POWERS OF THE WEAK is written with diligence and integrity and a generosity to weaker characters which combine to disarm the critic. But in this book the cardinal power of the weak, after laborious study, is discovered to be Mistrust. We are enjoined to Disbelieve myths, mores, slogans, theories, no matter how hoary, which inhibit all us designated underlings from balking. The publisher say that Elizabeth Janeway "ventures boldly into fresh territory," and that she "takes an exciting leap into what she calls "impractical politics' to show how women, by valuing and expressing their natural talents, can and must reshape and civilize the entire pattern of power." I Disbelieve that blurb.
What Janeway does do is gather together massive amounts of material that touch upon power -- in the fields of psychology, economics, politics, anthropology, religion, literature, biology -- reduce it and deliver its import in a slow, even-handed and hortatory manner. She is an immense reader in the liberal utilitarian tradition. (I will write that down. It will be useful.) Her biblography is elegant. The finest sources are used with confidence and quoted at length to support her meticulously documented argument demonstration the complicity of the weak in their abnegation of power.
She exhorts the weak to stop being in complicity, first, to use the example of women, by mistrusting the sort of intimidating conventional wisdom -- a Woman's place is in the Home, Biology is Destiny, Better to be Safe than Sorry -- which narrows the possibilities in a person's life. "If you can persuade [a woman] that something which she feels to be inescapably a part of her, that is, her sex, disqualifies her from using power, then you have gone a long way toward persuading her not to try to use it."
Second, the weak must come together, combine, ally to reinforce their female confidence and feminine self-respect. "Feminine virtues are not produced by special gifts of saintliness or generosity built into the X chromosomes; they are human assets which have, over the centuries, fallen into women's hands as and when the powerful found them inconvenient. They have remained there because, once they were labeled 'feminine,' they came to be regarded as inappropriate for male use. We need not, we should not, be proud of possessing them. What we have done is simply to preserve a useful part of the repertory of human behavior."
And third, drawing strength from all this allegiance, they/we must create in an ideology. "The intellectual value of an ideology for the dedicated is that it promotes the commitment necessary to combat repression. If one believes in these dogmas, one does not waver or act against one's intentions. But there is a second advantage as well: it encourages the oppressed to formulate coherent programs for action."
The first chapters begin with our ancestors in pre-history, and the evolution of a sense of Self, a sense of The Other. ("This separation between self and not-self seems to me a crucial event of human experience.") With the aid of Freud, Erikson, Hamlet, Piaget, Winnicott, Bettelheim, Durkheim, we see that the self and society are inextricably bound, and that the infant, in its early dependency upon the mother, learns its first crucial lessons in trust and in power. "A hungry child will eventually be fed by the powers-That-Be, but before that occurs, she may have to wait, and must sometimes demand satisfaction. Will the outside world hear and respond? Will it respond soon enough? Can it be trusted?" Through the psychopathology of the damaged child, and his nightmares, we understand the "Lessons from the Dark Side."
There is a long central section that examines the many uses and abuse of political power, for instance in tsarist and Stalinist Russia, in Nixon's White House; the magic that seems inherent in power, not only in primitive societies but in our own; the charisma of those who hold, power. Sakharov, Max Weber, Solzhenitsyn, Hobsbawn, among others, enlighten these chapters.
Studies are referred to at length to prove the benefits which accrue to the weak when they combine and can deal with the powerful on more equal terms. We learn that "when interaction is efective . . . it offers opportunities for reciprocal gratification; both members get something (enough) out of it, each has some control over the other by dint of controlling things the other values, and this reciprocity limits the extent to which one partner can dominate the other." On the subject of tokenism in the higher ranks of power, we learn that many scholars have discovered that if you bring more women into those ranks, they cease to be singled out as anomalies, "individual advances turn into social change when enough of them occur."
It is hard to believe that anybody would take exception to the wide-ranging generalities arrived at in this book, where so many great names are honored, so many great insights neutralized to become truisms. This is a resolutely pro-woman book and yet because there is so much spelling out (or so little self-monitoring), it seems to betray a lack of confidence in the capacity of reasonable people to follow a theme and leaves the reader, ironically, with a feeling of being patronized.