Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Soft power

I was skimming a little anthro and sociology online when I suddenly worried that in my blogging about prestige and influence I'd sort of been talking about "power:" "Oh, great," I thought. "I have blogged thousands of words now on how individuals' desire for power really deserves more notice as a force in history."

But "power" is a bad word, and I didn't think I'd been blogging about something inherently bad. I thought I'd been blogging about Madonna and Mom and the Nobel prize. Then I remembered "soft power," which I think I heard awhile back on NPR in the context of a book release by some foreign policy wonk (who's Googlable).

"Soft power" is I guess a recently coined term for distinguishing the nicer way one nation gets another to do what it wants it to do. "Soft power" contrasts with threats, sanctions, embargoes and bombs, which some now call "hard power," and refers to the suasive force that a powerful country can exert, for instance, just by modeling behavior or "setting an example." I was happy to observe, though, that I could just as well apply the term to people.

"Soft" probably ought not to be necessary to rescue "power" from its hard connotations of domination and control, but I bet these senses have shaded every discussion of politics, society and culture I've ever read, heard or participated in. I feel like going back to ninth grade and starting over. Anyway, I'm grateful somebody (Googlable) coined it.

In light of my "prestige" keyword surfing, I now wonder if the influential Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci was characterizing a kinder and less insidious sort of "hegemony" than all those essay authors online seem to take him to have been talking about. The social elite manipulate the lives of the masses subtly, according to Gramsci's paraphrasers, by way of the enormous influence that their prestige grants them. This is how they make us buy Prada, for example.

With this application of "soft power" to individuals I think I may have just invented a new flavor of Utopian social psychology: Allow me to hereby assert that it is human nature to lust for power, but soft and hard satisfy equally. Ergo, all civilisation needs to discover is a way for everyone to exert soft power in some avenue of life, and hard power will be driven extinct. Everybody lives happily every after.

But since I believe entropy demands that every degree of freedom be exercised, in truth I am supposing we'll always have meanies. This may prove though that I'm not being Utopian and this dynamic I've proposed makes a good deal of sense. I don't know. I think. You decide. Then maybe I'll think you're wrong and go on thinking whatever I want.

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