.

Worse still, if people think they lack control over their lives, they will naturally behave badly – because what is the advantage in doing otherwise?

If there is a single defining problem with Blair’s ‘Respect Agenda’ it lies in the government’s lack of understanding of the nature of respect itself.

There are two very different kinds of respect; the personal and the impersonal.

Let’s deal with the impersonal first, as this is perhaps easier to define in general terms.

Impersonal respect is that which exists and operates between the individual and the institution – the institution being things like the Church, the Government, the Law, etc. Impersonal respect is fundamentally a form of deference to authority, usually – but not always – backed up by some measure of force: the authority of institutions is, by and large, founded on their capacity to limit or compel the individual in certain courses of action by means of the threat, or application, of sanctions.

Hobbes’ Leviathan is, in political theory, the ultimate expression of this relationship between the individual and the institution, one in which the authority of the insitition – the State – is backed up by the ultimate and arbitrary power of life and death over the individual.

Personal respect, which includes self-respect, operates at a personal level, in and between individuals, and is derived from a range of personal values and qualities.

One may respect an individual for largely abstract reasons, i.e. one respects someone as a human being simply because one believes that the mere fact of being human embodies certain concepts and values as natual rights derived from natural law, or expresses a degree of commonality and mutuality, whether one arrives at that belief for secular, philosophical or theological reasons.

Beyond that one may come to respect individuals for their purely personal qualities; their skills, knowledge, experience, talents, abilities, their capacity for compassion, their ability to think through problems and find solutions, their determination in the face of adversity and a myriad of other things besides. This is the kind of respect that we consider to be, and have to be, earned; respect which goes above and beyond the respect accorded to individuals by virtue of the simply fact that they are our fellow human beings.

These two forms of respect exist and operate within very different but linked domains such that they can, and do, work together…

…but there’s a catch – and its this catch that Blair and his fellow managerialists fail to understand, which is why his ‘Respect Agenda’ is ultimately doomed to failure; unless, of course, he assumes the full power and authority of Leviathan.

That catch lies in the question of how you ‘create’ respect and, in particular, how you foster respect in individuals.

In the personal domain, institutions cannot create respect between individuals, although they can to a limited degree direct the nature through education and the medium of culture and cultural values, which act to define the the nature of the qualities and values that are thought worthy of respect.

Why? Because at a personal level, individuals are averse to the primary means by which institutions obtain respect and deference to their authority; through the threat or use of force, which in the personal domain engenders fear rather than respect.

To answer the obvious question that arise from that statement before it appears in the comment, but what of the relationship between parent and child whether the authority of the parent is sometimes reinforced by a fear of being disciplined or of parent disapproval? Is that not the same?

No. The reason being that parents possess personal qualities that operate in the personal domain that institutions fundamentally lack.

A child can learn to accept that a parent may sometimes find it necessary to be strict, to apply discipline or express disapproval of their behaviour, but any fear that may engender – unless done in an egregious and abusive manner – is limited by its temporary nature and mediate by the child’s knowledge and understanding that their parent loves them.

Insitutions lack those personal qualities and dimensions that mitigate and mediate fear. No one could every reasonably assert that the government that legislates for dispersal orders on groups of young people, the local councils that put them in place or the police officers who enforce them actually love the young people they’re moving on. The relationship in such situations is predicated solely on authority backed up by the force of law; although on the front-line of such situations individual police officers may bring personal qualities to bear which mediate their use of ‘force’ (figuatively speaking) in dispersing a group of young people. The officer who treats those young people reasonably, who knows them and shows them a bit of respect, who approaches them in a friendly manner, speaks to them in a conversational tone and asks them to move on will be respected, at a personal level, far more than one who merely sits in the car and barks orders at them.

The ‘Bobby on the Beat’ remains an iconic and much-hankered after symbol of community, a figure of reassurance not just because the represent authority but becuase the authority the represent is/was personally accessible. This is/was an authority figure with whom the individual could interact with on a personal level and build a relationship based on personal respect in a way that is simply impossible in dealing directly with institutions – the Bobby on the beat mediated the individuals relationship with the institution of the police and provided that insititution with a human interface through which it could foster and derive respect without relying entirely on fear and the threat/use of force.

This hold true for any institution, whether it be a school, a local authority or a government. We may respect the authority of institutions out of fear of power they can exert over our lives, but never the institutions themselves – in the personal domain one can on respect the individuals within those institutions and then only if one is to interact with them at a personal level.

If one could find a means of measuring the level of respect in society, and it would need to be something far more nuanced that crude measures such a crime statistics, I believe that one would find that that any measureable breakdown in respect would follow a clear relationship with the depersonalisation of society and its institutions – the less personal society becomes – and the more remote its insititutions become – the less respect there is in society, particularly for its institutions. That seems to me to be less a hypothesis and more a matter of common sense.

What is also says, clearly, is that centralising even more power and authority on impersonal institutions is not going to create of foster respect, quite the opposite, as more and more power and authority is vested in centralised and depersonalised institutions and that power and authority becomes more remote from the people, the more people will come to resent those institutions and the more they will lose people’s respect.

Managerialism, with it obsessive drive for efficiency, productivity, order and for all manner of systems and processes is fundamentally ill-suited to tackle the issue of respect in society because the things that actually foster respect are fundamentally human, inefficient and, in their own way, disorderly.

If we want respect then what’s needed is not governments and insititutions that are more efficient, more systematic in their work, more productive, more orderly and, as a consequence, more remote from every day life but ones that are a bit inefficient, a bit wooly round the edges, a bit less productive and just a touch disorderly – one that are more human.

And if anything can be said to embody all those qualitities then is has to be democracy, and especially local democracy.

This is where Chris is absolutely spot on in quoteing Alexis de Tocqueville’s commentary on ‘civic spirit’:

Civic spirit is inseperable from the exercise of political rights…How is it that in the United States…that each man is as interested in the affairs of his township, of his canton, and of the whole state, as he is of his own affairs? It is because each man in his sphere takes an active part in the government of society…Democracy does not provide people with the most skilful of governments, but it does that which the most skilful government often cannot do; it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, a superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favoured by circumstance, can do wonders. (Democracy in America Ch 6.)

Exactly – Democracy does not provide people with the most skilful of governments [or the most efficient of governments], but it does that which the most skilful government often cannot do; it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, a superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favoured by circumstance, can do wonders.

There is a word that seems lost to modern political discourse on local democracy and certainly to the modern concept of the role and purpose of local democracy and local authorities, yet it has always been a word that sums up, for me, what local democracy is and should be all about.

Municipal – being that which is of, or relating to, or typical of a municipality that has local self-government.

If we truly wish to tackle the issue of respect, then municipal is a word that has to re-enter the discourse on local government, democracy and the nature of the relationship between the individual, the community and that state and its institutions.

Managerialism has no solutions to offer that are capable to tackling the issue of respect. Municipalism and an empowered civil society founded on genuine local democracy do.

  • I have to disagree with the notion that governments and other institutions only gain respect by their power to reprimand, punish or otherwise curtail our freedoms. And indeed, I think it is in the idea of democracy that you mention later in the post that suggests an alternative reason for respecting institutions: the Social Contract. A government and institutions like the Police Force or Schools should have our respect because they are our own creations, apparently working on our behalf, and we know that to do otherwise will make their task impossible.

    Of course, they may then lose our respect through their actions, and the point of democracy is to ensure that this happens as infrequently as possible. Nevertheless, I would suggest that democratically elected institutions start from a point of being totally respected, only to lose that respect, rather than starting from a period of no respect at all, only to gain it through coercion.