Social Analysis
What Had The Caesars But Their Thrones?
Institutions and their use of power

by Lelia Doolin

There is a saying that no institution is large enough to house one human soul.

Lelia Doolin, who famously resigned from RTE national broadcasting service many years ago, writes about how institutions become arrogant  and lose touch with their original 'raison d'être'.
There are very few people who have not at some time been taken aback by the power of a large organisation -- large organisations like banks, the courts, the military, the churches, big and small business, civic guards, government offices, medical and legal and accounting professions, transport and communications and educational establishments, structures and systems, committees and councils and corporations. How often have we waited for their decisions, their edicts, to be handed down to us in courtrooms or in hospital corridors – or as we sit with the telephone to our ear, listening to endless, manic jingles. Large organisations believe that their time is more important than yours or mine. They can’t be taking chances. We might get notions.

My title for this talk sets up a proposition, perhaps even an opposition. It’s this: temporal power is the hallucination of those who believe themselves and their ends to be immortal. This fantasy leads to a thrombosis within society where the accumulation of power and its continuing control centralises the common wealth without creating adequate structures for its distribution. When systems are finally tracked for their accountability, the tone often changes from bureaucratic to pathetic – “don’t raise your voice to me -- I’m only doing my job”.

I don’t wish to suggest that I can answer these questions, nor even that raising them is enough. What follows are opinionated reflections.

Originating Impulses

There are those who believe that only concepts which have outlived their originality become institutions. Otherwise, it is said, the concept would end up in the dustbin. Raymond Williams has written about the moment in revolutionary action when, the goal having been achieved, an oath is required between those who led the action. This oath of loyalty marks the end of trust between equals and the beginning of new collections and distributions of power, new hierarchies. Dire are the consequences for those who dissent. The oath-takers must then create a power base, trappings of power, symbols of authority, organisational armour. What then appear, writes Bernadette McAliskey, are “acolytes, adherents, and advocates; rules and rules enforcers. Codes of practice, penalties for dissidents, critics, heretics and adventurers follow in swift succession”.

It used to be said of performances in the Abbey Theatre, especially of long-running productions, that some of the actors, either out of boredom or from a belief in their superior insights, used to put in what they called “improvements” – that is, alterations and accretions which often pulled the play out of shape and drove the writer and the director, if he or she got to witness it, into a frenzy.

A similar aberration is conveyed by Dostoyevsky’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Christ has been taken prisoner again, this time in sixteenth century Spain. The enraged Inquisitor says to him: “Know that I, too, was in the wilderness; that I, too, fed upon locusts and roots; that I, too, blessed freedom with which you have blessed men; that I, too, was preparing to stand among your chosen ones ... But I woke up and refused to serve madness. I went back and joined the hosts of those who have corrected your work”.

This is a severe indictment. But our eyes have been opened to these tendencies in our own recent history, to the product of these “corrections” -- secret and covered-up excesses in church, politics, the law and commerce, and within agencies of the state which abused, humiliated, betrayed and, in the infamous case of the blood service, actually killed its own citizens. In less obviously destructive ways, we have an organisation like this august one here1: the very circumstances of its birth and premature middle age have ensured that its purposes would be forever compromised, in spite of the quality of its individual members.

Those over the age of fifty or thereabouts may remember some upheavals in RTE in the summer of 1969. I was one of those involved as an employee of the station in actions to revitalise, as we thought, its waning vision of public service broadcasting. The book we wrote about those stirring times and the history and organisation that gave rise to them was called, ironically, Sit Down And Be Counted. It is now well out of print, whatever about the questions it raised.

This occasion is not one on which I mean to revisit those arguments except to say two things: the politicians who created a camel of a television service forty years ago -- “preserve and nurture the cultural imagination of the country but make a profit, also” were the politicians who assented to the financial starvation of the service by Ray Burke some years later and they are, today, the politicians whose actions in providing an adequate licence fee for RTE (and a proper method for its collection) will either further damage or enhance its life. I hope that it will be the latter, and in short order, too.

The second point is this: it is the enjoyment and esprit de corps of a working organisation, and its relationship of trust and openness with the public it serves, that marks its role as intrinsic to the common good; to that extent, RTE’s total workforce have an ongoing task.

In relation to trust in institutions, a recent opinion poll revealed that just half of the respondents trusted television, the Irish civil service or the European Union while only a third had any trust in the press, the Dail, the Irish government or our political parties. Worse results were to be found for trust in the clerical Roman Catholic church. A healthy scepticism is indispensible. But a belief in nothing, a trust in nothing must surely destroy social solidarity. Margaret Thatcher, who once announced that there is no such a thing as society, was forced to accept that not only does such an entity exist but that its needs cannot be achieved exclusively through the pursuit of private interest and the free market.

Society As A System

How to describe society? We could say that social structure consists of arrangements of specialised and mutually dependent institutions and the necessary organisations of positions and people within them. These have evolved in the natural course of events as groups of human beings, with particular needs and capacities, seek to create systems to cope with their environment. There are other aspects of social structure among so-called primitive societies that arise through membership in other kinds of persistent groups such as clans, castes, age-sets, secret societies, or from a class system based on the soil. And we’re all familiar with the many systems particular to developed urban societies: corporate systems; systems of politics, of religions; community-based systems – to say nothing of other systems like the human body, plants and animals and all of nature, and of the cosmos. When we were school-children, testing out a location for ourselves within the grand design, our copybooks were decorated with our singular place within the ever-widening universe: John of the family of Quinn, Central Avenue, Co. Meath, Ireland, Europe, the Earth etc. and so on. “Goodnight Ballivor, I’ll sleep in Trim -- or maybe on Mars...”

If it is our human consciousness, as opposed to that of plants or animals, our ability to think about thinking that constructs society – our reality, in fact – then in view of such complexity of needs and abilities, there must be a division of labour at work here.

Long, long ago, the first institutions involved power and ownership of a scarce commodity – knowledge. The first captains of this industry were those who could act as messengers and interpreters of the contrariness of those ultimate powers, the gods. People who could make a story out of the entrails of the unknown and who could attract others to belief in, and the service of, these myths and mysteries, these explanatory stories, they were to be the leaders and priests and heroes of regimes which grew in complexity and found it necessary to appoint people in specialist roles to undertake certain of the intellectual and physical tasks of the whole.

Not only that, but in order to accommodate such specialist roles, the whole society must organise itself so that certain individuals can concentrate on their specialities. As Berger and Luckmann write in The Social Construction of Reality: “If in a hunting society certain individuals are to become specialists as swordsmiths, there will have to be provision to excuse them from the hunting activities that are incumbent on all adult males. Specialised knowledge of a more elusive kind, such as the knowledge of mystagogues and other intellectuals, requires similar organisation. In all these cases the specialists become administrators of the sectors of the stock of knowledge that have been socially assigned to them”.

Socially distributed knowledge and its attendant roles relieved the populace from the burden of having to know everything or to think everything out by themselves from the beginning. They reposed their confidence in expert, specialist coteries who undertook the establishment of social order on their behalf. They did not have to know the intricacies of the spirit world, merely where to find the required magician or priest. Millennia later, we do not have to know the intricacies of electronic engineering or computer programming to get the picture onto the screen. It will do to press the remote control or give the mouse a squeeze. No human need intervene. Still, it is heartening to think of other imaginations who have got there before the expert, in one leap, so to speak. Mike Cooley tells the story of having, as he proudly thought, created a neat computer system to transform data to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to wisdom and wisdom to action when he discovered, through the prompting of a friend, a TS Eliot poem which ends:

What wisdom have we lost in knowledge
What knowledge have we lost in information.

In the early days of creating a specialist role or organisation, the people concerned understand its purpose. It is only when the character and extent of the role is to be passed on to new generations that the need to explain and justify is called for: the need to legitimise. I would like to think that the rag-tag of apostles and publicans and prostitutes and women knew well the sort of jelly-rock that was Peter, the foundation of the new church with his bluff, loving, cowardly, faithful and very human nature – and that they therefore also knew the sort of timorous, grieving and untidy band of love-smitten poor nomads who would be the new church. Instead, we were confronted, as time wrought on, by a closed geological explanation of this rock-like Peter church: an impermeable, non-porous, unkind, inflexible, single-sex phenomenon for whom its legitimation often seemed more important than its meaning. What a tragedy, apart from the present awful revelations, for those bewildered clerics within it whose special service is enmeshed in a hypocrisy of obedience to what has become largely a temporal, political power. And for all the women barred from ministry by its implacable sophistry.

As specialists draw to themselves (or have conferred upon them by a supine citizenry) unwarranted status and privilege, we have the ironic example, millennia since the first experts examined the will of heavenly beings, of tribunals of enquiry in which lawyers, for a couple of days work, are paid the entire yearly income of an Irish State pensioner. And political witnesses to the embezzlement of public goods and monies and even to the deaths of its citizens, provide the public with the bill for their appearance. It is a fine satire on lost ideals.

And although this may not have been intended, and there are poor lawyers and honest politicians as well, the media’s vocabulary of condemnation like 'obscene', 'criminal', 'disgusting' and all the rest have an impotent and barren ring in the contemporary Tower of Babel that is our public discourse.

They do things differently elsewhere. In Florence, councillors and planning officials who had authorised the re-tiling of an ancient square with inappropriate materials were given prison sentences (happily suspended) and fined. It often crossed our minds during the ten years of the campaign to re-relocate the Mullaghmore centre in the Burren that the Commissioners of Public Works might have been asked to cough up at least some of the £2 million of public money wasted by them on their failed enterprise.

How Important Is the Role of Refusal and Subversion?

If the spirit of man is the spirit of refusal, where are the nay-sayers, who break through the institutional rhythm and provide the conflict and drama for change? In Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle a crucial role reversal turns the robber into the judge. He must exert the wisdom of Solomon between the claims of a rich and a poor woman on a child. Years ago, I was fortunate to see a great production of the play by the Strand Players in Mountjoy Jail. I’ve seldom been among an audience who so obviously savoured the fine wit of the judge’s severe yet fair treatment of the grand personages. Would those Mountjoy prisoners emerge from their victimhood with that kind of engaged detachment? Or would their resentment consign them simply to the cul-de-sac of individual self-interest in a society apparently more and more devoted to the protection of its own privelege?

I remember another dissident from an African tribal society. His name was Sandombu and he created endless disruptions and dramas within the social structures of his village. The interesting thing is that these social systems and structures were not just ideological. They did not depend on knowledge-specialisations but on clearly defined networks of kinship and location which had their own complex norms. He wanted to become village headman but his struggles and trouble-making were doomed. When it was necessary to re-establish an acceptable peace between Sandombu and the members of his tribal village groups, the social forces employed, although formal, were not stationery institutions but rather ad hoc ritual associations and movements which were galvanised as required. This happened frequently. On one occasion he was accused of causing the death of a villager by sorcery. His punishment was expulsion from the village for a year.

The self-protection of so-called civilised social powers had harsher things to do and say about the freedom of independent spirits like Galileo, Nelson Mandela, Terence McSwiney and Bobby Sands, Joan the Maid, and Thomas More who refused to accomodate the marital demands of Henry VIII. Thomas More had a grand vision of a new society. He wrote a book about it, called Utopia -- a place or state of bliss. But the word means, literally, No Place. Like the ideal of no hierarchies, no possessions, no power, it still eludes us.

Huge changes are brought about by the subversion of a new idea. Gandhi’s subversive genius as a leader was to find a simple, unconsidered human need, salt, to hit upon a novel way of meeting it which could involve thousands and to hold the idea up high to where the sun, and people’s imagination, could catch it. Teresa of Avila was asked whether she would prefer a person who was pious and not too bright to one who was bright and not too pious. Down-to-earth mystic that she was, she opted for the bright one – probably on the grounds that if the not too bright person lost his piety … A dreadful possibility!

Socrates’ enquiries met a stark end. His tools were the relentless clarity of the question and an irony which unmasked ignorance. But his questions alarmed the large corporation that was Athens. He had corrupted the youth of the city by teaching them how to think; the punishment was death.

We have been shaken by revelations here of the corruption of Irish children. Rita Ann Higgins has a chilling poem which catches the complicity of a social system with the calculating manipulations of a paedophile. She calls it The Servers:

Altered boys in Ireland
have no egos
not to mind altar egos.
They have been ground down
by power filled priests
who play pain games
with their bones
their brittle bones.

These wolves sit in parlours
in millennium sitting rooms
with tongue-tied mothers
who are proud their sons are serving God.
They take one spoon or two
and much more.

When the father comes home
she tells him the priest was here.
They are filled with joy.
Our boy on the altar
our lamb on weekends away
with father meekly
how lucky are we?

What Is The Possibility of a Critical Response to a System?

A start might be to look again at our options within the system. As the range of specialisations is limited every day to fewer owners of knowledge, the interruptions of the heretic and the querulous are no longer a risk. They are merely an inconvenience, to be squashed by economic or institutional sanctions rather than by torture or imprisonment, at least in this country. Imprisonment is to be reserved, and further buildings constructed ad lib, to house the pitiful villains created by the example given to them by our commercial and state corporations.

There are a couple of instances where these questions are especially troubling.

Firstly, how to deal with the multinational pharmaceutical companies and their medicines which are out of the reach of the poor? The argument is made that, without profit, research is impossible. And research is nowadays largely for sale to the highest bidder. Managers are involved in this cycle of money-making by being made shareholders.

As for owning the genetically modified seed from your crop, don’t expect that you can lay claim to it. Unlike Grusha in the Caucasian Chalk Circle, the next generation of seed will belong to the corporation, not to you. They are its intellectual owners.

Secondly, the logic of an international armaments industry is not that these weapons of mass destruction will be put “beyond use”, as the outworn phrase in Northern Ireland has it. The logic is that everything must be used in the present pre-arranged engagement. The curious thing about Mr Bush’s intended war on Iraq is not that there is not a single Iraqi prisoner in Guantanamo, but that the US apparently means to make war without having any of its own soldiers killed.

The historian Eric Hobsbawn believes that “it is becoming harder to involve people in collective action. So long as most people were poor, they responded to this call, because their only hope was through collective action. If they are beyond the threshold of need, they think they can obtain more by pursuing only their own private interest.” He goes on to point out that with globalisation, insecurity of employment is a new strategy and a tactic for increasing profits by reducing as much as possible reliance on human labour or by paying employees less. In modern capitalist economies, the only element whose productivity cannot easily be increased and whose costs cannot easily be reduced is human beings. So there is a lot of pressure to exclude them from the production process.

Still, there are new signs of protest and response as in ongoing movements on behalf of the environment, in little-heard but strong anti-war sentiment in the US and in the recent, measured actions against the World Trade Organisation in Florence.

Answering machines with their prayerful litanies of “press 1 for this and 2 for that …” may be the tiresome and time-wasting custodians of robotic communications but there are new pathways around them now for the nimble-fingered of the Western world: the internet, the email; thoughts speeding as instantly as light – and just as cheaply.

Some Conclusions

Where would we be without systems and without the stories that created a communal tale? We’d be mindless, aimless, unimagined beings whose consciousness floats in an intentionless ooze, probably. We’d be people without a history or a story and without the goad of the project into the future, we would never reach out our endless ingenuity in search of new plateaus of equilibrium.

What options, then, exist for the individual within the systems? It is said that memory is to the individual what tradition is to the community. The continuum runs from full participation and celebration all the way to apathy and indifference. Somewhere towards the middle is tacit support and compliance. Resistance, criticism, alternative bids for leadership and different visions seem to belong in the centre, too, but more frequently wind up on the edge, or at the bottom – or even betwixt and between, in no man’s land.

Fragments of a four thousand years old poem from Egypt recounts the dilemma of a man speaking to his soul about the lonesomeness of his fate:

Lo, my name is abhorred
Lo, more than that of a wife
When lies are told against her to her husband
To whom do I speak today
I am laden with misery
And lack a trusty friend
Death is before me today
As the odour of myrrh
As when one sits under the sail on a windy day.

No man’s land is a dangerous place where people can wander, nameless, homeless, terror-stricken, without property or status. It is also full of possibility and comradeship where the closed nature of an everyday kind of existence opens itself out to others in egalitarian recognition. But probably only fools and mystics, good Samaritans, holy mendicants, court jesters and the like could remain for long in such a state of communion. Small nations could be one such entity. Public libraries certainly are...

Small scale and budding organisations sometimes possess these qualities, at least at the beginning when the work to be done and the mutual satisfaction in facing tests and disasters together is still enjoyable. The family is probably the archetype here and maybe most organisations, as they grow, strive fitfully to recapture a collective spirit. The staff party and the staff picnic are remnants of good bacchanalian opportunities, I would feel, of turning the bosses’s power upside down.

We are creatures of myth and wild enjoyments, after all. When the king of ancient times had fulfilled his role for a year, he was ritually scolded, ostracised, sexually assaulted and then executed by his subjects, to make way for the new king. In time, the execution became symbolic rather than actual. Kings are, after all, generally quite clever and not much inclined to surrender power. However, in many societies, the rituals of reversal continued on an annual basis. The drummers in the Barotse royal barge were priveleged annually to throw into the water any of the noble entourage who had offended them and their sense of justice during the year. It signified the power of the weak. It also gave the drummers a good laugh.

Shareholders in large corporations don’t have anything like the same fun; nor do citizens at general elections, although the purpose is similar. There have to be limits to the power of the weak, after all. Where money is power and buys status, as in our societies, it can hardly be expected that once a year the monthly wage of all senior workers would be exchanged with that of the lowest-paid. Or even, mad thought, that all workers would be paid the same. Where did I hear that before? But it’s a thought...

Meanwhile, those waiting for the answers to the earliest questions – do institutions invariably move from being task-orientated to becoming group-orientated as they expand and age and invent ever grander titles and hierarchies for themselves – and do they invariably seek to protect themselves from the critique of trouble-making insiders and outsiders? Yes, they do. Does their very existence produce this kind of resistance? Yes, it does, since freedom-loving people are to be found in the oddest places – as in Northern Ireland in 1969 when, for instance, a generation of educated young people took their ideas of liberation and their courage onto the streets and gave a fresh impetus to an old struggle.

Deeper consideration might be given to why the instinct for self-protection and distrust inevitably develops. Is it fear or arrogance or, perhaps, a sense of common history among its members (blood is thicker than water / my country right or wrong) that keeps the group together when its existence no longer serves any purpose?

Inventive and dedicated people are made lazy and incompetent by mediocre institutions and institutions established to serve the public often make it as difficult as possible for this to happen. Most public bodies, or at least those in this country who have lately been given a good fright, may now invest a little time in thinking out ways of regaining some integrity. In journeying by train between Galway and Dublin and back, the delays and frustrations are nowadays a given rather than an exception. But do the company’s managers and decision-makers stand in the cold, with the queues of would-be pilgrims, to explain and mend matters? No they do not. This unenviable chore is left to ticket collectors and station staff. No wonder these respond with the “don’t raise your voice to me I’m only doing my job” mantra of the disengaged worker.

And as we head for further trans-global institutions, it may be a salutary moment to pause and assess our options: will it continue to be more McDonalds, less bacon and cabbage (organic), more advance factories for foreign capital. As more stop-gap reactions occur, their tendency over time is to become closed and distrustful. This cycle, however, is constantly interrupted by various secular interventions and upheavals. These are often brought about by individuals or small groups who see through the myth of the emperor’s elaborate but non-existent clothes. We’ve been going through some of these upheavals in Ireland during the past few years and every new day seems to reveal further marvels and infamies as enquiry follows tribunal follows report, disclosure, leak, rumour and conjecture. Life is imitating Kafka.

“The large corporation has been the leader in the retreat from risk” Kenneth Galbraith said. Sartre might have added, on our behalf: “history is neither mere action, nor vertiginous freedom, nor frivolous creativity, but it is the persistent attempt to do the best we can with the knowledge of the moment”.

WB Yeats, too, meditated on the twin dynamos of prophetic imagination and seductive nature in his poem, Demon and Beast. In the last lines, the awkward hermit has fasted to a triumphant end in the desert while the rulers have perished in the remnants of their grandeur. It goes:

When that exultant Anthony
And twice a thousand more
Starved upon the shore
And withered to a bag of bones!
What had the Caesars but their thrones?

The twin images have always echoed in my mind and led to questions that seem endlessly to recur: Do all institutions develop an inbuilt instinct for self-protection, for the very preservation of their existence – apart from their original purpose or present task? Does this instinct for self-preservation eventually and inevitably contradict and corrupt their purposes? Do the institutions, also inevitably, produce their antidote: revolutionary movements which eventually become their mirror image? And do these systems not also awaken men and women whose questions create discomfort and disruption and fissure – making a mockery of their lies and their sclerosis?

And while you are taking that in and ransacking your minds for examples of convivial social organisations and groupings – political, revolutionary, artistic, domestic – I’d like to mention three of my own.

My first example is the Burren Action Group, who for ten years, until the satisfactory outcome of the Mullaghmore Visitor Centre campaign, maintained a camaraderie of equals in which the spirit of friendhip and freedom flourished, after all.

I remember the gallantry of the Pike Theatre, of the late Alan Simpson and of Carolyn Swift, who stood up for the autonomy of the Irish Theatre in spite of the careless authoritarianism of church and state.

And my list would always include the spirit of John Quinn’s work on the Open Mind2. I am honoured to salute it tonight.

1. Raidió Teilifís Éireann (
RTE), the Irish national broadcasting organisation.
2. A series of radio programmes on RTE produced by John Quinn.

Author: Lelia Doolin worked in RTE and subsequently became director of the Irish Film Board. She is the co-author of Sit Down and Be Counted, a book which made a strong critique of Irish broadcasting. She lives in the west of Ireland.

Source: This article is the text of a talk given on RTE radio in  2003. The text was sent to us by the author.
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