Libya’s failed coup demonstrates the nature of power

Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter (Flickr/Magharebia)

Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter (Flickr/Magharebia)

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come,” wrote Carl Sandburg in his 1936 poem The People, Yes. The line was later misquoted as it morphed into a ubiquitous antiwar slogan during the 1960s, appearing on bumper stickers, in the lyrics of a Monkees song and as the title of a 1970 film.

On Friday, that famous quote was nearly realized in Libya. As the New York Times reported, Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a senior army officer, called for a military coup, and no one showed up.

“The army is in its headquarters, and Khalifa Hifter has no authority,” said Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who mocked the coup attempt. “No military units have moved to touch any institutions.”

This unusual episode, or perhaps it’d be better called a non-episode, has something to teach us about the true nature of power — namely, that it ultimately rests on consent.

“Power is never the property of an individual,” explains Hannah Arendt in On Violence, “it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”

When ordinary people, or soldiers in the case of Libya, systematically withdraw their consent and refuse to cooperate with someone who appears to be in power, as Gene Sharp has written, “the man who has been ‘ruler’ becomes just another man.”

If only stories like this were not so odd — and military units more regularly refused to move, or go to war, or crackdown on protesters — we could pull back the curtain on the seemingly omnipotent Obamas, Putins and Assads of the world and embrace our own agency to effect change.