What is Power? In the most basic, and brutal sense, power is the ability to cause something to happen. Physics gives us many metaphors of power. Power is very closely related to energy: power is the playing-out of energy in time. A gallon of gas contains so much energy – so much “potential” to do something. The power of a gasoline engine is a measure of how much of this energy the engine can deploy in a given time. The more power, the more energy can be put to use in a given unit of time. This is power – A very brute and simple manifestation of power. If I have a mass that I want to accelerate, I have to deploy a force. The more power I have, the more force I can deploy in a given unit of time. With a lot of power, I can accelerate a mass to high speeds quickly. This is, of course, incredibly powerful – it is the basis of motorized transport, powered weapons and construction machinery. In the human domain, it is perhaps closest to the consequences of these physical manifestations: the movement of peoples, the clash of armies, the sort of brute movements of bodies through space without a whole lot of subtlety. Big, macro forces like food and energy resources – the control of which affords big shifts in the ability to control space. And people. Mechanical motion is, notoriously, both reversible and entropic. That is, if it takes you ten units of power to accelerate a mass to a certain velocity; it will get you ten units of power if you decelerate it back to where you started. Power-in, power-out. You get out exactly what you put in. And, since the system is entropic, it is always losing and wasting power (friction, turbulence, etc.). You actually always get out a bit less than you put in. There is an essential scarcity here. But then we can look at another kind of power. When a cell replicates into another cell, there is a tremendous amount of power involved. But, this time, power of a different order. It is still all about the deployment of energy – but now not for the purpose of moving a mass in space – now for the purpose of the creation and dissolution of forms. The delicate, seemingly architected, bonding of chemical to chemical and mapping of protein to protein. Here power is a measure of throughput – the number of transactions that can be completed in a given unit of time. Metabolism. What a beautiful engine – that takes in sugar and outputs not motion but form. Body and mind. This is a very sideways turning. A “capture” of the simple process of mechanical power into a rococo mechanism that flows into a, well, completely different form. Like a music box that converts simple mechanical energy (the turning of the key, the tension of the spring) into a song and the twirling of a dancer on a pedestal. Energy converted to energy converted to energy by a network of translation mechanisms. Outputting something of an entirely different nature – and something of a much more enduring value. This more subtle kind of power behaves a little differently. When you turn the key on your music box, the resulting effect requires the input of the mechanical energy that tightens the spring. But the output is very different indeed. The music bears no relation to the power that you put in. Instead, the process of production – the creation of the song, the invention of the technique to convert the song to some form of recording, the actual manufacture of that object in the music-box, the assembly of the box and the tying the music system to the spring – all of this is an input of energy that is non-entropic and enables an output that is qualitatively novel. Compare turning the key to get noise with turning the key to get The Ode to Joy. Power is not just the deployment of power in a mechanical sense, it is also the creation of power. The creation of power-systems that transform and ramify power in deep and complex ways. This, of course, is the structure of the vast majority of human power. We are embedded in a vast network of translation mechanisms that tie us all together. Mechanisms that have been constructed over the totality of historical time and have encoded (memorized) particular mechanisms for the re-production of power. When a musician plays a song, he is (at the simplest level) converting chemical energy (food) into mechanical energy (strumming a guitar for example). This is an exercise of power. But the majority of his power results from his ability to attach his strumming into the vast system of music that has been built and maintained and trained over thousands of years. Key and meter. Rhythm and reference. We are a trained audience, already primed to resonate at the right frequency. The metaphor is not that metaphorical. When you are listening to a song, you can easily imagine the threads that connect you, the emotions you are feeling, the images you are seeing, the movements that are created in your body, directly back through to the musician. He is like a puppet-master leveraging an enormous “affect-producing machine” that was constructed by the history of music and culture. For good or for ill. Almost the totality of human power works like this. A powerful man is not powerful in himself. He is wearing power. Like a second skin (a “power suit”) that he is able to control (to a greater and lesser extent) – and which dramatically magnifies his power. Like the musician who plugs-in to the history of music, any form of this kind of power is a “pulling of threads” that are linked-together in a tight and impersonal mesh. This is why a fool can become (externally) powerful, simply by putting on the suit of “President”. Of course, the threads of a power-system are tightly woven. Wearing a given power system can be as constraining as empowering. The Queen of England surely has much power. But, even more surely, she is as constrained, restricted, constricted, shaped and cajoled by her power system as she is empowered. This, I think, is the trap that many find themselves in. As someone powerless, you might look at the powerful and feel them more free than you – simply because they have access to a more potent power-system. But unless you fully understand the degree to which they are at the mercy of their power-system, you don’t know the whole story. Beware what you seek. In many ways, the slave-owner is as much a victim as the slave. Much of the potency of power-systems comes from their unconscious, almost “law of nature” coercive impact on people. The vast majority of people just don’t think to behave differently. Much of this is necessary. Teams go to great effort to create a collective power-system that allows them to work with a single, seamless will. By so doing, they dramatically increase their collective power. If each member of a team had to consider and define his role at each moment in a game, they wouldn’t be a team at all. While individuals can be more or less capable than other individuals, the differential between power systems is even more significant – precisely because a power system can integrate a potentially indefinite mass of people into its unified will. The majority of blocks and behaviors that people feel imposing an external will on them stem from the various nested power systems that make up society. That you ought to do this, or ought to do that. Even as a child, you begin to feel the “ought” of emergent power systems. Whatever position you have in the power system, you are in the power system and feel the tug of its obligations, the consequences of its valuations and evaluations. All of racism is and was a vast power system – the consequences of which are clearly still being played-out. All of racism – and all of each and every role that one can play in society. A role is defined by the power systems that grab hold of it and cause it to dance in one way or another, invest it with attributes and potentialities (strong or weak). Large and small – most of our actions are determined by the integrated totality of the various power systems. Very little freedom actually exists. Yet, we need our power-systems. At an economic level, humanity has expanded well beyond our ability to provide for our own survival using simple, ephemeral (tribal) modes of power. If we were, all at once, to rid ourselves of the accreted power systems of history – the nation, the state, the corporation, we would implode as a species in very short order. But the utility of power systems is not simply economic. Art is an extended power system for magnifying the potency of individual expression. Language. Medicine. Science. All of these institutions and their training, their roles, their knowledge. We can’t get along without them – but do we have to take them as they come? Power-systems pervade and enshroud us. But they are not all of a single voice. Even a given power-system is full of contradictions and tensions. The power system of slavery found itself on the short-end of the stick when the power systems of liberal democracy and capitalism combined to negate its power-distributions. Certainly the increasingly global field of power is absolutely ripe with opportunities to constitute and reconstitute new power-systems. Play one tension off of another tension. Make novel use of a thread here. Break a connection there. All it takes is consciousness of power and the ability to play with it. What is power as it is experienced? At first blush, power is easy. An exercise of power occurs when you are able to impose your will upon the world – to desire something and to get what you desire. Such an exercise in power feels good – no doubt this is closely linked to the obvious survival advantages associated with becoming “more powerful”. However, that is not the end of the game. In fact, it is just the surface, the beginning. The dynamics of power are complicated. The nature of power as “getting what you want” is surely the primary way that power is felt and understood. But it is really only one way – in a manifold hierarchy of power. Getting what you want, being able to get what you want, being able to secure for yourself what is considered valuable – this is only one of many orders of power. There are other orders of power: 1. Being able to secure values to yourself 2. Being able to forgo values (being rich-enough) 3. Being able to bestow values on others (being superfluous) 4. Being able to bestow power on others 5. Being able to create values Look over this list. Think about different examples of each. You can see how each is a kind of power. You can see how they are different and that a higher order power really is a higher order power. In order to be able to bestow values on others, you first must be able to forgo valuable things yourself. He who seeks that which is considered valuable is really only at the lowest level of power. Each level of raising of capacity increases the distance from that which is “considered valuable”. Until, at last, one becomes a giver and creator of values – an artist of the power systems and not their puppet. With this progression, you can see how any relationship is in essence an opportunity for mutual development and elevation. Indeed, it is only through the gift giving virtue and the bestowing virtue that one can achieve distance from the lowest level of power. It is at only the lowest level of power that there is any real “struggle” for power. The fact that the vast majority of power relationships linger at this first order level is evidence of the many challenges and weaknesses that keep our powers low: • Doubt and lack of self confidence. That which thirsts for praise, or which turns to wounding others. • Distrust of others and the projection of ill motives onto others. • Fear and greed • Physical nutritional and psychological lack (maslow) To achieve a higher-order power, we must be strong enough. Systems of power can magnify our ability to exercise power – and in so doing make us capable of higher orders of power. At the same time, systems of power can dampen our capacities. Indeed, systems of power are almost always enormously dangerous nests of disability and weakness. This is because most systems of power have been designed to secure and control power of the first order. To secure (superficial) power – at the expense of a more profound power that would allow you to climb to higher orders of power. One can achieve and even maximize power of the first order through mechanisms of domination – by utilizing techniques that make use of weakness and fear to dominate others in order to secure your own ability to exercise power. In an environment of scarcity and desperation, this can be the best or at least the easiest to understand path to power. These kinds of power can be seductive. Moreover, they can be infectious. One deals in fear and weakness at ones own risk. It is precisely these “power suits” that most constrain and control those that wear them. They make you feel powerful while really making you dependent upon them and reducing your power – your ability to achieve higher orders of power. Many, perhaps most, power systems are unhealthy – or at least dangerous. But, power-systems are not “essentially” perverse. We know that power has a specific history. Each power-system was born in a particular environment and in response to particular conditions. To solve some specific problem. All of our ideas about what is needful and good flow from our culture and history and our biological inheritance as human beings — as living beings — as things that exist and persist in time. The history of any power-system will always trace-back to some origin that made sense at the time in human terms. Some trade-off that was worth making. It might have been a mistake – or, quite frequently, short-sighted. But it was not capricious. Over time, of course, a long history of mistakes, foolishness and short-sightedness, combined with plenty of bad-faith on the part of those who were able to hold and control the power-systems has erected one hell of a mess that we need to unwind. The evaluation of any given act of power requires a complex review. Which systems of power are at play and how is power being used? What order of power and what is being done? Power never speaks with one voice and is frequently multi-faceted. Indeed, even when you intend a particular exercise of power it is never certain that it is not power that is exercising you. Perhaps it is not that we need to become conscious of power – but that power needs to become conscious of power. A becoming self-conscious of power itself. Go back and look at the five orders of power. Order five: being able to create values. No longer dependent upon pre-existing and inherited values, one can transcend the existing power-systems and begin bestowing value – creating new evaluations, new distinctions. But if this is outside of the power-systems, from where does this power to create values come? Power looks like a geology. Plate tectonics. The values and power-systems that distribute them are at the surface. But that is all that they are: a thin surface resting on a molten core. Occasionally, this core will erupt and a form of power will break through the surface which is entirely new and different. Occasionally, ebbs and flows in this subterranean world will determine that huge chunks of the surface will break-apart and flow. Occasionally, someone will dive down, deep, deep into the heart of the world, and tap into this source. Herein lies power with a different name entirely. Culture is powerful, but it is also many-voiced. Moreover, all culture rests as a thin, very thin skin upon the molten core of our human inheritance. Forces that were ancient when the pyramids were conceived rise up to ensure that we fulfill a destiny that is beyond our civilized vanity.