Most forms of power can be mapped and measured. There are institutions, legal systems, armies, money and the soft power of media, information and culture. There are also forces like class conflict, biology and the unforseeable wildcard effects of technology, working on human society tectonically and unconsciously all the time. When you already have access to the means of creating power you can keep multiplying it.
But what do you do when you truly have no power, no control over the means of producing power and no means of getting it? I have only ever observed one non-material force with the capacity to create power out of none and truly overturn everything and that is moral confidence. After that comes a moral community and after that comes the capacity to build counter-power.
It’s no guarantee that you will prevail but it appears to me to be the only way that you might. Ultimately, the powerful can just kill their opponents when they run out of options. But even that can be turned into moral power if any survivors are left, even if it takes a hundred years to manifest.
Easter Sunday may be a reminder of bunnies, chocolate or mass, depending on your upbringing. Right now, as the battle for the sovereignty of nations is in the picture again, I’m thinking of the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin.
Many anti-Imperialist rebellions before this one failed and the odds against it looked objectively insurmountable. Maybe the only material force working in their favour was that the empire was beginning to stretch the limits of its expansive capacity, but that may also be something that looks obvious in hindsight. One thing the rebels did have in abundance was moral confidence. In a Christian way, they turned losing into winning, in the hope that the sacrifice ensured by military failure would inspire moral passion in the people. W. B. Yeats described it in his poetry as a terrifyingly unstoppable momentum which turned all those gripped by it into hardened fanatics, “hearts with one purpose alone.”
Moral power is like a spell that can make people act against all other considerations, endure poverty, oppression, prison sentences and even hunger strikes without breaking. It has the power to demoralise opponents by planting the seed of guilt and self-doubt in them. Once those under the spell of moral certainty have their own moral community who they answer to, all attempts to disempower them from the outside become more fuel for power.
Every movement thinks they have it, of course. They can rationally explain their case and craft rhetoric that mimics moral confidence, but if they feel any moral uncertainty even in their private thoughts, then it won’t work. When it is really there, not just in rhetoric or in the rational mind but really in the hearts and private feelings of all involved, it can generate enormous amounts of human power from nothing.
People sometimes ask me why the Catholic Church fell so fast in Ireland. Once, they possessed the moral confidence to assert power and to bring everyone into their moral community. But that power was shaken and then transferred into the hands of their opponents successfully through the child abuse scandals. There were a million other factors of course but that was the decisive one. Every liberal campaign against them since was built upon this transfer of moral confidence power and the new moral community that it created.
Sometimes change happens gradually when enough people privately hold a view that they wouldn’t feel morally confident expressing publicly, because the voting booth is still private. Marine Le Pen has a chance to win the next elections in France on this basis. But to even get to this point, France had to witness the bloody scenes at Charlie Hebdo and The Bataclan. The moral confidence of the multicultural left had to be profoundly shaken.
The British Left suffered an enormous blow to their moral foundation over Brexit, which may take a generation to recover from. Following the rules of their own moral community, they saw themselves as fighting the bigots, but they ended up on the side of foreign technocrats, yelling “gammon” at the working class who once formed their base. If the entire moral foundation of your party, by name, is the righteous cause of the working class, it’s hard to recover from that. Then once the source of your moral certainty is shattered, every small organizational task and small uphill battle becomes more and more difficult as your moral fuel runs out.
Think of the Palestinian solidarity cause. If you have a purely material understanding of power, it shouldn’t still exist. The hard power of the Palestinians is so tiny compared to that of Israel and yet it has proven impossible to extinguish because of its moral zeal. But Zionists also have their source of moral passion and certainty, which comes from the Jewish story.
Or think of the words of hunger striker Bobby Sands, who was willing to mentally override the most basic survival instinct we have through the pure power of moral certainty:
“It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says ‘I’m right!’”
This unstoppable force clashed with another, which was given the poetry of its own moral confidence by figures like Ian Paisley. A masterclass in the psychology of moral certainty can be seen here in a sermon he once gave explaining why the more you are attacked, the more you are right:
Central to the power of moral fervour is the magic spell of the accusatory word. Many liberal commentators have been laughing in disbelief at the American populist right’s pedophile obsession but before they knew it they were having to explain the finer points of what is and isn’t technically “grooming”. And now the word groomer has lodged.
With inflation, foreign policy blunders and out-of-control crime in America, they were spoiled for choice with all the things they could win on. By simply repeating the words “law and order” every day from now until the next election, I suspect they could win without any other policies through the power of large numbers of mildly ashamed people in the privacy of the ballot box. And yet, the topic of grooming, a softer cousin of the pedophile cabal, is the one that seems to have caught on. The question, which will decide if it works or not, is whether those making the groomer accusation really feel the moral confidence in their hearts or if they’re faking it to tactically imitate the left, in which case it will not work. The fuel will be half water.
When it is real, it is a fire that spreads the more you try to put it out. It makes a martyr of any adherent who is punished. Every attack launched against it further coheres the feelings of in-group solidarity and out-group evil. Suddenly the adherents don’t care about things like looking bad in the press. Everyone in their moral community knows that their attackers are on the side of evil and so it only heightens their sense of certainty. And of course there’s the woman factor. When female moral fanatics start appearing behind a martyr, the brakes are off. Every Julian Assange needs many Pamela Andersons.
Maybe the Nietzscheans are right and this is all some Christian bug that entered the software a long time ago, but if you’re entirely out of power it is the only thing I ever see working. Maybe the Machiavellians are right but I only see that being relevant when you are already a major player in a competition between existing power factions. I could be wrong, and I’d like to be wrong, because I’m terrible at being a moral fanatic. I can’t even really relate to moral fanatics. When I try to do “debates” with people who I’m supposed to destroy and own I end up liking them. Maybe I’ve just never experienced what it really is to have no power at all. To really create energy from nothing, and power from no power, moral belief is the pattern I see.
It often seems to come out of nowhere, quickly achieving more in weeks than years of careful argumentation, perfect optics, policy papers and difficult organising. With moral confidence, all the other causes for a failing movement that people talk about - messaging, media training, strategy, funding - become irrelevant.
Eventually people tire of moral fanatics and society goes through a peaceful period, but this only happens when one group of moral fanatics has won and their beliefs become banal. The atomic source of power is true moral confidence.
Yeats' line from The Second Coming, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity" is interesting to ponder in our current situation. How often do moral certainty and authentic moral substance coincide in human history?
Your discussion of moral confidence magnifies a tension in my own thinking--seemingly caught forever between belief and non-belief.
You state "Maybe the Nietzcheans are right and this is all some Christian bug that entered the software a long time ago." A part of me thinks this might be true.
There was a group of comments after the Kingsnorth essay "Kill all the Heroes," that have stuck with me and relate to your essay. Jack Leahy argued that, he, in some important ways agreed with decontructionists like Nietzsche that a fatal decision of the ruling intellectual classes of the West was the adoption of a will-to-power ethos--rather than the teachings of Christ.
To what extent can good intentions (what I take as a portion of moral confidence) also be a will to power?
On the other hand to what extent, if any, can human beings arrive at spontaneous moral judgments? Is there anything like a pre-cultural conscience independent of conventional morality or religion along the lines of what thinking appeared to be for Kant.
Are cultural checks and balances forever fleeting and fragile?