POWER and Powerlessness (2006)

by Susan Rosenthal

Power over others and lack of power are both corrupting. However, power – the ability to control events – can also liberate. Power is not the problem; the problem is unequal access to power. For more than a hundred-thousand years, our ancient ancestors lived in cooperative, power-sharing societies. This book explains how the rule of reciprocity was overthrown and how it can be re-established.

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Reading this book is like taking the red pill in The Matrix. It opens your eyes to the truth.

— Janna Comrie

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Print copy

ISBN: 141205691-8
Pages: 241
$15 (CAD) U.S. & Canada only

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Table of Contents

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Excerpt

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Part One: What’s going on?

1. Does anybody really care?
2. Compassion isn’t cost-effective
3. Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken
4. Nature’s youngest child

Part Two: How did this happen?

5. Seize the surplus
6. Compete or die
7. Burden the family
8. Profit from pain

Part Three: Why do we put up with it?

9. The lies that bind us
10. Blame the victim
11. Divide and rule
12. Suffer the children

Part Four: What will it take?

13. Decide which side you’re on
14. Seize the power
15. Beware the middle ground
16. Claim the surplus

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Introduction

Their power — our powerlessness.
Our power — their powerlessness.
Each calls the other into being

The world is a puzzling place. Like Alice in Wonderland, people rush to go nowhere, too many things don’t make sense, and the threat of losing one’s head is ever present. It seems as if humanity has fallen down the rabbit hole and cannot find a way out. Yet, there is hope. If we can understand how we got here and what keeps us here, we can go forward.

Society is divided into two groups of people: a few who wield immense power and the rest who feel varying degrees of powerlessness. As a result, conflicts over power dominate life. Between individuals, the struggle for power kills intimacy. On a social level, competition drives down living standards. On a global scale, the battle for dominance threatens human survival.

My experience as a physician compelled me to write this book. As the sister of a disabled child, I thought that doctors had the power to end suffering, and I wanted that power. After I graduated from medical school, I learned how powerless doctors actually are. Most of my patients’ problems were rooted in family dynamics, financial difficulties, and conflicts at school and at work. I studied psychotherapy in the hope that combining mind and body skills would be more useful. It was — I could help people move from uncommon misery to common misery. The problems created by alienation, oppression, and exploitation remained beyond my control.

After listening to thousands of people’s stories, I have concluded that social power is necessary for human health. Most people lack the happy, healthy, fulfilling lives they deserve because they are kept powerless and mistakenly accept this state of affairs as natural or self-inflicted. In fact, most human suffering is preventable.

A just world is possible. Human beings create society, and we can change it. The need for change is urgent. Everywhere, there is injustice, anguish, and anger. This book explains how society shapes people, how people shape society, and how powerlessness can be converted into the power to transform the world.

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I think you’ve written something powerful and important. And I like your style, clear, approachable. I hope it will be widely circulated.

– Howard Zinn, author, A People’s History of the United States

Every UAW member needs to have a copy on their coffee table.

– Todd Jordan, UAW Local 292

Your thesis that “social power is necessary for human health” is a great insight. I hope that many people read this book, because they will benefit from the deeper understanding of society that it provides.

– Jeff Schmidt, author Disciplined Minds

Susan Rosenthal’s argument in POWER and Powerlessness is not new to socialists; however, her point of departure and the terrain on which she develops a cogent, insightful, sometimes humorous analysis of capitalism’s ills are as unexpected as they are relevant.

Rosenthal’s years of experience as a physician have taught her the ugly realities of commoditized human health, both mental and physical. If her study limited itself to an exposé of the industry, it would be an interesting and informative read. Instead, Rosenthal marries years of experience in health care with an in-depth Marxist analysis to expose how capitalism functions at every level and to insist on our ability to recreate the world on sane and humane terms.

Rosenthal begins by examining the nature of the powerlessness that many people feel, showing it to be the product of a system that rewards self-serving “psychopaths” in the ruling class and encourages passive submission among workers. The dissociation that results from the onslaught of seemingly insolvable problems and irresolvable contradictions contributes to alienation.

“Every aspect of life is shaped by class inequality – the existence of immense wealth alongside enormous deprivation. … Dissociation allows people to respond to conflicting aspects of life as if they were not related.”

– Sophie Hand: International Socialist Review, Sept.-Oct. 2006

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