Monday, September 07, 2009


Power may be defined as the ability to carry out one’s will, or to have one’s will carried out by others. It can be thought of as the ability to arrange human reality in such a way so as to benefit or serve one’s interests. Human power arises, biologically, out of the pecking order that evolves in any primate group, an order based on strength, speed, agility, intelligence, and quite often, simply the sheer desire to exert control. In the earliest human societies, power may have been based on hunting or gathering skill or the ability to harness the mysterious forces that seemed to exist beyond the physical plane. Very simple societies may make decisions collectively, but as they become more complex and their numbers grow larger, the number and complexity of the decisions that have to be made grow correspondingly larger as well. The possession of special skills and knowledge, along with the accumulation of material wealth, will tend to make those possessing these things the decision-makers—in other words, those who exercise power.

The positive exercise of power is the ability to create a set of circumstances one desires in order to enhance an already favorable or promising situation, or to exploit possibilities. The negative exercise of power entails the ability to stop an undesirable situation. Both motives may be deeply intertwined in any given circumstance. Power exists on a very wide continuum, ranging from completely absent to ultimate (within the limits of human capacity and natural restrictions). From a psychological standpoint the feeling of power can be extremely satisfying, or at the very least reassuring. Power can become so pleasurable that certain people come to enjoy exercising it for its own sake.

Power can be expressed or exercised at the interpersonal level, or it may be expressed or exercised at a larger level of social organization. In prehistoric times, power existed in the context of tribes, usually nomadic groups, and was often diffuse in nature. With the rise of organized city states along the Tigris-Euphrates, Hwang-Ho, Indus, and Nile River valleys, and the establishment of similar entities somewhat later in such disparate spots as central Mexico, the northern Andes mountains, and Zimbabwe, power took a more definite and discernible form. Now there were groups of humans who had the responsibility of defending established, sedentary civilizations. These groups of humans established codified forms of power, and exercised it both for the defense of their own societies and the perpetuation of their own (or their family’s) power.

The exercise of power can take many forms, but its uses can be boiled down to a couple of broad areas:

A. The ability to compel or persuade other humans to do our will and to serve our interests. This can involve either getting others to do something we desire or to stop them from doing something we do not desire. This covers an enormous range of possibilities, of course. Sometimes what we do not want others to do is to keep existing, and we use our power to kill them. Humans have exercised this power more times than we can count. On other occasions we seek to force other humans to perform services for us against their will, or take actions they would otherwise not take.

The ability to inflict suffering and/or death on others is the exercise of power in its rawest, crudest, most basic form. This is power through threat, the oldest form of interpersonal or societal power that exists. If others have reason to fear us—to credibly believe that we can kill them, maim them, inflict pain on them, deprive them of their property, deprive them of their physical freedom, or inflict such harm on those they love and care about—we can compel their obedience, or at the very least restrain their behavior. Such power flows from the possession of deadly force and the ability to use it. Sometimes this deadly force can be seen in the powerful physique of another human. (We must imagine that large, muscular primates have always dominated their respective groups or societies.) Most often, deadly force is expressed by the possession of weaponry. In a society the possession of deadly force may be the exclusive domain of those who govern, or it may be spread throughout the population to various degrees. However, it is inconvenient and impractical to use physical threat exclusively to control a society. The constant effort needed to instill fearful obedience would be physically and psychologically exhausting, not to mention prohibitively expensive. It is desirable that there be positive, genuine assent to a society’s stated goals among the general population, that the obedience and conformity of the population be at least partially voluntary. In order to gain this assent, the exercise of power over others can take forms more subtle and sophisticated than the mere brandishing of weapons. In societies lacking in personal freedom of choice, either in the past or in the present day, those who have ruled or rule might have used or may use any of the following methods to gain assent:

1. Convincing (or compelling) others to believe in a specific set of religious beliefs. These religious beliefs generally entail the existence of an ethical system to control or channel human behavior. Obedience to the religion comes from the hope of reward or the fear of punishment in a hypothetical afterlife.

2. Gaining control of all the means of economic production, thus tying the well-being and prosperity of the population to the well-being and power of the ruling class.

3. Controlling all forms of education and information, to restrict and shape the beliefs of the population and bend their wills in directions favorable to the ruling class.

4. The inculcation of powerful group identity in the society’s members, the creation of a strong Us vs. Them mentality. In modern authoritarian societies, the ruling class can use patriotism/nationalism as the means to instill this sense of identity. The creation of this sense of identity usually involves the demonization and dehumanization of some other group of humans, casting them as the feared and hated Other, a group toward which we can behave in any manner we choose, even to the point of extermination. This group identity, of course, helps legitimize the authority of those who claim to speak for the group and embody its values.

The other major use of power:

B. Control over parts of the natural environment through technology. The object of technology has always been, ultimately, the extension of human power over nature. Tools are designed to magnify human physical effort, and to accomplish work which a human cannot do through the use of his or her own body by itself. Meta-technologies, which I define as the employment and bringing together of various small-scale technologies in the service of a large, overarching technological achievement (such as the development of automobiles, aircraft, computers, oil wells, dams, steel mills, energy systems, or information networks) are the largest efforts we make to control nature and extend our own powers over the world. The earliest civilizations used technology (and later the scientific and mathematical principles on which they rested) to build weapons, walls, containers, irrigation projects, religious buildings, and other essential structures or objects. Power in human civilization has often gone hand in hand with technical and scientific breakthroughs, and the political control of technology has been crucial in the extension of human will over both nature and others. Ultimate technological power (which may not be even theoretically possible) might entail such things as the ability to control the weather, reshape the surface of the Earth instantaneously and at will, the ability to extend the Earth’s physical structure into space, the ability to harness unlimited energy for the human community, the ability to control the Sun and keep it from destroying the Earth, the ability to move about the physical Universe instantaneously and at will, and the ability to achieve perfect health and eternal physical life for all humans.

The exercise of technological advances always—always—entails unexpected consequences, and tends to redefine human ideas about the nature of reality and the limits of the possible. If enough technological changes occur in a society in a short period of time, they will so alter the outlook of most of the society’s members that these changes will bring about major transformations in social interaction and the perception of human relationships themselves. Those individuals who seize the possibilities inherent in technology-driven social change often come to have great power.

Obviously, the development of weapons (tools for the infliction of death, physical suffering, and property destruction) has had an enormous role in human efforts to extend power over the world. It can be argued that weapons technology has done more to alter power relationships on this planet than any other factor.

So power is about the control of others and the control of nature (or at the very least, defense against the unpredictability of other humans and the capriciousness of nature).

There are times, of course, when human power is inconsequential or irrelevant. When natural disasters strike, they are oblivious to all human wishes. All humans can do in such situations is to protect themselves in any way that they can and clean up afterward with whatever power they still retain. Natural disasters have rearranged power relationships on a number of occasions in human history.

It can be argued that much (not all) of human history is the story of the exercise of, struggle over, resistance to, or the creation of power. War, after all, is about power. Government is about power. Politics is about power, and nothing else. And the acquisition of material wealth, which is intimately affected by war, government, and politics, is in itself very often a raw power struggle.

So where do we fit into all of this?

The establishment of the United States and the development of American society have been consumed with issues related to power. Those who started the United States sought, in some very significant ways, to break with a human past that was overwhelmingly authoritarian in nature. Those founders, virtually without precedent, established a form of government that denied certain powers to the members of the government and granted certain powers and rights to those in the general population (with important exceptions). The system they established reflected a deep understanding of the dangers of concentrated power. They divided power laterally, in the creation of executive, legislative, and judicial power, and vertically, in the establishment of federal, state, and local power. They also deliberately and consciously extended rights and powers that were exercised solely by citizens. Thus did our nation’s founders attempt to grapple with this fundamentally important question: who will get to have their will carried out, and how will this will be expressed?

Shamefully, disgracefully, tragically, human slavery was allowed to survive because its abolition would have harmed the economic power of certain people. Rights were not extended to women because this would have violated the social power of men and gone against centuries of tradition, the weight of which should never be underestimated. Native Americans were to be brushed aside or wiped out. But however flawed, the new Republic in North America was an astonishing experiment. Never before had there been a republican form of government spread over such a wide geographic area. Many outside observers expected its imminent collapse. But the new nation proved more resilient than these observers expected.

Its institutions and its resilience notwithstanding, America, being a human construct, developed with all the controlled chaos and conflict of any other human project, and out of this ferment natural centers of power emerged. Since economic freedom was guaranteed, and the laws favored business, there emerged a class of people who were talented, lucky, ruthless, and intelligent enough to gather great wealth unto themselves. Scientific and technological advances facilitated this process enormously, of course. And with this great wealth there emerged great political power, because economic power and political power are inextricably linked. American conflict has often centered around this economically-fueled political power. Whether it was the Hamiltonian vs. the Jeffersonian vision of the nation’s future, the Jacksonian revolt against the banks, the attempt to defend slavery as an economic institution, the post Civil War industrial era, the battles over gold vs. silver backed-currencies, the great urban vs. rural divide of the late nineteenth century, the battles over trusts and monopolies, or the struggles in the twentieth century to control the expansion and exercise of arbitrary power, whether that of the government or the economic upper classes, the issue has always been: who will decide our course? Whose wishes will be carried out?

In America, with the exception of times of natural crisis (and even here the responses to these crises will be predicated on human power relationships), someone is going to be exercising power. Who will be doing so? What institutions will dominate the contests that will inevitably arise? In contemporary America, there are multiple sources of power. Let’s look at them:

A. Government, at all levels. Government is not a thing; it is, rather, a process, a way humans accomplish certain objectives. In our nation, those who govern control the strongest and most technologically advanced weapons (in most cases; many local governments are seriously outgunned by the surrounding populous). Those who govern at the national level have the power to create money; those who govern at almost all levels have the ability to tax (or at least request tax money). Those who govern pass laws, issue regulations, enforce the law, build and maintain infrastructure, and carry out a host of subsidiary functions. The national government grew enormously in the 1930s and 1940s, in response to the grave challenges of the era. The confrontation with the Soviet Union and the establishment of a basic safety net guaranteed that governing would continue to grow and be a significant power center. (In fact, it may be argued that the growth of the national security apparatus after the Second World War created a semi-secret, parallel government, one whose actions are not known to the public and are not fully controllable by those in the “civilian” government.) Because government has such enormous impact on all areas of American life, a whole host of groups has arisen to try to influence those who exercise government power. These groups are sometimes astonishingly successful in exercising such influence.

B. Business, especially the financial sector. Business is the source of the vast majority of jobs for average Americans, and often times the chief source of influence on those who govern. Business is not a monolithic entity by any means, but our largest businesses wield enormous power. The huge economic power business exercises in America affects every area of human life. Government policies are often determined by those in the government who are sympathetic to business’s most powerful leaders. In certain periods, concentrated economic power has gained the upper hand—the Gilded Age of the 1870s through the 1890s, the 1920s, and, I would argue, the period from the late 1970s through today. Quite often business and government leaders are somewhat interchangeable.

C. Media companies, which are of course part of businesses. There are much more media today than ever, but the largest mainstream media businesses control a highly concentrated share of the market in such areas as radio and television. Certain powerful individuals (such as Rupert Murdoch) exercise huge media power.

D. Various interest groups attempting to influence government, business, and/or media. These groups span the gamut of issues and causes, and vary tremendously in their financial resources and clout. I would argue that the majority of Americans are represented in some way, shape, or form by at least one interest group, the “factions” that James Madison warned us of in Federalist #10, and a constant source of friction between ordinary people.

E. Religious groups, which of course are an interest, but not necessarily an economic one. Religious groups frequently attempt to influence public policy and exert control over individual behavior.

F. Individuals, who attempt to exercise as much control over their own lives as their individual circumstances will allow. Individuals are of course under the law, immersed in the economic system, dependent on outsiders for their news, and they share interests with many others. They also tend to have religious convictions.

G. Educational institutions, which are often significant recipients of public moneys and at the higher levels, sources of research and development. Virtually every American is exposed to them for many years. Their quality varies significantly, and education reflects all the diversity and conflict of American life.

H. Scientific enterprises and the scientific community in general, which are in turn deeply connected to business, government, and education.

I. Organized crime, which has insinuated itself into all areas of American life and which controls a huge “underground” economy of hundreds of billions of dollars, fueled chiefly but not wholly by the traffic in illicit drugs.

It is the challenge of our political system to balance these sources of power (and to control organized crime) so as to allow none of them to exercise unlimited authority over the others. In the America of 2009, economic power reigns supreme. Many Americans (not all, by a long shot) are intensely materialistic, and businesses are happy to exploit this trait constantly. The wealthiest players in the financial industry now essentially control the Congress and have great influence in the White House. The courts are generally sympathetic to them as well. It is this America, our America that, alarmingly, now finds its very existence threatened, What many conservatives do not understand is this: unlimited private economic power can be just as destructive and dangerous as unlimited government power. Indeed, many social conservatives actually want the worst of all possible worlds—a nation in which private greed rules over all, and in which the government exercises terrifying power over individual freedom, regulating the “morality” of the people relentlessly, intruding into every area of private behavior. It is up to us, the progressives, to understand what power is, how it works, who exercises it, and the way unlimited power—from any source—threatens our freedom and our future.


Lance Ehlers said...

Wow. Good stuff, Joe. A portable, printable version should be available. I'll be making a PDF of this and will forward to you.

Lance Ehlers said...

Here's the LINK to the printable/portable version.

Steve Garrison said...

Very good points Joe. I think it's important when discussing power to mention the role hierarchy plays in creating stratified, and, more often than not, and almost inevitably so, unequal distributions of power.
I think you are right about the rising threat of economic power. The neoconservative movement of the 80's, exemplified by Reagan's deregulation of industry, strong stance against unions, and the massive national debt accrued (700 Billion to 3 Trillion during his first term) has created an economically rocky future...hopefully. And considering that Reagan is the BEST the republican party has been able to offer in the last 60 years?

It's a god damn shame that the Democrats need to justify themselves, ever.