All posts by Parke Burgess

Liquify the cone of power

Progressive and radical thinkers conventionally regard the structures of power as a monolith. The metaphor of resistance imagines a massive force — the collective army of market incentives, state power and social norms — arrayed against a disorganized, disenfranchised and intimidated populace. According to the conventional metaphor, a resistance must be radicalized, assembled and organized in a counter-force sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the colossal momentum of the status quo. This metaphor of resistance, though it calls itself a rejection of the monolith, actually embraces a monolithic strategy. It arrays a new, revolutionary monolith against an old, reactionary one. We cannot build a qualitatively different future if we allow ourselves to be governed by conventional metaphors based on overwhelming force.

I propose a fairly simple and straightforward alternative metaphor — a pyramid or, more accurately perhaps, a cone. In this metaphor, a tiny elite concentrates its power at the head of the cone, supported by a larger though rather less powerful industrial middle class, which in turn rests atop the massively large and vastly less powerful multitude. Unlike the monolith metaphor, this alternative intermingles the oppressed and the oppressors in the same structure, with the flow of power depending as much on the complicity of the masses to release their power upward as on the demands of the elite to appropriate this power.

The powerful monolith of the conventional model is represented in the proposed metaphor by the energy of markets, state and social norms to maintain society’s conical shape. This shape is maintained not by a monolithic force from outside the cone shoving the masses into place, but by a complex system of incentives and threats that operates within the cone, compelling people at all levels of the structure to comply with its requirements. Maintenance of shape holds the highest importance for the elite because the lower strata of the cone serve as the foundation for their advantage. Shapeliness, in this metaphor, becomes the leading political and economic imperative.


In the conical metaphor, the tactics of activism change dramatically from those suggested by the opposing-monoliths metaphor. In the cone, it is clear that elites and the masses are not opposing forces, but interdependent. Elites depend on the appropriation, or “suck,” of power from the base; and the masses are caught in a dependence on the conical structure itself to provide their work, salary and defense, plus whatever other perks (if any) their station in the cone allows. Over the past three centuries there has been a distinct evolution from the enforcement of this appropriation of power by overt force to a system that has won the multitudes’ voluntary complicity. Cynically, one might describe modern capitalist democracy merely as the elite’s most subtle — and perhaps most effective — means of power appropriation yet devised.

Rather than monolithic, the proposed metaphor depicts the multitudes’ surrender of power as extraordinarily diffuse, occurring at every juncture in the fabric of social relations throughout the body of the cone. This suggests an equally diffuse strategy for social change. Such a strategy would have two components: first, the negative act of not complying with the conical imperative to push one’s power upward through the structure; and second, the positive act of circulating one’s power locally and non-hierarchically.

The failure to comply with the appropriation of power by the elite systemically weakens the conical structure by undermining its shapeliness. The shape of the cone is defined by the consistently upward direction of power. When that direction is subverted, the cone loses its sharpness of definition and begins to ooze at the points where power is no longer flowing upwardly — a threat to elites because they depend on the cone’s structural integrity to remain so heavily at its head. Some seepage of power within the cone is, of course, inevitable. Elites recognize that the system isn’t perfectly efficient and have a certain degree of tolerance for seepage. But if activists succeed in subverting the appropriation of power more broadly, they will eventually attract the angry glare of elites who will use force to stiffen the gooey points within the conical structure that threaten to undermine it.

In addition to cutting off the upward flow of power, the reservoirs of power thus conserved can be used to create and maintain an alternative social infrastructure — the training ground for building the skills of utopian life, and experimental models for “post-revolutionary” institutions. Within modern constitutional guarantees, at least in the developed West, most of the alternative structures are perfectly legal. But, as the seepage of power becomes of increasing concern to elites, a crackdown on non-conical institutions can be expected, and constitutional guarantees denied.

But even before alarm bells start ringing in the elite’s war-room activists incur a fairly substantial opportunity cost. By refusing to cooperate with the conical structure, activists deny themselves whatever upward mobility the structure might otherwise have provided. And in doing so, they violate many social norms. This pressure, a strong feature of the conical design, has a profound destabilizing effect on activist culture, consistently weakening and foreshortening the resolve of individual activists to persist in their work. This explains why activism becomes merely a “phase” for many, or gradually morphs into increasingly mainstream (and therefore conical) activities.

As the movement for radical social change approaches its objective, the price of remaining active in the movement rises. The strategic function of raising the price, from the elite’s perspective, is to draw activists into a battle of force, a battle social movements are bound to lose most of the time. But even when those movements prevail, their reliance on force to achieve power invariably characterizes their subsequent management of power — yet again, one elite merely supplants another. One might conclude from this consistent pattern in human history that liberatory movements are undermined to the extent that they rely on force to win their objective. If this principle is basically true, as I believe history demonstrates, then activists must find strategies for social change that remain non-complicit with the paradigm of force, even — especially — as the intensity of the state’s violence rises to an unbearable pitch.

Anarchy and Non-Violence

There are two kinds of anarchism, one that is negative and absurd (which I call nihilistic anarchism), and another that represents the highest possible standard of freedom and justice (idealistic anarchism). Nihilistic anarchism, which focuses exclusively on the destruction of the status quo, tends toward violence, while idealistic anarchism focuses on developing the tools, models and strategies for a liberatory society, and tends strongly away from violence. Gandhian non-violence, for instance, unfolded completely, is utterly anarchic in the best sense.

The essence of anarchism lies in the ideal of a non-hierarchical distribution of power — that is, a society where power is not concentrated vertically (as in the cone) but dispersed horizontally and shared freely by all. While this vision often meets with ridicule for its uncompromising idealism, I believe it actually represents the direction toward which human history has always tended and will — given sufficient time — increasingly approach. What’s more, anarchism defines purely how to live beautifully today, no matter how unlikely the realization of a beautiful society may be tomorrow.

Paradoxically perhaps, I would suggest that anarchism is not itself an ideal, but a strategy for approaching a mostly and necessarily undefined ideal. Anarchism is a way of moving through one’s life, and of moving through history. It represents the political expression of the genius and diversity of human community. Understood in this way, anarchism is the opposite of violence, and provides the principle of non-complicity with force that liberatory movements need in order to overcome the pressure of the conical structure to fight force with force.

Strictly speaking, anarchism is not a movement, either (though, in a broad sense, it’s sometimes useful to speak of it that way) — unless we’re very careful, the language of ‘movement’ taps into the metaphor of opposing monoliths. The anarchic principle might better be described as a contagious tendency toward non-complicity with hierarchies of power, spontaneously expressed and uniquely defined according the specific, local exigencies of the moment. While nothing in anarchism precludes the development of institutions, planning or strategy, its leading characteristic rightly remains a strong sense of local self-determination.

In a fundamental way, the anarchic impulse is not one of struggle (to fight against) but one of relaxation. Ooze in conical lines of power represents a reduction in the effort of pushing. The cone actually relaxes to a degree, much to the anal-retentive horror of elites. But this relaxation cannot under any circumstances be commanded or imposed, for obvious reasons. The anarchic principle suggests instead a dual strategy of modeling non-complicit sharing of power, and inspiring the multitude to imagine a different kind of life. Illuminated by compelling models and inspired idealism, alternative structures can be designed, tested and improved in a diffuse and broadly participatory way.

The relaxation of complicity provides an elusively simple response to power’s effort to match force with force. The more force elites apply to the gooey zones of the relaxing cone (in hopes to stiffen it to a more exploitable shape), the more one should relax. In graphic terms, this means that the flow of power being diverted and circulated non-hierarchically should rarely be concentrated to resist the opposing force of the state, but instead further diffused and more-broadly circulated. In practical terms, we can best respond to efforts by elites to arrest, terrorize and militarize activists by draining resources from the points of conflict established by the state and redirecting them into alternative structures. In short, when power is liquid it can flow toward the common good; only when solid can it be co-opted along a vertical, hierarchical axis. So, when I speak of relaxation I am not suggesting any kind of passivity, but an intensely active, imaginative and collaborative flow of energy. I am referring to a relaxation of form, not action. Just as rivers conquer mountains, there is nothing weak or ineffectual about a liquid erosion of oppressive power structures.

Admittedly, this strategy becomes increasingly difficult as the state devotes more and more resources to provoking a violent confrontation. This suggests an extremely unfortunate but, I think, inviolable rule: if a social movement cannot withstand the intensity of violence from elites long enough to replace those elites non-violently, the movement is probably not sufficiently mature to achieve its stated ends.

The struggle-by-relaxation is necessarily iterative. With each attempt, both sides become savvier about methods and consequences. This iterative process could repeat any number of times (as it has on a smaller scale already). But another dynamic will eventually overtake it. Looking long over the past centuries and millennia, the advancing march of this new dynamic can be clearly detected, and it represents the promise of the human experiment. It may be described as the dawning understanding that the oppressed masses actually possess greater power than elites. This is the dynamic of collectivization.

In terms of the conical metaphor, collective power (as opposed to individual power) is represented by the volume of the shape of power. In the massive global cone, obviously the vast majority of volume resides toward the base. Once the people who are represented closer to this base fully grasp their collective power, as opposed to the illusory upward mobility promised but denied by elites, not only will they refuse to yield their power to those elites, but they will collectivize their power on a horizontal basis.

Historically, the first ascendant impulse is to the vertical consolidation of power, where the individual’s ambition trumps the common good. Only later, as it happens, does the second impulse to horizontal sharing of power, where the common good is harmonized with individual aspirations, gain ascendancy. Consolidation comes first because it requires no wisdom; sharing comes second because wisdom combined with experience reveals that everyone is much better off in a cooperative rather than competitive society.

The Revolutionary Impulse

The opposing-monoliths metaphor, the paradigm of force, inspires a lot of talk about revolution. But revolutions, so far, have turned out merely to revolve the cast of characters doing the oppressing and being oppressed. As the proposed metaphor suggests, the more hopeful and realistic path toward a just and free society is probably both evolutionary and, in a limited sense, inevitable. The function of activism, therefore, is not to foment a forceful radicalism but precisely to engender radical non-force; to unleash into political space a creative, liberatory impulse that is already latent and burgeoning. This is, of course, a kind of revolution. But perhaps it might better be described as an anti-revolution — the relaxation of forceful intent, and the nurturing of an organic and authentic relationship to power.

It’s an extraordinary claim to suggest, as I have, that society is inherently utopic. This flies against the dominant strain of cynicism that has captured and paralyzed most of us. We tend to see history making exactly the opposite case — that power always tends toward greater consolidation, and that history merely repeats this pattern over and over again. This encourages, I fear, a violent approach to our radicalism and utopic dreams, because we feel compelled to impose progress on a resistant world. But this compunction is ultimately neither necessary nor fruitful. I suggest we trust that history favors the multitude. Our task is not to reverse its tide, but to learn how to ride its currents more skillfully.

When we approach our activism in this spirit it becomes clear that utopia isn’t locked in some distant future. It happens right now. Utopia ignites in the imagination, and unfolds in the ways of life pursued by those who imagine utopically. It is utopic to withhold power from the upward flow of the conical structure, and utopic to circulate that power horizontally in your neighborhood and community. While this work may seem, in the short-term, to make negligible difference in the lives of the billions of oppressed, in addition to transforming the few it touches directly, our utopic activism opens up myriad worlds of possibility, hastening a brighter future for all.