Power - Donald Savoie

Power: Where is it?

By Donald J. Savoie
McGill-Queen's University Press, November 30, 2009, $29.95

Someone reading People magazine might conclude that Tom Cruise and Sandra Bullock run Hollywood. While they’re certainly influential, so are the directors and producers behind the scenes as well as the financiers and studios that decide what films get made. To truly understand the movie industry, one should investigate the cultural context from which it operates and the economic principles that drive it, divorced from any individual.

Power: Where Is It? by Donald J. Savoie, a prolific author and the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration at Université de Moncton, is a People-style investigation of political and economic affairs. While Savoie makes a number of interesting observations about the influence of the media, polling firms, the courts and international bodies such as the G8, his primary thesis is that powerful individuals matter more than institutional structures. “The dynamic element in the global economy is the individual,” writes Savoie, “not countries, companies or institutions.” But does this claim have any basis in reality?

Mega-corporations — often with various subsidiaries spread across the globe — increasingly dominate all areas of economic life. It wasn’t a celebrity CEO that recently saved the automakers and banks; rather, it was hundreds of billions of dollars from Ottawa and Washington.

Savoie claims that celebrities drive the media as well. “The focus is on individual journalists not on news media organizations, because that is where the media’s influence now lies.” According to this thesis, Jeffrey Simpson, among Canada’s leading newspaper columnists, is more influential than the Globe and Mail editors who decide what stories make the front page. But who chose Simpson to be a columnist? For that matter, who picked the editor who then chose Simpson? Presumably, Simpson attained his position because his writing pleased these editors and their bosses. If Simpson displeased the paper’s owners you can be sure that a replacement would be sought.

As part of his aversion to structural analysis, Savoie dissects the media’s power without mentioning who owns it or that it relies heavily on large corporate advertisers. Certainly, owning media confers power on an individual or corporation. Former media baron Conrad Black openly established the National Post to promote his extreme pro-capitalist ideology and Pierre Karl Péladeau, owner of Quebecor, Quebec’s largest media conglomerate, is attempting to set up an all-news cable channel to support right-wing politicians (critics have dubbed it “Fox News North”). Likewise, a media landscape dependent on advertising increases the influence of big business.

Because Savoie focuses on individuals, the reader is left with the impression that we live in a meritocracy. Unfortunately, we don’t, and implying otherwise serves to strengthen the dominance of the wealthy, white and male.

Power is informed by Savoie’s pro-corporate outlook. “The private sector is not in the business of throwing money around without seeing results,” notes Savoie. But isn’t that precisely what a number of major financial institutions did when they paid huge sums to management even after these managers oversaw record losses. AIG, for instance, paid senior managers $165 million in bonuses after the company suffered a $61.7 billion loss in the final quarter of 2008. “At the risk of sounding repetitive,” Savoie proclaims, “countries that go further in reducing corporate taxes, cutting red tape and privatizing state corporations tend to see their economies prosper more than those that do not.” So why isn’t Haiti among the richest countries? Businesses there don’t have to worry about taxes and the state plays almost no role in economic life.

A non-ideological review of history confirms the opposite of Savoie’s claim about government intervention. In Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, prize-winning economist Ha-Joon Chang uses his native South Korea as a case study to demonstrate how almost every rich country developed through some form of economic protectionism. Once rich, they try to forbid other countries from following suit.

Since power generally prefers to conceal itself (if you don’t know where it rests, it’s difficult to challenge) exploring its locus should disturb the status quo. But, I would venture to guess that few among the political or economic elite will be disturbed by Power. Savoie’s analysis is superficial. He fails to convey any substantive disapproval with a state of affairs that sees CEOs take home millions of dollars while others labour away for $9 an hour and some First Nations reserves don’t even have access to clean water.

At the same time, Savoie completely ignores the popular social forces that shape political and economic affairs. Many things we take for granted today were won through tireless struggle by common folk, not bestowed by powerful individuals. Without these activists, there would be no clean air or water legislation while abortions and homosexuality would still be illegal. The 40-hour work week, old-age pension and universal health coverage were all won by social movements that included millions of individuals who never would have been named in a celebrity-worshipping book like Power.

To a large degree, popular movements have shaped the legislative environment in which politicians and businesses operate. But, rarely do the dominant media or the sycophants of the powerful credit these social forces.

Yves Engler’s most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid. For more information visit yvesengler.com.

Yves Engler

Dubbed “Canada’s version of Noam Chomsky” (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “part...