George Walford: On Control

Does the government control society? Not: Can Mrs. Thatcher beat the miners? but: Does any government control any society? In one sense, yes: decisions are made by the government with which the society complies. Examples of this are the exact rate at which taxation shall be levied and the precise date on which a new law shall take effect. In another sense, no: there are things the society is going to do, and others it is not going to do, whatever the government may decide. Things every governed society is going to continue doing include the production and consumption of goods; things no society is going to do include taking to the air without mechanical assistance and surviving without food. Government does control society, does change its behaviour, but within certain limits.

Even within those limits, however, it does so upon conditions. Francis Bacon, an experienced ruler, said long ago: “There goes more to ruling than bidding it be done” and there are always things the government has to do in order to make its decision effective. At a minimum it must make them known among the people affected, usually it needs to impose penalties for non-compliance and often to allocate resources facilitating the required action. In taking these steps government has regard to the existing behaviour of the governed. If they are accustomed to speak English it will make its decisions known in English, if French then in French. If they are literate it will address them in writing, if not then in speech, perhaps through the pulpit or if radio is available then through that medium. Penalties are set in accordance with established custom; in England a thief will be fined, in Iran lose a hand. The control exercised by government is not and cannot be arbitrary, it is modified by the existing features of the society being governed.

Turning to control in a more general sense, the same restriction applies; if control is to be effective it must always be adapted to the features of what is being controlled. If I wish to control a horse I must behave in one way, if a car then in a different way. To control anything is to modify its behaviour, and if the person, group or institution doing the controlling has to modify its behaviour in accordance with the features of what is to be controlled, then the controlled is modifying the behaviour of the controller. The controlled controls the controller, and it is only upon condition that this control be accepted that he control required can be exercised. Or, in a less paradoxical formulation: control is a reciprocal relationship.

It is not only governments that set out to control societies; reformers and revolutionaries also do this, commonly with less success, and the purpose of this article is to suggest that the reason for the difference is that governments are commonly better at adapting their behaviour to the features of the society being controlled than are the reformers and revolutionaries. Governments are more inclined than are reformers and revolutionaries to treat a horse as a horse, a car as a car, and a society in accordance with its ideological constitution, and this is why it is usually the government, not the reformers and revolutionaries, that exercises effective control. It is notorious that when reformers and revolutionaries come to exercise the powers of government their behaviour alters, they come to act more like the government that preceded them than in the way that might be expected from their pronouncements while in opposition. They come to emulate the previous government in adapting their behaviour to that of the society they govern; this is a condition upon which they exercise the powers of government. Control is a reciprocal relationship.

from Ideological Commentary 12, August 1984.