The Function of Power

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The hierarchy and the movements of people on [this scale] have beenderived from the single function of merit. To be sure, merit has traditionallybeen the most important explanation of position in the hierarchy and degreeof mobility, but moments of perfect justice in an orderly system are rare. Poetshave described those fleeting moments where each benefit is faithfullyreciprocated with diligent services under a benevolent monarch. More oftenthe workings of justice are slow; faithful servants toil for ungrateful masters,and benevolent masters fail to discover their servants’ deceit. Indeed,when misfortune strikes, Thai do not conclude immediately that they possessinsufficient merit to attain their ends and then hurry bearing alms toa temple. Instead, each seeks first among his own resources to improve hislot, and to the extent that he succeeds, merit may or may not seem relevant.To make the case clearer, we may ask, what enables the lowly hunter to turnbrigand and live more comfortably, at least for a while, on the loot extractedby force? What permits a cruel and unjust tyrant to maintain himself, whenthe law of morality clearly says his reign must stop or, for that matter, nevershould have begun in the first place?The Thai recognize a second factor operating in the social order in additionto merit. They speak of “power” (khaeng, khaengraeng, ’amnaad) with verymuch the same amoral implication as the English word. This power maybe a personal characteristic, like indolence or energy. Some power arisesfrom experience, some from special knowledge; a shrewd man can sell hisbuffalo at a better price by timing the sale with favorable astrological influences.Another may succeed in his endeavors or counter another’s planthrough power derived from amulets, and some persons are specially favoredbecause they stand in the protective aegis of a guardian outside thesocial order of mankind.In principle one may easily distinguish power from effectiveness. Thoughboth aid the success of an undertaking, power may belong to anyone, whileeffectiveness derives only from merit. Because effectiveness of action stemsfrom enduring moral principles that govern the cosmos, gains made on thisbasis outlast gains from amoral power. One may overcome a girl’s reservefor a night or two with love magic, but an enduring marriage can only comefrom merit. In practice, effectiveness may be difficult to distinguish frompower. Amulets, tattooed marks, verbal formulae, and a host of other devicesenable the gambler to win, the boxer to beat his opponent, the soldierto win in battle, and the physician to cure a patient. In addition, a considerableproportion of the population seeks to insure the outcome of criticalundertakings through offerings to various spirits. [. . .]As a rule, people infer the basis of success from a variety of surroundingcircumstances. Few would disagree when a robber escapes with loot that hehad special power. If the police arrested him the following week, this wouldclinch the argument. Judgment might be harder when someone discovers,say, a treasure of gold buried in the ruin of a long-abandoned temple. If thefinder gave it to the priests at a going temple, this might persuade some thatmerit lay at the roots, but they would suspect power if he just lived high fora while. A sensible person would probably give some to the priests and livewell too. Here judgment would have to wait to see whether his good fortunecontinued. The following case illustrates such a transformation:Naaj Chyyn moved into a country village with a clouded reputation andquickly proved his prowess with a sword. He had moved in order to avoidfurther conflict with his creditors and the police. Together with his wife andtwo children, he settled on rented land, built a thatched hut, and began tolive the life of a farmer. People of the neighborhood treated him respectfully so as not to encounter his wrath. One day a leading member of the localityasked him to accompany a group of local residents to attend a [nearby] festival. He should protect them against robbers and thugs. So effectivewas his surveillance that the people asked him to accompany them on furtheroutings, and he soon became an informal kind of constable for the village. Later, when a nearby temple was being built, the head priest and villageheadman invited him to manage the construction. He could control thehired workmen, settle quarrels, and keep them on the job. When the templewas finished, the head priest appointed him manager and guardian of thetemple, for during fairs and on other occasions rowdies came disturbing thecelebration. At feasts in private homes his neighbors gave Chyyn a place ofhonor, and he died a respected member of the community (a personal communicationby Lauriston Sharp).In addition to the many amulets that effectively protected him in his encounters,people concluded, he must have merit as well.The uncertainty of power adds a special moment of flux to the scene. Socialliaisons on this account become more brittle, and especially so near thetop where the stakes are high. A government official, who has labored longto build his following, may find himself undercut by a rival at the momenthe had expected to advance. Another who considered himself secure in officeis asked without warning to resign in favor of a newcomer. Such demotionsresult in loss of benefits for followers who in turn must seek a newbenefactor if they would hold their gains.4 Of course, similar events withequally disturbing effects plague rural people too. Unpredictably a spousedisappears with someone recently moved into the neighborhood. A tenantof long standing is told one day that he may not till the land during the comingyear.People build in certain adaptations to this uncertainty. To each othereveryone is outwardly polite, even light-hearted, but they are rarely frank.Because the other person is superior or inferior, he must be treated circumspectly,particularly if he is a stranger, for he may become the source ofsome advantage or disadvantage. Even those of long acquaintance may notbe trusted implicitly, for they too may lead one to catastrophe. From this atmospherearises the Thai proclivity to maximize the harmony and pleasantnessof meeting others: it is well to avoid debates and best to keep the topicamusingly light. Because of unseen dangers, a leader ordinarily avoids givingbenefits to strangers, and a potential member of a group must be introducedby a known person. Similarly, a liaison between superior and inferioronce established needs continual validation, be it merely through thesmile of a servant or the commendation of a master.Uncertainties become moot problems when a young man is tying himselfto a rising star. He must sort the evidence to determine whether his prospectivepatron’s success is based on merit or power. The bold ones, perhaps spurred by special knowledge from their own esoteric sources of power,rush to share the ascent. The cautious delay, waiting for more certain evidencethat time will yield. When a secure position seems to establish meritas the basis for success, and when one no longer risks anything to join him,perhaps then the star will decline. People then say that, having establishedthe meritorious base, he has exceeded his merit. So, despite these judgments,one never knows. Saints may turn into criminals, and brigands into stalwartleaders of a community. Agility in changing allegiance at the proper momentis a valuable asset.The player of this social scene must be continuously alert. As Sharp (1957)observed, one must look up and down the hierarchy to confirm one’s position.The provincial governor must not only wear the extra bar of office thatdistinguishes him from his deputy but outshine him by riding in a bettercar to a more expensive restaurant where after a heartier meal he leaves alarger tip. To overlook the etiquette of one’s station is a first step toward decline.And at the same time, the wary person must not forget an occasionalglance to the side, to someone standing near one’s station in another group.He is a potential rival for higher station, should be granted no quarter andexpects none. The government official who personally smoothed an impasse has beentransferred and cannot repeat his charity. The farmer who sold those fresheggs last week has sold his whole flock of chickens and established a coffeeshop. International agencies complain that their training programs andcarefully organized projects may be negated by shifts of the cooperatingThai civil officials. Even more disconcerting to a Westerner, the ethics of loyaltyand honor seem to be badly developed in the Thai scene. These values,as defined in the West, though, depend for implementation on a society ofrelatively fixed position. Enforcement of “honor” or “loyalty” depends onthe expectation of incessant shaming by unavoidable associates. But in thisshifting social scene, contracts and promises sincerely made are little betterindicators of future action than casual statements.



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